“Everyone wants to blame somebody,” says Bruce Irons.
Bruce is sitting in a dark room. His face is dramatically lit, and small beads of sweat form on his forehead. Above him hangs a photo shot by Bryan Bielmann of Andy standing on a surfboard, suspended in the water between a razor-sharp reef and a crashing wave. The photo is out of frame, but it’s symbolic.
“They never want to accept the fact that me and my brother were big fucking monsters,” Bruce Irons continues. “Believe it or not, we were manipulative in getting what we wanted, especially if it came to drugs. You know, you start getting into heavy fucking addiction with these pills. I know that was ruling my life, and I know it was ruling my brother’s life, too.”
Bruce Irons pulls no punches in navigating the tragic story of his brother’s meteoric rise and fall.
Nearly eight years after Andy Irons’ body was found in a Texas hotel room under circumstances that yielded far more questions than answers, the inner circle’s story has emerged, pieced together by Enich Harris, who worked with Andy during his time at Billabong, and the team at Teton Gravity, who became close with Andy through snowboard outings to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Close enough that the family chose to entrust them with Andy’s story. With some distance, the collective decision to speak openly about Andy’s struggles with drugs and depression appears equal parts pain and catharsis.
The film casts Andy and Bruce as edgy surf phenoms from Kauai embraced for their brashness on land and in water. From a young age, the two had a tense relationship. In archival footage, an interviewer asks teenage Bruce if he loves his brother. Bruce refuses to answer. Chalk that up to sibling rivalry, but there is an anger and intensity in his dismissal of the question that feels darker.
That darkness first manifests through a lethal episode where Andy technically died in 1999. According to Bruce Irons and Nathan Fletcher, Andy snorted a line of morphine after binging on whiskey the night of his 21st birthday while on a boat trip in Indonesia. He turned blue. His lung collapsed. He flatlined for eight minutes before miraculously coming back to life in an intensive care unit.
Three years later, as Bruce succinctly puts it: “My brother went on to win the world title…from being fucking dead.”
Irons also battled with mood swings and bipolar disorder. While it’s unclear if Irons ever received a formal, clinical diagnosis, his youth surf coach, Dave Riddle, acknowledges that it was discussed at an early age. “I had heard about it, and we touched on it,” says Riddle. “There was medication for a while, and then not. So Andy once told me that he didn’t like the meds. He just did it his own way.”
For context into bipolar disorder, the film leans heavily on interviews with Dr. Andrew Nierenberg, Director of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who broadly explains the illness’ symptoms and their potential relevance to Andy’s life.
But Andy’s wife Lyndie provides the most painful insight into Andy’s struggles with mood swings, emotional imbalance, and drugs, especially in the year he took off from tour after he won his third world title.
“He was very confused,” says Lyndie. “Didn’t know what to do. He sat in our condo for two months straight and didn’t say a word. I’d scream and yell and just be like, ‘Just tell me you’re okay.’ I’d do anything to try to get anything out of him. And it was nothing. Until he left one time, and that’s when I got scared. I remember finding him on a mattress with no sheet or blanket, barely alive. He always told me, ‘Don’t you dare tell anyone,’ so it’s like I had to go to freaking Foodland and act like everything was fine, and I had a dying, heroin husband at home. I look back now, and I wish, I think I was just trying to protect him, and in a way I wasn’t protecting him, but that’s what he wanted.”
According to the film, Andy disappeared for three days immediately after their wedding.
“Lyndie called me after they got married,” says Sunny Garcia. “He disappeared. Right after the wedding…that’s when I knew that he was getting out of hand.”
It wasn’t until 2007 after Andy won the Rip Curl Pro Search Chile while high on cocaine and prescription pills that he received professional treatment.
“He was fucked up for that whole event,” says Bruce. “He’s surfing his heats, barely making it out on time, coming in, guys are just high fiving him and also high fiving stickers on his wetsuit with big bags of blow in it [sic]. He won that contest high on coke and pills, like no big deal, and, you know what, that wasn’t the first or last event he won high.”
Bruce says that the two of them did drugs together after the victory, and Andy told Bruce something that scared him: “Remember when I died in Indo and I was on that table dead for like eight minutes? When I was looking down at my dead body, I didn’t like how I felt in that world, how I felt in that body. I didn’t want to go back.”
Upon returning home, executives at Billabong required that Andy go to rehab at Promises in Malibu.
“Once you get on a pill run, the pill run’s a hard one to kick,” says Bruce. “That’s the one that grabbed a hold of my brother. It grabbed a hold of a lot of us. It took down a whole bunch of people.”
“Everyone had their own addiction problem,” says Bruce. “And everyone was hiding it and we all just turned into these closet case drug addict monsters, and you could see it when you went down to Pine Trees, because it just wasn’t the same.”
The film also invokes a swelling of opioid addiction fueled by pharmaceutical companies in the early 2000s. Combined with a bipolar tendency, it’s a potentially lethal combination, to be sure. But that’s merely context in better understanding the confluence of dark forces that contributed to Andy Irons’ downfall.
The rest of the story, sadly, has been told before in detail.
After watching the film, I reread Brad Melekian’s initial report on Andy’s death published in Outside Magazine in 2010 along with his follow-up, and, I must admit, that very little new information surfaces on the details surrounding his final days or the misinformation perpetuated after his death. In that respect, Melekian deserves praise nearly a decade later for managing to piece together details at a time when no one wanted to speak. (For what it’s worth, the film borrows its title from the same quote Melekian used to conclude his expose.) While it’s still unclear why representatives from Billabong distributed a press release claiming Irons died of Dengue Fever, it’s obvious that no one close to Irons was prepared to deal with his death (or the reality of the circumstances that caused it). Certainly not on the record. Considering Lyndie had just lost her husband while she was eight months pregnant, it’s understandable. It would take time.
That said, when are we ever really prepared to deal with death?
What emerges in Andy Irons: Kissed By God is the painful story of a family – a brother, a wife, a mother, a father, and a close-knit group of friends – watching a man they love die in plain sight. A man two weeks shy of becoming a father. It’s gut-wrenching. And nearly eight years removed, it certainly reopens healing wounds. As Bruce says, the instinct to cast blame is a fool’s errand. No one can help a man who refuses it. But that doesn’t mean we can shirk our responsibility to reach out to those who are suffering or fail to challenge systems of enablement.
It’s impossible to draw a nice, neat conclusion from Andy’s story, which is fitting, because his life was neither of those things. Life can be unfair and painful. We can appear to have everything, but be miserable. We can throw our lives away. Our lives can be taken from us. That said, when tragedy blindsides us, we can do ourselves the great, deeply human service of attempting to better understand that pain. That’s a challenging thing to do, and it’s what Andy Irons: Kissed By God does. It’s staring down the barrel of a gun. It’s a hard look at pain and loss from those who lost the most.
Hopefully, in sharing his story, others on a similarly precarious path might gain the strength to alter course.
Editor’s Note: In that spirit, check out the Andy Irons Foundation. According to their website, its mission is “to celebrate the legacy of surfing legend Andy Irons through providing vital, innovative, and uplifting programs for young people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities among our youth.”
Andy Irons: Kissed By God will be available for the public to view on May 31st. For more information about the film and ticketing click here. The world premiere will take place in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 2nd. The Los Angeles premiere will be followed by special premiere screenings and events in Hawaii on May 6th and New York on May 10th.