Mental Trauma and the Benefits of Diving

By Gemma Smith 

When I initially thought about writing an article on scuba diving and its often positive impact on mental health and mental injuries, I almost as quickly decided it would be a terrible idea. Even today there is a certain stigma around any kind of mental struggles. I, too, have to shamefacedly put my own hand up and admit that I have been equally guilty of those negative thoughts in the past.

For most of my life, I believed that mental illness or injury, whatever form that may take, was a sign of weakness. Somehow not a ‘real’ illness. Surely if only people were tougher, complained less, and just ‘got on with it’ they would see that bad days or sad days were all in their heads, and therefore something to be brushed over?

If only this were true.

Life has decided to throw several emotionally tough episodes at me over my 27 years on this planet. This is equally true for so many people. What I’ve come to understand through all this is that mental pain is just as real as any kind of physical pain. I’ve also come to see that scuba diving, my particular passion, and focus in life, was for me one of the most physically and mentally healing things I could do.

When I was 13 I left school to be home educated. I told people it was because my parents wanted to give me the chance to focus on my own interests. The real reason was actually much sadder. I was a teenager with a failing body. My weight was that of a child. I was totally in the grip of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. I went into the hospital in order to keep my body going. Despite treatment, and finally putting on weight, over the following years I had good times and bad times. I was never able to totally shake off the grip it had over me. I thought nothing in my life would ever really be as important as being thin.

When I was 17 I was in a good patch, and fit and well enough to give scuba diving a go.

It sounded fun, and maybe it would give me a focus. That first moment of taking a breath underwater changed my life. Truly. From the minute I descended it was like nothing else mattered.

For the first time in years, I was completely in the moment. The negative thoughts that so often crept into my head suddenly were silent. All I could hear was the bubbles, and all I could feel was the weightlessness that surrounded me. I felt something that I couldn’t remember feeling for a long time: I was happy, and I wasn’t thinking about my size.

Scuba diving changed the whole direction in my life.

I wanted to be fit and strong in order to dive. I went to the gym to get muscles to carry doubles and stages, not to lose weight. Diving became my world. People sometimes ask me how I have been able to do so much so young. The answer is simple really: I feel lucky to be here, doing something I love.

For the last decade I have been happy, healthy, and without issues. Diving made that possible for me. It’s because of this that I want to introduce as many people to the sport as I can. I am driven only because I am fulfilled and content with my life, following my passions.

Five months ago I was a successful, busy technical diver.

Many years of hard work and a lot of dedication had allowed me to make diving a full-time career. Not only was it my job, it was my whole world. Working on underwater archaeological projects, teaching cave and technical diving, and working with scientific organizations from around the world was a dream come true. As far as I was concerned life was great.

However, this year I was visiting friends in The Faroe Islands when my life changed forever. On March 14 I was walking along the pavement with my friend. I remember laughing and chatting, and then blackness. I have no memories at all of the actual accident or the aftermath. Everything I know has been picked up second hand from the doctors, nurses, and people on the scene at the time.

It turns out an elderly gentleman driving his car had had an aneurism.

No previous medical history, it came totally out of nowhere. Unfortunately when this aneurism occurred his foot slipped onto the accelerator. The car swerved uncontrollably off the road and sadly straight into us. My friend was hit and suffered three broken ribs and four fractured vertebrae. I sadly got the full force of the car into me. It flung me 15 m/50 ft through the air into a signpost, causing massive facial damage and a bleed on the brain.

The impact from the car broke my neck, coccyx, and left foot. Most damaging of all I shattered both of my legs. While one break was clean and the healing process was fairly simple, the right leg was far more complex. The bone had crumbled into several pieces very close to my ankle.

Even now this leg is proving difficult, and has already had several operation to try and save it. My last surgery involved the fitting of a second metal plate to stabilize the bone. The grafting of a large flap of tissue from my opposite thigh to cover the removed skin and tissue then took place. This was needed as I had lost a large section of the right lower leg because of a huge E-Coli infection.

Two of the last five months I have been confined to the hospital

Two of the last five months I have been confined to the hospital, and this time has mostly revolved around physical healing and rehabilitation. What I’ve come to realize though is that my biggest challenge isn’t physical, its mental. I have just been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While normally more commonly associated with soldiers returning from conflict, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in some form or another is actually not uncommon for anyone who has had to endure an upsetting major life event.

This diagnosis for me was actually a huge relief. It made me realize I wasn’t crazy or going mad. It justified all my feelings. Life seemed very dark and bleak, but my one overriding positive focus throughout everything was my diving. All the hours of physiotherapy and counselling? It will allow me to dive sooner, so I’ll gladly do it!

Right now my biggest hope and goal is to be able to get in the water again.

The infection in my leg was so bad at one point the surgeons thought losing the leg was a real chance. Right now it remains problematic but under control. The main operations to save the bone appear to have been successful. This makes me feel like the luckiest girl in the universe. It may take a while but I know in my heart and soul I will be diving again. I don’t care how long it takes, nothing is going to keep me out the water. One thing this experience has taught me is how resilient and determined the human spirit is. This is especially true if you have a passion for what you do.

Throughout everything all I have thought about is getting back in the water. Although I have no recollection of this, I have been told I was talking to the surgeons about wanting to go diving again just the day after I was hit by the car! It’s incredible I am even alive right now. I will never forget that. What happened has only inspired me to try even more to encourage people from all walks of life and backgrounds to get into diving.

The thought of being underwater again has been my focus and my biggest push.

It’s given me the determination to get better. I love the thought of introducing more people into the underwater world. Maybe showing them the magic and power that diving can bring to their lives will also help them.

While there is no one magic cure for any kind of illness, certain outlets and experiences do have marked benefits. The total focus, the sense of wonder, the need to be completely in the moment, or even the feeling of accomplishment when you finally nail perfect buoyancy or master a shutdown drill, all of these things diving can provide.

More and more organizations and groups are now offering support and the chance to learn to dive for people who have suffered similar mental or physical anguish. Groups like these not only teach you to dive or carry on diving. Crucially they also allow you to meet like-minded people with whom you can share your experiences. Opening up to others about your feelings and what you have gone through is very cathartic for many sufferers.

Several studies show that scuba diving and time in the water has many therapeutic benefits for all kinds of troubles.

Diving puts you in the moment. It allows you to experience the wonder of a totally different world but also gives the realization that right now you are alive, you are here, and you are truly living. For me, when I dive all the stress and confusion of the world disappears. My brain filters it all out to allow me only to focus on my breathing, my direct surrounding, and the feeling of weightlessness, both physical and mental.

Diving can also provide a big confidence boost for many people, whether that be from gaining a new certification, or having an amazing dive with your buddy. The positive feelings of accomplishment when your body and mind reach a goal cannot be overestimated. So for anyone out there who struggles with PTSD or any kind of mental injury or illness, never give up.

Anorexia and PTSD are without doubt very different illnesses.

In no way does the mental trauma from the horror of a war zone or a severe car crash compare with an overwhelming desire for extreme thinness. All mental illnesses and traumas do share similar characteristics though. Any kind of invisible disease, for many people, has a stigma attached to it.

It was only when I started to write about my own experiences of diving and mental illness that I realized that I myself had attached that very same negative connotations to it. And this is exactly why I decided to write this, despite my fear. It has taken me a long time to put words on paper because I worried about people’s reactions.

“This is me, I overcame this, and I’m proud of that.”

The only way we are going to start to change the way people look at mental health issues though is to stand up proudly and say, “This is me, I overcame this, and I’m proud of that.” For everyone struggling mentally it is important to remember that you are not weak, you are not a failure, and you are most definitely not alone. Diving has helped give me my life back more than once, and I believe that for many people it could help to do the same.

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