Substance abuse has long plagued the world of professional surfing.
From retired legends to world champions at the height of their careers, drug addiction has affected surfers of every generation, and its ominous presence continues to lurk on the dark side of a sport known to most as a spiritual, transcendental experience between man and nature. In his new book The Drop, accomplished writer, teacher and surfer, Thad Ziolkowski, examines the link between the mind of an addict and that of a surfer. Through extensive interviews, case studies in behaviourism and personal memoir, Ziolkowski skillfully and poetically combines neuroscience and narrative, showing why surfing not only complements drug abuse but also provides a means to overcome it, which is what it did for Ziolkowski himself.
Let’s begin at the end. In the credits, you mention this wasn’t the book you set out to make. What was the original vision?
What I had intended was something more minor, more like a collection of essays on surfing. Over the last decade, I’ve published three or four essays in the New York Times Op-Ed section, the Sunday Review. I thought I could keep going with that, but the agent I had said, ‘I’m interested in this, but you have to go bigger.’ Once he said that I knew I would have to be more confessional and bring more to the table.
Was the scientific study between addiction and surfing always the goal?
No, I actually didn’t have any interest or belief in it. But I came to believe quite a few of the primary conclusions of neuroscience about addiction, especially in regards to surfing. It helps me explain this one weird aspect of surfing where, yes, surfing is thrilling and immersive in nature and adrenaline and dopamine saturated. Learning to surf has the same neurochemical signature as acquiring an addiction. Sure that is interesting, but it didn’t surprise me at all. I started surfing at age 10 and, sure, everybody was obsessed with surfing, especially when the waves are good. But even when the waves are not good, they’re still obsessed with surfing. So, why is that? Neuroscience calls it ‘intermittent reinforcement.’ This all came out of behaviourism. B.F. Skinner discovered that rats or mice getting a reward would be more focused if the reward was provided randomly and intermittently. The same applies to street drugs and surfing in the ocean. Surfing in the ocean is like intermittent reinforcement. My focus on whether or not I am going to get my reward is something that magnetizes surfing. The uncertainty of the waves’ presence makes my focus on waves, in general, more intense than discouraging. It makes me more focused. Why is that? The theory and brain science behind it is that the brain is a prediction machine. We predict what will happen in the world based on patterns. We are deeply conditioned to pay attention to patterns. If the pattern is not obviously soluble, if you can’t figure it out, you are going to be more focused because our survival depends on figuring out the pattern. Therefore if I go to the corner and don’t know if my dealer is going to be there, and I don’t know how potent the drug is, I’m going to be more focused than if I went to a methadone clinic and got it every day at 9 am and knew what it was. Randomness makes for a greater degree of addiction. I am completely persuaded by that. That’s something I had never thought, and so I educated myself about it.
When did the connection hit you? I assume subconsciously it’s been with you all your life due to seeing peers and fellow surfers’ addictions.
It was always there at the beginning. When I started surfing as a kid I had come from the city and I was a bookish boy. I went to museums, I read books, I painted. As soon as I got to Florida and started surfing, all of that seemed really pale. I was struck right away, but I didn’t call it addiction. I was struck by surfing’s power to obsess people and to take kids who had socioeconomic entitlements that they would just blow off. The kid who was the best surfer in my neighbourhood was the son of a stockbroker. Did he become a stockbroker? No, he became a waiter. Why? Because he was a surfer. He was a surfer first and foremost. That is some powerful shit. This guy is giving up the American Dream to go backwards toward a service economy. I didn’t think of it as addiction, but I always saw the obsession and it was powerful.
Being a recovering addict and hearing all these explanations about how the brain works and why, were you at all sceptical of any information? Were there things that you didn’t think fit your experience?
I wasn’t sceptical about it in that respect, I was sceptical about whether or not knowing this would have ever had an impact on my addiction. Let’s say that you understand something intellectually, I was always of the mindset that it didn’t matter whether or not you understood it intellectually. The doctors who knew everything there was to know about addiction could become addicted to the opioids that they prescribe. A lot of people in science become addicts. They know everything there is and all the dangers.
I found that it was more powerful to think about substituting another addiction for my primary addiction. That was why the resuscitation of surfing in my life worked for me both intellectually and experientially. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, and I don’t attribute that all to surfing, but I attribute the part that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning and be fit and ready to surf. If I got off this Zoom call with you tonight and started drinking and doing blow, I guarantee I wouldn’t be ready to surf. I just wouldn’t feel like it. I feel really grateful to surfing for providing me with something that makes me weigh these things on the scale of experience. I’m going to choose surfing because it is just a better experience—not because it’s more wholesome in some puritanical sense, but because it’s better as an addiction. I don’t think I can be completely free of some form of captivity in this life. I don’t believe in freedom in that way. I’ve never been free and I don’t expect to be free in this life in that respect.
You mention surfing as both an addiction, but also a means to overcome addiction. That’s an amazing thing. Do you think it’s a case by case situation? Does it matter when drugs and surfing enter your life? I know some of the old-timers you interview had to quit surfing altogether.
I think of addictions as falling on a spectrum and surfing is probably in the middle. It has dangerous and dark aspects. It’s not free of that. It’s not some wholesome pure yoga adjacent phenomenon. For example, when I first started surfing in the mid-90s, I had a tenure-track job in New York City. My brother moved to Kauai and he’s like, ‘You have to get out here.’ I just kept thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing in New York now that I’m surfing again?’ I was this close to throwing aside everything I’d worked for and surfing again. I did get control of it. I didn’t go to Kauai. The other extreme is methamphetamine addiction or heroin addiction which has almost nothing to recommend. I wouldn’t say I’m happy with what I wrote on methamphetamine and cocaine, but I had great, sublime experiences being alone in my room and writing through the night. I’m not going to say that was all horrible. It was great for a while. I had a honeymoon period where I loved it. Then it went mainly dark. My body stopped responding well, the way it stopped responding well to alcohol. I couldn’t metabolize it. It started to have a very destructive feeling. Destructive to relationships more than anything. I look at the far end of the spectrum now and I know there is nothing there for me. Then I look in the middle of the spectrum where surfing falls for me and it’s primary beneficial but has some dark edges.
That brings up an interesting point in the book. You mention Kelly Slater as having been drug-free, but he is addicted to competition, and in turn a form of gambling. I mean, where does it end? It seems like it lands up finding its way into behaviour one way or another.
Yes, and there is some degree with his obsession with competition and winning makes him a narrower person. His relationships are put on hold when he goes around the world again, for the 20th year to win a 12th world championship. It looks crazy, it looks greedy, it looks slightly demented, right? That to me looks like an addiction, but primarily it looks great. He’s still winning, I can’t contest that. But I would infer that there is a dark aspect to it.
So, returning to surfing for you didn’t tempt you to revisit drugs? It did the opposite.
Yeah, I wanted to be fit and mentally ready and return to a boyhood joy and pure stoke that I had not felt since the time I last surfed. If you were to start drinking and drugging tonight, there’s a point where you’re right back into it. That’s the way surfing was for me. And that was good. I’m not calling up my dealer; I have a smile on my face.
When you were talking to surfers who are still in active addiction, did you get really discouraged? Did you see any hope in them? It must have been extremely haunting.
Yeah, that’s a good word for it. Because I quit surfing and went to school and had this whole other ‘poet in the city’ academic life, I have all of that as part of my identity. If I only had surfing and I only had the number of trophies I was able to win and only a certain number of shots in the magazine, I think that would be harder for me. I think that would [make it] a lot harder to stay sober. For me, the alienation of surfing made me able to write about it. All the years I wasn’t surfing and was reading and writing allowed me to go back. You can’t write about it unless you can remove yourself from it. You’re too much in it.
I was surprised that a lot of the case studies you brought up with champion surfers all spoke about isolation. I would have assumed surfing was more of a rock star culture where you know what they do, it’s expected and it’s somewhat glorified.
There is part of that. There’s actually an ad that I came across. It had a big-time Australian surfer known as Kong and the ad says, ‘If you can’t rock and roll then don’t fucking come.’ If you can’t skull a million shots and do a million lines with us, then you’re a pussy and you’re not going to be a good surfer and that’s part of it. In that way, it was exactly like rock music. There was a point in the 80s when it was totally unapologetic. And they didn’t have any media focus on it either. By the time Andy Irons came around, it was a multi-national phenomenon and a multi-billion dollar industry where those guys had to keep it on the DL.
Were there ever drug tests? Are there now? Would it even make a difference?
It was very irregular. There was one Brazilian guy who got caught using steroids, but that’s all I know.
Musicians have a lot of outlets, and sadly you hear more about them right after someone passes. Do surfers have outlets for help?
Well, for instance, Andy Irons was the top surfer for the multinational surf company, Billabong. When he was flaming out in 2007 and 2008, one of his handlers intercepted him at LAX and said, ‘You are going to Promises. You have no choice.’ He was ready and he decided to go. He goes for two weeks, goes on tour and gets clean. He doesn’t stay clean, but because he was so high profile and had so much money he could go to an elite place like Promises. Let’s say you are working class. Let’s say you lay tile in Santa Cruz and you have a meth problem. It’s a typical scenario. What does that guy do? He does what he has to do and what he can do. Maybe he goes to Fleahab which is a new rehab place started by a former addict named Flea Virostko which focuses on surfing. The failure with corporate sponsors, in a way, is that they haven’t dealt with it head-on. The worst thing you can do for an addict is give them a bunch of money… and power.
Would you say that this predisposition is unique to surfing?
I would say that. The closest I can come to saying that is that shortboard surfing is very difficult to learn. It takes an obsessive person. It takes a certain kind of willingness to overcome humiliation and hazing. What constitutes an obsessive person? Usually, it’s that they want some sort of relief from their suffering. Or maybe they were traumatized. I feel like I was traumatized in ways in my childhood that made me more predisposed and immersed. But it could have been jiu-jitsu.
Knowing what you know, is there a way to warn against this? A way to give caution to someone learning surfing with an addictive personality? I assume no one thinks about it beforehand. Is there any hope?
I actually think so. I think there’s a multi-generational wisdom building up in surfing. You have former champions like Tom Carroll coming out as addicts and speaking to their addiction really openly. I just think that will inevitably change surf culture. Younger surfers who have addictive problems can see that they aren’t alone and that there are three generations of this and I can read their memoirs or think of myself in that tradition. I do think it’s better in that regard. A little more sophisticated.