THe Same Monster
This piece was written in 2018.
In 2008, I had a bad SCUBA diving incident. I had delayed-onset PTSD, so about 6 months after the incident, I had my first major panic attack. I didn't know about delayed-onset PTSD at the time, so I thought I was legitimately losing my mind, which made them way worse for the first year. I started having bad nightmares, and I also became intensely claustrophobic. Every time I boarded a plane, I fell apart. At the time, I was logging a few flights a month. I thought it would never end. A couple years later, that part more or less did.
In 2014, I bought this pendent, in the picture below, to commemorate completing my first scuba diving course, thanks to a really patient instructor who allowed me to work with him one on one, for the same price, even though I started with a class of other folks. He insisted on it. He knew I could do something I wasn't so sure I could. He let me go at my own pace, and let me have freak-outs when I needed them. But this post isn't about him, though I could go on. (I have an absurdly intense fondness for this human.)
Since 2014 I've also completed an advanced diving course, and have collected about 50 dives, all while wearing this pendent. It reminds me that the hardest part about almost dying isn't the actual almost dying; it's about all of the painstaking things that come from actually living. It's nightmares, and panic attacks and the subtle ways that trauma abuses our consciousness, making the world forever appear smaller and less safe, and the near-constant work of stretching those boundaries. It's the heavy, hard and exhausting work of trying to outwit your own brain - of never being able to truly trust what is real, and what is remnants of trauma. At times it is the work of having to build courage to accomplish such small things, and sometimes not getting there, and also not being able to explain why. And the judgement, the judgement, the judgement.
I've started wearing this pendant again this week. Because this week, it feels like I might die. I've started having nightmares again, but not of drowning. I dream scenes of angry mobs, of homicidal people and homicidal cars. My brain is starting to get really bogged down with fear. People are fighting and things are breaking a little. I know we'll be ok, but people are scared, and this shit sucks. This pendant reminds me that this is same monster I have to tame every time I look at a wet suit. Every dive is hard. I always have to talk myself down. It never really gets easier. But I will never stop, because I will never let myself forget that I can do it.
Overcoming isn't a place you get to arrive. You have to keep practicing time after time, it's a skill, like speaking a foreign language. You have to stay fresh. You have to be willing to repeatedly look at the monster and say, "Hell yes you scare the shit out of me, but it's me or you, and I'm not going anywhere."
And then you put on the wetsuit, and dive.