Very soon after I started diving, in fact, during my last open water dive before I became a certified diver, I discovered something a lot more terrifying than swimming freely with an apex predator twice the size as me. And I was in less than 20ft/6m of water.
I felt fine. I was having the best time, and was beyond excited that at the end of this dive, I would be an open water certified diver! The water was crystal clear, warm, fish everywhere; it was such a wonderful feeling! This was as close as I would ever get to weightlessness, and it was a whole new world! I looked left, I looked right, checking on my dive buddy, and checking on the rest of the group. Well, I was really checking that I didn’t stray in the wrong direction! It is hard to get lost at Phil Foster Park, but nevertheless, I didn’t want to be the one who got lost. How embarrassed I would have felt!
We circled an area that was bursting with life. Seahorses, eagle rays, schools of fish, moray eels, turtles, I mean you name it we probably saw it! Before we knew it, it was time to start the ascent. Time really flies when you are diving! I never wanted the dive to end! As I mentioned, we hardly reached 20ft, but we were students, earning our open water certification, therefore a safety stop was mandatory for everyone. At 18ft we completed our three-minute safety stop, and began a slow and stead ascent the rest of the way. Just then I was sucked into a swirling, bubbly rapid vortex. It was taking me alive! I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t yell for help, it was taking me! I didn’t understand what was happening! Was there a bomb? What the hell was going on, and why couldn’t I get out! I reached out for my buddy to pull me out, and I couldn’t reach! In fact, my buddy seemed perfectly fine, and didn’t even seem to notice what was happening to me, right beside them! I wanted to pull my regulator out of my mouth instinctually, but worked through my brain and struggled to keep it in.
I never felt so scared, angry and confused in my life! I mean, what good is a buddy if the buddy doesn’t follow any of the standards and procedures we just learned! I was going to die and never spend time with sharks, I was never going to see my children again, and I never would even earn my certification. It was all over. And then, I was at the surface. “And how was that dive?!” my instructor asked all of us, while the others went on and cheered about how amazing the dive was. I looked up the sky wasn’t spinning. I looked left the land wasn’t moving. I looked down and the water was just water. No spinning vortex of doom. What was happening? What was wrong with me? I didn’t know what to say, what to think, and more importantly, our exercises weren’t complete. We needed to swim to shore, and finish with our equipment.
I felt okay, other than feeling a bit tired. I didn’t feel dehydrated or sick. I wasn’t in any pain. In fact, I did take extra care the night before to make sure I was in a great condition to dive. We were supposed to tell our instructor if anything wasn’t right. Well, I didn’t. I needed to wrap my head around what had happened, and understand before I brought it to anyone’s attention. More importantly, maybe I wasn’t cut out for diving. I was never going to dive with sharks. I felt so ashamed.
That evening, I combed through my PADI books, I researched reputable diving forums and anywhere else I could find the answers. After much research, all of the answers pointed to vertigo. But when my instructor described it, and when we learned about it, he never explained it feeling like that. I was never so scared in my life, and when he described it, it was just a sensation of not knowing up from down. This was beyond any sensation. It was all too real to me.
The next day I spoke with my instructor and explained what had happened. He didn’t seem concerned. In fact, he said I needed to get back into the water. So I did. I continued to dive, and practice. My instructor, along with others I have had over time said they really cannot relate to what I have experienced, because they have never had vertigo. I have opened up and discussed my experience with other divers, and they too cannot relate to what real vertigo feels like.
I continue to experience vertigo, and it isn’t limited to ascents. I experience it on decent as well, and it is just as scary every single time. Vertigo is scary and frustrating, especially since no one understands. I feel very alone, and before every single dive, I am concerned, anxious and worried. This last time I experienced it on both the ascent and decent. It is always just as terrifying, especially if visibility is low, and conditions are challenging. I am not scared of the sharks. I practice safety in diving and diving with the animals, but that is not my concern. My concern is my vertigo, my lack of control, not even my ability because it is something I have absolutely no control over. In fact, I probably take more health precautions than other divers because I know how much I am at risk of getting it. Managing it is a huge challenge, because in the diving I do, we must descend negative and rapid. Sometimes if I feel it coming on, ascending slowly and waiting helps. Because the experiences continue, I did seek out many medical specialists to give me answers and find solutions. I have been clinically diagnosed with vertigo. The cause is neurological, and finding the root cause could take a very long time. My inner ears are absolutely fine. Until the root cause is found, curing it isn’t in the scope, but I can continue to manage it and I am cleared to dive.
In the diving world I am a toddler. I have barely gotten my feet wet, and I am nobody. But I continue to dive with a challenge that hardly anyone can understand, and I totally feel alone, and like a ‘nobody’, and question my ability to dive every single day. But because my risks when I dive are a lot more severe than other divers, I like to think I have leaps and bounds of experience. I have become fixated with safety, and taking care of myself even when I am not diving so I can prevent the risks and incidents as much as I can. It is certain I will experience it again, probably on the next dive, but with following every precaution I can limit and work around it.
Now, an experienced and PADI pro diver, I still experience vertigo, but I recognize and manage it well.