I went to my first AA meeting the other day. Ironically, I hadn’t had any alcohol in weeks, and I’d been doing a fairly good job of scaling back the boozing overall. Sadly, I still had the desire to drink. My local warung had a fridge full of icy cold beers that continued to haunt me on a daily basis. And so there I was, sitting anxiously while I sipped at a herbal tea, offering hesitant smiles and nervous greetings to those close by. As the group was led through meditation and prayer, there were several “What the hell am I doing here?” moments. When it was time for the individual sharing, it was a bit like riding an emotional rollercoaster with no brakes. Others in the group opened up about their problems with alcohol. When their stories ended in personal tragedy, I felt empathy but also a sense of relief. In a guilty moment, I was thankful that my own problems had never left me in prison or rehab.

As the meeting continued, I heard one or two stories much closer to my own. These were far more troubling, but I guess it would be a common tale for many people. A glass of wine after work that soon becomes two. Having several more on Friday to celebrate the end of the week. Drinking through the weekend because… well… it’s the weekend. Winding down from a day at work is all well and good, but for some, it leads to trouble. A bad habit that begins to drag you down. Unfortunately, you are so caught up in a work-hard/drink-hard lifestyle that you never really notice. The fog of alcohol abuse obscures much. The things you should have seen but didn’t. The things you did see but chose to ignore.

Eventually, it all catches up with you. The regrettable behaviour; the sub-par performances in the workplace and the surf; the obvious damage to personal relationships. Waking up to head-splitting hangovers starts to get kind of old too. A crossroads is reached. In one direction, there is the bright shimmering light of improved health and wellbeing. In the other, a dark shadowy descent into addiction and consequences. The choice is obvious, but by this stage most of your life revolves around drinking. Dragging yourself clear and re-arranging your entire existence requires an unshakable commitment.

Sobriety is absolutely worth it. Waking up with a clear head feels like a gift from the gods. Being the best version of yourself is also a present to those close to you. As the fog of alcohol lifts, it provides an opportunity to reflect. This isn’t always an easy process. Working through years of drunken stupidity provides a whole new set of challenges. Sayings like “Some things are just best left in the past” were invented just for this reason. Eventually, you have the chance to contemplate something far more important. Like why you started drinking in the first place.

As a young boy, I was a natural risk-taker. Once I’d learned to ride a bike, I was racing it down nearby hills. I soon had a taste for jumping out of trees and off rooftops. Falling through the skylight of my friends shed put only a temporary halt to proceedings. I thought I was some up-and-coming daredevil. I realise now that I was just getting a taste for it. The thrill of weightlessness, and the wind whistling past your ears. The buzz you experience, when for the briefest of moments, everything feels like it’s out of control. Surfing, skating, snowboarding and mountain biking followed. Along with continuously reckless behaviour in various motor vehicles.

Unfortunately, if you work in the city, chasing waves, snow or downhill trails can be hard to fit in. Alcohol is just so much more accessible. Other drugs are accessible too, and make no mistake, I quickly developed a liking for these as well. Nothing welcomed Friday night, like a jaw-grinding amphetamine high. Spending the whole weekend in nightclubs was often one long crazy adventure. Sadly, there was nothing fun about being in the office Monday morning, feeling like the walls were closing in.

After almost fifteen years in the workplace, I staggered out with a drinking problem, stressed and full of resentment. Much of my frustration was directed at management, but some of it was also directed at myself. I needed some time to clear my head, and chart a new direction in life. While I was in the process of getting off the booze, I spent some time in a quiet corner of Indonesia. The local people in the surrounding area were mostly farmers and fishermen. There were a few surf camps around, but it wasn’t the kind of place that ever got busy. The waves always did a decent job of regulating numbers in the lineup. All of the setups were heavy ledging reef breaks that damaged boards and sometimes surfers.

There was a small influx of people during a run of favourable swell. One evening, we were seated around the dinner table, when one of the guys began telling his story. He had started drinking and using drugs as a teenager. A long spiral downwards into various addictions followed. There were several harrowing tales of violence and drug deals gone wrong then eventually jail time. A wider conversation took place. One by one, everyone else told their own story. Amongst six middle-aged men, the common thread was soon clear. At one time or another, to a greater or lesser extent, we had all struggled with addiction.

The swell filled in overnight. At dawn the next morning, the sets were thundering across the reef out front. I stood in the shallows, as torrents of white water washed over the basalt lava shelf, and roping walls of ocean barrelled and spat into the channel. Anticipation joined self-doubt and began churning around in the pit of my stomach. Watching on from the relative safety of the beach seemed like an option worth considering. But another part of me wouldn’t stand for missing all the action in the water.

I paddled out with the other guys from the camp, just as the sun was rising and the offshore wind began to puff. It ended up being one of those difficult sessions you have in Indonesia sometimes. When the swell is thick and unruly, and the biggest bombs cap way outside before washing through, sending everyone desperately paddling for the shoulder. Trying to stick the take-off was usually difficult enough, let alone maintaining your speed and making the barrel. The beatings were vicious. They always involved more waves on the head as you were dragged towards the end section, and the waiting urchin spines on the shallow reef below.

I considered giving up and paddling in several times, but somehow my luck always turned. It was as if the surf gods could sense my flagging resolve. Right when they needed to, they would gift a wave that let me in easy. Then it was just a matter of setting my line and watching the ocean draw off the inside section of the reef. When the turquoise curtain starts spinning and shimmering above it’s a pretty special feeling. Riding safe into the channel with the hairs on your neck standing on end is pretty special too.

At the end of the day, we all sat on the small headland above the beach to watch the sunset. The day’s best moments were discussed and debated at length. Sunburn and stoke blended nicely on the faces all around. The reality of the situation was pretty hard to ignore - We were all still addicts. Except today the drug was surfing.

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If you enjoyed the writing above, you might also like a book I recently published…

Eyes To The Horizon

One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores

Written by Ben Simon Smith

Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers