Recently, I had the great fortune to have been invited to my friend’s surf camp in the Mentawais, to work as a surf guide last season. From here on, this story is not going to be about the epic waves I scored or how amazing the experience was. Although we did get our epic days and the experience was something I will cherish always, what I really want to talk about is feelings. Let’s strip the ego down, let’s shed our robe of coolness and stand naked and vulnerable, because what is more “gnarly” than that?
Depressed, anxious, scared, and numb. There I was, living at an amazing surf camp in the Mentawais. I surfed every day at epic spots with cool people from around the world and I was feeling depressed, anxious, scared, and numb. Not all the time, mind you – I had good days, mostly, but these feelings were there with me, at times, for the duration of my stay.
I’m guessing some of you are thinking, How could someone be like that? Maybe you’re thinking that I am spoiled, selfish, or even a loser. Maybe I should man up? This is a website about surfing, after all, and here I am talking about feeling depressed in paradise! I would like to bring this point to your attention, so please give what I am about to say a couple of minutes to sink in: more surfers are killed each year from suicide than are killed surfing heavy waves. Think about that. Pipeline, Jaws, Teahupoo, and Maverick’s don’t even come close.
That is interesting right? Well, I am a surfer with a mental illness. I have thoughts of self harm and suicide more often than I would like. It is an unfortunate part of the illness: we look for an escape but there seems like no way out, so there is only one obvious escape left.
I want to get the message out there that it is okay for us to talk about these things and look for support. In big wave surfing, when you get into a bad situation, it is terrifying and you are very much alone; there is no human invention that can pluck you out of the water and save you from a two-wave hold down. But there is support. There are other people out on the water looking out for you and when you do pop up, your buddy is there for you on a jet ski, waiting to pull you on to the sled. It is a good metaphor because we all need support in every aspect of our lives.
I never met him personally, but I do feel a connection with the late, great Andy Irons. We all know him as the amazingly talented three-time world champion and cool motherfucker, but I’m sure his family knew another Andy. Maybe they knew a more vulnerable Andy, a guy who was struggling to understand why he felt so miserable at times, especially when he had what most young surfers would consider the dream job (not to mention an absolutely gorgeous wife). But Andy had been diagnosed with bipolar depression at a young age and had been struggling with it throughout his career.
I found this out when a family statement was released after his death. Andy was in an industry where it wasn’t ok to be open about his mental health issues. It wasn’t safe to do so–sponsors might have dropped him because they felt he wasn’t sticking to this super cool laid back, I-don’t-give-a-fuck image that they try sell to all of us.
Personally, I prefer the Andy who was vulnerable; the Andy who, like me, had to take medication for an illness. The Andy who had good days and bad days, and the Andy who had feelings. I prefer to remember that Andy because I can relate to him and I don’t feel like I am weird, or a failure for having a mental illness.
That is the surfer the industry should sell. I am so tired of watching videos and looking at photos where these amazing athletes are being spat out of crazy barrels with a look on their face that is void of emotion only because coolness sells products. I want to see real human emotion. I would like to see an industry that accepts us for who we are — warts and all.