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How the Most Addictive Sport Can Help Us Understand Addiction and Recovery
By Thad Ziolkowski
Surfing, like many dangerous and otherworldly sports — skydiving, ski jumping, the rodeo arts — has not spawned an overly distinguished literature. The book that surfing partisans almost universally regard as the finest ever written about their sport, William Finnegan’s memoir “Barbarian Days,” was published only six years ago. One of Finnegan’s toughest competitors in this admittedly thin field was the poet and scholar Thad Ziolkowski’s “On a Wave,” which appeared in 2002. That book chronicled Ziolkowski’s harrowing early life, experiencing divorce and a suicide in the family, as well as the solace surfing often provided him. He’s now returned with a weirder, more diaphanous book, this time viewing surfing as the kissing cousin of, and potential solution to, substance addiction. “The Drop” isn’t as comprehensive or (in the parlance of our time) bingeable as Finnegan’s memoir, but it doesn’t try to be. Nevertheless, Ziolkowski has written a haunting and genuinely beautiful book about why human beings use drugs to hurt themselves and what might help them stop.
“Surfing is a kind of parable of addiction,” he writes early on — an assertion that roused from this reviewer a startled question mark in the margin. Then came this: “That many surfers have struggled with drug addiction will probably come as no surprise.” If, like me, you’ve read more books about, say, the origins of the War of 1812 than you have about surfing, this fact likely will come as a considerable surprise, akin to suddenly discovering that America’s Cup winners are notorious for their love of shooting smack. But the evidence is in, and Ziolkowski provides a merciless roll call of surfing’s top-tier, style-setting giants dying of overdoses, getting shot in botched coke deals, being pinched for smuggling and generally ruining their lives.
Many of the most striking passages in “The Drop” burrow into the correlations between surfing and drug abuse, some overt and others hidden. For starters, the surfer and stoner archetypes hit American pop culture at roughly the same time, the former through the seminal surfing film “Gidget,” of which Ziolkowski performs a surprisingly fecund thematic excavation.
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 this one 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.”
A wave isn’t water, Ziolkowski writes at one point. “Waves are cylinders of storm energy that displace water.” Similarly, “The Drop” isn’t really a book about surfing, or addiction. It’s a paper rectangle of stormy, gorgeous energy.