Hiding behind my radiant smile, I locked up some traumatic experiences. Not dealing with these experiences for years resulted in a life not fully engaged. Now, I want to share my story in hopes of reducing the stigma around mental health at sea.
Disaster forces us to acknowledge the unimaginable as reality. After the tsunami of 2004, I saw with my own eyes countless bodies floating in the ocean alone. They were surprised by the elements of nature and taken by the sea. An earthquake caused a huge tidal wave and wiped the land clean. My ship was sailing through an endless ocean of grief and despair.
At the time, I was a 20-year-old intern on board a large container ship making a crossing from Singapore to the Suez Canal. During this voyage, the vessel sailed through the floating remains of entire communities. Eleven days after the tsunami, I witnessed the immediate consequences of this terrible event. An endless ocean of misery, death, destruction, grief and despair.
If you know me, you know I am a child of the sea. My parents are both scuba divers. My father sometimes jokingly checked whether I had gills when I had been snorkeling in the sea all day. As I grew up, I knew I wanted to explore the world. I chose a maritime education and was trained as a maritime officer.
During my time on the water, I experienced things that are invisible to most people ashore. Beautiful sea creatures, magical starry skies, extreme weather conditions and luminous algae made me respect the ocean deeply. I saw the remarkable craftsmanship of crew members and gained experience with different types of leadership and cultural differences on board.
When my children came into this world, a new phase of my life started. The combination of a life at sea and motherhood turned out to be impossible for me. However, my skills and experience at sea allowed for a career onshore. I found several jobs in the maritime sector.
But the destruction of the tsunami never left me. I pushed a thick concrete plate over my emotions and stepped back into life with a big smile on my face. I cut myself off from the feeling that came with this experience which became a defense mechanism. This self-reliant character is recognizable to many seafarers who are taught to always be strong. We often forget that we are all just human beings.
Only now, over 15 years later, I feel safe enough to discover the mental impact my experiences at sea had on me. With the help of a specialist, I started to process my trauma. Underneath the darkness I found a lot of freedom and light that I started to share to make the world a better place.
To all seafarers out there I would like to say: please know you are not alone. There are many people who can help. Take the time to recover from what you experienced. Allow yourself to heal.