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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: supporting Arsenal (and leaky goggles)

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Credit: Stormseeker | Unsplash

PTSD FC

Might as well admit it. Being a Gooner is definitely not good for the health. The age-old adage about craziness springs to mind: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result pretty much sums it up.

Iʻd say about five to ten times a season I tweet one of two simple phrases. Usually with some spicy words added, but the gist of the statements is the same – as follows:

Arsenal never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

and

Itʻs the hope that kills you in the end.

Gooners are stuck in a manic cycle of jubilation and despair.

I once went scuba diving off Stradbroke Island, in Queensland, Australia. Let me start this story with some vital background information:

  1. I have an irrational fear of drowning
  2. I did my Open Water scuba courses in the calm blue waters of Kauai, Hawaii
  3. I had only ever done 5 or 6 relatively easy dives

My traveling companion was my brother-in-law, Benj, an advanced diver with certification in night dives, wreck dives, drift dives… you name it, heʻs done it. He lived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and dived almost every weekend for about 5 years.

To be perfectly clear: I didnʻt pad my diving CV at all. Item 1 above ensures that, when it comes to voluntarily immersing yourself in something that Can. Kill. You. – all the usual bravado and braggadocio no longer applies.

We took a ferry from Brisbane and arrived on Stradbroke late one afternoon in early November 2009. We found the local dive shop and enquired about dive trips the following day. We were told that there were a couple of advanced dives scheduled – including an advanced drift dive, and a dive with manta rays. Benj assured the Divemaster (DM) that we were competent and put our names on the list.

The next morningʻs weather was gnarly. There was a howling wind, grey skies and a sea that looked angry. Hungry. Hangry. My stomach detached itself from its mooring and floated up to my chest, as it usually does before a dive. When we got to the shop, the divemaster was advising the divers that the conditions were not suitable for diving. I was relieved.

Benj, though, was having a side-chat with the other divers in the group, and I found myself hearing them arrange for the dive trip to continue, regardless, unsanctioned by the dive shop. Same boat. Same DM. Same equipment. But with the shop accepting no responsibility.

My stomach left my body and floated off into the ether.

Benj keep reassuring me that he would be my dive buddy, that he wouldnʻt abandon me, and that he had all the necessary skillsets to ensure that I didnʻt come back dead. That the weather underwater was awesome. The visibility would still be good, and that once we were below the surface there would be nothing to worry about.

paul-boat

Better days – @invinciblog, Open Water One scuba course, Kauai (2004)

I was unconvinced. But I heard my mouth saying “OK”, and the next thing I knew I was on a zodiac with Benj and seven strangers, riding a rodeo ocean out to the first dive location.

The fear I felt was almost unbearable. What little scuba training I had was evacuating my brain: when I looked at the scuba tanks, the BC, the regulator – they might as well have been the inner workings of an alien spaceship – if you offered me a million dollars to assemble them correctly, I would have failed dismally.

Iʻm almost ashamed to admit it – but I was relying totally on Benj to suit me up correctly and keep me safe. I was useless, a passenger, a wreck. I was basically one of those Thai soccer kids rescued from that flooded cave.

Twenty minutes offshore, we dropped anchor and began to suit up. Thatʻs when I started to remember a bunch of little things:

  1. Water in my mask made me panic
  2. Having a mustache guaranteed mask leaks
  3. I had a full-blown Movember handlebar mustache

I scratched around in a plastic container full of masks, lifted each to my face, trying to find one that felt water-tight. Eventually I had to make a choice. Benj suited me up. Adjusted my straps. Turned on my air.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask: like how do I equalize? how do I inflate my BC? how do I purge my mask? which way is up? why am I here? But everyone was launching themselves backwards into the restless ocean and soon I found myself alone with the boat captain. It was now or never.

I sacrificed myself to the water, felt the cold hit my face as the boat fell away above me, and sucked that first panicky breath from the tank, eyes like fried eggs in my head, completely out of my element and gripped by anxiety. As I became aware of my surroundings, I saw Benj looking at me, thumbs up, quizzically.

I tried to calm my runaway heart with a well-worn mantra as I settled into the strange, hostile silence. I took stock. Was I breathing? Yes. Was I floating? Yes. Was it calmer down here than up there? Yes.

I was about to give a thumbs up when I became aware of a tickling sensation on my lower eyelids. A few seconds later my eyes confirmed what my brain already knew: there was water in my mask. There is a thing called the mammalian dive reflex that, when your face is submerged in cold water, causes your body to conserve oxygen by optimizing your respiration system to enable you to survive longer underwater. Unfortunately, the symptoms feel pretty much like a panic attack. Experienced free divers know how to work through this temporary shock. Most scuba divers donʻt get to experience this as their masks cover their faces and shield them from that cold-water trigger.

Flooded mask

Illustration: Stephen P. Hughes (scuba diving.com)

I felt it acutely. And it made me hurtle the few feet to the surface, pulling off my mask, spitting out my mouthpiece and gasping for air. Waves pounded me as I bobbed helplessly on the surface, spluttering for help from the boat captain.

He stood at the edge of the Zodiac, looking down at me and trying to decipher what I was asking for. He disappeared for a few seconds, and came back with another mask for me to try, and lobbed it overboard to me.

This time I put it on and sunk sheepishly below the surface. Sure enough – after a few seconds, the mask began to fill up with water. At this stage Benj popped up beside me, bemused. I took the mask off and explained what had happened, and what was continuing to happen. He took off his mask, his fancy personal mask and said, “Try this. I have stubble and itʻs never leaked. You should be fine in this.”

I wanted to be soothed, I really did. And I wanted it to work, because I was already feeling sick bobbing on the surface, and it was really calm and still down there.  But most of all I really, really just wanted to go home.

I took his mask, and he took mine. I put it on, and he adjusted the straps to fit my big, queasy head. And then I went under, and waited for that awful sensation. it didnʻt come. I waited. nothing. Clear view. Thumb up, OK signal.

Benj started to descend. I followed him, feeling my body relax. The watery tomb started to feel more like a womb, and my breath evened out. I ssssslowly ssssucked the cool air between my teeth, as I had been taught, and followed him.

And then it happened: a tiny tickle became a trickle, and then a stream of cold water, filling my mask. Within a few seconds, my eyes were underwater. Benj appeared and tilted the bottom of his mask up, and blew bubbles up from his mouthpiece. The air rose, displacing the water in his mask, which he then pushed back on his face. Just as we had been taught on Day 1 of the Open Water course.

I did the same, but each time I returned the mask to my face it still had water in it, triggering my panic attack. I held my breath, desperate not to lose it. Finally, on about the third attempt, I replaced the mask, coughed out any remaining air in my lungs, sucked in water through my nose and bolted for the surface.

I was finished. I somehow negotiated the waves back to the boat and heaved myself over the side of the boat, the captain pulling me onboard by my tank harness. I lay on the floor of the boat like a beached fish, mentally and physically exhausted. Drained. Deflated. Defeated.

I vaguely heard the captain telling Benj I wasnʻt coming back.

For the next hour or so, I sat in the bucking boat, watching the horizon lurch and wheel. Every few minutes I retched over the side of the boat. Time stood still. Down below, Benj and the others took in the sight of hundreds of manta rays circling in a spiral of magnificence, while I fed the fish an ever-decreasing surge of vomit, knowing that I still had hours to go in this private hell.

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There was another dive to come, an advanced drift dive, after a short lunch on the boat, a half hour from here. I was filled with regret, remorse, for putting myself in this position against my better judgement. I resigned myself to a day of misery, and swore I would never dive again.

I did dive again. An hour or so later. Once I was no longer green-gilled, the DM gave me his mask and told me to snorkel with it alongside the boat, and – miracle of miracles! – it didnʻt leak.

I did the drift dive with them – well, most of it, before the DM had to buddy-breathe me back to the boat when I showed him that my tank was almost empty… (I wonʻt bore you with that experience: suffice it to say that being swept along in the East Australian Current was a breathtakingly out-of-this-world experience.)

Eventually, later that afternoon, after stopping to watch a few nearby whales on our homeward ride, we landed at Stradbroke and Iʻve never been so grateful to be on dry, solid land.

You may ask yourself what all of this has to do with supporting Arsenal.

Well – itʻs an analogy, really. About being out of your depth. About not being in control. About making the same mistakes over and again. About putting your fate in someone elseʻs hands. About being prepared. About risk and reward. About forgetting the bad times when youʻre going through the good times. About feeling like the bad times will never end when you’re deep in them.

This same parable could apply equally to this young team and their fresh manager.

You can prepare yourself for something – mentally, physically. You can make sure that you have all the right equipment, the belief, the desire… But the Universe rewards action. And the only time you can act is in the present. In the moment.

And the moment can bring with it – will bring with it – new, unforeseen challenges, new variables. The moment will test you. And you wonʻt truly move forward until you pass the test. and all the desire, all the preparation, all the self-belief will count for nothing if you donʻt meet the moment of Truth head-on.

They say what doesnʻt kill you makes you stronger.

arteta-dumbfounded

This awful end-of-season experience that Gooners and Gunners have experienced will hopefully stand us in good stead. Perhaps we will learn to play the game and not the occasion. Not allow ourselves to be sucked into secondary dramas – to just keep our heads down and do what we do well – in the moment – and (aargh!) trust the process will bring the results we seek.

Once we consistently do that, we might begin to experience the peace below, and not be caught in the crests and valleys of the waves above. We might release ourselves from the manic cycle of jubilation and despair.

We could theoretically, still end the season in 4th, but, if Iʻm brutally honest, Iʻm not sure that we are ready for Champions League. If we canʻt beat mid-table Newcastle, how will we fare against Bayern or Barca?

What we can take from this season is a European spot, and the experience that the last few months have given us. This team is young and naive. Experiences – good and bad – can only be earned the hard way: by experiencing them.

Like Arteta says: take the poison.

It will make us stronger.

(Thanks for reading.)

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One Response to What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: supporting Arsenal (and leaky goggles)

  1. Pete the Thirst May 18, 2022 at 10:12 am #

    Nice article IB.

    Perspective is important…

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