Last week I was out in the water giving a surf lesson to a young man. He paddles his board back to me after a heavy wipeout. He’s clearly frustrated. “I keep falling off. Everyone else has stood up, except me.” And then the classic line, “I can’t do this.” As he is lying on his board, scrambling, wobbly, and off-balance. I redirect his attention to the present moment by having him find his balance point on the board. As he begins to focus, his balance improves. “Julius, here is your wave,” I tell him. He looks over his shoulder as he is instructed to do. I give him a light push. He stands up. He rides his first wave on two feet all the way to shore.
When he returns I look him in the eye and say, “Julius. You can’t find success in the present moment if you’re focusing on the failures of the past. To be a successful and productive human being you must train your mind to focus on the present moment. Finding balance within and focusing on the present moment is the difference between being held under water or staying afloat.” By the way he looks at me I can tell that he internalizes this concept in a very real and powerful way.
My name is Brian Shohet and I am the founder of Stoked on Recovery Surf Therapy. I bring a surfing therapy program into treatment centers in the Orange County Area. My goal is to teach surfing in a way that incorporates the concepts and principles that we learn in recovery. I say we, because yes, I am also in recovery. Upon entering treatment eight years ago I sat in groups bored out of my mind. Like most educational settings the standard learning process in treatment is very passive in nature. At times counselors lead process groups, where clients can check in and reveal sensitive and traumatic information. But that’s usually as far as it goes.
Any good teacher knows that the best way to learn is to do. As a former high school science teacher, my students were out of their seats ninety percent of the time. They were doing, touching, designing, measuring, and experiencing. Teachers in my department shunned my methods and told me that I needed to stand at the chalk board more often and base my curriculum out of the textbook. It was hard to remain quiet and humble when state and Advanced Placement test scores came in. My passing rates blew the other physics teachers out of the water. No pun intended. Our education system is failing and our standard treatment model for the chemically addicted is failing. It’s no coincidence. They both do the same thing!
While sitting in treatment for the first time I began to think about applying these principles in the same way. It was only natural that I began to find connections to the process of learning how to surf. I sat on the idea for a long time, as I continued to allow heroin to destroy my life. I would go through seven more treatment centers over the next eight years. In between treatment centers I was either in a sober living environment or living on the street. I smuggled small amounts of heroin in my motorcycle helmet between Tijuana and San Diego to support my habit. Although I never landed in prison, I found hell and yes it does exist on Earth. I’ll spare you the details.
What was missing? What had I failed to incorporate in my life that was causing me to return to this deadly substance? In treatment we are given a checklist. Here is what an addict’s life should look like when he or she gets out of treatment: Go to twelve step meetings, work the twelve steps with a sponsor, find a “get well job” (a job that you probably won’t like), find new friends, stay away from old people places and things, be of service to other people. Where is the appeal in any of this? We are told that in order to stay clean, our lives have to revolve around doing things to stay clean. I disagree. There has to be more incentive.
At the end of that checklist a good counselor might say, “. . . And make sure that you find things that you like to do.” Well, what are those things? For the longest time we liked to do drugs. In early recovery most of us don’t know what we like to do. If the ultimate goal of treatment is to recreate lives, then it is our duty to present to them these possibilities. Let them experience the joy of being clean; don’t tell them about it. Nothing has brought me more satisfaction in my recovery than taking these broken down individuals by the hand as I open the door to the world of surfing. It’s the piece that has been missing in my own recovery; a sense of purpose in doing what I love.
Experiential therapy is becoming a more widely accepted approach in the mental health community. In order for experiential therapy to be successful I believe there needs to be two components: It needs to have therapeutic value and it needs to be a realistic activity that people can take up when they leave treatment. A popular form of experiential therapy is equine (horse) therapy. I absolutely believe that equine therapy has a therapeutic value. But how many addicts are realistically going to buy a horse and take up horseback riding? Equine therapy fails in this regard.
My surf therapy program is designed in such a way that when the surfer finishes the curriculum they will have acquired enough skill and knowledge to buy a surfboard (a good used board goes for about $100.00) and enjoy the ocean for free. The ocean is always there from sun up to sun down. When I lost everything and everyone, the ocean was still there for me. It was the only thing I had to hold onto and the only thing standing in between me and making the decision to end my life. When I am dealing with the sometimes painful realities of life I walk down to the beach. I separate my feelings from problems as I paddle out. As I become mindful of the present moment and connect with the forces of Mother Nature, those feelings dissipate. When I return to shore my problems are still there. However, those powerful feelings are gone. I have clarity. I am more likely to make rational choices and less likely to return to drugs.
The ability to separate our feelings from our thoughts is essential in early recovery. My clients are just a few weeks clean when I get them, and they are usually going through very difficult stuff in their personal lives. The most common problems are pending criminal convictions, CPS cases, health problems, withdrawal, and financial wreckage. These are very real and serious problems. My program allows them to separate their feelings, even if just for a few moments. I teach them that no matter what they did or what has happened to them, it’s okay to enjoy life; even if just for a few moments.
We also talk about the concept of connecting to a higher power. Surfing provides the client with an experience that allows them to give up control and connect to a power greater than themselves. A connection to a power greater than one’s self is the guiding principle in twelve step recovery. When connecting to that power we still get to make decisions. We can turn left, or we can turn right. We can speed up or we can slow down. Ultimately, it is that power that is going to decide whether you will benefit from your decisions (successfully ride the wave) or deal with the consequences of your decisions (get held under water after a gnarly wipeout.) While I don’t expect clients to start bowing down and praying to the ocean, I do expect them to open their mind to the concept of a higher power and what it could be.
Before every lesson, I start in the classroom by giving a PowerPoint Presentation. The first part of the lesson is a discussion on surf therapy topics. When discussing the topic about fears associated with surfing, sharks are a popular topic. I then pose the question, where do these fears come? They almost always say the movie “Jaws.” The topic of fear quickly shifts to the topic of belief systems. I point out that the belief system in this case is driven by a Hollywood movie that is intended to instill fear within the viewer. It is a flawed belief system and needs to be replaced by a healthier one based on the true nature of sharks.
Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. Below these are our belief systems. Ultimately what we believe is going to influence our behavior. By identifying false and irrational beliefs and replacing them with healthier ones, our behavior patterns shift and we are more likely to make better choices. This is a pillar in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and it is something that jumped off the page at me in early recovery. I spent a lot of time identifying false belief systems, especially those beliefs that I held about myself. With this as a guiding force, I was able to start making some serious changes in my life. In my program, I try to incorporate the concepts that really stuck out to me in early recovery.
My goal initially was to introduce addicts and alcoholics to a new way of life. Lately, I feel that this goal has shifted. My program challenges the traditional treatment model. I am proving with each passing wave, that the power of experience is very real. I believe with a deep passion that what I do is making a serious impact in the recreation of these lives, and it is guiding them in the right direction and in so many ways. If we continue to undermine the importance of experiential therapy then we will continue to fail these people who are in desperate need of a solution.
To take something as truth, one must first believe it to be true. The only way to do that is by having an experience. Is this the missing piece to our failed long-term success rates? I can’t answer this by stating that it is the one and only solution. It is one of probably many pieces that are still missing. With that, I know that I am on the right track with my beliefs and ideas. Shaun, a program director at a recovery center in Orange County sees a profound difference between his clients that participate in my program and those that do not. They are making complete turn-arounds in their behavior, their attitude, and their willingness to participate in the treatment process. These clients are stoked on recovery and they have come to believe that a life free of drugs and alcohol is a life worth living.