“I own a surfboard, but I’m not a surfer.” This is my go-to script when discussing the salty sport.“Surfing is the hardest sport I’ve ever tried.” Is the next sentence that flows off my tongue. It’s all true. I purchased a 9’6” bright red longboard before ever attempting to tackle a wave, and once I did, found it to be the most challenging, intimidating and exhilarating activity I’ve pursued.
Surfing requires balance, coordination, strength, mental composure, a love of water and proclivity for adrenaline. When I first donned a wetsuit at age 30, I didn’t possess many of these attributes. I was physically clumsy, preferred reading on the beach vs. frolicking in the waves, and I’ve got a weird quirk about putting my face under water. I hate it. While I grew up thoroughly enjoying swimming in pools and lakes with my dad and siblings, I would rarely immerse my head. Like a cat, when water touches my face, I instantly recoil. Even in the shower. I know, it’s ridiculous.
(I have a couple theories why this is, but not enough blog space to elaborate. Perhaps another time we’ll examine my two near drownings along with early belief that maintaining a perfectly made up face to gain male attention was more important than letting go to playfully swim. I’ve predominately overcome these, gratefully, but I still swim with my face fully above the surface!)
Submersion underwater is non-negotiable in surfing. My face was going to get wet; no way around it. But when one is 30 years old, in a new relationship, leaping into life in a fresh, adventurous way and one’s boyfriend says, “I want to take you surfing!!” one does not say “I can’t do that, I don’t like to get my face wet”. One purchases a surfboard and wetsuit and faces their watery foe head-on (after vomiting in the grassy dunes on the way to the waterfront.)
My first surf adventure was at Short Sands on the Oregon Coast. Lucky for me, my older brother is an excellent surfer and was there to walk me through the process. I’ll never forget laying shakily atop the unfamiliar red surfboard as he held tightly to the sides, chest deep in the water. When the right wave was near, he’d say “Paddle” and push me ahead of the wave. Next, he’d instruct me to “Get up!” as I struggled to get vertical. The ocean was threatening and unpredictable. My brother: reliable and serene.
I’ve surfed a few dozen times since then, but not well. I’d schlep out into the cold liquid and hours would pass as I fell again and again. I’d make it up to my knees a handful of times, but rarely to my feet. The water was frigid, salt relentlessly stung my eyes, and the neck of my wetsuit suffocated me. Mostly, I stood waist deep with my feet firmly planted on the sand, looking out toward limitless rolling waves, hoping everyone was too busy to notice I hardly tried.
Besides avoiding plunging my face under, I was burdened with all the “normal” fears associated with entering a vast, creature-filled body of water:
- Deep, primal fear of what lies beneath the surface: jelly fish, stingrays, and sharks oh my!
- Fear of possible and probable injury: surfboards are hard when they hit your head and fins are VERY sharp when they cut your ankle, thigh or arm
- Fear of unpredictable, merciless currents, waves and riptides: the ocean has a reputation of tumbling people like socks in a giant washing machine.
Signage along the shore warns of the risks assumed by stepping into the sea. The ocean plays by her own rules, and if you don’t know or understand them, you can easily end up a victim to the game.
All of that sounds awful as I put it on paper. “Why do it at all?” you ask. (I’m asking myself as I write this as well.)
I persisted because my partner at the time was into it and it was something to do as a couple. It was also an activity in common with my brother and bonding moments with him were rare and special. I persisted because it was the sexy thing to do. It feels young and trendy to wear a bikini top and a wetsuit pulled up to my waist, flaunting natural beachy waves in my hair. I persisted to belong; to join the after party without feeling like a fraud on dry land when everyone else had kicked ass in, or had their ass kicked by, the ocean.
More significant were the few exceptional moments when I got it. I mean really got it. The wave swelled under me, my body found its way upright and I maintained a balanced, athletic posture all the way to the foamy whitewater at the shore; the moment I caught a wave. That was a feeling I wanted more of. A feeling of alive seldom achieved in any other sport.
That sensation was so pleasant, so magnetic, it was worth facing all my aforementioned fears. Besides, I had a secret weapon to deal with anxiety, pain or discomfort: simply self-medicate with substances. Being a little tipsy, a little numb and a little checked out helped me tolerate the surfing situation (not to mention all other hard things in life). The day would pass in sea-salt tinted haze. Somehow, I’d make it safely to dry land and move on to more savory pastimes such as reading, beach combing, and more drinking. Alcohol washed away worry and Vicodin dulled the dread as I hesitantly paddled out into the Pacific, though they certainly never assisted in gaining balance or expertise.
WARNING: Do not ever surf under the influence. I am in no way insinuating substances ACTUALLY made me brave. They simply numbed my fear. Which means they also numbed my joy. And then I became an addict and lost my job and many relationships and almost my nursing license along with my dignity and it’s taken me years to overcome the shame and sickness that ensued from thinking it was a good idea to self-medicate. I’m simply relaying how my brain worked at the time, before I understood the catastrophic consequences and life-threatening risks I was taking and before I truly loved myself. Ok, with that out of the way….
The seductive call of surfing sang to me again in Costa Rica, while traveling with family. The waves were comparatively warm and small, but I was no less terrified than I’d been in the polar Pacific. All my previous fears remained, with one major distinction: I had no addictive crutch to calm my shaking nerves.
In Costa Rica I would be surfing sober, and I lacked a backup coping mechanism. I longed for a super strong IPA and little white pill to transform my cowardice into (false) confidence.
Having no prescription positivity or liquid courage to consume, I was irritable. My pulse clanged in my ears and I couldn’t summon my inner yogi to maintain balance. The instructor was exasperated with my bad habit of reaching up to plug my nose when I thought I was going under. Every time I did, it caused me to fall off. It was cyclical self-sabotage.
Stone cold sober and scared, my sympathetic nervous system took over and I reverted to “flight mode”. Squeezing my eyes shut, I would either jump off the board physically or try to mentally escape the situation, mimicking what substances had done for me. When the instructor said “Ok, paddle!” panic ensued, causing my limbs and trunk to flail in all directions. While adventuring together as a family in Costa Rica is one of my best memories in this lifetime, the surf lesson was a struggle for me. I did my best to stay distracted and prayed it would end soon.
Nearly two years have passed, and surfing hasn’t been a priority. Until now.
I’m staying in Ucluelet, a small town near Tofino, Canada’s #1 Surf City and international surfing mecca.
The remote region of Vancouver Island didn’t make my travel itinerary for the perfect surf waves specifically. I came for the long stretches of coastline, ancient cedar-lined trails, reputation for delicious seafood and diverse demographic. (That it’s crawling with men who surf is not a deterrent. Something about a man in neoprene tossing back his wet hair while balancing on a board is universally desirable.)
My first day here, as I veered left on The Pacific Rim Highway towards Ucluelet and passed Long Beach Surf Shop, I was overcome by a daring disposition. “Tiffany, you’re here! You have to do it!” Within minutes I’d booked a lesson for Sunday morning, when the winds would be calm and the waves manageable.
“I own a surfboard, but I’m not a surfer.” I told the adorable, curly-haired local surfer boy, and he smiled knowingly from behind the desk. I wasn’t the first kook to come across his shop.
Kook: . 1. someone posing very hard as a surfer or skateboarder. 2. someone that goes to every surfing or skateboarding event to hangout, compile pictures, start conversations, and generally be seen with real surfers or skateboarders.
Sunday morning jolted me wide awake with anticipation. I had to stop at two bathrooms on the way as my stomach rolled, much like the ocean would as I tried to balance atop it.
“Am I really doing this?” I asked myself. “I don’t NEED to be a surfer. I’m so many other things.” The answer arrived easily and quietly, as they do when one learns to listen to one’s spirit.
“Courage is the willingness to act in spite of fear.” (Michael Hyatt) The empowered theme appeared again and again on my road trip, and in these final days of travel I wasn’t about to argue.
Prior to camping in Ucluelet, I’d basked for five days in recovery heaven on Salt Spring Island at a She Recovers Retreat. I felt buoyed by the courage of women I’d connected with and inspired to push myself toward the edge of discomfort; to uncover hidden grit and willingness to fall. Surfing would offer this in spades.
Driving toward Wickanninish beach I experienced a perseverance and purposefulness in my decision. I had no desire to numb or escape. No need to drink or swallow pills in order to pre-medicate and erase the experience before it even had a chance to occur.
There were three of us women in the lesson, all inexperienced. Our instructor, Sean, did not have adorable long curly hair like the boy at the desk, but he did have the body of a professional surfer, (because he is one) the enticing accent of unknown lands (Costa Rica and Canada) and the unwavering patience of an award-winning kindergarten teacher (because apparently, he’s just perfect). I fell a little bit in love.
After practicing on the beach, I was no more confident about my stance or my skills, but at least I didn’t vomit as we carried our boards into the chilly undulations of the ocean.
Sean lined us up to take turns. We all cheered as the first woman rode the wave in on her belly. Sean gestured to me, and I knew I was up. Like my brother had years before, he stood in front of me holding the nose of my board. Looking into my eyes he said “I’ve got you. You’ve got this.”
I made a conscious decision to believe him.
Salty water crashed over my head as Sean kept my board still. I chose to feel it. I chose to breathe calmly. I did not escape by sending my thoughts to safer places like the dry beach in front of me. I did not get lost in a panicky state and allow the situation to become bigger than my mindset.
I saw kelp swirling near my feet and knew it as kelp; not a monstrous plant poised to pull me under. I considered the fin under my board as a steering tool instead of a weapon designed to cut my face. Rather than transporting myself into an imagined state, submerged under the surface unable to overcome the rolling weight of the waves, I chose to regard the ocean as a child might; a liquid amusement park, my surfboard a floating raft, the waves produced solely for my laughter and delight.
I felt firm, smooth foam beneath my hands, chest and hip bones.
I breathed in pelagic air and tasted high sodium droplets on my lower lip.
I ebbed and flowed rhythmically with the waves and waited for my teacher to give me the signal.
I was as present in the moment as I’ve ever been.
My wave came, and Sean’s lilting voice hit my ears. “This is it. Paddle!”
I stayed in my body.
The ocean surged under my board, pushing me up and forward.
“Get up!” He called out.
I stayed in my body.
My arms and legs moved in sync, just as we’d rehearsed on the sand.
I stayed in my body.
I caught the wave.
I caught every single wave I paddled for.
I never plugged my nose in a panic throwing off my balance, frantically wiped salt water out of my face or tugged insistently at the neck of my wetsuit to keep me from choking.
Instead, I just surfed.
The hour flew by. We laughed, cheered and high-fived. I said, “just one more!” to Sean at least five times. When it was over, I kept my wetsuit on for over an hour because I felt happy and secure tucked inside it.
Catching waves at Wickanninish beach will forever be etched in my mind as the day I learned I am perfectly safe when I choose to stay present in a situation. I’m more than safe; I’m resilient, effective and happy.
This is mindfulness in motion. This is how meditation positively impacts me in everyday life.
Drugs and alcohol numbed my fear and robbed me of joy, competence and strength. This is crystal clear in hind sight. Recovery has been an education in learning to accept the whole spectrum of feelings/emotions as part of the human condition, without needing to escape, through substances or otherwise.
I don’t know when or if I will surf again. I know that on this trip, the timing, waves, instructor and mindset serendipitously became magical marine memories.
Consistently surfing successfully takes repetition and I’m still not 100% sold on spending that amount of time in cold climate water. Besides I still need to ski, run, bike, and paddle board. If I lived in Costa Rica, this may be a different conversation. I’d likely sign up for summer long surf camps and get in line to be Sean’s newest ex-girlfriend. (Not because I want to be an EX…just a realistic assumption he can’t keep them around too long with all the traveling he does for surf competitions.)
I’ll sum up the moral of this story with the words of Jon Kabat Zinn who said it best:
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
I’ve learned a thing or two about surfing waves of emotion! If you’d like to chat about how this might help on your journey of recovery, check out my website www.recoverandrise.com or email me, email@example.com.
Cheers and Gratitude,