Several years ago, OK…twenty to be exact,  some friends and I vacationed on  St. John in the Virgin Islands.  It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.  Cruise ships had not yet been approved to dock there, relegated instead to the larger island of St. Thomas.  The dearth of tourists allowed the island to remain pristine with lavish greenery and water so clear I could see the bottom as the sea plane landed.  The temperature was so moderate and breezy there was no need for an air conditioner in our cabin built into the hills.  At night, on the deck, looking out at the Carribean, I felt like I had my own private Eden.

One day my friend, Brian, booked an instructor led diving trip.  I must say, I was concerned.  I argued that if God meant for us to swim while breathing underwater, He would have given us gills.  But  Brian convinced me to Give it a try.  

Before we could even board the boat, we took a one day diving class. The instructor focused most of the lesson on practicing with the gear and teaching us the right way to breathe.  My anxiety grew because the thought of having to  think about how to breathe made me nervous.  What if I forgot?  What if I did it wrong?  The instructor assured me that we would only be down about 30 feet and he would be with us the whole time.  Brian teased me for my fears.  And I swallowed my anxiety. 

 It tasted bitter.

After the class, we boarded the boat and headed out into the sea, my apprehension growing with each wave. Finally we anchored, and after a reminder, “to breathe” it was time to descend.  The instructor had me go first because he figured Brian would not take as long to acclimate as me. I blew out my mask, as instructed, and descended the aquamarine depths by following the anchor to the sea floor while I waited for my friend.

And waited, 

concentrating intently on my breathing.  

And waited.  

Still breathing in and out.  Assuring myself that they would be coming soon.

And waited 

as the maladaptive thoughts of abandonment swirled in my psyche. 

Finally my friend and the instructor descended with me.  The instructor gave me thumbs up and we began the most amazing experience.   While we swam, the other sea life seemed to accept us as kin.  Beautiful, vibrant royal blue, yellow and orange fish begin to swim with us as in a harmonic dance piece choreographed for me.  I saw graceful, sting rays swimming in schools and all manner of other things.  

Then, all of a sudden, my breath caught in my throat.  My chest tightened and my heart started beating faster.  Swimming very close to me was a very large, silver barricuda, beautiful but with razor sharp teeth.  As I felt panic rise, I realized I wasnt breathing right.  What was I supposed to do?  A one day class to prepare me for all the hidden dangers of swimming unprotected in the deep blue sea?  I argued in my head that this class did not prepare me to deal with all the possible scuba emergencies.  I forcibly cleared my head and focused on the things I did learn.  Then, remembered the instructor said that we would see barricuda and that barricuda wouldnt attack as long as you just kept swimming and did not draw attention to yourself or wear shiny objects that  could be mistaken for a small fish.  I forced my breathing to slow down and become regular so that my mind could assess the situation and make a decision.  I glanced at the instructor to my right.  He was not bothered at all by the  (in my mind) enormous barricuda.  Taking my cue from him, I relaxed, and (pretended to) ignore the sea monster.  As I watched the large fish swim away, having seemingly given no thought to me, I was able to, once again, absorb the spectacular beauty of the Carribean sea.

So….How does this story relate to social work?

When you begin as a new social worker, you are given new worker training.  Basically an overview of the policies and procedures of the agencies with some skill building.  Then you must blow out your mask and plunge into the depth of trauma and crisis with the expectation that you perform the job at a certain level.  You will have a supervise to guide you, but they are also guiding 7 other new swimmers.  You perform the job, but truly feel the training wasn’t enough to prepare you for the emergencies that come your way.  When you find yourself in your first crisis, the natural instinct is to freeze.  You may feel tightening in your throat or chest and find yourself beginning to panic.   


 In and out slowly, allowing your mind to clear and focus on the situation.  Seek out your supervisor for guidance and instruction on the best action needed for the crisis.  When a similar situation arises, apply what you learned until it becomes a “go-to” skill.

But what about you veteran workers?  You have handled emergencies in your caseloads  and have kept swimming.  When ongoing refresher training is announced, you begrudgingly attend because it is mandatory. As you are sitting in the training, often the thought creeps in from that little voice in your brain, “You have so much going on, this is just a waste of time…I have heard this before!”  

Come on, admit it.  

And the interesting thing about any training is that you are only going to get out of it what you also put into it.  Examples are taking notes, asking questions, making comments and visualizing yourself performing the techniques or skills you are learning.

Still waiting for the tie in ?  Here comes the correlation…

Remember my friend Brian?  The one who teased me about my questions and fears.  I found out afterwards that the reason I had to wait so long for him to descend was because he had not paid attention in dive class. He had been snorkeling for years and felt very confident He could scuba.  He kept saying, “this is easy, let’s go.”  But after I went into the water, he did not know how to blow out his mask properly, causing it to fill up with water.  After several tries,  he started to panic and the instructor had to pull him out, go over again and lead him through it.

Throughout my 30 years, I have had cases and emergencies that have had the potential to create within me a breathless panic.  In the first few instances of severe abuse, burns and even death of a child I panicked and became immobile with indecision.  I needed someone to walk me through what to do.  That is normal.  But it doesn’t have to last and it shouldn’t.  As I continued to learn new concepts and new skills, I would practice my new skills often until they became part of me.  Subsequently when an emergency happened, I was able to pause, reflect and breathe, allowing my brain to fully process the situation utilizing the knowledge, skills and experience and appropriately determine the needed course of action.

I spoke to a new worker this week to inquire of his experience of becoming a confident, competent social worker in the agency.   He said the most profound statement I had ever heard from a new worker.  He said, “I gotta tell you.  It’s hard.  And I know it won’t get any easier, but I will get stronger.”

Dont be afraid and shut down if you need help navigating your first few crisis cases.  Breathe, look to your instructor and keep swimming. Take advantage of the training, instruction and guidance given to you. Even if you have heard it before.  

Try to find one new idea or skill.

And make it your own. Challenge yourself to incorporate it into your toolbox. Practice it with your clients, staff, peers.  Build up your ability to face those emergencies.  

Allow yourself to get stronger.

And Breathe.

8 thoughts on “Breathing Under Water

  1. The only way to have it be easy is to wall yourself off, which helps no one, least of all the kids. Connecting with others, sharing the load, gaining new skills, all help. We worship with a woman who is the negligent death of children overseer for the state.(I don’t know the official title.) She stays strong because she can advocate for change, but still be present to the pain of needless death. Your tips are very useful for anyone in a helping job.

    Liked by 4 people

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