Knowing My Limits

I had an incident in Palau in 1991 that almost ended my dive career. I was diving at Pelilieu corner, a famous dive site where two ocean currents meet. The dive is on a 3000 foot deep vertical wall. Well, first, let me say that a lot of egotistical divers in our group insisted on doing this dive at the wrong time of day. I followed my group.

The current was a fast upward current (you could see it). Our dive master had instructed us to "get deep - it will be easier to pass through." I made it past the heaviest current at 114 feet but I was breathing very hard. Although I had made it through the worst of it, I had to drop my camera gear. Since the current was still sucking on me, I grabbed the wall. I was breathing way too hard. I looked to see who I might buddy with. When I turned the exhaust valve on my regulator, it stuck open. I was sucking in water. It was heavy and it burned a bit. I was aspirating at 114 feet. I struggled at first, but my Rescue Dive training told me "You cannot go to the surface! Be patient, wait!"

Apparently one of the other divers had seen my camera drop. My friend, Sal, appeared and held on to me. I'm not exactly sure what happened next. I think I may have collapsed in exhaustion. In any case, once we were out of the current, my regulator began to function again. I know I never indicated an out of air signal and never asked for air. After several moments, I looked at my gauge - trying to understand why I was not at the surface. Sal thought I was alright. But I was not. I needed to be on the surface, so I bolted from his grip. We were still at 78 feet. He grabbed me back and helped me make a more controlled ascent. He even made me do the 3 minute safety stop at 15 feet. Once we surfaced I coughed water all over him and then he understood the situation. A tender quickly picked me up and I was brought back to the island.

The real story is that this experience almost ended my dive career. Afterwards, diving was frightening. I had started diving in 1985, modeled, worked on doppler studies with DAN research. This dive could have changed it all - except my friends wouldn't let it happen. They encouraged me to dive again.

Knowing the damage post-traumatic stress can do to people, I wasn't about to let myself become victim. I sought therapy immediately afterwards. I did some meditative work that helped me get back into the water again and calm my fears. I learned to develop an internal dialogue that would sometimes calm my anxiety. Even though the therapy helped tremendously, dive anxiety gave me trouble for years. I'd start having anxiety before a trip, sometimes even thinking of ways to "get out of it". Then I would go. I'd work with my friends, even if that meant holding hands with someone until I felt confident in myself, my equipment, and the dive environment. My friends were an immeasurable help. They were aware of my work teaching marine life to students in the U.S. and other countries. They knew how much I love underwater photography. I knew they valued my life. I knew I could choose which dives to go on.

It took me nearly eight years to overcome my anxiety. The year after my accident, I learned self-rescue skills and how to "dive alone". Over those eight years I made numerous trips with my husband who was still passionate about diving: PNG, the Solomons, Fiji. Sometimes I would cry and labor over upcoming dives. I would always have fun in bays where there was no current and I could see the bottom. Sometimes panic would set in when diving current, a vertical wall, or at times, for no apparent reason. Fear would penetrate my thoughts. I would end up turning back, aborting the dive, diving shallow or in a lagoon. For example, on a particular dive, we had decided to dive down to a bommie at 175 feet to check out some hammerheads. The other divers were able to swim over the bommie to the current free side to see these magnificent creatures. I, on the other hand, felt my heart begin to race. A fear of death flashed in my mind (i.e., drowning due to breathing hard on the regulator and fighting the current). I realized "there is no need for this!" Just because my peers were doing it, there was no need to push myself.

When I felt fear and panic I learned to say to myself, "this is temporary - make your way to a safe place, get your breathing slowed."  Then I'd instruct myself "make a controlled ascent." This I did - on many occasions. I was actually commended by many of my friends for not succumbing to peer pressure! I would simply abort my dive when I reached a level of anxiety that was the signal not to go beyond my limits. While I managed the panic by staying within my comfort level, the anxiety frustrated me. I have journals where I write, "I'm hanging up my regulator" because another bout of anxiety had caused me to abort a dive.

Last year I was involved in two dive incidents in which I used my rescue skills to help other divers. This had a very positive effect on me. Helping those two divers through traumatic situations gave me greater confidence in my ability to save myself. These incidents also exemplified the importance of the buddy system - on these two occasions it was my turn to help a diver in distress.

My last few trips were anxiety free from beginning to end. I leave again for Fiji in April. I must say I am a tad nervous. A slight amount of anxiety still persists prior to each trip. It is nothing that I cannot quickly handle with a little "self-talk". Once I put the first dive behind me, I'll be fine. I've recovered from my original bout of panic and anxiety, but I'm no fool either. I know it can return - I keep a close watch for the signs. I have a hand signal for anxiety I use with my buddy. These days I consider knowing myself and my limits to be key to me being a safe diver. I want to dive at my own comfort level, with someone I trust.

Oh yes, this is important! - On the day of my accident (back in April 1991), another diver, Nancy, brought my camera up. She said it floated right to her. She is a very close friend to me today.

Julianne Z.

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