In the Stormy Sea, a Life Preserver
Brooke Siem navigates her way through the undulations of antidepressant withdrawal and coral reefs.
“Gather ‘round, mate.”
My divemaster, Martin, yells to me over roaring wind and sea spray, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Bald and British with gray scruff and a face full of piercings, Martin is too slim for his tattooed skin and it hangs off his frame like one of Dali’s clocks.
It is my last day of scuba certification in Thailand, and we are about to dive after spending the last two hours on the surface, watching the sky turn dark while an angry ocean tosses our boat like a rubber ducky in a sloshing bath.
My stomach turns, but not from seasickness. I am in psychiatric drug withdrawal after spending half my life—and my entire adult life—on a cocktail of antidepressants first prescribed to me as a teenager. Now, at 30 years old, what started as an attempt to recalibrate my psychiatric baseline has morphed into a global quest to discover an unmedicated life.
And I am not, by any means of measurement, handling it well.
My stomach turns, but not from seasickness. I am in psychiatric drug withdrawal after spending half my life—and my entire adult life—on a cocktail of antidepressants first prescribed to me as a teenager.
For as easy as it was to start taking a drug designed to help mitigate the despair of grief and depression, it is a whole hell of a lot harder to stop. If I’m not consumed by rage, I am sobbing. If I’m not sobbing, I’m manic. On the street, in restaurants, on a rickety Thai boat.
On the surface, it looks like I am having a psychotic break. But on the inside, I know: somewhere in me is a glimmer of something I haven’t recognized since the drugs began, a faint shadow of my true self, waving at me through cracked glass.
Someone hurls over the bow.
I taste acid and turn away, wondering what in the hell I am doing to myself. I came to this part of the world hoping paradise would take the edge off withdrawal. At the very least, I figured, it would be quieter than New York City.
Paradise is loud. I signed up for scuba lessons away from the cacophony of land. But so far, my diving experience has included a panic attack in an algae-filled swimming pool, an infected, oozing wound thanks to ill-fitting fins, and a dozen jelly fish stings thirty seconds into my first open water dive. I only keep showing up because the boat rides to and from the dive site typically award me a few hours of quietude.
But not today.
Martin sits next to me, his cigarette somehow still lit in the pouring rain.
“You sure we’re okay in this weather?” I ask, the clouds now so dark, the sea turned black.
“Yep, yep, I’m sure. You won’t even notice what’s happening up here when you get down there. Now let’s go over the skills you need to practice so we can get in the water and get the hell out of the storm.”
Martin pulls out a compass.
“I need to know that you can orient yourself in piss visibility so you don’t get lost in the bloody ocean. It happens in an instant. You’ll think you know where you are, but you don’t.”
I let out a bitter laugh. Six months of withdrawal has knocked me so far off course that I have long lost my orientation in the world. I stopped the antidepressants as directed by a psychiatrist, and still, my blood seems to boil inside me. Fabric feels like a million little pins. I see violent visions of self-harm and homicide. I am an exposed nerve, my mind and body fried from trying to operate without the drugs that directed them for so long. Each episode of rage and despair chips away at my will to carry on.
“So you’ll take twen’ty kicks, look at the compass, turn ninety degrees, kick another twen’ty kicks, and so on. Got it, mate?”
I nod, wishing my own internal compass would flicker back to life. Maybe the baseline I am searching for has been rooted in depression all along. Maybe I will always be just a little bit suicidal. Maybe all I can ever hope for is a tolerable life. Maybe there isn’t anything in the world beautiful enough to rationalize the fight.
“But if we see a whale shark,” Martin says through a tobacco-stained grin, “Forget everything I just said and follow me!”
I let out a bitter laugh. Six months of withdrawal has knocked me so far off course that I have long lost my orientation in the world.
I feel the color drain from my face. “A whale…shark?”
“Oh yeah, mate. We get a few e’vry year. They’re not actually dangerous sharks. Just big bloody fish. Biggest fish in the sea. Gentle giants, they are. Don’t want anything more to do with humans other than to play for a lit’le bit.”
A crack of thunder booms overhead and a tentacle of lightning reaches across the sky.
“Nothing about this seems safe, Martin,” I snap, zipping up my wetsuit in a huff and hooking myself into my gear.
Martin looks hurt and shame falls over me. He has stayed close ever since the panic attack in the pool, both in and out of the water. Even on the days we didn’t dive, I still showed up to the dive shop. I sat there sallow and puffy-eyed, a string of cold beers appearing without a word. Martin chain-smoked cigarettes and recounted tales of diving in the cerulean seas. “It’s all rubbish up here,” he once told me, waving his cigarette in the air. “But down there, is freedom.”
I want to believe him, but I am losing hope.
Martin kneels on the deck and tightens my gear.
“You’re going to be aw’right,” he says, blowing into my regulator to check for airflow. I look at him with teary eyes, mere moments away from breaking. Then he puts his bony hands on my shoulders and reiterates: “You are aw’right.”
“I’m sorry.” I say, not even bothering to try to stop the tears. “I don’t know why I can’t get used to this.”
We both know I am not just talking about diving.
“I’ll be with you the whole time,” Martin says. “Just keep those breaths slow and take it one kick at a time. Now take my hand and let me help you on up.”
Martin steadies me as I stagger to the edge of the boat. Waves crash together, dark and angry. I fall to the ocean with a rubber-finned smack, wishing that the sea would engulf me, relieving me of this existence.
Martin splashes in next to me, and we descend.
I cross my arms over my chest and settle into a rhythm. Martin was right about the weather on the surface not affecting the waters below. The world under the waves is calm, almost orderly. Sea anemones sway in the current, reminding me wheat rippling in the wind. Schools of fish that look like dinner plates flutter around us and skinny barracudas dart off in the distance. Still, I am on high alert, constantly checking my air supply, looking around for jellyfish, and keeping Martin within my sight.
We pick up speed and kick around the corner. I stay close to the reef as we turn, but when I straighten out on the other side, I look for Martin and he is gone. My heart rate shoots up and I spin around myself, the reef disappearing into the dark and open sea. I turn left and right, the sound of artificial breath rushing through my ears, but neither the reef nor Martin appears.
It all happens so fast.
I analyze my choices. I could ascend to the surface and hope for the boat to find me in the storm. I could wait, suspended in the water, in case anyone comes by before my air runs out. Or I could try to orient myself and find my way back to the reef. I am unwilling to believe that Martin would abandon me but furious at him for doing so anyway. But maybe something happened with his tank. Maybe something dangerous distracted him and he lost me as quickly as I lost him. Either way it doesn’t matter. He is gone.
I pull out my compass, unsure how it is going to help me without a point of reference. But the reef has to be close. If I follow Martin’s directions and kick twenty kicks in a square, at the very least I will end up right where I am. And maybe I will stumble back upon the reef in the process.
I point the compass in front of me and kick. Making my first turn, I rotate my body and scan the water for anyone, anything. But I see no signs of life. I kick and turn again, the compass dial crawling as I round my second corner. A shadow flickers in my peripheral vision and I swim toward it. It is Martin with another diver pulling at his fin. He had been behind me the whole time. I was simply too consumed by fear to notice.
Martin stretches out his arm, pointing into the deep. I follow his gaze. A massive creature is suspended in the water, not ten yards away.
A whale shark.
We kick like hell. The whale shark seems to know we’re coming and kindly slows its pace to let us catch up. Fear drops out of me as I near the spotted creature, and my mind goes blank. All that exists on the surface and all that I am on land falls away. My world focuses on nothing but this 30-foot creature.
Fear drops out of me as I near the spotted creature, and my mind goes blank. All that exists on the surface and all that I am on land falls away.
I take a slow lap around him and watch as his golf-ball-sized eyes, charmingly small compared to the rest his body, follow me as I swim toward his face. I kick in front of him and dive down about ten feet, turning onto my back just in time to see the whale shark float slowly above me. I lose all conscious connection to my body and fall into the rhythm of this creature, kicking at just the right speed to let him guide me to wherever he is going.
Martin comes up next to me. We lock eyes through our masks, and he gestures a hand signal that asks, are you okay?
I nod and return the gesture, signaling that I am okay.
And I am okay. In that moment, there is nothing left in me but wonder—no experience matters more than this. Martin claps his hands together, cheers, and kicks away.
As I watch the whale shark’s belly swell like the underside of a canoe as it takes in a wide mouthful of plankton-rich seawater, I start to cry. But for the first time since getting off all the antidepressants, these are tears of joy. Finally, a moment of beauty and serenity that serves as an equal and opposite force against the darkness. Here in the presence of this magnificent creature somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand, detached from all of my senses except the sound of my breath, I find a moment of wonder that can battle the hopelessness, and win.
Maybe, just maybe, all of the bad days behind me do not have to add up to a bad life.
My pool of salty tears begins to cloud my vision. I tip my head back, press my mask to my forehead, and exhale out of my nose, clearing my mask of the tears. I watch as the bubbles float away from me and break against the whale shark’s skin. Like all the painful moments that came before this, I know that there are moments to come that will not be this easy. But I got one. I got this one.
And one can always become two.
Editor: Katie Kosma
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