Lessons From a Drunk Diver (No, that’s not a typo)

Kelly Coffey
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Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results isn’t just a definition of insanity, it’s a symptom of a deeper problem.


I came to, disoriented. The light was dim. My skull was pulsing. My tongue was dry and thick, and my stomach was upside-down and inside-out and I could not, under any circumstances, move.

But up I got because, damn it, nothing was gonna stop me from getting the scuba diving certification I’d paid $600 to get.

Nothing. Not even me.

That morning in 1999, I weighed over 300 pounds and was a hobby-less, non-exercising, binge-drinking smoker. 1 Before my friend Janet and I left New England for our trip to Cancun, I’d decided I was gonna do something meaningful (!), life-changing (!), and healthy (!) on the trip: I was gonna get scuba certified and start a new, cool, transformative hobby.

Here’s how it would go down:

  1. Get scuba certified.
  2. Dive all the time.
  3. Lose weight, be active, have interesting stories to tell, have a “thing” that people knew me for, and be hot and svelte and confident thanks to my cool new hobby!

Suddenly it was the morning of the last test – a real dive in open water.

Let’s just say I hadn’t set myself up for success.


“Let’s do this!” I’d said to Janet the night before. She was too smart to be hanging out with me, but too kind to pass. Armed with our room key and a pocket full of pesos, we took a cab to the first tropical-looking bar we saw.  

I knew when we sat down at about 9 that I had to be on the boat for my final exam at 6 am. I promised myself I’d drink ‘til I had a nice buzz, then hop back to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep.

“I’m tired, Coffey,” Janet said around midnight. “And you have your thing in the morning.”

I was in a frame of mind that only hard drinkers and alcoholics can appreciate. I had a good buzz on, and because it felt good, I wanted more – MORE! Never mind that drinking-while-buzzed delivered me to Drunkland, where I sometimes became a belligerent asshole who couldn’t walk a straight line or remember to pay her tab. Or go to bed.

Somehow, buzzed, I could never remember that Drunkland was waiting just a few drinks away.

Oh, let’s be honest – when I had a good buzz, I didn’t give a shit.

Self-sabotage: It’s what I do.

“You go, I’m just gonna hang for a little while longer.”

Janet was also too smart to try to reason with Drunk Coffey, so she split.

And I proceeded to get shit-faced.

I stumbled into our room just after 4 am, lit as a Cuban cigar. My test was in 2 hours – plenty of time to change into my bathing suit and even take a little na …

I passed out, naked, one leg in my suit.


By some miracle, the alarm woke me up.

I hardly remember the ride to the marina. I do remember the instructor being chatty. Gay. Exuberant.

I do remember thinking, “Screw this guy.”

By the time we got on the boat, it was cloudy and windy and the water was choppy and gray. My head throbbed and my stomach churned as I pulled on my gear.

The instructor was too peppy.
The belt too tight.
The tank too heavy.
The flippers mocked me.

The boat was rocking, rocking, rocking and the sick soup in my stomach was sloshing, sloshing, sloshing.

I held tight to the boat and looked down at the stupid flippers on my feet. I don’t feel good. What if I throw up? Wait, what if I throw up UNDERWATER??

I waited for Señor Universe to finish reminding us of all we’d learned in class.

“Excuse me,” I said. He looked at me, beaming, clearly sent by Satan to torture me with his joy.

“What would happen if someone, say, needed to throw up underwater? How would they do that without drowning?”

“Ah, good parties last night?” He laughed like he’d told just the funniest joke ever. When I didn’t so much as smile, he got serious.

“Wait, do you feel sick? You can’t dive if you do.”

Like any reasonable 2 person might, I thought of my nonrefundable, $600 deposit.

“Nope,” I said, rallying like the damned do. “I’m fine.”

I loaded a tank on my back and popped the respirator in my mouth and fell back into the water. We moved hand over hand down a rope that was anchored to the sea floor. The water was rough, and I got blown like a flag as I made my way down through the silty, sandy water.

I could barely see and it was all I could do to hold on.

I’d been here before.

Like the day I was scheduled to take the Graduate School exam but woke up so hung over and shaky that I couldn’t get to the test site. 3

Like the day I failed to show up for an important family event because I didn’t hear my alarm until it had been blaring for four hours. I’d gone out the night before intending to have *a* beer.

I’ve never had *a* drink.

Like all the days I spent eating foods that nourished me in ways that nourished me, only to have a glass of wine after work and decide “screw this” and fly into a binge like the world was about to run out of pizza and ice cream and coffee rolls and alcohol.

Lessons From a Drunk Diver www.strongcoffey.com #selfcare #addiction #recovery #selflove

I hadn’t just been here before. This was where I lived. In broken hope and anguish, always wondering why I couldn’t just get my shit together.

Like before, instead of taking a meaningful look at the choices I was making that left me incapable of following through on my plans, obligations, and self-care-based commitments, I cursed everyone and everything on the planet.


Finally, I hit bottom. The bottom of the ocean, that is. I knelt on the sandy ocean floor, trying to steady myself against the current. I must’ve looked pretty rough because the instructor swam over and asked in scuba sign language if I was OK.

That’s when I started throwing up. 4

I’ve come close to dying a few times, and each has been surreal. None so much as this.

Rainbow-colored fish swam over to see what was up and, one by one, they darted away from the toxic cloud of tequila and beer and bar snacks that expanded around me.

The other divers looked on in horror as I heaved toward what I thought was my dying moment.

But I didn’t die. Eventually my gut was empty, the show was over, and the dive went on.

You might think this experience was a wake up call.
You might think it inspired me to take a look at my drinking.
You might think I realized that I had a problem with alcohol.


There, kneeling on the ocean floor, all creatures great and small racing to get away from me, I realized that scuba diving was stupid.
That trying to “get healthy” and “be active” was stupid.
That active, healthy people were stupid.

So much for personal growth.


Some of us bang our heads against the wall trying to makes changes and keep commitments that will bring us health and happiness. We try to exercise or eat better or sleep more or stop dating assholes or just remember to floss our damn teeth. We try and we fail, again and again and again.

It’s not that we’re broken, and it’s not that we’re incapable of taking better care of ourselves. We suffer from seemingly chronic self-sabotage. No matter how badly we want to do better for ourselves, we seem to do the exact opposite.

For some of us who suffer from chronic self-sabotage – and this is me – our inclination to do everything but what we say we want to do is complicated and intensified by deeper issues and habits. These can make taking good care of ourselves feel all but impossible.

This can include but is not limited to how much (or how) we drink, smoke, spend, gamble, sleep, eat, binge, stare at screens, lie, take abuse, say yes when we need to say no, say no but act like we said yes, run from the truth, and/or indulge in excesses of self-pity, self-obsession, and/or self-flagellation.

If any of this sounds familiar, we should hang out.


Today I have a simple, healthy relationship to food.
I’m active and I love it.
I’m a fit, healthy personal trainer and wellness coach who’s maintained an over 150 lbs. weight loss for over a decade.
I’m my own boss.
I’m having a great time raising my kids.
I love the hell out of my life.

And while I’ve worked hard to make all this happen, none of it would be possible if I was still drinking.

Drinking may not be a problem for you like it was for me, but you may have another issue that’s keeping you from making meaningful, sustainable progress.

Maybe you want to eat better, and maybe you can’t do that unless you learn how to set and hold a healthy boundary with your family or friends.

Maybe you want to exercise, but you can’t do that unless you stop taking those little pills.

Maybe you want to paint or write songs or play the guitar or organize your damn cabinets, but you can’t do that unless you deal with your finances.

Maybe, like me in 1999, you want to live a full, crazybeautiful life, but you can’t do that unless you stop numbing yourself with substances and behaviors that may help you care less, just briefly, about feeling empty and bored and stuck.

Lessons From a Drunk Diver www.strongcoffey.com #wellness #selfcare

Maybe, like dozens of my clients, you already have a full life, but you just don’t feel connected. Juiced up. Alive.

We think the problem is that we don’t have a hobby or that we’re not on the right diet. But if we suffer from deeper issues like addiction 5 and/or codependency, trying to “fix” those “problems” is like changing a lightbulb on the Titanic.

If you can relate, and you feel up to it, try to be as honest with yourself as you can be in this moment.

Is something deeper holding you back from making the changes you want to make?
Do you have a problem that keeps being a problem?
Do you NEED something – anything 6 – in order to feel like you’re having “you” time?
Do you wake up full of regret, swearing today will be different, only to do it all over again?

If you suspect you’ve got a deeper issue, acknowledge it.

Identifying that there’s a problem – whether it’s screen addiction or binge drinking or people-pleasing – is the crucial first step toward recovery, freedom, and deep pleasure.

The next step? Get some help. A quick Google search can turn up groups, therapists, and resources available near you. And, if there aren’t any near you, online support works, too. For some, it works better than in-person help.

It can be terrifying to confront the deeper problems that are keeping you stuck. You may wonder what life could possibly look like if you didn’t binge, abuse, or have that crutch to lean on. But if you’re drowning, your best life can’t begin until you stop.

If you’re struggling with a deeper issue, don’t run from it. Bring it to the surface of your awareness. Address it. Trust me – the gifts waiting on the other side are sweeter than all the tequila in Mexico.






Alcoholics Anonymous
Narcotics Anonymous
Scuba Diving Schools (you know, just in case)


  1. That morning I was also a creative, funny, hardworking empath with spectacular smooching skillz, but I’m trying to set a dark tone here, mmkay?
  2. “Reasonable” here means sick, fear- and shame-based with deeply embedded financial insecurity and a stunning inability to prioritize life over the clear and present possibility of death.
  3. I called to reschedule, which cost me $150. I ended up rescheduling for the exact same reason three more times – THREE MORE TIMES – and still to this day have never taken the test.
  4. Fun fact: throwing up underwater (zero gravity) is much easier than throwing up on land, but infinitely more terrifying because you’re convinced the whole time that you’re gonna drown. I do not recommend.
  5. I use the term addiction in the broadest possible terms.
  6. Besides the basics. You know, food, water, shelter, that kinda stuff.

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