Adventures on Wheels

“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…”

This week on Adventures on Wheels is a little glimpse into my past and part of what makes me crazy today…heehee.

I did not grow up claustrophobic. My claustrophobia came at a much defined time and place and has persisted ever since. Today’s blog is the event leading up to my fear of small spaces and random other accumulated fears.

In 2004, I was preparing for my trip to Africa (which happened in 2005). As part of my preparation was getting my certification as an Advanced Open Water Diver, so that I could do some SCUBA diving in South Africa and Zanzibar. As part of this program, you participate in more difficult dives, including a deep water dive and a night dive. My girlfriend at the time did all her diving with a particular company, which was the company I was training with. I had already done some warm up dives and a navigation dive as part of the certification. The local place to dive in Manitoba is West Hawk Lake. It is a crater lake and has the distinct advantage of becoming VERY deep VERY quickly, which allows you to do your deep dives and other dives right from shore without needing to go by boat. The disadvantage of the lake is that it is scummy, FREEZING, and the visibility is very poor.

Being Manitoba, night dives have to happen quite late at night in summer in order for it to be dark enough. We’re talking nearly midnight. There are a few people in our dive group and one instructor that is leading us on the dive. It is her first time teaching a class solo. Clearly that should be red flag number one, I suppose, but there is a rescue diver certification course happening at the same time just down the shore a ways. Now, if you aren’t a SCUBA diver, there is one important thing you must ALWAYS do when you dive. You dive with a BUDDY, and you NEVER leave your buddy. As a point of fact, a co-worker of mine from Manitoba lost his brother at this very dive site, and it took 16 years for them to find his body. At the time of my dive, he was still missing. This is all within 10 minutes swim from the entry point on the shore.

So, the instructor’s job is to bring us into the water, get us to the depth we need to be at for our night dive, and then make sure nothing bad happens during the dive. The students are all paired up so that we each have our dive buddy. In pre-dive preparation, one closely inspects their equipment. Because we are diving at night, we’ve attached glow sticks to the top of our tanks and some of us have strobe lights on our tanks to aid with visibility in the murky water. We each have a flashlight in our hand that is attached at the wrist by a string should you drop it. It weighed about five pounds, give or take. My girlfriend at the time did not want the glow stick attached to the top of my tank and she then removed it. I was never sure why it bothered her, but it was removed and could not be re-attached so the discussion ended there.

Now, SCUBA diving is a very technical sport. I’m going to try to keep as much of the techy talk out of this as possible so that the story doesn’t take a week to write and two weeks to edit. But, the basics are as follows: to dive in Canadian waters, you must wear at LEAST a wetsuit. This helps keep you warm despite the fact that you are indeed, wet during the dive. Over your wetsuit you have fins (non-divers call them flippers often, do not call them flippers to a diver, they are snobby like that). You wear a hood which keeps your head warm and is also made of neoprene, like the wetsuit. You wear neoprene gloves so that your hands will continue to function in the cold water. Of course, you wear goggles that cover your eyes and nose so that you can see and do not snort up water. The regulator is the device that takes air from the tank and gets it to your mouth so you can breathe. It also has a back-up regulator attached to it should the main one fail or should another diver need your air as well. This all attaches to your air tank. A separate hose that is part of the regulator system takes air from the tank and allows you to put air in and out of your BCD (buoyancy control device). A BCD acts like a life jacket that you can add air to or release air from at the touch of a button. This allows you to sink, float, or to be able to “float” at any depth of water by having the air in the jacket counteract your tendency to sink or float. Inside this jacket there are weights that make you ABLE to sink, because otherwise you will not be able to get to depth to dive. Now, not all dive weights go inside the BCD. Some are on a belt, so that it can be released in an emergency. If your BCD has integrated weights inside the BCD instead of the belt, you have to remove the weights and drop them in an emergency, so that you can float back to the surface regardless the condition your BCD is in. Now, this is all a very simplified version of how the gear works, because I am not giving a SCUBA lesson. If you are a diver and are reading this, I am only giving a gist of how it works so that people will understand the story.

So, let’s begin. I check my gear while it is on as I had already inspected it prior to donning the gear. Keep in mind, a SCUBA tank and jacket and such is heavy and awkward. My girlfriend had inspected it when she removed the glow stick. Now, once your gear is on, we make our trek to the water. In the dark with fins on your feet is a tricky feat in itself. Before entering the water your dive buddy checks your gear to make sure it is ok. I checked my buddy’s gear. Then we walk into the water about chest deep and we inspect each other’s gear again. Now, this lake gets DEEP. Well over 100 feet. And it happens FAST. There is no visible moon on this night so it is very dark. It’s late September. It’s cold out. The water is FREEZING. And there are either 6 students or 8 students (I cannot recall offhand). We are in our buddy pairs. Unless you are DEAD or they are DEAD, you do not leave your buddy. SCUBA diving is not a solo activity. Any underwater emergency can very quickly become deadly if you do not have your dive buddy close by. Our instructor then signals us to proceed into the depths for our first night dive.

Here’s where things start to go wrong. I’m walking along the bottom, getting deeper, and then the group begins to swim because the bottom falls away much too quickly to go to that depth immediately. As you equalize our ears on descent (this keeps you from blowing your eardrums from the pressure – think back to the painful zinging feeling in your ears when you used to swim to the bottom of the pool), you start to put air into your BCD so that you will “float” at the depth you are at instead of sinking. What I notice shortly after is that I just want to keep sinking. I’m working too hard to stay with the group. I add some more air to my BCD to counteract the rapid sinking I’m experiencing. No luck. Now I notice that I’m about 15 feet below my group and their lights are getting dim in the murky water. My ears are hurting because I’m sinking too rapidly to equalize my ears properly. I stop moving so I can hear better and attempt to put more air into my BCD. Again, no luck, and that’s when I hear it. Air is venting from somewhere behind me. Every time I push the button to add air to my jacket, I can hear bubbles coming from the top of my tank. What this tells me is that the air is not going to my jacket, but is just going out into the water.

Now, this is not a serious dive emergency. Why, do you ask? Because all I have to do is signal my buddy and she will come and get me and fill her jacket enough for both of us and get me to the surface. Then we’ll just abort the dive, swim to shore, and figure out what has happened to cause the failure. This is where things go wrong for the second time. I signal my dive buddy with my flashlight. This is beaten into you when you train for diving so that when an emergency happens, you automatically start going through the steps for rescue and do not panic. I look around, and there’s no dive buddy. At this point I am swimming very hard to counteract my 30ish pounds of lead weights in my jacket and the negative buoyancy that my filled air tank etc causes. Imagine snorkelling with a backpack of rocks on. It’s a lot of work. I’m trying to prevent sinking further because I’ve noted my depth and I’m already at 60 feet and I haven’t equalized me ears properly so they are hurting. I signal my dive buddy again. She and the group are so far away now that I cannot see them. My buddy has not noticed I am missing. She and the group have kept swimming and left me behind. NOW I really have a dive emergency.

Now I have to go through the decisions I need to make in order to self-rescue. Keep in mind that I am a student here in a course designed to teach me what to do in situations like this, but I have never had to do them in real life, and NEVER without a dive buddy present. I have a heavy and bulky flashlight in one hand that is making it hard for me to work with my weights inside my BCD. I have two options at this time. Get the weights out of my jacket, or drop the entire jacket, take a big breath of air, and swim to the surface, leaving my entire SCUBA gear behind. I’m at 90+ feet now because I can’t stay at the depth I was at from the weights and I’m sure that I’ve blown at least one eardrum at this point. My brain is saying FREAK OUT FREAK OUT!! But my training and the muscle memory is helping me focus and work the problem. I’m very tired from trying to swim against the weights. I’m not confident that if I drop my SCUBA gear that I will be able to swim 100ish feet on a single breath of air. I’m too winded. And while fighting the depths and needing my light to see, I can’t seem to get the weights out of my BCD with one hand while exerting myself so hard and moving around as I kick to keep from sinking to the bottom. I know at this point my dive buddy or the rest of the group will have no way to find me because I’m minutes behind them and could be anywhere. I could be deeper than them. Or east or west of them. If I’m more than 25 feet away they can’t see me because the water is too murky.

Rightly or wrongly, I know that I have to make a decision. So I decide that I’m keeping the gear on so I don’t risk drowning on the way up and I’m getting my behind to the surface. I kick as hard as I can to carry myself and all my weight. It takes a long time and is exhausting, but eventually I break the surface. However, I can’t get high up enough to take the regulator out of my mouth because the weight is just too much to push myself that high out of the water. One interesting note; they say in SCUBA diving when you feel like you are panicking that you will want to rip off your dive mask. I will now corroborate that feeling. I was very tired and feeling panicky, and the impulse I had was to pull my mask off and yell for help. Luckily, I just kept reciting my training in my head. Do NOT take off your mask. Do NOT take off your mask; that is stupid! At this point, had I been thinking more clearly, I likely should have taken off my SCUBA gear and just floated my way back to the shore. However, I’m exhausted, and from breathing extremely heavily through the regulator I’m slowly poisoning myself with carbon dioxide because the system can’t clear it out as fast as I’m exhaling it. When carbon dioxide levels get too high in your body you begin to feel light headed, sort of drunk, and you start to lose sensation in your extremities (tingly hands etc.). If the levels get high enough you will pass out. I’m not close to passing out yet, but I’m definitely feeling the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning.

Now, there should have been a dive support team at the shore to be prepared for any emergencies. That way, when I surfaced, I would know which direction shore was, where the team was located, and they would be watching for glow sticks or strobes coming to the surface when they should not be there. My girlfriend noticed that the shore support team wandered off to watch the rescue course happening, and, feeling uneasy about that, she stayed behind to watch our dive (or watch for problems, anyway). That decision likely saved my life. A few minutes after the dive started, and at least 25 minutes or so from the end of the dive, she sees my strobe light bob briefly at the surface. Remember that she’d taken the glow stick off my tank, so she knew that the strobe belonged to me. I’m out in the water trying to decide which way to swim. Because it’s a night dive and the shore support is not there with a light, I cannot tell which way to go. I’m trying to keep my orientation based on the direction I came from, but I cannot be sure I’m going the right way because of my distraction on the bottom. If I reach for my compass I start sinking again and I just do not have the energy or brain power to come up from sinking again. I see some lights off to my right that I pray are cabin lights on the shore and I start power swimming toward them.

As I am swimming, I’m breathing through my regulator. Again, this is slowly poisoning me and I am lightheaded, coupled with suffering from total exhaustion from the exertion (I was in good shape at this time, luckily). My only focus is just to keep swimming and eventually I should hit shore. That is, of course, if I am swimming toward shore at all. A couple minutes later, however, I hear my girlfriend yell for me. I cannot answer because the regulator is in my mouth and only the tops of my eyes are out of the water. The only way I will be able to yell back is to risk taking the regulator out of my mouth and pop high enough out of the water to yell to her and then get the regulator back in right away so I can keep swimming. Hindsight number 2. I should have disconnected my flashlight and dropped it. Why I did not, I have no idea. I think I was just too tired and scared to stop to do anything for fear I would ruin my forward momentum, slow as it was. I hear her yell again. This time I know I have to answer because she surely must be wondering what is happening. I take a big kick, pop the regulator out of my mouth, yell her name, pop it back in my mouth, dip back down underwater and start swimming again.

Now she knows that something is definitely wrong. The problem is, there is no support team around. They are working with the rescue dive class. My girlfriend is in jeans and a hoodie and jacket because it’s snowing. She yells for me a few more times so I know I’m going in the right direction. Shockingly, several members of the rescue dive course (whom would presumably be very experienced divers to be in this course at all), came and watched. None of them did a single thing to help. They all had wet suits or dry suits on. When I was about 30 feet from shore (5 or so minutes of slow swimming to this point), my girlfriend saw that I was running out of gas and swam out to get me and drag me the rest of the way in. I was so exhausted when we hit knee deep in water that I could not hold my head up and it was flopping back into the water, risking drowning me in two feet of water. I was laying on my back, nearly unconscious from the carbon dioxide, just repeating to them “I can’t hold my head up, I can’t hold my head up,” and my girlfriend is in tears, frozen, trying to help me keep from drowning right there, while several idiot rescue dive students watched. WATCHED.

Two things happened next. When I was finally able to hold my own head up, two people from the rescue class finally got it together and helped me up onto shore at a picnic table. I promptly had the worst case of claustrophobia I’ve ever experienced. I was delirious, sitting there panting, my brain barely functioning, but all I could think of was that my hood and my wetsuit was like a small coffin I was trapped in. I could barely talk but I was in tears, begging them to help me get my gear off. They kept arguing, telling me just to relax, just to rest. However, inside my brain, I felt like I was wrapped up in a rug and stuck under a bed. I’m amazed how the brain works in emergency situations and in situations where it is being poisoned. Slowly, they helped me take my hood off and at least unzip my wetsuit so I’m not having a panic attack. Then the second thing happened. My dive group surfaced out in the water. It had taken them over 15 minutes to notice that I was missing and surface to try and find me. 15 minutes! Let me tell you. Had I not surfaced on my own and got myself to shore, my family would likely still be looking for me out there. Separated from my dive buddy for that long with them having no idea when I disappeared, well it’s just blind luck that it didn’t turn out to be a tragedy.

So, with the danger averted, it was time to assess the damaged. I couldn’t hear out of my left ear, and not well out of my third. The next day, when I attempted to dive again (Lord knows why), my ears were having none of it. They bled on and off for a couple weeks, both got severely infected from the dirty lake water getting inside them, and it was two weeks before I could talk on the phone again. I lost about 40% hearing in my left ear permanently. The right ear has mostly recovered. They still act up now and if I get water trapped in my ear I get an ear infection EVERY single time. They do not like the water any longer. My big loss is that I’ve lost my ear for music. I used to be able to listen to music and pick it up and learn in on my guitar. I’ve never been able to do it since this accident.

In addition to the physical damage, the psychological damage has been profound. The next day I valiantly attempted to complete my dive course so that I would get my certification. It was time to do my deep dive. I got to about 15 feet when my ears said NO and my brain said HECK NO. I was terrified. A side effect of dive accidents is often claustrophobia. And people who tend toward claustrophobia tend to find that fear triggered by diving, whether it’s by the pressure on the body or the view from the mask or a combination of several things. For me, the wetsuit caused me to feel like I was in a coffin. Descending into the dark water again felt like I was in a glass coffin being buried at sea. I hated it. That fear has never left me. It’s 2017 now and I have never been able to dive again. I promise myself that I will do it again someday. So that I can get over the fear and put it behind me. But, the fear, so far, is winning. I went white water rafting in Africa in 2005 (no SCUBA diving clearly) and discovered that I had a newfound fear of the water. I’m not afraid of all water, though. Just unknown water in a situation where I feel like I may drown (trapped under the raft etc.). I still enjoy a swim in the lake or the ocean. My thirst for risky water sports, however, is long gone. I tried white water kayaking, a sport I always wanted to try, and found that being trapped under the kayak during roll overs was too reminiscent of times gone by. The anxiety of being stuck underwater took the fun out of the sport for me. I pray that the time will come when the fear will subside so that I can dive the reefs of Africa like I had always planned.

And what happened, you might ask? This whole mess happened (ignoring the obvious negligence of the dive company, of course) because someone touched my gear after I inspected it and did not tell me. There is a rule in diving. You do NOT open a knife or handle a knife around your gear so that you do not cut your BCD or hoses or anything. My girlfriend had removed that glow stick from my gear because it pissed her off that they had put it on there. What I did not know is that she CUT the stick off. She didn’t twist it off. Or remove the regulator and slide it off like she should have. She grabbed her dive knife and cut it, which caused a tiny cut in the top of my BCD because she nicked the jacket. I’d already done my pre-dive inspection. When I put my gear on again and inspected it at the water’s edge, and in the chest deep water, you could not hear the air escaping from the tip of the jacket because it was not underwater. The nick was so small. It was dark. My dive buddy, if you want to call her that, inspected my gear and she did not find the tiny nick. And, by the time I discovered that the nick was there, she was long gone on the dive, having left me behind right from the start. Had I known my girlfriend had been near my gear with a knife, and especially USED a knife on my gear to remove that glow stick, I never would have gotten into the water without making 100% sure there were no nicks. I would have submerged that BCD and tried to fill it to make sure there were no leaks. But I assumed that my inspection was good because nothing had changed. A mistake I will never make again. And, although my girlfriend was great and likely saved my life, it was her that had nearly cost me it as well.

I learned my lesson that weekend at dive school. I refuse to dive with group members as buddies just because the dive school has deemed them “fit” to be divers and dive buddies. I refuse to dive with companies that shrug off safety or cannot promise with 100% certainty that they will follow the safety guidelines and measures that are in place for a reason. Professionals or not, I will not trust a dive school with my life. I learned that the only one that can be responsible for my life is me, and I was lucky that I kept my head on straight enough to get myself home safely. Did I do it all correctly? No, I did not. I could have done things differently. But I got the outcome I desired with minimal damage to my body. I survived, so that if I choose, I can dive another day. The dive company’s response? They refunded me my money for the course. Thanks a lot, dive company. I couldn’t finish the course with two blown ear drums, so they didn’t finish teaching it to me. Why would I pay for that?

Next week on Adventures on Wheels will be another interesting story about my life! Stay tuned until then!!