What Can Surfing Tell Us About Addiction?

An addict’s first hit and a surfer’s first wave are neurologically linked through the “thrill of being gathered up and borne along as if by magic.” While drug addiction eventually makes the abuser unemployable, Ziolkowski writes that the surfer will often “arrange to be underemployed.” Procuring street drugs, with their dangerously irregular dosages, can be an unpredictable but oddly thrilling ordeal. Surfing, too, is thrilling precisely because of its unpredictability — which Ziolkowski says accounts for its so far total failure to register as a spectator sport.

Surfing, like being high, is feeling yourself as pure desire, floating upon a liquid wilderness and waiting for the big wave to bring you home. Finally, Ziolkowski points to how the “radically personal nature” of surfing can resemble the addict’s withdrawal into desperate privacy, away from the public worlds — nightclubs, dive bars — where he or she first gained a taste for their drug of choice. “The suffering borne of loneliness leads to drug use,” he writes, “which leads to shame, which leads to more drug use.”

When Ziolkowski argues that surfing can help us understand and overcome substance abuse, he isn’t merely proposing that we use one addiction to displace another. He refers to the famous study of caged rats pressing the button on a morphine dispenser until, quite stoned, they all died. He then refers to a much less well known attendant study, in which rats that had an actual community designed around them — woodchip bedding, pleasant scenery, nooks for play, abundant food and water — more or less ignored the morphine button. Drugs, Ziolkowski insists, work their power most effectively when a person’s life has little else that is sustaining within it.

Which is where surfing comes in. Despite what Ziolkowski describes as its “libertarian” ethos (“you paddle out alone, you fend for yourself”), surfing is a highly tribal activity, with bylaws and mores passed down as a kind of shared history among peers. Learning to surf forges meaningful connections to others and brings the acolyte into communion with a natural world that is not without peril. This, in turn, encourages vigilance, mindfulness and focus, which are inevitably the first cognitive casualties of addiction. Ziolkowski points out a particularly rich and lovely historical irony: On a California beach beneath Richard Nixon’s former home, he writes, the Secret Service once shooed away pesky surfers, sometimes with warning shots. Today, that same beach is used as a surf therapy site for American soldiers.

How convincing this book is as a therapeutic primer, I am utterly unqualified to judge. What I can say is that you don’t need to love or even be interested in surfing to feel passages like one this land powerfully between your shoulder blades: “The freedom of surfing is oceanic captivity. The first wave, the one that creates the surfer, is bondage. What characterizes the origin stories of surfers and their first waves is fatalism, the resignation and love of the captive for his captivity.”

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