I just got back from a week in Belize of diving, getting my advanced certification, and enjoying some breathtaking experiences. Here is a recap of that experience and how my recovery tied in. Bear with me, it’s long, but I couldn’t leave anything out…
My sister, dad, mom, and I had gotten to Hamanasi Dive Resort the previous evening after a sixteen-hour travel day. We had to take three planes as well as drive an hour before arriving in Hopkins, the village where the resort was located. Upon arrival we were oriented to the resort. Told where our rooms were, how meals worked, where the dive shop was, etc., and then hurried off to the restaurant for our first of many all inclusive dinners made from Belize’s number one rated chef. Now, having an eating disorder the words all inclusive are typically terrifying and panic inducing. What if I don’t want an appetizer, entrée, and dessert every night? What if I am unable to restrain myself? What if I eat all that food offered to me and also the homemade fudge left on my bed? What if, what if, what if…
I can say that on that first night in Belize, I had all those panicked thoughts. Thoughts that clouded my ability to remember that I was diving in the morning, that I was minutes away from some of the world’s healthiest and most beautiful reefs, that I was in Belize was crying out loud! So, I went to sleep in my canopy bed with the sounds of the ocean only steps away from my room, ruminating on the fact that I had had an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert for dinner.
Something amazing happens to my mind every time that the sun rises in the sky. It is as if my headspace is in sync with the rising and falling of the days. As if that ball of fire radiates down into my anxiety ridden chest and melts the icicles that the eating disorder has left around my heart, leaving me renewed, motivated, and positive about the day’s events. I got up on that first morning at Hamanasi and felt like a million bucks. Fuck the eating disorder, I was going to remember this trip, I was going to experience it, I was going to live it up even if that meant battling my mind every night for the coming week. I was not, under any circumstances, going to leave Belize having only experienced my obsessive thoughts around food and the restaurants menu. So I put on my swim suit, grabbed my dive equipment, scurried to the restaurant, and order a personal favorite for breakfast, waffles, and didn’t think twice about the critic inside of my head. “You’re fat,” it said. “Who cares,” I told it.
The first day there, my sister, dad, and I left the dock at 7:30am to set out for the Great Mayan Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world. I was pumped, the crew was pumped, and, unfortunately, the ocean was pumped as well. Meaning, the seas we real real choppy. 15-20 knot winds, 8 foot swells, and my stomach was not feeling too great. I felt time and time again that breakfast coming back into my throat with each rise of the waves. It was hot and choppy and I was in a black wetsuit, certain I would barf at any moment over the side of the boat. But as soon as I jumped in allowing the cool, warm to rush over my face, and the crystal blue to reflect like glass below the burning sun, all was calm. My stomach quieted. My heart beat steady and sure inside my chest. The water held me, comforted me, whispered to me. All was right and good and perfect, just a few feet below the crashing crazy waves.
That first day of diving was unreal. We saw more than I could have hoped for. Eagle rays, nurse and reef sharks that swam right under your feet and straight past your face, turtles galore, and a forest of coral. Honestly, I have never ever seen such amazing configurations of coral, canyons of it, rolling hills of beauty that very few in the world are blessed to see.
That did it. That first day in the water solidified the direction the rest of the trip was going to take. I was in love. In love with the water, with the reef, with the marine life, and, I am hesitant to say it, I was in love with my body for allowing me to dive deep into the ocean and experience the world that exists below the surface.
The second day at Hamanasi started before the sun came up. My mom, dad, sister, and I, along with a boat full of snorkelers and divers were all headed to the Blue Hole for the day. It was a 2.5-hour boat ride there and since the seas we still choppy that was estimated to be closer to 3.5-hours. The Blue Hole is the world’s largest sink hole, reaching 450 feet in depth, and 1000 feet across the diameter. It was only after the divers dove 136 feet (the maximum depth allotted for recreational divers) into the center of the hole and ascended successfully that the divemaster, C-Dwag, let out a big sigh saying that, “it always makes me nervous bringing people down there for the first time.” “Why?” I asked. “The Blue Hole has claimed more divers than any other spot in Belize,” he explained.
Side not and bonus of the trip out out, our captain spotted a sperm whale! Incredibly rare to see in these parts of Belize. The crew said they had seen one maybe 8 months ago and before that hadn’t seen one for 6-7 years. The entire boat went crazy. Yelling, whooping, hollering. The massive creature was right next to our boat. I could have jumped in and been next to it in two strokes. The way we all became giddy, connected us. In those moments of discovering we realized how similar we all were. Foreign visitors in a space that only marine life roams, excitable with every new encounter.
It makes sense why the Blue Hole had claimed divers. The dive is pretty tricky. You have to descend to no lower than 130 feet, which I did not do. I got too excited because at 120 feet is when the stalagmites start to form. They are huge, probably several feet in diameter, and you can swim into the side of the sink hole through their formations. All while dozens of sharks are prowling the space below your feet. It was utterly amazing and words don’t do it justice. That is why I descended a few feet too low because I saw a big reef shark and wanted some good pictures of it. He was stunning, I was swimming in the stalagmites 130 feet below the surface in the world’s largest sink hole, the sun appeared purple above my head because colors change in the densely blue water, and I just could not contain myself. I wished to stay down there forever peering up at the strings of bubbles from the descending and ascending divers surrounding me. But, like I mentioned, the dive was tricky. You only got eight minutes at the bottom before you had to start making your way up. (You consume air much more quickly when you are that deep.) And you had to do so slowly or else you risked decompression sickness. No more than 60 feet a minute. It sounds like a lot, but when you are submerged in the water, weightless, and effortlessly gliding through the ocean, you would be surprised how skewed depth perception becomes. Slowly, calmly, ascend towards the purple sun, that with every ten feet turned a different color. Purple, then red, and orange, then back to its yellow self. It is funny how things change to deeper you go, the farther away from your known reality you sink. A series of high fives met me and my sister as we climbed back onto the boat. “Nice job!” My advanced instructor said with a smile as I slipped out of my BC and beamed with pride.
Next we went to a place called South Water Lighthouse and from there we dove the Aquarium. Both dive spots are unable to be described in words because no matter what I write it fails to depict the overwhelming beauty that met me at the bottom. Coral canyons like you couldn’t imagine, colors that you didn’t even know existed in the wild, fish of all shapes and all sizes, abundant, so many you wouldn’t be able to count, sharks, and eagle rays, and so many turtles, hundreds of feet of sea grass, laden with conch shells and grazing fish. I felt like I was in an animated movie. Surely this couldn’t be real life? I was dreaming, still in my canopy bed, would wake up soon to my 4:30am alarm, and head out for the Blue Hole. This just couldn’t be happening.
I was like a little kid on Christmas. Everything that day amazed me. The boat ride peering out at the endless ocean and the expansive horizon, the Blue Hole and its deepness, its blueness, its eeriness, the reefs and their abundance, their colors, their marine life. Everything felt like a dream, suspended in time, floating passed my eyes. Even my body amazed me. That it was capable of diving so deep, of swimming with so many sharks, of chasing eagle rays, of seeing so many colors. Among my amazement, I ate and my mind gave me permission to do so. Eat because life is overwhelmingly beautiful and there was just so much to see, to do, to experience. Cookies on an island, sandwiches on the bow of the boat, cheesecake back on the beach, I didn’t care what I consumed because on Sunday, while on that boat I loved my body, I loved my life, and above all I loved the ocean.
Sunday I spent nearly 11 hours on a boat. Leaving at 5:45am and not returning until 4:30 in the afternoon. As I sat at dinner that night, I watched as each one of my family members faded into their meals, eyes opening and closing slowly, dozing off for moments at a time before returning to the conversation. We were tired, very tired, but I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want the day to end. I was riding a high, but a high unlike the one’s I became accustomed to in my disease. This was not the high that came from slowly killing myself, this was a high on life, on passion, on enjoyment. And I was hooked.
I got up at 5am the next morning even though I didn’t have to get on the boat until 8. I just couldn’t sleep knowing that I was going back out into the water. What would I see today? What would I get to encounter? The ocean, it was waiting for me, and I was giddy with impatience.
On that third day out, only my dad and I went diving. My sister and mom wanted to sleep in and relax, having exhausted their energy supply with the 11-hour day before. But not me, I was pumped and ready to not only complete my advanced training, but to dive back into the space devoid of anxiety or fear or the petty parasite that my eating disorder has become.
We went back to the Great Mayan Reef to do some knowledge skills on the boat and with our buoyancy. My dad and I’s instructor, Martin, went over the boat terminology, which we already knew but listened politely none the less. After that we practiced our buoyancy. “Not that it should be a problem,” Martin said, “You are buoyant already.”
Buoyancy in the water is a difficult skill to master. It is the act of being perfectly balanced so you don’t sink or rise, but stay at a neutral level when stationary. It requires you to understand your breath and how much oxygen in your lungs equates to your rising in the water. I can say that I mastered this skill while in Belize. I got the proper amount of weight on my belt, I figured out how to rest my body in the water, and how to fill my lungs accordingly. I became like a fish. I was flipping around, hanging out backwards, upside down, alongside the coral, in the small crevices in the reefs, you name it, I was doing it. “You are a fish, Morgan. You were this way and that. I was really impressed. There is a really skilled diver in you,” Martin told me as we headed back to the dive shop that afternoon to take my picture for my new dive ID card. I smiled from ear to ear. He had no idea how much that compliment meant to me.
My dad, sister, and I took the morning off from diving to go snorkeling with my mom. We went out with another family we had become friends with while at the resort. That is the thing about divers, you are all friends. It doesn’t matter what you do, who you are, on the boat we all have something in common and that commonality means automatic connection. We all know a world that most people don’t, the one that exists below the surface.
Snorkeling was a lot of fun because it was the first time in awhile that I entered the water without a BC and wet suit on and I was thrilled to practice my free diving. How long could I dive down without a breath, how deep, how far? I was up and down, on the surface and not, the whole morning. I felt like a dolphin and was disappointed when I found our group heading back to the boat to head in for lunch. But I was having so much fun.
The good news being I was going back out for some diving in the afternoon. There were only three divers that had signed up to take a boat out so we got to ride in the small one. This meant we got to do a backward roll off the side into the water which was an adrenaline rush in and of itself, let alone the fact that there were so few of us so we got to relish in the expansiveness of the waters around us. We are on the animal’s turf. We are visitors and the creatures are curious.
That afternoon I had a very interesting run in with a shark. I like to hang back in the group and take pictures, taking my sweet time, and trying to notice everything I can. Well, while chilling in the back of the group a 7-foot nurse shark swims right in between my legs. “What the hell?” I scream, inside my head of course because underwater you can’t speak. It swims real fast ahead of me and then circles back around to, once again, swim through my legs. It was playing with me. I started snapping pictures and silently crying inside because I was so overjoyed. Eventually the shark included my dad in the game and a little later the whole group, but for those first few moments it was just me and that grey animal and I felt honored to have been able to be chosen in this way.
Later on the second dive, an eagle ray did a similar trick. It swam around and around me, circling me for a good five to ten minutes. It was so close I could have reached out and brushed its back. I had, once again, that sensation of being in a dream. It was too perfect to be real. This couldn’t actually be happening. I went to sleep that night still feeling like I was swaying to the rhythm of the waves, confused about where the water ended and land began. I was a fish, remember, and the more days I spent at Hamanasi, the more foreign the shore became.
This day began before the sun as well because today my dad, my sister, and I were headed 27 miles off shore to the open water in search of the whale sharks. I woke before my alarm yet again and started playing pop music full blast, singing along, and changing all the lyrics to involve sharks in some way. I was wide eyed, awake, and overjoyed to be on a boat all day again. This time with several of our new dive friends. It is strange how close you can feel to people you have only known for a few days, but my sister and I bonded with all the crew, and found ourselves admiring several of the fellow divers on board. “You have dove over 600 times?” we would ask in awe. “You dove with hammerheads?” “You have been to the Philippines?” Everyone was so worldly, so mysterious, and I wanted to be just like them.
“Okay everyone. This is a blue water dive. Meaning, there is nothing around to orient you. The divemasters on this trip are in charge of searching for the whale sharks, so we will not be baby sitting you. You have to watch your depth gage. If you sink lower than 80 feet you are in trouble. This is the large animals’ territory. Hammerheads, bull sharks, dolphins, and whale sharks. Out of the blue could bop anything or anyone. Be prepared, remain buoyant and calm, and above all enjoy yourselves,” Sam, our divemaster said in the briefing. We all had to sign waivers before stepping on the boat. I was overwhelmed by excitement. My sister whispered she was nervous.
The dive was just as the divemasters explained. Blue water. Hundreds and hundreds feet of an endless blue abyss. Nothing around you. Nothing below you. The echoing of dolphin calls in the distance. For the first time since starting to dive, the ocean felt eerie. Empty. Unpredictable. We were all swimming 60 feet below the surface, waiting for something big to pop out.
We didn’t find any whale sharks. We did, however, get to swim with a pod of dolphins. Four of them. A mom, baby, and two others. They squeaked just like the movies. The were playful just like the movies. I was overjoyed just like every other dive. Except this one was different. This one was truly strange. A single entity in a massively expansive space. I was so small and being in the abyss just solidified that knowledge.
We flew home and I tried my hardest not to leave behind that new found freedom that my diver self offered. The freedom from food and my body and insecurities that existed on land. I tried to hold on to the ocean, but as the plane landed in Houston and then St. Louis I felt the clutch of my eating disorder start to reach around my neck. “Not now,” I whispered inside of my head, but I was tired and sad about leaving and had little fight left in me to counter the diseases lies inside my mind.
But just as I said at the beginning the sun has a wonderful way of resetting my mind. Offering new opportunities and the promise that some day soon I will be able to dive back under the surface where all the noise is quieted and my body becomes my friend.
For those of you thinking about recovery, going on a trip in recovery, or just plane suck in recovery, I want to reinforce the magic that comes with putting the disease on the shelf. Start with an hour at a time, or even just a few minutes. Put it away, distance it from yourself, and just see what will happen. For me, it means I have a wonderful week full of authentic memories where the eating disorder is not a part of them.