Collecting my thoughts underwater

Bill Bailey / 01 June 2017

Bill Bailey on how diving helps him control his breathing and conquer his fears.

Suspended in another world, I am weightless. The only sound I hear is my own breathing as I take controlled sips of pressurised air from the tank on my back. I exhale, producing long and comically loud ‘blub-blub-blub’ sounds. These are the surreal and beautiful sensations of scuba diving. No comparable experience is available to us, unless we are somehow chosen to be astronauts.

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For me, it’s not just the wonders of the underwater world that thrill, but the chance to collect my thoughts. The regulator through which you breathe is clamped in your mouth, which means there’s no talking. Diving requires you to focus, to concentrate with a little dexterity. It’s amazingly calming just to bob about in imposed silence.

Unless you’ve got some fancy helmet microphones and transmitter kit, the only form of communication available is slow and deliberate sign language. I often think diving can look like some kind of aquatic t’ai chi. And because you’re meant to keep your arms tucked in, and move only by kicking gently with your feet, there’s a touch of slo-mo Riverdance about it. Even with my innate clumsiness, I am exceptionally graceful under the water. Slow-moving and benign, I resemble some kind of bearded dugong with flowing, seaweed locks.

My breathing becomes measured and my pulse slows. Scuba diving is good for the circulation and overall fitness; for me it’s also the nearest I get to meditation. My mind wanders to a hundred different topics, my family, my early life, odd recollections. Sometimes it’s as much a dip into memory as it is the physical world.

The fact that I can dive at all is also a major personal victory. The main reason I took up scuba diving was to conquer my fear of water. On a school trip to Austria, I got into a bit of a pickle trying to swim across a lake. The water was calm, the lake was not wide, yet halfway across I had an asthma attack and started floundering. Asthma had flared up in childhood, but appeared to have gone away. That day for some reason (maybe the cold water), it came back with a vengeance and, as I flailed around unable to breathe, I realised I was in trouble. Luckily there were plenty of folk around to haul me out, but it gave me a scare.

For years after, I was nervous of the water, but when the opportunity arose to dive in the warm waters of the tropics it was too great a chance to pass up. Asthma can be stress-triggered, so I reasoned that if I could handle being under the water, this might help control my breathing. Many years and countless dives later, that is exactly what it does.

Diving is not without risks but, fortunately for us, there have been many pioneers whose courage has led to better safety procedures. Take the marvellous biologist JBS Haldane, who put himself through all manner of painful tests in the name of science. While conducting an experiment to determine the effects of decompression, he perforated his eardrums. He was typically upbeat about it, and remarked, ‘Although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment’.

What I’ve found is that diving is a deeply satisfying form of happiness, because for me it’s about conquering fear. Whether it’s fear of the deep end, the dark, or a mouse, finding a way to deal with it really helps you to cope with all life throws at you.

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