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Surf's Up

In real life I have a career as a photographer. I love my job. It's fun, challenging and exciting. But I also have another "life" in which I spend an inordinate amount of time. This other life is not based in reality. It's pure fiction. But as an addict I was born naturally craving distraction from reality. So if I’m not using drugs and alcohol anymore to escape, why not have a fantasy existence where I can spend some time when the real world feels overwhelming.

In my “other” life I am a young man born on the north shore of Hawaii and I am gainfully employed as a pro surfer. I'm in the top 10 on the tour and it looks like I will, one day, be number one. I'm always about 25 years old in this other life (which I've had for about 20 years now). I'm tall, blonde, bronzed, ripped, you know, that "surf-god" look. I'm old enough to understand the wonder and treachery of the ocean and yet not old enough to feel the pain of being hammered over and over again by monster waves. When I'm out there on my surfboard (I've been on a surfboard twice in my life and have decided that for me the fiction of surfing is better than the reality) nothing bothers me. Not the hot sun, not the cold water, not having to go to the bathroom, not being hungry or thirsty, not the danger, not even the "men in grey suits" which is what my surf tribe calls the sharks that we often see circling below us. In this dream life I've been surfing since I was four, when my imaginary dad would take me out and push me into the breaking waves while yelling at me to stand "UP UP UP UP" until one day I did. And if you believe me and most other surfers I've heard of, you’ll know that no one forgets their first wave, ever. The incomparable surfer Andy Irons likened that first wave to being "kissed by God" and if you have been kissed by God even once, he posits "you will chase that feeling again and again, for the rest of your life."

When I'm in the ocean, especially on monster wave days, I can’t think of anything else. The busy negative thought-ants that can still occasionally march through my brain just stop. And that feels like a blessing. A reprieve. A stillness in the middle of the wild frothy waves. When I'm in the surf I know I need to be 100% present. That sense of being present is liberating. I think that is the addictive part. The cessation of the mind. That's what I was seeking through drugs and alcohol. When I was using I would beg my mind to just "shut the fuck up and stop harassing me. Pleeeeease?" At first the drugs and alcohol worked quite well at quieting my mind - until they didn't. Finally, when the dark thoughts were able to sneak through the haze of drugs and alcohol I hit a turning point. I knew I had to get sober.

I don't just love surfing as a spectator sport, I also love surfers’ lingo. There are countless types of waves out there, fascinating and unpredictable, just like every single day of our lives. “Bombs" are massive heavy waves that can destroy you and your surfboard...or give you the best ride of your life. "Juice" is the energy that a wave contains. "Mushburger" waves are boring and lazy, lacking energy. There are waves that are "jacking”, "pumping" or “tubular” (incredible, amazing, awesome) and then there are waves that are “choppy", "messy" or "sketchy". I can get caught in the "impact zone" where the waves are breaking the hardest and where people tend to get hurt. I can get "locked in" (trapped inside of a crashing wave). I can get "washing machined" (rolled around underwater after falling off a wave). I can even get "over-gunned" when my surfboard is totally inappropriate and not strong enough to battle the conditions. But I know that I sure as hell don't want to end up a "paddle puss", someone who is so afraid of the ocean that they never get past the breakers. They sit, drifting around in the shallows, never straying too far from the beach, never even catching a wave.

Even in my dream land of pro surf stardom, not all the waves that come my way are perfect. I still have to battle the waves as they come to me, not as I want them to come to me. That’s part of the fun, wondering what will happen next. I can’t control the ocean, I can only come to terms with it and try my hardest to enjoy it. Even on those choppy, messy, angry days. Those "humpback" days where I think I can’t handle one more thing and then, out of nowhere, 2 waves combine and become a dangerous double decker...right when I least expect it. Waves happen. Life happens.

In my research for this piece I discovered something that as a top 10 pro surfer I surely would have known. In surf terminology you will hear the word "pitted" quite often. For some reason I always thought that meant getting demolished by a wave. It means just the opposite. “Getting pitted" is what every surfer aspires to, no matter their level. Getting pitted is when a surfer slots themselves neatly inside of the barreling wave and just stays there, riding inside the barrel, surrounded on all sides by the "juice" of the wave. Like the pit in a peach. That pit rests comfortably inside of the fruit yet is in fact part of the fruit itself. Surfers often talk about "becoming one with the wave."

I feel like that is what I am aspiring to by living in recovery. Heading out, with my gang, no matter the conditions. Looking for fun, looking for adventure, looking for connection, without drugs or alcohol. So even though I’m not a surfer, the ocean has replaced drugs and alcohol for me. It’s a place for me to find joy, connection, excitement, wonder, discomfort and even danger. And that's fine too. For how will I ever know what warm and comfortable and safe feels like if I have not also been cold and uncomfortable and in danger?

This is life, with all its ebbs and flows, all its waves and all its tides. All its wondrous mischief and astonishing mayhem. I still feel the instinct to "bail" some days, to just jump off my board rather than face a terrifying wave. In my case that means sticking my head in the sand while hoping that life will kindly mellow out. I can hide my head in the sand OR I can try to spend my days the way the surfers spend theirs, riding the waves, relaxed but expectant. Sober, I can get up and go, hoping always for a "totally radical" day but knowing that in life there are no guarantees. But here is the amazing bit, I have had perfect sober moments in my life. In the ocean and in the everyday. I know that feeling of being "kissed by God", however fleeting the kiss was. I can rest secure in the knowledge that eventually another perfect wave will come and I will have, yet again, a chance to "get pitted, dudes”.


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