In The Shark Cage: Pushing Limits.

*Photo of me in a wetsuit the day after shark cage diving. Snorkelling is far less stressful than diving because I don’t have to put my head under water, just my face. The wetsuit remained a challenge that was offset only by the enchantment of being surrounded by sea lions.

The past few years has been a bit of an exercise in challenging myself to step outside of my comfort zones. For those who know me well, it quickly becomes clear that the laid-back, confident exterior I most often present is one that only manifests when I am comfortable and have the energy to collage together the vast array of personalities and characteristics that I mimic from others in order to conceal my otherwise underwhelming social skills. Beneath that, I am a quivering bundle of fear-inducing anxiety and extreme sensory issues that a long time ago held me back from experiencing the things I wanted to. Finding a connection with…no, an actual place within and as part of…nature has given me the courage (and at times remarkable reserves of energy I never thought I could possibly have) to push myself sometimes beyond my limits to experience my life the way I want to.

The recent attempt to cage dive with great white sharks has been a particularly daunting challenge. This has been a life long dream…I remember watching nature documentaries with my Pop as a child, and although I loved them all it was always the ones that focused on Africa or sharks that got me most involved. Two obstacles have always stood in the way of the cage dive for me:

1. the sensation of being submerged, particularly once water is over my head; and

2. the need to wear a wet-suit.

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Being in and with water is one of my greatest joys…so long as my head is above the surface.

I have never been able to swim with my head under water. I can’t even put my head under water in a bath tub to wash my hair!! The sensation of water enclosing my head, face and ears is like people putting their hands all over me…I can’t stand the way it feels on my skin, my skull, my muscles, my nerves, everything feels on fire or like it is being crushed. Add to that my extreme sensory resistance to tight clothing and particular material fibres, and you begin to get a picture of why underwater activities in wet-suits may pose a particular problem.

But at some point, I had to ask myself: how badly do I want this? Clearly, the answer was BADLY!!!

So I got in the wet-suit, clenching my teeth the whole time. Once I was in it, I coped a lot better than when it was rubbing against my skin. The tightness seemed to vanish once I was in the water, thankfully. Being under water, however, was a less manageable experience. It took me about 10 minutes of bobbing in and out to finally keep my head under water for longer than a few seconds. Being able to have my eyes open and to breathe through the regulator was a strange experience, but once I got the hang of that and learnt to trust that I would be able to breathe and see, I felt a lot better down there. The ongoing problem, however, was the noise.

BANG! BANG!! Gurglegurglegurglegurglegurgle!! BANG!!

We were unfortunate enough to have choppy seas, and so my cage was non-stop banging against the boat as it was knocked about in the waves. To make matters worse, the bubbles from the regulator made an all-encompassing cacophony that unfolded entirely around my ears each time I exhaled. Auditory sensory processing is a big issue for me, and this made being in the cage extremely unpleasant. I had to work through a panic attack under water at one point, because I could feel myself getting tunnel vision and proprioceptive disorientation from the noise. Reminding myself to breathe slowly reduced the frequency of the noisy bubbles and calmed me down, but I remained tense. Eyes-bulging-out-of-my-head kind of tense.

A short snippet from my GoPro of me in the shark cage (and the wet-suit!). You can hear the bubbles from my regulator, and towards the end of the clip you can also hear some of the banging of the cage against the boat. These things were significantly louder in real-time, and probably greatly heightened to my sensitive auditory senses. It was an extremely difficult challenge.

I was down there for approximately 30-40 minutes on my first dive. That is something I am proud of. I lasted a lot longer than I expected, and for a brief portion of the time I was the only person in the cage, which is utterly terrifying. I acknowledge that part of my longevity was to do with being distracted by the fish and some of the most incredible floating invertebrates I have ever seen! But another part of it was my determination to work through my sensory issues and anxiety, out of sheer love and desire to encounter a shark.

Sadly, I didn’t encounter a shark. But I did get back in the cage later in the day to try again. So I felt that I had achieved something significant – I had pushed myself to what I once thought was my limit, only to discover that my limit is just that little bit further away now. And I know that the next time I have the chance to encounter a  shark, I can do it. I can do it. Those words are important to me.

While I don’t think it is necessary to attempt something so extreme, I do have to recommend pushing ourselves – those of us with our neurodivergent peculiarities and struggles – at our own pace to find out what we can and cannot do, and at what cost. I pushed myself and achieved something great…but here I am four days later still exhausted and recovering from it. Yes, I can do this. But I can not always do it, and that is something critically important to be aware of.

People have asked me over the past six months while working on my neurodiversity and more-than-human geographies paper whether or not I think de-pathologising things like Asperger’s, depression/anxiety, mood affectiveness, and other mental health and neurological differences would result in the much-needed care and support services being removed. My answer is no, not if neurodiversity is framed carefully and accurately. To say we do not experience limitations and difficulties is to disregard the reality of a vast majority of experiences. But ‘acknowledging’ is very different things to deeply maligning or stigmatising. I argue instead that the primary goal of neurodiversity ought to be towards challenging society to become less rigid in its definition and understanding of a ‘normal neurology’ and more enabling of those of us who are capable of being capable at some things, but maybe require a different approach to ensure that our needs are met in a way that facilitates that capability.

I’m glad I got in the cage. But it has taken a long time and a lot of little steps to get to this point. If you do push your limits, be careful and mindful of yourself and your needs. Start small, start slow. And be ready to be kind to yourself if you have to say no, because removing yourself from something you cannot cope with is not a sign of weakness, but rather an indication of your strength and wisdom to know thyself. Knowing is the first step towards managing and coping.

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