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At dawn, the November winds subsided to a cool sigh, tossing pillowy snowflakes around my tuque. The harbour was small and mute, the homes like errant Lego blocks pressed against the ruddy Maritime coast.
Bracing myself against the chill of winter, I prepared my gear for the final dive of the season and, unexpectedly, my introduction to nitrogen narcosis – that is, a temporary diver’s illness caused by the way nitrogen in the body reacts under the pressure of depth. I had previously understood narcosis to be dangerous if disorientation led to reckless behaviour, but no one had described the hallucinations.
Water temperatures below 20 degrees meant exchanging my simple neoprene wetsuit for bulky thermals and a dry suit, sealed uncomfortably tight at both the neck and the wrists. My usual drysuit was in repair and the wrists on the loaner were too large to seal, so I wore impermeable gloves affixed at the wrists to prevent air from escaping. Next came a hefty weight belt to counteract buoyancy, and a 23-kilogram steel tank with regulators strapped to my buoyancy control vest (BCD). Finally, the hood, mask, snorkel, fins and sampling equipment. If I could remember my first childhood winters bundled and strapped into a car seat, I am sure I wore much the same miserable expression.
I had always felt at ease in water and, with over 300 dives under my belt, confident in my skills. As part of the first dive team, I jumped into the enfolding abyss. A shock of icy liquid clawed along my face and beneath the hood at my nape. The pain soon subsided to numbness. I scanned underwater. The visibility was exceedingly poor; even the anchor line a few metres away was barely discernible. My dive buddy signalled and we both released the air from our BCDs. I watched the other divers on the boat above me as my field of vision lowered beneath the surface.
Nine metres… 15 metres… 18 metres… Scuba diving is a strange, reverential experience: breathing through an oxygen tank, a meditative series of inhales and exhales, in an otherwise inhospitable environment. Total submersion dulls your sense of touch and deprives you of sound and smell, focusing perception through your mask – a window into the unfathomable. The sensation is wonderful and exhilarating, but tempered by a heightened awareness of your fragile, alien body.
At 25 metres, I began hearing what sounded like the bass line at some infernal 1990s warehouse party, followed by the periodic punctuation of a barking dog. I had grown accustomed to murmurings while diving, like sheets of hail peppering a soft lawn, but these punching beats were too well articulated to be dismissed.
Colours began to shift and intensify. Panic crept into my chest as I inhaled. I exhaled and tried to slow my descent, but crashed into the seabed, releasing a cloud of sediment. The impact, the loss of control, was violent. Appealing to my surroundings for reassurance, I found the ocean floor transformed into the two-dimensional landscape of a Charlie Brown animation. Squiggly lines and striations replaced rock and seagrass. My dive buddy, now drawn in the continuous outline of a felt pen, was absorbed into the blue-green palette of my hallucination. He seemed soulless, inert, a lifeless stand-in. Our worlds disconnected.
My mind jumped to nitrogen narcosis, but I had never expected it at such a shallow depth. I needed to secure my bearings. Through impaired vision, I strained to inspect my gauges, until I felt relatively certain that we were only at a depth of 32 metres and I had plenty of air. I could push through this. I sidled up next to my cartoon buddy, insistently passed him a trowel and opened the bag to collect samples. But the action provided only temporary relief: It was replaced by a second wave of confusion, similar in form but much more acute.
I felt enclosed, trapped, alone. Not in the sense of being on one’s own, of loneliness, but in the sense of non-being. Removed from sensory feedback – skin numb, touch unreliable, sound unreliable, verbal communication muted. And now sight compromised… Did I even exist? Impulse told me to pull the plug – to rip the regulator from my mouth and fight to the surface. But I knew the dangers of too quick an ascent. Instead, I signalled to my partner that something was wrong, pointed my thumb toward the surface and approached the anchor line. To my relief he quickly followed.
Until this experience, the worst part of an ascent had been that the dive was over. But on this occasion, the climb only amplified my agitation. Pressure decreases as a diver approaches the surface, causing air in the dry suit and BCD to expand. In order to control the ascent, air must be released through exhaust valves in the suit. My partner and I slowly climbed along the anchor line with this in mind, until I found myself struggling, fingers-frozen, with a malfunctioning exhaust valve on the upper arm of my dry suit.
While I tried to fix it, trapped air bubbled up through an incomplete seal at my wrists, ballooning into my gloves and threatening to rocket me to the surface. Hands now encased in giant orbs, I wrapped my legs around the anchor line to keep myself at a steady depth while my buddy took over. My mind wailed. The valve eventually gave way and the air escaped toward the ripple of light above.
My narcosis slowly dissipated as we inched our way up, exhaustion filling the void. I cannot recall the last five metres of the ascent, or my first breaths of unbottled air – only that my confidence had been indelibly shaken. At the side of the boat, I failed miserably in lifting my discombobulated self onto the deck and was dragged on board.
I felt fissures of what would later become discomfort in crowds, elevators, subways and airplanes. Air vents became a reminder of what is rationed and could so easily be taken away.
But my diving mishap would also deepen my appreciation for the little pleasures: the option to walk or cycle home rather than cram myself onto the subway, to choose the stairs instead of an elevator. I also grew to thank the Earth and the gifts of human ingenuity every time I disembarked from a plane, or resurfaced from another exhilarating dive.
Jill Tomac lives in Toronto.