When I was in stuck in the psychiatric ward, I thought about suicide. A lot. It seemed like the most reasonable way out of an unreasonable situation.
In 2008, I nearly died of self-induced starvation. I was suffering through untreated depression, anxiety and uncontrollable compulsive fits. When my wife and high-school sweetheart bailed, things went from worse to catastrophic. For some combination of fucked-up masochistic purposes, I restricted my food intake and nearly stopped drinking water. A bizarre stupor clouded my mind. I couldn’t sleep. Several times I collapsed in public places or awoke on the floor completely unaware of where (or even who) I was.
I had no clue depression could beat me so brutally. At 5-foot-10-inches, I now tip the scales at a solid 170 pounds, but when I came to in the emergency room I weighed 95. I couldn’t create coherent sentences or remember any new information for more than a few seconds — my doctor would later tell me this was due to the shriveling effect starvation had on the brain. My blood pressure and heart rate were dangerously low. I couldn’t metabolize food and my kidneys and liver were closing in on failure. The E.R. doctors said I was too far gone. Extensive rehabilitation was my only shot.
Under pressure from my mother, I signed myself into a psychiatric ward designed especially for severely malnourished and anorexic patients. Once inside those doors, I couldn’t leave. I tried, but the doctors wisely told me they could have me committed to the state. Misery, shame and sorrow gnawed away at me for weeks. As I moped around the unit feeling sorry for myself, a question constantly gurgled in my gut. The more I tried to ignore it, the more it rose up again.
Why shouldn’t I die? Why shouldn’t I end it all?
I didn’t want to see my family hurt, but that in and of itself was not enough to fight back against the insatiable desire to die. One answer kept me going: I want to go surfing again.
I grew up three blocks from the beach in New Jersey, and all of my best memories with my family and friends involved riding waves. Even though my family moved around to landlocked states and European countries, surfing was always my first and most primitive passion. Every time I paddled out after months on shore, I felt cleansed and revived.
I hadn’t surfed for almost a year before ending up in the hospital, which is a good thing because I was in no shape to take a wipeout or a set wave on the head. But as I moved through the refeeding program, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about paddling back out into the lineup. Considering my physical and mental state, I might as well have been planning to climb Mount Everest. The challenges involved in getting back out into the surf felt insurmountable. But facing the depths of depression, this was my inspiration. I told myself I could do it. I would live, and I would surf again.
By the end of the month, I signed myself out of treatment. My doctors didn’t agree, but since I had gained 35 pounds they made it clear they would no longer seek to have me committed.
It took me another six months before I was healthy enough to paddle out into some head-high New Jersey surf. I rode some fun ones, but mostly I got my ass handed to me. Still, the waves filled me with an intense stoke, a feeling I’d missed for so long.
Since getting out of the hospital, I eat right, I exercise and I surf my ass off whenever I get the chance. I frequently chase swells around my home breaks in New Jersey and check up on more of my favorite East Coast spots. I’ve explored the diverse wave zones of San Diego and Orange County. I’ve gotten in way over my head in some breaks in Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. And I’ve felt the bliss of 80-degree barrels in the Caribbean. With my muscles and mind stronger than ever, I took a bucket-list pilgrimage to Cape Town last year. South Africa welcomed me with an array of stunningly beautiful and sketchy waves. I scored some of the best rides of my life, and received a few of the worst hold-downs and beat-downs as well. But the chaotic darkness below the waves felt heavenly. I was alive again.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about Baruch Spinoza, the 17th Century Portuguese secularist. He writes a lot about the clarifying, crystallizing effect of Nature on the human spirit. Spinoza, rejecting dogma and fear, argues that an intimate understanding of Nature inevitably leads one away from anxiety and confusion into the highest human potential. When I paddled out into an open ocean full of waves, all the despair and anxiety drains from my soul, and I become one with breaking surf. This is what surfing has done for me since I broke down – It has renewed me, inspired me, challenged me and, ultimately, saved me.
These days, when I paddle out on a solid day, I think back to the psych ward. I remember how thankful I am for the care and attention I received, for the love and support of my family, and for the hope that kept me going. Then I sit up on my board and wait patiently for the biggest set wave I can find. When it finally arrives, lifting itself before me, I pull in and try to get as deeply barreled as possible. Regardless of the outcome, I rise from the foam with a smile on my face.
It’s good to be alive. It’s good to ride waves.
Isaac James Baker is the author of Broken Bones, a novel based on his hospitalization.