Sink or Swim? A man survives.

Sean O’Donoghue was 27 when he nearly drowned.

Over 100 feet below the surface of the water, in the black of the North Sea, water began to stream into Sean’s diving helmet, slowly filling it up.

“I remember thinking at that moment that drowning could be imminent. I thought about my mother, father, brothers and sister and my friends, and I could feel a terrible slow weakness coming up through me.”

Sean was working as an air diver, whose job it was to do MRI scans on the side of oil rigs. He wore over 8,000 pounds of equipment underwater, but it was a tiny valve in his helmet which almost cost him his life.

When the mushroom valve inside his helmet popped out, Sean knew that he was in serious trouble. Water was leaking into his helmet, and there was no way to get it out.

“I remember my sixth sense told me there was something wrong. The North Sea burst open the valve and the sea came in and stung my face and the salt burnt my eyes.”

Sean knew that he could be dead in a matter of seconds. Just before accepting his fate, he says he saw the words of Sir Winston Churchill, stencilled in white on the visor of his helmet. “He said the six most important words in the English language were: never, ever, ever, ever give up.”

Sean turned on his umbilical cable, determined to fight for his life. He pulled himself along the cord, one hand over the other, one foot at a time. After just managing to pull himself the 27 feet to his air-filled diving cage, Sean ripped off his helmet and sucked in the air, glad to be alive.

That was 30 years ago. And it was one of the main things that inspired him to start writing poetry. His book of poetry won the Public Speaker of the Year Award in North East Scotland in 1992.

Sean is now in his fifties and lives in Ballymun. Short, heavyset and balding. His  face bears the marks of his age, but his eyes tell a different story. Although he doesn’t laugh, his eyes gleam as he remembers how the helium in his diving suit changed his voice. “Because your vocal chords are compressed, you speak like Donald Duck the whole time. It can be quite hard to attune yourself.”

While his poetry was well-received, it may never have been written at all had Sean not been forced to leave deep-sea diving. Poetry wasn’t the only result from working on the oil rigs. Despite being diagnosed otherwise, Sean believes that his near-death experience on the oil rig left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It wasn’t just his accident that haunted him though. The oil rig that he had nearly drowned under was Piper Alpha.

Sean was perhaps luckier than he realised to leave Piper Alpha alive. On June 6th 1988, the rig exploded. The resulting oil and gas fires claimed the lives of 167 men. In terms of lives lost, it’s the worst oil rig disaster in history.

Sean was part of the rescue team after the explosion, but as he points out, “It wasn’t actually a rescue team, it was a recovery team.” Sean had known about 40 men on Piper Alpha. He worked with many of them, and was working with local police in an attempt to identify the victims. Many were unrecognisable. “Some could only be identified by their dental records.”

Sean went to Malaysia afterwards, in an attempt to distance himself from the rig. “But I didn’t count on the nightmares,” he says darkly. “I used to wake up in bed sweating with the nightmares from Piper Alpha.”

He believes that the nightmares were a symptom of PTSD. But after experiencing an episode of elation after a diving expedition a few years later, Sean was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and immediately deemed to be unfit for service. “I was devastated. I went from earning €120,000 a year to being on the dole. I lost contact with all my friends who meet offshore. That was the most hurtful thing.”

Sean then came back to Ireland, where he published his first collection of poems called Celtic Ripples. After five years, he went to live in Dublin, in a bedsit in Botanic Avenue. He was treated for bi-polar disorder, but maintains that the treatment did more harm than good.

“They take someone with 5% of illness and put them in with someone with 100% of illness. You’re trying to get better as best you know how and none of it works because you’re surrounded by people who are extremely ill.”

Sean was frequently in and out of hospital afterwards. He was admitted 33 times in the space of 12 years. Once, he recalls grimly, his doctor asked him to go to hospital after he bought a pair of shoes. “She’d say: Oh Sean you’re overspending, you’ll bankrupt yourself, I think you should come into hospital for a while.”

I kept saying to them “You must be doing something wrong. You can’t hospitalise someone 33 times and think you’re doing the right thing.”

After moving to Ballymun and switching medical teams, Sean has done much better and has stayed out of hospital since leaving Botanic Avenue.

He says that psychotherapy was a big help for him. He also has neighbours who he has lived with for years and takes part in activities with other men from the Ballymun Men’s Centre. Sean is still writing poetry, but he is also no longer working. When talking about it, he says “By God I’ve earned it. I don’t apologise to anyone for the benefits I get. Thirty-three admissions earns a lot.”

It is a lot. And while it doesn’t earn much for everyone, perhaps it should.

Paul O’Donoghue

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