Healing Trauma Through Surfing

By Kristen McGuiness 11/02/17

At the end of one of our first sessions, a Marine who has initially been jostling back and forth, said, ‘I think this is going to save my life. I feel alive again.’

silhouette of person in ocean with sunset.
When I’m in the water, I am completely present in that moment. Photo by Valentino Funghi on Unsplash

Michael had always loved to surf but by the time he got sober, it had been years since he’d been in the water.

“It was one of the first gifts of my sobriety,” he explains, now nearly 19 years sober and a married father. “What I didn’t expect was that it would help to keep me sober.”
For Michael, life in the water was more than just reconnecting to a past hobby, it offered him a form of healing that he struggled to find on shore.

“I couldn’t believe in a traditional God. I mean, Group of Drunks worked for me at first, but out there in the ocean, I knew there was a power greater than myself. All it took was one big wave for me to know I wasn’t in control of anything.”

Though Carly Rogers wasn’t an alcoholic or addict, the ocean always meant the same thing for her.

“In 1994, my mother passed away suddenly. It’s unclear if alcohol had something to do with her accident, but she had always struggled with drinking. But one of the things I realized during my grieving process was the power of water in my healing. I would dive down to the bottom of the ocean – or even a pool – and lay there. I just connected into the peace that I found down there.”

Ten years later, Carly had a rare opportunity to take that experience and share it with others. She joined the Jimmy Miller Foundation as their Program Director, and helped them to establish their surfing program, which is provided to military veterans, youth in foster care, and men and women struggling with addiction, utilizing surfing as a method to treat trauma.

In 2014, Carly co-authored a paper in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy on her work with military veterans who had experienced significant PTSD. As the authors noted, “The transition of combat veterans from military culture to civilian life creates a complex treatment population for whom traditional avenues of treatment may need to be supplemented with complementary types of intervention. In Ocean Therapy, the action of surfing creates a vehicle for the delivery of the resiliency themes in a way that reflects veterans’ preferences and past experiences and reinforces narrative processes and social connections through peer- to-peer interactions.”

At the Jimmy Miller Foundation, where volunteers take clients into the ocean to experience surfing, often for the first time, Carly began to see the change first hand in veterans’ lives.

“With PTSD, a lot of the masking of the symptoms is substance abuse. The Marines had flat affect, pale, they’d come to us just staring at the ground, not engaged. We took them out into the water and suddenly they were raising their hands in the air. They were smiling. At the end of one of our first sessions, a Marine who has initially been jostling back and forth, said, ‘I think this is going to save my life. I feel alive again.’”

When Jack Newkirk founded Salt Water Therapy, a program which works with Southern California rehabs to take newcomer clients out into the water, he was just looking for people to surf with: “When I got sober, surfing really helped with my obsessive thinking. I would invite people out to the water, and we just kind of created this fellowship every Sunday. At the time, I was working at a rehab while getting my CAEDAC and I started blending meditation and the things I was learning in school into surfing.” 

As Jack began to grow his business, he realized that the program was about more than just surfing, it was about offering people in recovery new ways to experience mindfulness, both in and out of the water. He explains, “I experience surfing as a sustainable happiness. Whether you’re seeking sobriety or just trying to overcome your fears, finding something within your means where you can participate every day in connecting your mind, body and soul is necessary for that mindfulness.”

Surfing also provided an immediate fellowship for those meeting up in the water. As Jack shares, “Surfing connects people I normally wouldn’t have been connected with, it creates a community of people that all respect nature and the ocean, and knowing that it's always there. Much like a higher power, it can become a constant source of joy, clarity and peace.”

When Jessica Ripley reconnected with surfing by becoming a volunteer at the Jimmy Miller Foundation, it not only changed her life, but made her realize how important the ocean could be for people healing from trauma.

“Trauma and addiction are usually connected. But I think that’s why the elements that come together during surfing and particularly with Jimmy Miller – just this scene of being on the beach, being in clean water, and in nature with people who are there to love you and support you – is such a powerful and healing experience. Coming out of the pain of the detox and withdrawal, the darkness of addiction, you get to wash that all off in the ocean.”

As occupational therapy is beginning to find, that experience of fellowship and physical activity might just be the winning combination in treating trauma. According to a 2011 paper published by David Fleischmann (and others), Surf Medicine: Surfing as a Means of Therapy for Combat-Related Polytrauma, “Surfing combines two modalities often used today to assist in mental health: components of group therapy and exercise. Trauma survivors involved in the program congregate on shore to learn the mechanics of surfing and also to communicate with each other while they wait to catch the next wave. Interspersed with the waiting and talking are the strenuous exercise and excitement of actually catching a wave. Large muscular movements can increase the body’s serotonin norepinephrine and dopamine neurotransmitters… These neurotransmitter systems are commonly decreased in depression,and it is possible that surfing helps to normalize these systems.”

Jessica has worked with people with substance use disorders and military vets since the beginning with the Jimmy Miller Foundation, providing support to people on the beach and in the water.

“When we’re working with vets, usually they are so determined, but they still have to learn how to fall down. In so many ways, surfing really teaches people coping skills. You’re going to be trying to do something good, and you’re going to fall down, and the only way to succeed is to do it again and again and again until you learn how to stand up.”

For Jack, the humility people learn in the water is probably one of the greatest benefits in helping them to stay sober, but it also helps them to return if they relapse.

“I’ve found that most of the people I work with begin to realize that they have to accept that some days are going to be better than others – in and out of the ocean. Sometimes, the ocean is going to throw you a bad day with lots of lumpy swell; other days, it’s going to be beautiful.”

Carly's work both in and out of the water has not only led to the success of the Jimmy Miller Foundation, but to her own healing.

“When you’re in trauma, you’re always living in the past or are afraid of the future. When I’m in the water, I am completely present in that moment. You can’t look down or behind you, or you’re going to fall. You have to look forward. You have to focus on the people who support and love you, standing on the beach.”

Michael firmly believes he wouldn’t still be sober if not for the ocean.

“Even beyond my family, the ocean reminds me why I got sober. It was so I could enjoy the beauty of life. It was so I could go out in that water and be free. It’s a constant reminder what I get from sobriety, and why I don’t want to lose everything I now have.”

To become a volunteer or to learn more about the Jimmy Miller Foundation, go to their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/jimmymillermemorialfoundation.

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Kristen McGuiness is the author of the bestselling memoir, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life. In addition, she has co-written numerous books in the genres of self-help, business, psychology, and dating, and has written for Marie ClaireAOLHuffington Post, and Salon. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and dog Peter, and recently finished her second book, The Beautiful Lives of Sad Children. Kristen can be found on Linkedin. You can also follow her on Twitter.