How the Open Road Helped me Tackle Alcoholism and Fall in Love With Surfing Again


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Updated 649d ago

Words by Sean Jansen

Along the west coast of North America, there are thousands of uncrowded coastal roads adjacent to bays, pointbreaks, and beachbreaks as far as you’re willing to explore. Whether it be the forested and rainy Pacific Northwest, or the dry and barren bumpy roads of Baja, the possibility for adventure and solitude are only limited by your choice of transportation to get there.

Recently, the call to explore has been strong. Whether that's a hot and dry pointbreak in the depths of Baja, a crowded California beachbreak lined with parking meters, or a rain soaked, shark infested reef slab of the Pacific Northwest with only trees as spectators -- it didn't matter. Each gear shift in my manual led to a different setup that I was grateful pressing the clutch down for. But for years, this wasn't a luxury I had for my life, as I'm sure it wasn't for many others too.

For the last ten years, my life was either set in metaphorical first gear or reverse. I didn’t know there were four others. The only first gear I knew was alcohol. And reverse was one constant relapse trying to get sober after the next. 
First time I tried to get sober, I lasted nine days when I relapsed by choice. At the time, I was proud of the fact I didn’t drink that long and wanted to prove I could be a responsible drinker. But that wasn’t the case. The next time I went sober was April 13. That was a special moment and, until recently, my longest stint in sobriety. 

Each relapse meant binge drinking to make up for the time spent sober. My sobriety would last a week, a few days, to 17 days and even a month. I couldn’t hold it for a lasting amount of time. I did notice patterns that could help me achieve becoming sober though. I began to develop a mindfulness practice in meditation. I began drinking teas and even apple cider vinegar. Green smoothies in the morning and keeping count of my water intake throughout the day. Staying busy and waking up early drove me to be grateful for the days without a hangover. 
In the afternoons those little demons crept in, once the excitement of the morning faded to a dark depression of staring at the wall later in the day. Living with my parents at 30 and beginning to really beat myself up for my situation and actions, a dark future lay ahead and drinking always seemed to be the very temporary band-aid for how I felt. I needed a new bandage and my beacon in the storm was simple, just grab my board and go surf. 

Finishing up my summer season of work in the mountains, my late fall, winter, and early spring seasons were treated with a sunrise session searching for waves, shooting a few photos of the empty lineups, and finding a solitary place to setup camp with (hopefully) a fire and plans to repeat the process the next day. Listening to the birds chirping, the waves crashing on the shore, and the wind blowing through the landscape were the only playlist I needed. Each surf offered a therapeutic anti-depressant that no psychiatrist could ever prescribe with nothing but the adrenaline of surfing a new wave, with the cool water washing away all desires to pour some inebriating liquid down my throat.

The feeling of a somewhat empty lineup with no one around was just...more. I talked to the seabirds flying overhead, had conversations with the cresting waves being gently blown by the offshore morning breeze, and always smiled with the sun shining down on me. My form of an AA meeting or therapy session was tied into place with each session I wrapped my leash around my ankle. With each relapse a battle had been lost, but in my heart I knew a war could be won. Repetition is of order. If I could repeatedly pour poison down my throat for ten years and more, there is no reason I couldn’t grab my board and keep paddling out.
I began journaling. Writing about when I surf or shoot photos, everything in the world is irrelevant. The phone isn’t ringing, the emails aren’t being sent, and the nagging of loved ones are nowhere in sight.

All that's present is the sound of nature. Out in the water above the highs and lows that alcohol and substances give. Above the rainstorms and lightning bolts that shock my world while my alcoholic self sits huddled into a ball in the rain beneath or thrashed in the sand by a pounding wave. Surfing and surf photography alleviate the heavy bricks and darkness of depression and raise me up shooting me to my desired passions and dreams. All I must do is wax up my board and keep surfing. 
I knew I needed to prioritise this and thus my dream of doing a van life was birthed. Being able to wake up and fall asleep near the beach, chasing swells up and down from Cabo to Canada sounded like the answer.

However upon searching for my dream rig, the pandemic struck. But the dream stayed alive and my Subaru became my sober chariot. The car was packed, road map by my side and my wanderlust and exploration powering me down the road. The destination, North America’s west coast.  
Surfing was my childhood dream. Learning at the age of 11 standing up on my body board growing up in San Clemente, California. 22 years later, it may have saved my life. Shortly after I began surfing again, the clarity of other aspects of my life came to light and the haze of ten years not being myself was unveiled. Sparking the idea to hit the road in my 2010 Subaru Forester and explore every surf spot on the west coast I could. Healing with each surf, gorging myself on Mother Nature therapy and recovering with every minute spent in the water.

The sleeping platform was easy and cheap to build. In fact, it was free. The discarded dumpster out back of the local department store had all the necessary framing needed to build a space for me to fit into. That along with enough wood to build out a drawer for a stove so I can cook and boil water for the two newest and most important liquids in my life; coffee and tea. 
With priorities now set in place for sleeping and cooking, the box on the roof was stuffed with all appropriate gear; backpack, a shortboard and fish, wetsuits from 5 mil to short john, and an air compressor and tow straps. The space underneath my platform has enough room for a small cubby to put clothes and a space adjacent to it for an axe and firewood. 

Behind the passenger seat is a 7-gallon water jug for ventures into Baja or a place easy to fill when in the Pacific Northwest, filtering creek water. Behind the driver seat is where the dirty clothes hamper along with extra storage for additional gear and a space for my laptop. The front seat has my old Nikon D200 with the 200-500MM lens for passerby wildlife or random wave shots along with my toiletries bag and my, “Go,” pack with my other camera, GoPro, etc etc.
Look, excuse the rather cliche metaphor but this whole thing got me thinking; my Subaru has five gears, and for the last three years living at home drinking, I feel like I've been sat in neutral, despite shifting into first and reverse.

But, since hitting the road chasing winter swells up and down the west coast, I have discovering the shift into second and even third gear. I do know that there are two more gears to explore and sadly know that first and reverse are always going to be there. I do know that second gear is the start of breaking through the storm and third is me riding the clouds and waves with views of what lays ahead.

The way I see it, is that my front windshield is a lot bigger than my rearview mirror and that if I keep looking forward at new and un-surfed waves, the less I’ll need to look back at sessions lost due to hangovers or social drinking arrangements. I guess I just have to keep dreaming and working hard to discover what surf spots fourth and even fifth gear may bring. (Yeah, I said excuse the cliche!)

Am I perfect? Far from it. But each day I get stronger with every surf. I have looked into rehab, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and sought therapy, but all have led me back to the bottle. Somehow surfing and being in nature has led me to where I am today, confident enough to write this and hopefully inspire others to find their path in nature and recover from whatever may be holding you. All we have to do is put that wetsuit on, wax that board, and paddle out.