Not last Friday but the one before that, I was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 10 miles away from Maalaea Harbor, bobbing up and down on a catamaran anchored to the floor of a volcanic crater. We were there to snorkel in said geologic marvel, to float atop the azure water and peer down below at myriad sea creatures — the supposed pinnacle of our trip to Maui. I’d never been snorkeling before, but it wasn’t until we were geared up, standing among strangers and listening to a hasty lesson on how to breathe through a plastic tube that I started to feel nervous.
Roth assured me I’d be fine once I got into the water. I would just need to relax my body and breathe — in and out, in and out. He’d been snorkeling before, in the Florida Keys when he was a kid, and more recently, about a decade before on another trip to Hawaii.
(I’d never been to Hawaii before, either.)
We stood at the back of the boat, my legs quivering and my eyes starting to fill with tears, fogging up the mask. I didn’t want to get in the choppy water, but more so, I didn’t want to have to tell anyone that I didn’t even try to snorkel, especially since we paid for this rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Somehow, with more coaxing by Roth, I willed myself toward the steps and slowly eased my body into the water.
I never knew the depth of my fear of open water until I was in it. Even though we were mere feet away from the boat, and Roth was by my side, I felt very alone. Vulnerable. Unskilled. I clung to a boogie board and tried to breathe — in and out, in and out — through the tube, to get used to the sensation, as Roth suggested, but the more I inhaled-exhaled, my breath an eerie echo in my ears, the more I started to feel the vines of panic taking over my mind.
Put your face in the water, he said. Just look down.
I did. I did. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel good.
Just relax, he said.
I tried. I extended my arms and put my face in the water again, this time I was able to see to the rocky bottom, a scant few fish slithering by, but I couldn’t breathe. I was holding my breath. No in. No out. No, this wasn’t working. Despite the utter vastness below and outstretched before me, I felt claustrophobic. This wasn’t the magical experience that’d been touted in the guidebook. I had to get out of the water, and so I did, encouraging Roth to stay and get his money’s worth.
As I sat alone on the top deck of the boat, tears streaming down my face from behind my sunglasses, I felt like an idiot. We’d come all this way — not just the 10 miles from the harbor, but all the way from Seattle to Maui in the middle of winter to have an amazing! and awesome! vacation — and now the trip was marred. All that planning, and it was no longer perfect because I’d failed at snorkeling.
Several hours later, as Roth and I sat in our rental car trying to work through the anger and disappointment that’d taken over the rest of my day, we had a breakthrough, an epiphany, of sorts, as I remembered something I’d read in The Happiness Project last January.
Or, more specifically, “I tried snorkeling; snorkeling is not for me.” Period.
The rest of our trip — all the meals and driving and sightseeing and relaxing — was awesome! and amazing! It just feels so surreal that we’ve already gone to and returned from Maui, that two weeks ago I was adrift in an ocean of emotions. Little did I know that feeling of not being able to breathe would happen again just a week later.
This past Friday, the one after that, I was in a small conference room, the one without any windows to the outside, hearing my breath echo inside my head again, this time as I listened to the COO of the company for which I’d worked almost seven years tell me my position was being eliminated, that I was being let go, effective immediately. Like a scene out of a movie, another man I’d never laid eyes on before, an HR manager flown in from the corporate offices in San Francisco, extended a box of tissue in my direction as my eyes started to fill with tears.
The feeling of hearing you’re being laid off is not unlike the feeling of drowning. You try to breathe, see straight, and cling to the facts — it’s not you, it’s just numbers; you’ve done nothing wrong — but the water rises quickly in that situation. You’ve been sunk.
Obviously, this wasn’t part of the plan.
I didn’t see it coming, though I should have, having been through several cycles of layoffs and department consolidations in my time with the company. The sticky thing is, a month prior we’d all been assured that despite tough times ahead, there would not be any layoffs. Wrongly, I’d let myself feel safe and secure, especially in my diverse and varied role. I’d gotten too comfortable. Complacent, perhaps. Heck, I was 7 months pregnant. They’d never let ME go!
HA. Ha, ha.
Several days later, as I sit on my couch in my pajamas, with Rowan now at my side (the world as he knew it has been rocked pretty hard, too), things look a lot different than they did just a week ago. I’ve been through the gamut of emotions — sadness, anger, fear, woe, confusion (I’ve never been let go from a job before, either) — but I think things are really going to be OK. Thankfully, my former employer is not leaving me totally high and dry. There’s severance — a token, perhaps, of how terrible the powers-that-be feel, given I was one of six who were laid off that day — and help with insurance, too.
And there’s a silver lining, of being able to collect unemployment, of course, but also of being able to collect myself. Had this not happened to me, I might’ve stayed at my former company another seven years, but maybe this is the universe’s way of telling me it’s time to put my face in the water and see what else is out there.
To sink, or swim.