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I Had a Panic Attack at the Bottom of the Ocean


I step off the boat and immediately feel the ocean water cooling my sunbathed skin. Once the dive master gives the signal, I fasten my regulator between my lips and hit the button to lower the scuba tank. My ears are not in pain when we reach the prickly ocean floor at 80 feet below sea level.

I find my stride and savor the crystal blue view of the sea. Salt water tickles my nostrils as it has snuck through my eye mask. Recalling my scuba instruction class, I clear my mask by exhaling through my nose and tilting my head up. My adventure continues, but the water creeps back in. While I follow the group of divers ahead of me, I tell myself not to worry. I accept this discomfort and realize I am only getting anxious. I take a deep breath through my regulator. In an attempt to distract myself, I focus on the beautiful coral reef. I watch the melodic movements of a group of bright yellow fish swimming by. Water fills by nostrils and I whip my head up to clear it. I breathe while salt stings my nose in the same instant. This is not working.

I slow my kicks to become near the guide at the back of the pack. I tell myself I am OK, that I just need to ask for his help to clear my mask. I turn around and when our eyes meet, I point to my nose. Maybe he can help me. I want him to help me, only now my breathing is fast and I feel the frightening bite of salt water encapsulating my throat. It’s slithering to my lungs. I breathe again and feel the same thing.


I grab the guide’s wrist and frantically point at my mask with each sharp breath. The thoughts that follow come to my mind in one swift instant, like an angry ocean wave barreling into the shore. It’s over. My life as we know it is ending. I am here at the bottom of the ocean, gasping for oxygen when all I am gaining is water. I am drowning quickly and no one, not a soul above nor a soul below, can save me. My hysterical mind continues to spiral through thoughts of death. My hand tightly grips the man’s wrist while the rest of my body forcibly shakes. From that moment, I cannot recall the actions of myself, the guide or all the living beings floating around me. My panicked mind wins and I black out.

When I regain consciousness, I am still under water. My hands are gripping the hands of a different man, the dive master. He signals me to breathe. I inhale, then exhale. I inhale, then exhale. My heartbeat slows and my calm body feels the current’s nudge. I am relieved to truthfully signal that I am now OK. Right then he points to something behind me and I turn to see a beaming sea turtle swim by. I explore the mesmerizing ocean floor for the rest of the dive then safely rise to the surface.

Many people on the boat ask if I am OK and one laughs at my incident. There is a second dive that is part of the package. I check in with my body which is now relaxed. I say to myself, “The worst thing that could happen is having a panic attack at the bottom of the ocean and I’ve already done that.” The boat slows down and anchors for the second dive. I tighten my eye mask, take a deep breath and step into the cool water.

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Thinkstock photo via NatuskaDPI