I don’t like puking. Not that anyone does… but I REALLY don’t like it. I end up throwing up about once every 10 years – and only under the most dire of circumstances. I’ll stay green for days, rather than let myself throw up and feel better. Thankfully I don’t have a queasy stomach, and it usually takes a nasty virus to get me hanging over a toilet.
That said, we went swimming with dolphins out here in Hawaii. Lifelong dream… idyllic surroundings… co-facilitating our Journey Into Being Women’s Retreat with my dear friend and colleague, Kat, and her mentor and my new friend Donna, who is graciously hosting us.
Down at the marina the sky is blue, and the water is surreal – a color of blue that I didn’t know existed. White puffy clouds float overhead, though looking back at the mountain where Donna lives, it’s shrouded in cloud and mist, and has been raining for days. We pull out from the slip on the boat, aptly named Sunlight on Water, and my breath catches. It’s happening!
The wind is up, and the ocean waves are rolling big. It’s pure thrill… sitting on the bow, riding high on each wave, then plunging down to meet the next one; rocking and dancing over the ocean. The boat opens up, and I can’t help but laugh… that little kid laugh of absolute joy! It’s the same feeling I get when I ride the motorcycle with Jeff, and he guns it, or when we’re in the Piper Cherokee and he pulls back on the yoke and the plane lifts off the runway, climbing up the sky. The beauty… the excitement… that dance with sky, and ocean… I LOVE it!!
The captain takes us around a point, where the current gets stronger – waves coming in from different directions. The seas are heavier here than usual. We can see surfers gathered to ride the big waves in. I’m a lifelong swimmer, and I love the water. I grew up on swim teams, and playing at the ocean. It’s a happy place for me. But I’ve never been snorkeling before. Don’t know how I’ve missed it, except that the Atlantic where we live isn’t the most interesting snorkeling destination.
So this was to be my first experience. We get a brief lesson on snorkeling – it’s pretty self explanatory, and a longer lesson on how to engage with the dolphins, and I’ve got butterflies on my insides. I can’t wait!
The captain spots dolphins, and it’s time to get to the back of the boat, get fins, mask, and snorkel on, and get in the water. Well… everything was fine until the boat stopped. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but suddenly, my body wasn’t feeling like it should. I burped once, surprising… but felt a little better. Not having a clue what was happening, I got my gear on, and plopped into the water.
Well… I know Hawaii has warm water, but it’s really like ‘not totally cold’. The shock of the water temperature, took my breath away, and my whole body started to shake. I’m used to that, from diving into a freezing pool at 5:00am to swim 5 miles before school. You just swim it off. Only, I had my feet caught in these fins, which didn’t let my legs do what they wanted, and my auto pilot for swimming was invalid in a rolling ocean, with snorkel gear on.
And there was still something strange going on inside my body, that I couldn’t quite place, but was giving me the feeling that I shouldn’t ignore it. Breathing was the top priority right then so I set that aside. While the others were looking for the dolphins, I figured I’d take some time to get adjusted to my gear. It wasn’t too hard, and the shaking aside, because I couldn’t really swim and warm up, I was able to look down into the bluest water I’ve ever seen, and see the coral, and some tropical fish swimming through it. No dolphins that time, but I’d mastered the snorkel stuff. I’d call that a successful go.
The captain called us back to the boat in about 5 minutes, and I pried my fins off, and pulled myself up the ladder, feeling pretty good about it… only that weird feeling in my body was starting to take over. I had this need to find the railing, and sit down on the bench. I was looking out over the water, realizing that something pretty fierce was going on inside me, when without asking, and without warning, I was puking my guts out. My stomach muscles cramped. The muscles in my throat got pulled from straining so hard. I had to find a way to breathe through it, and relax between contractions, like having a baby.
I don’t do this gracefully. I would blame lack of practice, but my earlier years of being bulimic would belie that. It’s just not pretty. I puke and yell at the same time. Interestingly enough, my insides were commanding so much of my attention, that I only gave embarrassment a passing thought, and discarded it as too much trouble.
One of the women in the retreat opened a ginger ale and handed it to me. And Kat put her hand on my back… I could feel steadiness and healing come from her. My body calmed down a bit, and I really wanted to say ‘thank you’ to them both, but I couldn’t break my grip on the railing, or take my gaze from the far shore. Talking was just an invitation to puke again, and I was fighting that with all I was worth.
I fought back the senseless need of my stomach to keep puking just because it got started, and then the boat started moving again, and things calmed down. The excitement came back, and hope peeked through the clouds again. I could do this. I recognized that the driving forward was fine, but sitting on the boat in the rolling ocean was NOT. Well, now that I’d gotten this snorkel thing down, I was looking forward to getting OFF the boat, and seeing if being directly in the water would be any better.
The water is like home to me… I’ve never gotten seasick swimming. We got in front of a pod of travelling spinner dolphins, and the captain stopped the boat again. On with the gear, and plop into the water. Part of not allowing myself to puke very often, is that I’m unfamiliar with the terrain. All it took was that 3 minutes of the boat stopped, and getting ready, to set everything off again. I was going to fight it. The water was my goal. At this point, it was no longer about seeing dolphins… it was about keeping my insides in.
I got everything working, fighting waves of nausea, and focused on the incredible underwater view. The only trouble was, I wasn’t really “in” the water. I was “on” the water; bobbing up and down over the waves like a cork in a mask. And that wasn’t a happy place for my insides.
I spotted 4 dolphins swimming right near me, and they were lovely… but all I could think was, “don’t throw up into your snorkel”. A manta ray swam below me, slow and bat-like… “don’t throw up into your snorkel”. My whole body was shaking with the cold of the water and whatever violence was going on inside me.
Waves were bouncing me up and down, and I spotted the boat, and started to swim toward it. I barely got in, when I was puking again. Thankfully over the side, but move violently than before. This was NOT what I had in mind for today. I don’t remember anything around me… just focusing on my breathing, trying to quiet the volcano inside me, and looking at the shore, hoping it’s stillness would impart equilibrium to my whacked out body.
The boat was just sitting now… and I heard the captain say we would be staying there for the next hour and a half. I know time is relative, but my body was too weak to even try the water now, and I wasn’t sure how many centuries an hour and a half would take to pass!
Salvation came in the form of a friend of the captain’s, whom he called to help a poor fellow on the boat who was much sicker than I. I pried myself away from the rail long enough to ask if I could hitch a ride back to the marina with him too. The boat pulled up, with a smiling man driving it, and he might as well have been an angel. The poor sick fellow, his girlfriend, and I all clambered onto the inflatable sled behind the boat, and up onto the back. The rest of my retreat gals were all in the water with the dolphins, but I figured someone would let them know I got off safely.
Our rescuer had me sit on the driver’s seat with him, where I could look straight ahead as he drove. He asked us if we were ready for an adrenaline ride, and everything in me was saying, “Hell, yes!!” As soon as we began moving, my insides found their equilibrium, and everything settled back where it belonged. It was incredible. The excitement came back… the little kid elation of flying over the waves.
He had a racing boat, it delivered on his promise. It was exactly what I needed. We got off at the docks, thanked him profusely… and I made my way back to the slip where Sunlight on Water parked, pulled up a chair in the sun, stopped shaking from the cold, and despite some residual rolling, sat peacefully, watching the sky and water.
I had a special moment with a Honu (sea turtle) who was passing by, but as the initial overflow of gratitude ebbed, I wrestled with a deep shame. Something in me was so proud of me for trying to swim with the dolphins, even with all that was happening on my insides… and so proud of me for making the decision to take care of myself, when swimming with the dolphins was no longer an option.
But something else was telling me I had failed. This was a lifelong dream, and I had not followed through with it. I had not stayed with the group, or “pushed through” to finish the experience.
I held the shame down until late that night. Lying in bed, I realized that this is an old story. I was still carrying shame from an abuser long in my past. Still listening to a message that said that any weakness… any fear… any lack of performance, was cause for derision. That not “manning up” meant that I wasn’t good enough.
That shame dogged me all night… and when I woke at 3:30am, to write, and cry, and finally allow the hurt to flow out, I didn’t know where to put it… only that it wasn’t right.
It wasn’t until later that morning, when Kat came up to my room, and we were talking, that I got the last piece. I told her of the shame… and how disappointed I felt in myself for not “sticking it out”. She put a hand on me, and reframed the whole thing. “You had good boundaries. You took care of yourself.” The old pattern, listening to that deeply internalized voice, would have been to suffer any discomfort, to “prove” that I could do “it”, whatever “it” was… She helped me see that I was able to choose differently now. EVEN when I badly wanted to be there. More tears… and the clarity finally set in.
With that, I embraced the amazing gifts I was given – driving over the water… connecting with the ocean and sky… and feeling my heart open at the wild freedom of being part of it all. AND being able to honor myself, even when that “looked like” weakness to my internalized abuser. No, I didn’t like the puking part, but life has its puking parts. What I got, was that I can take care of myself through them… and I can be honest about being broken open… and receive help and support on the journey. I went out looking for dolphins… and let go of a message of shame that has been with me for over 30 years.
Makes me think of a saying Donna shared this week, “You alone must do it, but you cannot do it alone.”