Back from the Abyss

11167803_10206675738680997_4268186619984933061_n I’ve written before about recovering from cancer, but I have just had the most unexpectedly healing experience, 100ft below the sea.  My husband and I have been keen scuba divers since we met, and aim to indulge our love of the underwater world once a year if possible.  Last year was different, of course, because of my second diagnosis in May.  We have just returned from our belated honeymoon, which was planned as a dive trip like the ones we have loved in the past.  Although I used to love diving, so much about me had changed.  Diving is physically demanding, and I had done no exercise at all for almost a year because of my cancer treatment.  A series of infections had dogged me through the winter and into spring.  I could not remember how it felt to be healthy. Treatment only finished 5 months ago, and I was still in the really vulnerable, fearful stage. On arrival at the dive centre, I felt ridiculously anxious, close to tears at the thought of donning the gear, and heaving myself out of the water at the end.  I felt fundamentally changed by my second cancer experience: hesitant, incapable, weak and geriatric and frail, not quite human, and definitely unfeminine. I had developed an unhealthy dependence on my husband.  The old me was gone, the independent, self-sufficient person who others usually leaned on.  I was reduced, in every way. I just wanted to go home, to the only place where I felt safe. And then there were the scars, and my rearranged anatomy resulting from the mastectomy.  One of my back muscles has been repositioned as part of my reconstructed breast, leaving me weak on the left side.  The scar on my back resembles a large, deep shark bite.  How, I wondered, will I cope with the stares?  And the chemo has pushed me into the scatty, forgetful phase of the menopause, when I do really stupid things, like putting my credit card in the trash.  I have to think about everyday tasks very carefully, and diving requires great mental stamina to remember all thie technical information that keeps us alive down there.  What if I had a scatty moment, a long way below the surface? 11146242_10152845190782759_24632093409838953_nI slept badly the night before the first dive, stomach churning through anxiety dreams.  We were on the boat early next morning, everyone chatting in happy anticipation. The sun was hot, the sea was calm, but it took a huge effort of will not to run back up the dock and shut myself in our room.  My husband had a quiet word with the boat crew, who were helpful without making me feel self-conscious.  The dive leader briefed us on the first site with a whiteboard drawing.  ‘And over here,’ he said, indicating a jagged line, ‘is the edge of the abyss.  We don’t go there.’11026293_10152857287807759_7916662661810616221_n And then we were in the water, sinking down into the blue.  I remembered the routine:  clear mask, equalise ears, check air gauge, watch the computer.  My breathing slowed.  I felt buoyed by the salt water. We toured the reef and the beauty overwhelmed me like it always did.  I swam, engaging muscles that I had not used for almost a year. I forgot about my aches and pains, the ones that whisper constantly, ‘It’s come back.’  After we surfaced, I handed my heavy gear up to the crew from the water.  No one remarked on my scars.  I began to relax and thought, ‘I’ve got this.’  On the second dive, I started to enjoy myself.  And when I came out, I handed up only my lead weights and climbed out wearing the rest.  I expected to be exhausted, and I was, but after some rest and food, ready to do it again the next day. FB_IMG_1430114086256This set the pattern for the week.  Every day, I grew stronger, more confident, until I could climb out with all the gear on, including the weights.  The staff stopped offering to help.  I did 3 dives on each of the last 2 days – including a very long, unplanned swim – and still felt OK.  I had some scatty moments, but the important thing was that I corrected myself.  We dived on the wreck of the SS Kittiwake, which was fascinating but challenging, with some difficult, confined spaces inside.  I coped just fine.  Stamina, so long absent, made a welcome return.  I slept deeply and woke without pain.  By the end of the week, I wasn’t fearful any more.  For the first time in 321 days, I felt healthy.  Sitting beside the pool each lunchtime, still in my dripping swimsuit, ravenously hungry, with the sun on my shoulders, I felt like the old me again.  Ready for adventure. 11156386_10152857288112759_6276574868182804156_n Cancer is a thief.  It robs us of confidence, energy, and optimism.  It steals our dignity and – yes – life expectancy.  It takes away our very identities and turns us into patients. It shrinks our horizons, until we only feel safe in our homes.  After my first cancer experience, I rebounded pretty quickly, although it was still a year after treatment before I could dive again.  This time, I felt much worse, and we were diving only 5 months after treatment finished.  Some people thought that it was too soon – and I suspected that they were right.  But I am so glad that I wasn’t sensible this time.  Everything about diving seems unnatural:  we put on a thick rubber suit under the burning tropical 11169964_10152857277022759_7517996136575232244_nsun, we weight ourselves down with lead and rely on 100 year-old technology to breathe in a medium not designed for us.  It is so, so easy to die down there, and yet it’s where I feel most happy, most at peace, and very much at home. Diving gave me back a lot of what cancer stole from me.  It made me feel strong and capable again.  Helping the new diver in our group, I was reminded that my knowledge and experience of over 200 dives has value. Diving returned my body to me.  It made me feel normal.  It showed me that I can master my fear when I choose. I have been to the edge of the abyss, but I’m back.

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13 thoughts on “Back from the Abyss

  1. caroline Pringle

    ohh my darling. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with all of us. Its so beautiful to read. I love diving too – haven’t been for a very long time. But I know that deep peace we can find at bottom of the ocean – where we belong to everything and everything belongs to us – and our individual fears and pains melt away – at least for a while – and once you have been reminded of that reality you can go back there more easily again in your mind. Even when your on land and in the midst of it all. Hope to see you and sing with you some time soon. Much love.Caroline xx

  2. Patricia Lafaye

    A wonderful description of your return from “that other place.” Everything will be so much better from here on out.

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