Coming Up For Air

When I was 24, I had a near drowning experience.  I thought I was going to die.

It happened just prior to taking that trip to Jamaica for my honeymoon.  I had spent the summer learning to scuba dive.  I mastered the written portion of the test, bought all the right equipment, and felt solid about the practical in-water that I was to do during the month of May at Georgian Bay.  If you’re not from around here, Georgian Bay is a large body of water north of Toronto.  And in the month of May, it’s pretty damned cold.  I traveled to the lake with the group I had done my pool certification with in preparation for the dive.

The morning of the dive I suited up and jumped in the freezing cold water, excited to be certified to dive in Jamaica just a few months later.  The one problem – the instructor I had worked with up to this point was sick and couldn’t do the dive.  So a substitute instructor was slotted to do the certification with the group.  That was the first moment of discomfort.  Once down 20 feet, we began to go through the process of removing our respirators by throwing them away and then retrieving them.  I was cold, nervous, not thinking clearly and I didn’t take enough of a breath to sustain myself long enough to gather up my respirator.  I gave the instructor the signal that I needed air.  He wasn’t responsive, and so I automatically panicked and began swimming to the surface as quickly as I could.  He suddenly realized what was happening and grabbed me by the leg to stop me from getting to the surface too quickly (and avoiding lung expansion injury).  The overpowering feeling of needing to get air had me in such a state of panic that I began to breath in water.  I could see the light above me, I just needed to get to air.  I didn’t even think to grab for my respirator.  I tried to kick him off me while he was releasing as much air out of his respirator to get the oxygen bubbles up to my mouth.  We reached the top, I gasped, and coughed over and over again.  I laid on top of the water, crying, exhausted.  He told me to swim in as he had to get back down to the others.  I swam to shore and laid on the beach, exhausted and disappointed in myself for not having the ability to remain calm.

That night I fought off a fever and chills while I recuperated.  I had taken enough of the freezing cold water into my lungs that I became quite ill.  Despite feeling sick the next day, I put on my equipment and went back into the water.  My original instructor was on-site, and he suggested that I give it another try, otherwise I might never go back into the water again.  I swam around a bit, but never went back down for the dive.  I was simply too sick to do it.  I ended up being quite ill for about 3 months.  I had to take antibiotics and inhalers to help my lungs recover from  infection.

I believe this incident was a precursor to my anxiety disorder.  This, combined with a number of other events that happened within a 6 month period – my father had passed away about 6 months prior to the incident, I planned my wedding, got married, and bought a house.  I’ve read that major life changes, as well as life-altering incidents can often lead to panic attacks.  It made sense that I had that first bout of panic just at the moment I allowed myself to relax while on vacation in Jamaica.  I had put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to pull off the perfect wedding, to be an adventurous soul, to be a great wife, etc., etc., etc.  It was too much for me to manage.

I didn’t realize it then, but my life would never be the same….

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