How Surfing Does (and Doesn't) Help our Mental Health
Sunny Garcia scares me. Always has. For one reason or another, when I was a young surfer in the early 1990s, I picked Sunny out of the constellation of hard-ass Hawaiians I could have feared to be the surfing boogeyman. Of course, I had nothing to fear from Sunny, or Johnny Boy Gomes, or Marvin Foster, or any of their contemporaries from where I lived, thousands of miles away on the Central Coast of California, with plenty of deranged beardos yelling at unfamiliar faces over wonky reefbreaks I should have been afraid of instead. But, nope, it was Sunny who haunted me. I’d flip through the pages of surf mags and see Sunny glaring out at me through an ad. Press play on a video and watch him cleave a poor North Shore wave in half with an honest-to-god man turn. Walk into a surf shop and see a poster of him standing tall and buff in a horrifying inside Sunset barrel and I’d be intimidated, a little frightened even. Not just because the dude looked like he could flay the skin of a haole’s back with one sideways glance, but because his entire approach to waves—powerful, consequential waves—called my hesitant ass into question. This was a man for whom the concept of “fear” could not possibly exist. His badassery frightened me because it reflected my own shortcomings back in a big, giant mirror. When I first ventured to the North Shore, my main concern was not in any way pissing Sunny off.
In recent years, however, Sunny has scared me for an entirely different reason. I had no idea he’d seriously struggled with depression and anxiety until I started following him on social media. He’d repeatedly post deeply heartfelt messages of support for people crippled under the weight of depression; he didn’t always address his own issues directly, but Sunny was clearly feeling his way through some dark mental spaces. It’s frightening to watch somebody battle the demons within, especially when that person seems like the toughest man in the world. When Sunny ended up in the hospital this year, fighting to survive, and as rumors began percolating through the surf world that Sunny tried to take his own life, it was shocking to many, but not to those paying attention to his struggles.
But Sunny’s depression has been deeply unnerving for a very personal reason, too. At various points in my life—the mid-20s were rough, late-30s more so—I’ve walked a similarly dark path. Found life almost too painful to live at times. The darkness comes when it comes and is pushed away only with great effort. Watching Sunny struggle, albeit through social media, caused more pangs of anxiety to well up within—if somebody like him buckled when the heavy thoughts rolled in, how was I, a weakling in comparison both physically and certainly in surfing, supposed to remain strong? If Sunny could be laid low, surely I could be too. He had all the surfing community support one could want, presumably. Not to mention a place at the top of the pecking order in the heaviest and best waves on earth. Living in literal paradise.