Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Surfing serves as rehab for those battling addictions

From The NY Times:

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — The first time Darryl Virostko (pictured) surfed waves as tall as three-story buildings at Mavericks, the legendary surf spot some 50 miles north of here, he was high on acid.

It was not the only drug Mr. Virostko, 37, would take during his surfing career. Even as he was earning a reputation as one of the most fearless surfers in the world — wining the Mavericks competition, the Super Bowl of big-wave surfing, three consecutive times — he was also becoming an alcoholic and methamphetamine addict, dependencies that propelled him to success at surfing but eventually crushed him.

“With meth, you’re moving a million miles a minute,” said Mr. Virostko, whose nickname is Flea. “You’re psyched to catch any wave you can.”

By 2005, during a peak in methamphetamine use in Santa Cruz County, more than half of the drug-related arrests by the sheriff’s office involved methamphetamines. In a survey of 500 counties across the country completed in 2005, 87 percent reported increases in methamphetamine-related arrests in the previous three years. California counties reported a 100 percent increase.

“Meth was gigantic,” said Josh Pomer, 36, a surf filmmaker from Santa Cruz who has known Mr. Virostko since elementary school. “Everybody had sores all over their faces.”

Mr. Virostko has been sober for a year, and this month he started a program called FleaHab in collaboration with a local drug rehabilitation center. He will teach surfing and other sports to patients undergoing supervised alcohol and drug rehabilitation.

Mr. Virostko hopes that FleaHab will be his anchor in the dry terrain of sobriety. Addicts in the program will replace the high of drugs with the endorphin rush of strenuous physical activity, he says. He recently took a group surfing to try his hand at teaching. “It’s like I’m learning to surf again,” he said. “Seeing them so excited reminds me of when I first started.”

Mr. Virostko checked into a drug rehabilitation center in August 2008 after an intervention. Months before, in an inebriated state, he fell 60 feet down a cliff. “Once you start using meth it’s not something you can stop doing overnight,” he said.

After getting clean, Mr. Virostko gained 30 pounds that he is now working feverishly to lose before facing those mountains of saltwater this winter. “Life sober is hard,” he said. He said that he is nearly broke and that he fills in on construction jobs “just to be able to eat.”

Still, a cobbled-together life sober is better than the fate that befell some of his fellow surfers.

When methamphetamines hit this beachside college town 70 miles south of San Francisco, Mr. Pomer said, many local surfers disappeared from the water at famous surf breaks like Steamer’s Lane. “It was a zombie land,” Mr. Pomer said, describing the hollow-eyed, pockmarked surfers. “By 2005 the place was practically deserted. Everyone was inside their houses doing meth.”

The drug played a role in disaster on some occasions.

In late 2007 a big-wave surfer, Peter Davi, 45, drowned in 30-foot plus waves in Monterey County. Methamphetamine was found in his body, according to a toxicology report.

Though Mr. Virostko broke free, for years he was near the epicenter of this town’s drug-addled surf culture. His house on the city’s Westside was a “meth den,” covered in spray paint and enveloped in the smell of methamphetamine — an odor “like burnt carburetor,” said Mr. Pomer, who is making a documentary about “the Westsiders,” a group of surfers here known for their surfing prowess and for viciously defending surf breaks they considered their territory.

After winning the Mavericks “Men Who Ride Mountains” contest in 1999, Mr. Virostko said he rented a suite of rooms at a Santa Cruz hotel and held a multiday blowout featuring booze, scantily clad girls and a rainbow of pills, powders, acid, marijuana and mushrooms. In an intoxicated frenzy, he and his friends threw the suite’s furniture out a window and down to the beach below.

“I spent money left and right,” said Mr. Virostko, who earned more than $12,000 a month in sponsorships from surfboard and apparel companies.

He said his heaviest drug use followed a 2004 injury from falling down the face of a 40-foot wave at Waimea Bay in Hawaii. After that, he said, he took hard to methamphetamine and was drinking up to a half-gallon of vodka a day.

This winter, when North Pacific storms send swells crashing as monstrous waves against the craggy rock bed at Pillar Point, Mr. Virostko will be one of 24 big-wave surfers summoned to compete in the Mavericks competition. In an El Niño year like this one, the waves are predicted to be unusually large. The winner will take home $150,000.

This will be the first time Mr. Virostko competes as a sober man. And while many recovering addicts required by 12-step programs to choose a higher power opt for God, Mr. Virostko says he chose the ocean.

“Every time I’ve surfed Mavericks, I’ve gone under a wave and I’ve said, ‘Please just let me come up,’ ” Mr. Virostko said. “I’ve been talking to the ocean my whole life. It’s bigger and way more powerful than me.”