Panic attacks are the closest you can come to death. They pounce on you out of nowhere, like a creeper who’s been hiding behind a wall, waiting for you with a chloroform-soaked hanky. Then suddenly, you can’t breathe. You can’t think. You’re sure this is it. This is the moment you leave this planet. This is your last breath…and it’s not even a good one. It’s fast and shallow and shite.
Now imagine that happening to you 30 metres underwater. So far down that you can’t safely pop up to the surface and breathe fresh air. You have to wait there, while you choke to death, surrounded by fish who will soon be eating you for breakfast.
It happened to me in Croatia, while diving a stunning site.
Here’s how it went down…
After spending some time in beautiful Split, I ventured to Sibenik. I desperately wanted to dive the Kornati national marine park. Said to be among the best dive sites in Europe, I was squeezing it in before meeting a friend in Dubrovnik.
The tiny peninsula of Morter appeared to be the best launch pad to get to the top dive sites. With simple stone buildings and narrow laneways, the tiny town curled around the marina and beaches. Just past the shipyard was the dive centre. A mostly German team ran the centre, which meant it attracted mostly middle-aged German divers on their summer holidays.
Any amateur diver will tell you that the boat ride out to the dive sites is a chance to build camaraderie, familiarity, and some form of friendship before venturing into the dark depths together.
Unfortunately for me and a quiet Spanish flight attendant, everyone on the boat was German. So they spent the entire trip bonding together in their own language. For a little while, I pretended to understand, responding to everything with a confident “Ja!” Until they all started looking at me weirdly, so I slunk down into the bottom of the boat and kept quiet.
I felt uneasy, uncertain, and wary about the dive. I’d always dived with friends or people I’d done my dive course with. Never with randoms who spoke a different language.
At the last minute, I was paired up with a young German man and told we were free to dive to whatever depth we wished. Usually as a solo traveller, I’d be paired up with the dive instructor. Not this time. I descended underwater, feeling overwhelmingly anxious.
It was a fast descent. When we stopped at 30 metres, I tried to empty some water that was rattling around in my regulator – the breathing apparatus that goes in your mouth to supply oxygen.
Something suddenly struck me. I didn’t know any of these people. And my dive buddy had left me to venture deeper and snap sealife with his GoPro. As the divemaster tried to get his attention to come and rejoin the group, my heart started racing.
I felt alone and terrified.
Alone and terrified 30 metres underwater.
I began hyperventilating, and was immediately in the grips of a frightening panic attack. In the middle of the freezing Adriatic sea.
Panicking and struggling to breathe, I swam up to the divemaster, wide-eyed and on the verge of blacking out. Which can be deadly.
Somehow, he managed to understand my crazy hand signals. He calmly gave me his spare regulator (a little too calmly, I might add. HELLO! I’M DYING!), took my hand, and instructed for me to breathe slowly.
A piercing migraine pounded at my temples, and I knew I had to abort the dive. There was no way I could keep diving. My breath was back, but I was in agony. We got the group together and went up.
Back on the boat, feeling wretched and wrecked and in the midst of a migraine, I couldn’t help but cry. No-one wants to be the one to abort a dive – especially as it means your group can’t go back down. The dive master, Nadir, assured me the two other divers – my German buddy and the Spanish flight attendant – were less experienced and didn’t have enough air left for a longer dive anyway.
But still I felt guilty.
I suppose a part of me was shocked and saddened to have feared the water – what I’ve always considered my second home. My mum nicknamed me ‘Fish’ for the way I take to water.
I felt like I’d let down a part of my spirit, my soul, my connection to Gaia and the sea and all her creatures.
I knew if I didn’t do the second dive of the day, I might never return to her depths. That’s what fear does when you let it take a hold. So I ignored my worsening migraine, joked around with the dive team to get into the right frame of mind, meditated, and ventured down. It was a mediocre dive – cold and uneventful, although we did explore a scattered shipwreck.
When I returned home to my simple shack that afternoon, I was exhausted. I tried to eat, but threw it all back up. Drank a Coca-Cola (which I never do) to get some sugar surging through my body. But in the end, I passed out and slept all afternoon.
Two days later, I was booked to go back out to the Kornati dive sites. I still had a thumping headache and felt all mixed up about the experience.
I texted some friends back at home, telling them about my panic attack. And how I felt like a failure. I was shocked when they admitted they too had experienced panic attacks for unknown or surprising reasons – a too-tight suit, a closed-off air tank…something divers never talk about. I thought I was THE WORST MOST HOPELESS DIVER IN THE UNIVERSE! Turns out, it happens to almost all of us. Like mental health, we all need to share these experiences with each other. WAY more than we do.
It was a clear, blissfully warm summer’s day. The sky and sea a piercing crystal blue, clear and still. The boat smoothly jetted across the water like a knife through soft butter. Yet again, the boat was full of Germans so I sat in silence for much of the trip. Lou, the driver, a cheeky local lad with whom I had shamelessly flirted, elected to be my dive buddy and hold my hand should I need it. I blushed. He briefed me on the dive site – dubbed The Dome, since the underwater portion of the small circular island forms an overhang, upon which a kaleidoscope of colourful coral rests.
We would be diving down to 40 metres, and I tried not to let the fear of my most recent dive set my heart racing. Down, down, down we ventured…
At around 20 metres, I motioned for Lou to stop and give me a moment. Instead, he slowly swam over, took my hand, intertwined his fingers in mine, and led me down. Instantly I felt calm, my companion helping me manage my buoyancy and calm my nerves. But my heart started racing for a different reason…because I suddenly became attracted to my adventurous Viking-esque dive partner. Hey, at least it took my mind off dying!
Later, on the second dive of the day, I was enraptured by the sea life, stillness, and silence that drifted out of a dark cave, 40-something metres below the surface. While my body shivered, I was enthralled by the mysterious cavern that extended some 15 metres into dark nothingness. The only light was from Lou’s torch, illuminating the coral and casting brilliant, vibrant hues across the rock. Fluoro green, sunburst orange, sting-like sponge and frothy coral.
He moved me in front, gripping my waist from behind, hand over my left breast. We moved in a dainty dive dance. I was nervous and giddy and narcotic all at once, slightly stupefied by nitrogen at such a depth, and experiencing stomach flips as my attraction to my Croat guide grew. He squeezed my hand, then my bum. I giggled, a burst of bubbles escaping from the regulator.
We swam out, around the corner and into another cavern. This time, we squeezed up through a split in the rock. Through the narrow slit of pitch black emerged the clearest blue light, pierced with spiderweb-like sun rays.
For a mere moment, I felt completely alone. But in a good way. Surrounded by sealife, protected by the monolithic cave, comforted by a peaceful inner voice that guided me onwards.
I felt like a discoverer, drifting through an unexplored universe. Curious fish danced with my bubbles. And my heart bursted with awe and love for this underwater wonderland. How had I come to fear her? How could I ensure I never did again? This was my home – a place where one feels both alien and completely comfortable. A stranger and a friend. Welcomed with wariness by the curious creatures that defined this dimension.
Back at the dive centre, swigging from a giant bottle of beer, I was elated. The dive shop owner Frank commended me for conquering a fear while also diving within my limits.
“I saw you down there and wondered if you were OK. But I saw you two holding hands and I thought, ‘Woah, I don’t want to interfere with that interesting moment!’” he laughed.
Embarrassed, I try to appear chill and unfazed. “Oh, that helped a lot. Just knowing I have someone experienced diving with me.”
At that moment, Lou moved his chair beside me and lit up a cigarette. I couldn’t even look at him, I was so full of lust. I was certain it radiated off me and everyone could see through my faux blaze demeanour.
I found my voice and asked if he still had work to do.
“Ah yes. I said I would help out these guys at the beach. They are doing their instructor course.”
He then asked what my plans were.
“I leave tomorrow. So maybe I’ll go to the beach too, or just relax,” I whispered into my beer bottle.
“Yes, maybe you can come see us at the beach,” he ventured.
Part of me wanted to. I knew that if I did go, I could navigate events to end up being intimate with this man. There are some things a woman just knows.
But I didn’t.
I went back to my beach shack. Read a book. Fiddled with my website. Phoned a friend. Then went for a walk and had a relaxing massage.
I fell asleep in the early evening, to the sound of my elderly neighbours gardening.
I dreamt of diving…