by Jennifer Johnson
We dive not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous
An instructor at Mount Madonna Institute once told me, “Don’t be in such a hurry to get where you are going that you forget to meet yourself where you are at.” As I sit on a stone wall at the Casino Point Dive Park on Catalina Island, looking out over this vast ocean I just crossed to get here, I am reminded of these words. It is not lost on me that this is the moment in which where I was merges with where I am, and it’s the beginning of who I am meant to be.
I have never really traveled, and I have never swam in the ocean, yet here I am. The wind makes it a bit nippy this early in the morning—just enough to make the skin feel alive. I’m sitting with Randy Lung, the founder and executive director of Dive Guardians, and his two assistants, Taylor and Charles, who have volunteered their time so that I can pursue my dream of becoming a certified scuba diver.
I may not always like being an amputee, but I love my life as one. Since I lost both legs above the knee three years ago, I have experienced and felt things I’ve searched for my whole life and only dreamed of till now. I’ve been trying to fill a void I could never explain and find my peace in a world that does not always make sense to me. I have a learning disability called dyscalculia, which makes it extremely difficult to understand math. People with dyscalculia often struggle with concepts such as bigger versus smaller, and we have a hard time doing basic math problems and engaging in abstract thinking such as recognizing patterns, analyzing ideas, synthesizing information, solving problems, and creating things.
When I decided to pursue my scuba diving certification, I knew what I wanted to take from the program: stillness and peace. And I wanted to leave my anxiety and PTSD behind in the depths of the ocean. That’s why Dive Guardians, a nonprofit that primarily serves first responders, was the perfect fit. Randy created it to honor a good friend of his who took his own life when the pressures of his work became overwhelming. Too many first responders lack an outlet for their experiences and emotions. Dive Guardians provides a release that can save lives. The program (which is free to first responders) combines scuba training with counseling, personal coaching, HRV biofeedback, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The goals are to nurture healing and self-improvement, reduce post-traumatic stress, and prevent suicides.
As I began my first dives in the ocean, using the skills I had been taught in the pool in the days leading up to this moment, I was stunned by the ataraxis of my mind. For the first time in my life, everything just made sense. Floating within a kelp forest, alongside fish bigger than myself, I felt as if I was inside of a magical snowglobe suspended in time. The sun’s rays broke thru the surface as I looked up and faded away somewhere beneath me. I was able to navigate with a compass, feeling direction for the first time in my life.
I was so immersed in the moment, and the guys were so committed to adapting only what needed to be adapted, that I emerged from my final dive as certified open water scuba diver. What’s even more astounding is that I did it nonadaptively.
In the weeks and months that followed, I began to notice a lot of residual effects from the dive that I had not been prepared for. My body did not ache as it always did, even though I had reduced my use of cannabis from a constant maintenance dose to only using it once or twice a week. Numbers began to make sense and no longer caused me anxiety. My PTSD no longer boiled beneath the surface, always triggering a fight-or-flight survival response. The cloudiness that suffocated my brain was no longer there. It felt as if my mind was waking up to a clarity I could have never comprehended before.
I was told these effects tend to last about five weeks after a dive. However, it has now been more than four months, and I am just beginning to feel the effects starting to fade. Which simply means it is time to dive again.
Thanks to Randy, Taylor, and Charles of Dive Guardians, and MilVet (which assisted in making my arrangements and transporation), I’m living my best life. My dream is that one day I’ll dive to Christ of the Abyss, a memorial for all those who lost their lives at sea—and a monument to those affirm life by diving into the depths of the ocean.