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Hyperventilating Life? A Navy SEAL's Advice May Help

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Several years ago, I was snorkeling with my husband, along with his friend Chuck, a Navy SEAL, and Chuck's now-wife, Rhonda.

I was nervous to leave the boat because years before I had a scary experience while snorkeling. We were in some rough, choking water, and I lost sight of my brother-in-law, David. We were all tossed perilously close to some rocky cliffs, and for a moment, I thought David had drowned. I felt half-drowned myself, having sucked enough salt water through my snorkel to leave me sick for the afternoon.

Suffice to say, that experience freaked me out enough that when I reluctantly jumped into a glass-flat, beautifully turquoise sea (granted, an area called "Shark/Ray Alley" but more on that another time), I had a full-on, irrational panic attack in front of a Navy SEAL. And not just any Navy SEAL: Along with other commendations from his time in Vietnam, Chuck retrieved one of the Apollo capsules during his service and still served on a skydiving performance team in his retirement.

Totally embarrassing. And yet for the first time in my life, I couldn't stop hyperventilating. Worse yet, I was semi-drowning my husband trying to keep my own head above water. To make it worse, I'm a decent swimmer! I was a lifeguard in high school and water-skied every summer as a kid. Swimming was not the problem—a fear of sinking was.

I was literally in uncharted waters, and my speed breathing was unsuccessfully trying to manage my "fight or flight" (definitely flight), a primal response so strong that even my embarrassment couldn't stop the panic.

Suddenly, Chuck's very quiet and slow voice was in my ear:

Mary.

You.

Are.

Breathing.

Way.

Too.

Fast.

His words, like a sleepy metronome, snapped me out of it. It slowed my breathing to match his tempo and allowed me to notice the spectacular wonder of a passing sea turtle. A memorable day in azure waters followed, with more than a few laughs at my expense.

Many times since that day, his calming advice has come back to me over the years. I suspect we all need that steady whisper from time to time—a reminder that slowing down the frantic pace of our lives allows us better performance, more life enjoyment, awareness of the surrounding daily magic, and recognition that "control" is only a myth anyway. Life will continue to throw curves, blessings and challenges at us. We can only do our best to manage the sensation of sinking and, as any Navy SEAL would also add, to never give up.

This week, I'll again attempt to slow my breathing down as we embark on a family vacation with my husband, our four children, two sons-in-law, one boyfriend, two grandchildren and a beloved babysitter. I so want to listen to the quiet murmur of each moment without any frantic multitasking (a ridiculous myth of a word). The emails, endless to-do lists and responsibilities we all share will always be there. We will all likely die with some unfinished items weighing down those ever-expanding lists.

As we approach Memorial Day and the Amy Thompson Run in Loose Park, named for my too-long-absent sister, I'm reminded of what's fleeting—those moments with my friends and family that sustain me as cherished memories after they vanish too quickly. As Billy Joel said,

"This is the time to remember, 'cause it will not last forever ...These are the days to hold on to, 'cause we won't, although we'll want to."

To my dear friends, who are so forgiving of the gaps in our communications (and often fighting to calm their own crazy schedules): I pledge to be better. To my expanding family as it evolves into new and beautiful generations (with constantly competing schedules and geographic challenges): I'm so grateful for the combined commitment to spend a few tranquil days without phones or interruptions, to slow our collective breathing, and maybe even snorkel a bit.

I hope Chuck's words might help you, too. And, especially at this time of year, I give a special thanks to him and to all military for their many sacrifices that allow us the luxury of sometimes forgetting how blessed every quiet moment of freedom really is.

Mary O'Connor is learning to love the water again, and always takes time for family. She serves as executive vice president of Country Club Bank. Share your thoughts with her by tweeting @CountryClubBank or by posting on the Facebook page.

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Mary O'Connor

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