December 8, 2011

Natural High: Scuba Diving

Jump into scuba diving for your best high ever

By Kelsey Allen

Karen McNamara has tried most drugs. Her stint as a bartender and a drug dealer guaranteed it. But it wasn’t until she was 51 that she got her best high ever. And it came from the unlikeliest of sources: scuba diving. Karen met her husband, Kevin, 33 years ago in a bar on quarter beer night.
A marriage, a couple kids and a lot of meetings later, both Karen and Kevin are celebrating sobriety, 25 and 23 years, respectively.
It was Karen who got clean first, but it was Kevin who introduced Karen to her passion. Kevin has been diving for 20 years. And for those 20 years, Karen would sit on the beach and read a book. Once at a resort in Bonaire in the southern Caribbean, the couple tried scuba diving together, but during the resort course, Karen had a scare.
“When I first started, I really couldn’t do it,” Karen recalls. “I was 30 feet under water, and I ended up breaking the seal [on the mask] and was choking. The instructor wouldn’t let me come up. She said I had to learn to clear the mask. Well, I learned to clear the mask, but I didn’t dive again for seven years.”
It wasn’t until a trip to Tahiti where Kevin dived and Karen snorkeled that Karen finally put her scuba gear back on. “His photos were so much better than mine, so when we came home, I decided I would try again,” Karen says. And at 51, Karen found her passion. Now she and her husband dive every chance they get.
They even started their own group, the White Mountain Divers, and everyone in the group is sober. For Karen, diving is all the motivation she needs to stay sober. “I can’t imagine diving with someone who was drinking,” Karen says. “If you’re not in good health, then you can’t really dive. So if I didn’t stay sober, I couldn’t dive.
Now instead of craving drugs or alcohol, the McNamaras crave diving. Kevin remembers a time when he would turn to other means to get that buzz, but now diving is all he needs. “It keeps you focused on the finer things you can do without getting high,” Kevin says. “It’s a euphoric feeling.”
Karen agrees. “It’s totally different,” she says. “It’s a sense of weightlessness and serenity. The vastness of the ocean is unbelievable—a huge expanse of peace and quiet.”
For Karen, diving has taught her about finding balance in every aspect of life. She explains in diving terms. When you have positive buoyancy, you float; when you have negative buoyancy, you sink. “Diving, for me, is about getting that balance of neutral buoyancy,” she says. “The feeling is so fantastic, that feeling of just being suspended. The fish and the coral are just a bonus.”
As a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, Karen sees how beneficial diving has been in her recovery journey. “It definitely enhances my recovery,” she says. “It gives a really great natural high. Plus, it helps with overcoming fear. It’s not natural to breathe underwater,” Karen acknowledges. “It is a great thing to overcome fear and then to fall in love with it.”
The McNamaras have shared that love with the White Mountain Divers, who have been around for six years and now have seven active members. They mostly do shore dives, which, Kevin says, give them more flexibility to pick their own spot and own itinerary. Each dive lasts between 45 and 70 minutes and never goes below 130 feet. Karen, now 55, has gone on more than 200 dives.
“[The White Mountain Divers] joke about it being so addictive and being such a great high that at one point about 65 feet under we had a Divers Anonymous meeting,” Karen says. “My biggest regret in life is that I didn’t dive sooner. I don’t regret the fact that I am an addict, but I do regret that I didn’t dive sooner.”
Take the Plunge
Don’t let the fact that you don’t live near an ocean hold you back. The McNamaras live in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Here is what you’ll need to know to get started on your diving adventure:
  • Suit up in a mask, an exposure suit, a scuba unit (which consists of a regulator, tank and buoyancy control device), a snorkel, a dive computer (which looks like a watch and tracks your dive time and depth), fins and any accessories you want to take with you (such as a dive light and knife and an underwater camera).
  • Practice, practice, practice. You’ll need to complete five confined water dives. In these dives, you’ll learn the basics from how to use the scuba gear, how to handle an emergency situation and how to make the most out of each diving experience.
  • Put on your fins and take to the open water for four more dives with an instructor at a dive site. Here you will continue to practice your moves but no longer in the comfort of a pool.
  • Certification can take as little or as long as you like. Some certification agencies are allowing classroom work to be completed online so you don’t have to take as much time.
  • Cost of certification isn’t too expensive. For all five confined water dives, expect to pay around $275. For all four open water dives, prices start at $200. There are packages to purchase all the gear you’ll need, and those start at $170.
For more information, check out the Professional Association of Diving Instructors at, Scuba Schools International at and the National Association of Underwater Instructors at



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