Blog about Underwater Life and Scuba Diving

Scuba as Therapy? Why Not?

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The idea for this article has been rattling around in my head for a long time. Deciding to write it was not an easy matter. You see, I am the one who required that therapy; along with other help during this last year. On January 7th, 2010 I lost my wife of nearly ten years to complications from Muscular Dystrophy. She was in hospital for nearly a month with pneumonia and an enlarged gall bladder that was discovered too late. Still we had hope that she would come home and it looked like she would up until the morning of the 4th. During the night before she took a turn for the worse and we were called to come to the hospital at 4:30 am. Without going into any more detail I will only say that by midday she was on a morphine drip to make her comfortable and I was on a round the clock watch. I had not drank coffee for nearly 3 years but started again to stay awake. I did not want her to be alone when she went so I did that to stay awake so that she would not leave this world without me holding her hand. When she did go I was there with her. She had not walked due to her condition for nearly 30 years but at 12:07 Thursday morning I told her that it was ok and that now she could run whenever she wanted.

In memory of Denise

I’m sorry if this story disturbs the reader but it was necessary to put the rest of this article in context. For you see she was responsible not only for me becoming a diver, but she also sacrificed much to allow me to become an instructor. It was this sacrifice and subsequent encouragement that gave me the resources to use SCUBA as a way to cope with such a loss. Under the surface of the water many of us feel at peace and one with our surroundings. For me it is as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had. It became more than that following her death. SCUBA became a way to cope, to deal with feelings so intense that only the concentration required to be underwater kept them from swallowing me whole, and to begin to heal. SCUBA had become so much a part of my life and our lives that due to a commitment to a student I had made before she got sick, I was in the pool with that student doing a weighting and trim workshop two days after she was buried. I am sure that part of me was still numb, but being in the water was exactly what I needed as I look back on it now.

In addition to the workshop, I had begun the process of certifying my late wife’s cousin so that he could dive on his next work trip and do his certification dives with me. So two days after the workshop I was on a plane to Puerto Rico to complete his certification. While she was still lucid in the hospital she made me promise I would complete his certification. The plane tickets had already been bought and there was nothing holding me at home except my grief. The trip to San Juan was another important step in the process of dealing with the loss I had just experienced. Here I was traveling to dive in order to fulfill a promise based on SCUBA diving. It was also an opportunity to get away from the cold and snow of southwestern Pennsylvania in the United States for somewhere warm and sunny. Different surroundings with a relative and friend were not under the best of conditions, but the dives were an important part of what would come to be a long journey back from one of the darkest places I had been in my life. It was on that trip that I began to see the importance of maintaining some semblance of normalcy while also working through the feelings that would surely be coming.

SCUBA is, as many of us know, more than a sport or hobby. It is more than a way to supplement our incomes as instructors or to even make a living. It becomes a lifestyle filled with like minded people who for the most part look after each other more so than the general population. This was especially true when word got out to my friends who dive. Not just locally but from around the world I received words of encouragement, cards, emails, even offers to put me up for a few days if I needed to get away. In addition to this I developed many friendships that continue to this day with people emailing me out of the blue just to see how I’m doing. Using this type of encouragement I began the long process of working thru my feelings of grief, anger, loss, and despair.

Diving was, and is, more than just a way to deal with my inner self. It is also a way for me to deal with the world at large. When one suffers a loss it is often used as an excuse to withdraw from everything. It would have been very easy to do so. One can continue to go to work, school, etc, and give the appearance that they are coping well. The truth is that many times that appearance is just that – an appearance of making progress. In reality one goes through these motions while inside they remain desolate and empty. The hole left by a loss must in time be filled. But is this even possible? Perhaps not but another void that was unnoticed can be filled and so take the place of the other. The loss is still there, it always will be. We successfully learn to live with it by using it as motivation to do better in other areas. Those areas are different for every person. Some choose careers, family, work, etc. I chose SCUBA to make a difference in my life and the lives of others.

Grief was one of the first emotions where diving helped to deal with the effects associated with it. In diving we are surrounded by people who have a common bond. As noted earlier that bond carries over into many areas. All of us at one time or another has experienced loss of some kind. Yet none is the same. The worst thing one can say to someone is “I know how you feel” after a loss. This is not true. Everyone’s loss is different and no one can say they know how it feels to you. However they can say to you “I have also experienced loss and while I can’t even imagine your feelings, this is how I dealt with mine.” This is helpful, the expression of understanding without presumption. Divers by their very nature seem to be more compassionate and understanding than many others. Perhaps it is our exposure to each other at what could be considered our worst looking? Only divers can feel comfortable with wet hair, smelly boots, and other conditions we would never allow anyone else to see us in. Especially strangers. Yet divers have no problem with any of this. Our willingness to be open and perhaps vulnerable to others allows us to reveal ourselves to each other. This is important when dealing with an emotion like grief. To share our pain and get involved with others who do not judge is a great comfort. We have a myriad of topics we can discuss and at times deal it little pieces with the negative emotions. A discussion of a dive trip may allow us to reminisce about our loved one during happier times. This is a healthy expression of grief when we can talk about our loss and use it to bring us closer to those we rely on for support. In my own case the many friends I had and made were patient enough to listen and allow me to express the feelings that could have consumed me. In some cases I was forced to interact with people as an instructor. To stop teaching would have been a dishonor after so much was sacrificed to allow me to become an educator of divers. In my interactions with new divers was found a purpose and a goal. That purpose was to produce the most competent divers I could in the time I had to train them. The goal was to bring to the dive community as a whole through my students and now my writings more knowledge to new divers everywhere. To make them become more educated, skilled, and most of all safer.

Teaching others to dive also allowed me to work through the anger that inevitably accompanies a loss. Anger at others, at institutions, at the person who left, at ourselves, and at whatever we choose to acknowledge as our God. In the interactions we have with others, especially students, it is difficult to allow our anger to be seen. In fact we must keep it in check and only display it at those times when it is appropriate to do so. In this we learn to manage and deal with it rather than allowing it to consume us and dictate our actions. There are times when it is appropriate to express our anger and those times will come. But when we are with students or just diving for ourselves anger has no place. Instead it is beneficial to turn that anger into determination and concentrate on the task at hand. When we are underwater we are in a place that requires clear thought, a sense of purpose, and the ability to look after ourselves and our buddies. Others will say that anger turned to positive use is a healthy way to deal with it and I agree. Not to say that some of what might be called negative expressions is not called for. They in fact are so long as we do no harm to others or ourselves. By discharging a great deal of it in positive ways it becomes possible to display the negative in a more controlled manner that does allow it to do no harm. Dive planning, executing that plan, and safely returning from that dive gives us many opportunities to express our anger now turned to determination and concentration. In so doing we benefit not only ourselves but others we may be responsible for.

In my interactions with other divers I also found a way to deal with the sometimes overwhelming sense of loss that would come over me. In classes in my home or in the pool that void was filled by my students who put their trust in me. They also gave me their friendship and in doing so filled that space that was to lessen the void created by the loss. As an instructor I have found that students will do pretty much anything we tell them to. They do so in order to learn, to educate themselves, and to please us who teach them. It is one of the highlights of an instructor to see a students face light up when we tell them they have done a good job with a skill or academic exercise. It is the realization that we do indeed matter a great deal to them and our opinion is highly valued. The lesson I took from this and the therapeutic value it had for me was to make me feel that I mattered in someone’s life. That though I felt a profound sense of loss I still had a purpose and made a difference in the lives of others. That helped to minimize the feeling of loss that I felt and enabled me to function in all areas of my life. SCUBA was now helping to replace that sense of loss with a sense of friendship and of belonging. My students were giving me confidence as well. This would go a long way in other areas of my life.

When one loses a spouse after being with them for a long time there is in addition to the sense of loss a feeling of loneliness. Loneliness leads to despair as thoughts of being without a partner give way to the belief that we will never find another person to share our life with. The longer this goes on without a sense of feeling needed and wanted the deeper the despair. Diving with students eases that feeling. We become more than student and teacher. We become friends and in those friendships without knowing it my students gave me the confidence to begin to assert myself. Without going into detail I am now in another relationship with a wonderful woman. She also is a diver and that was how we actually met. Our love of SCUBA brought us together.

What I am trying to illustrate with this story is that there is more to diving than fun and sun. It has been shown that physical activity has been proven to be an effective treatment for many maladies both physical and mental. SCUBA is not only a physical activity but one that requires mental concentration as well. That concentration coupled with physical activity and the social aspect of SCUBA is what has me convinced that it can be a valuable tool for recovery from a number of conditions. And lastly the mere fact that we are underwater where gravity no longer matters, where we are able to just float and enjoy the feeling of being weightless, and where the water isolates us from the noise of the surface world, we are able to relax. And relax in ways that are not possible on the surface. For the diver there is a Zen-like quality to just being underwater. We become one with the environment and it allows us to process the thoughts that often race in our heads. It is underwater where life’s problems are often put into perspective and we see them for what they are. Rarely are these issues as important as we make them in our minds. Some are discovered as not being that much of an issue at all. But on the surface they stare one in the face and seem to demand attention. In the solitude of the depths of however they lose their power to control us and many times solutions are found. I am not a psychiatrist, therapist, or counselor. The only training I have to verify this assertion that SCUBA is a valuable therapy tool is my own experience with it. It not only brought me back from a dark place that could very easily have swallowed me whole but it gave me a purpose that has benefited a number of others.

Disclaimer: SCUBA as therapy may not be appropriate for everyone. Those who may be experiencing thoughts of self destruction or of harming others should not try to use the water as a way of dealing with those thoughts. They should seek out the assistance of those trained to deal with such matters. It should never be used as a substitute for professional medical and psychological help when those are called for.

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