Revisiting, Surfing, Identity and Depression.
The following is an excerpt from the soon to be released book ‘The Average Surfer’s Guide To Travel, Waves, and Progression.’
With many recent high-profile suicides, related to depression, I thought it prudent to release a chapter of the book based on an original article that was published on the Inertia back in 2016.
Like most modern surfers, I started surfing because it looked so appealing, so cool and so fun. The whole lifestyle was inviting. The secret language, the adventure, the travel, the boards, the waves, and the clothes. It all looked so foreign yet so tempting. As I dipped my toe into the lifestyle at 15-years old, I wanted more and more. Not just the ride and the exuberance but that feeling of being part of a tribe. Later in my surfing life, I would come to learn that surfing is actually quite an isolated activity. But at 15, most of us are looking for some identity and belonging. “Surfer” became mine. I joined the tribe and I am still a full-fledged, card-carrying member today.
At that time I had about 10 friends who started surfing with me. We spent every weekend for the next four years or so loading surfboards into a van headed for Devon or Cornwall. Sometimes we would surf for six hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, always sleeping in a van and waking up to do it all again the next day. Surfing was all we cared about and most of us put off college and worked in a factory or construction job from Monday to Friday, just to earn enough money to camp and surf on the weekends.
As the years went on our surfing crew got smaller. One by one our friends stopped surfing, letting life and responsibility take over. They found themselves surfing less and less due to work, commitments, or just a lack of motivation. I am positive they still long for the waves and have that same feeling I get every time they see the ocean.
Now it’s almost 18 years later and there are four of us from that group of young men who remain die hard surfers. We live in different parts of the world but every conversation or email starts with the same question: “You get any good waves lately?” It will always unite and bond us together. Surfing — while mainly solitary — can be a primal bonding experience between friends. Especially on bigger days. There is nothing like experiencing big waves with friends. There is a pure and simple feeling of survival when friends walk into the sea together.
Since those early years, my whole life has subconsciously been shaped around surfing. All the major changes in my life were indirectly linked to the activity. I’ve spent the last 10 years living six thousand miles away from home so I could surf more frequently. My mood is influenced by surfing and my business is now shaped by it.
I’m 33-years old now — 18 years after my surfing life began — and I have lived in Orange County, California for a decade. It couldn’t be any more of a contrast from where I grew up. Southwest England is sparse, rural, and fairly remote. It’s open, rugged, and beautiful with its green fields and shady dark skies. You can easily find space for yourself. You can hike a cliff line and not see another soul for miles, especially in winter. I love England. It will always be home.
Somewhat conflicting, I also love Southern California. You can be forgiven for thinking it is all traffic, strip malls, and concrete, but once you scratch beneath the surface you will find incredible open spaces, woodlands, rivers, and beaches. You can live a life of plenty and have as much or as little as you desire. Not to mention the weather.
I spent the first few years of my time in California doing what I thought I was supposed to do. I got the career, the house, and the car payment. I would surf once every few months at best for a few of those years. I was doing the responsible thing and to be honest, I had never been more miserable in my entire life. I got a hard lesson in the truth and the fact that you can’t hide from yourself. It took almost five years, but I got the message loud and clear.
That hard lesson meant the loss of that home and career, a divorce, an awful depression, tension with my family, another terrible relationship, and the task of realizing all my choices in life had led me to that point. Was surfing part to blame? The short answer to that is no. I was to blame.
I tried to identify all of the negative I had in me, the pain, and the anger. I did everything anyone recommended. I went surfing, read Buddhist teachings, I read supposed books of meaning like Siddhartha and The Old Man and the Sea. I dove into self-help books and attachment science. I took therapy and I took pills. I had every opinion and theory about life thrown at me. It all helped and I learned an awful lot. What I learned about myself is that simple is fine. I don’t need the big house, the car, or the career. I needed four things to start rebuilding my life and myself. Honesty, self-awareness, balance and the ocean.
I remember one piece of text written by Jeff Foster that took a hold of me like no other and helped me come out of the depression. I often think of this text as the one thing that cured me from that horrible mental jail cell. In truth, all the readings, learnings and pills probably helped but this passage changed my way of thinking. Instead of trying to fix myself and get back to normal.
“Perhaps our depression is not a sickness but a call to break out, to let go, to lose the old structures and stories we have been holding up about ourselves and the world and rest deeply in the truth of who we really are…What if you need to shed your half-shed skin, not climb back into it? What if sadness, and pain, and fear, and all of the waves in life’s ocean, just want to move in you, to finally express themselves creatively and not be pushed away?” – Jeff Foster
For me, this meant no longer pretending. Even when one thinks they are living a truth, they can be suppressing a true longing for life and for what really makes them get up and enjoy each day. It is very easy to suppress truths and feel fine. I think many people do this their whole lives. But it was ok for me to ditch the career, the big house, and that life. It was time to identify what I really and truly needed to make me happy. In some respects, I felt like I had wasted five years. I hadn’t, it just took me five years to learn a valuable lesson.
I hear over and over that even successful people aren’t immune to depression and suicide. We are shocked when someone who seems to have it all ends their life. I suffered my darkest depression when I could have been deemed my most successful by a western grading curve of success. Status is our highest held value in the U.S. and most of western Europe. This is a health hazard and likely the root cause of depression and suicide in many. Materialism, consumption and false individualism are the foundation of a dangerous value system held in the highest regard amongst most western societies. The reason we should not be shocked when a “successful” person suffers depression is because what we gauge as success does not equal a true fulfilling happiness. As humans, we need a balance.
Instead, we are materialistic in the pursuit of individualism. The intent of individualism was a good one. We wanted to be individuals, we wanted to be our true selves. Unfortunately, we have been steered off course by a system of consumption. In reality, materialism is not associated with happiness but with anxiety, depression, anger, isolation, and in the most extreme cases, suicide.
I started to look at life like a scale. On one side you have the value system of status, money, and career. On the other side, you have the value system of spirituality, pleasure, and lifestyle. If you lean too far either way, you won’t be balanced. As much as I would like to lean all the way towards pleasure by living in a van and surfing every day, I don’t think it would fulfill me in the long term. It would likely be just the same if I leaned all the way towards the other side and only lived for my career. I would always be longing for a taste of the other side.
We live in a world where success is derived from our careers and work. When meeting new people, the first question is often “What do you do?” It seems to be such a defining question. And what we really mean when we ask this is “What’s your social status?” or “How much money do you make?” I would love this question to be replaced by “What do you do for fun?” or “What do you do to make you feel like a kid again?” I would much rather talk about surfing or music or art with strangers than explain that I scrape the edges off of sharp metal plates that then get attached on to the sides of tanks.
People will often tell you the things you want to do can’t be done. Most of the time those people mean well and are looking out for you. They don’t want you to take risks because you might fail. But failing is good for you. Starting new challenges and being bad at something builds us into new and better beings. I have been told I can’t do things my whole life, often by people who care most about me. “You can’t move to America. You can’t surf all the time. You can’t live by the beach.”
As surfers, we are extremely lucky to have something so fundamentally pure and exhilarating that it becomes easy to gain a passion for it. First and foremost, surfing is a sport. It’s technical and physical. You need to train and learn and practice. Then it becomes the lifestyle that in turn fuels your passion for the environment, for travel, for other people, the natural world, and a love of life. You can paddle out with friends but when the wave takes you under, you are alone. Surfing can easily bring out the worst in you if you let it. You can get frustrated, angry and annoyed at others. But remember it is all up to you. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that lifestyle comes later. The act of surfing comes first.
Most humans need an identity. Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs that included health, shelter, safety, esteem, and belonging. Belonging is an interesting one. As advanced as we humans are, our primal instincts still dominate much of our thought patterns. We are very tribal and we choose our tribes accordingly. Just like the cavemen, we still know there is safety in numbers. You can see this theory materialize everywhere today, whether in our extremely divided politics or on social media. Most don’t listen to understand. They listen to respond and rebuff opinions.
All one can do is find their truth, identity, and balance. Be honest with yourself and others and try to be a better person each and every day. Give back and make a difference. Let surfing be the source of your positive attributes not your frustrations or selfish ones. If surfing becomes your lifestyle, accept it and use it for all the positives it brings...