Into the Wave

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My clean and sober birth date is December 18, 2006. To me, this date says “the turning point” loud and clear; it was a day I was led to because of my addiction.

In early recovery, I identified with stories of feeling separate. In Narcotics Anonymous (NA) a man handed me a CD to listen to while I was driving or traveling. I heard the speaker describe my first day at school, sitting there among strangers “. . . looking up at the blackboard puzzled, listening and not knowing what the teacher was saying, but imagining everyone else did. At that point, had I been offered something to relieve the feeling of separation, I would have taken it without hesitation.”

Despite being hung over, I was able to return to the ocean. Time and time again, she would bring me around; the sturdy, trusty ocean always there to bring me to my senses. She was my first concept of a Higher Power at work in my life.

I was blessed to be born into a family living in Sydney, Australia. Sydney’s northern beaches are located where a crystal clear Tasman Sea meets an east-facing coastline strewn with golden sand crescents, bookended by headlands defiant against millennia of pulsing elements. The pulse I literally fell into was that of the ever-present ocean waves.

 

 

As a freshly-turned seven-year-old, the build-up to Christmas 1968 defined my life up to that moment. Household rumor had it that my big brother, Nick, was getting a surfboard and I was getting, well, something else – something much smaller to match my size and rank in the family.

Tied to those days was the unspoken inevitability of our mother’s last months in this world. Suffering the final stages of pancreatic cancer and numerous complications, she came home from a long stay in the hospital to spend Christmas with us. The life-changing moment of that Christmas Day is clear as a bell in my mind even today – the moment the surfboard came out from under Mum’s side of our parents’ bed and was given to me.

In the ocean, I began to make sense of the world by fleeing the loss presented by life on land and the subtle discomfort in which lay the sprout of my dis-ease. Surfing soon became both my escape and my passion. I disappeared into myself and into the constant visual splendor of the ocean’s light and color. It was a spiritual answer to my question, “What the hell just happened; where do I fit?”

Surfing at sunrise gave me a much clearer message than the bewildering talk and chalk squiggles presented in the classroom. In the 1970s, learning the ropes off the older guys meant witnessing some of the best surfers at my local beach fall into heroin use. It just didn’t make any sense to me and my friends – why stop surfing to throw up and nod off in the street? We wanted to engage, and these guys were obviously checking out.

My friends and I had a ton of freedom from the age of eleven or twelve. Parental guidance was relinquished to the school and was not a part of the world of riding waves. Naturally open, inquisitive, easily influenced and aiming to be accepted at all levels, I tried to fit in with everyone and went with the flow when introduced to drinking alcohol and smoking pot. For the most part, these two drugs made me feel odd and ill. I didn’t want to be left out and was desperate to be “a part of” despite the deep inner aversion to the contrary. Although I knew they weren’t doing me any good, I was “in.”

Surfing took me down the competitive road, which felt completely at odds with why I was initially drawn to it. I did, however, like the surfing media recognition coming toward me in spades. Then came the financial support, and my ambitious mind was born along with a healthy ego.

As the competitive path took precedence, I traveled more. From age 16 onward, I looked further and further outward and into a career that didn’t yet fully exist in the 1978 surfing world. There were world champions, but that was only a distant dream, something I could not yet see in myself at that point. Nevertheless, with surfing, I finally felt true purpose and direction.

In the winter of 1979, on the North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii, I found myself casually accepted into a circle of my favorite surfers from the local area, also well-known and accomplished in the surfing world. Here, I was introduced to a drug that instantly lifted me up above the line and out of what I identify now as an ancient lingering feeling of separation. I was suddenly fully connected and engaged with those I admired. Unafraid at last!

Addiction slowly seeped in under my ambitions and intentions to be the best I could be at what I most dearly loved. Increasingly driven and willful in maintaining my focus, the rollercoaster ride began with wild peaks and troughs. This new degradation simply seemed like fun and what the coolest dudes did when out on the town. It all seemed so okay.

Despite being hung over, I was able to return to the ocean. Time and time again, she would bring me around; the sturdy, trusty ocean always there to bring me to my senses. She was my first concept of a Higher Power at work in my life.

The structure of my competitive path also played its part in refocusing my spirit. It gave me permission to cleverly and secretively set behavior patterns around an achievement and reward cycle that became increasingly more extreme. It also deepened my denial, or, if you like, my darkness, into wanting to do the best I possibly could in order to allow myself to party. This cycle created an energy that lifted me beyond myself into competitive confrontation – a place I believed I was never truly able to reach on my own. Eventually, the effort became too much to hold up, and the false competitor in me couldn’t keep form against the rise of new talent.

 

 

I had a wife, two beautiful daughters and a great house overlooking the surf break where I had learned to surf. I had it all. The time came, however, when I had to let go of my competitive career. By then, my addiction had become a finely-choreographed dance with layers of masked characters separating the real me from other people.

I attempted to do the right thing and take on business opportunities to carry us beyond my competitive career, but my unaddressed issues began to surface. The addict part of me wanted to run from responsibility at the drop of a diaper change and, eager to build support through enablers, I simply dug deeper into the hole of denial.

The energy required to hold it all together eventually dissipated when my wife, Lisa, asked me to get help in that secretive way high-profile people do in order to maintain their positive public image, an image we all lived with so comfortably – NOT.

My first attempt at psychotherapy began in 1992 in an office overlooking Sydney Harbor Bridge. I thought I had a genuine urge to get myself clean. For the first time, a new honesty came pouring out. We had three sessions. The week preceding my fourth session, I saw a newspaper clipping about my psychotherapist being struck off the register for shooting Pethadine. The well-versed addict inside me responded with, “What the hell was that all about? I’m going for it.”

With a family in tow and a functional habit onboard, a rocky decade ensued. Nothing resembling the kind of honesty I first showed that psychotherapist peeked out from behind the ego-blown beast and the low self-esteem ant of a human I was becoming. Under wraps, the beast just grew bigger in the darkness of my unconsciousness.

Self-centered, self-seeking and never satisfied, my substance of choice would stop working or become boring. I would swear off it and come clean, only to eventually dive back into a new drug of choice – from Ecstasy to a healthy speed habit. Eventually, in 2001, methamphetamine came into the equation.

Meth hit the spot and kept me super-functional for extended periods of time – the way I always wanted to be. My addict self built up extraordinary steam under the gravity of meth’s influence on my inner makeup. When I couldn’t get it, I was twice as twitchy and incoherent as I was while under its influence.

Life from this space was incredibly frightening, especially with a brand-new daughter staring me in the face. My conscience was screaming at me to wake up. I was so confused about what direction to take that I kept reaching for more to drown out my voice of reason.

Finally in August 2006, while I was on another trip overseas, my wife unexpectedly found the culprit of her own distress sloppily hidden in my home office. I would usually clean up while traveling, so I was bursting at the seams to get home to use. Only this time, I was exposed for what I was; my disconnected behaviors, hiding and erratic creeping around were answered for. The look in her eyes was devastating. In my absence, she had been on a mission, asking for help from friends who knew where to get it.

To my surprise, an old high school acquaintance and now friendly local surfer (who eventually became my first sponsor) led me to NA Twelve Step recovery. On a cool early September night, I knocked on his door; he offered a seat and we chatted. I couldn’t hear a thing he said over the thought that this gave me a chance to get out of the house to score.

He took me to my first meeting, but my head was so overbearingly loud and I was so deeply lost in my addiction that nothing made much sense. In and out of recovery and unable to be honest, I started using again in earnest; attending meetings and lying about my clean time in order to keep everyone at bay, just so I could somehow keep up my mask of denial.

My underlying dread was that this mask couldn’t last for long without my losing everything. Busted by my wife again, this postcard from the edge is still vivid today. I was beaten, my soul depleted and defeated.

I remember the look of pain in my wife’s eyes; I couldn’t stand it. She said, “Maybe you’ll have to go to church or something?” I balked hard at that idea – confused, fearful and not trusting a God so many had used against one another through organized religions. But it also made sense; my spirit had to be awakened somehow, as I felt so desperate and so dead inside. My sponsor came to visit and calmly said, “Tom, you can’t do this on the street, you’ll need to get some distance from the substances.” So into treatment I went.

This was my turning point; I fully surrendered to treatment on December 18, 2006, and let go of my life as I knew it. I had no real idea of how much I wanted to give up drugs until I spent some time without access to them. Eventually I became open to information, tools and suggestions that might help keep me from using drugs.

On Sydney’s Northern Beaches at South Pacific Private Hospital on the southern end of Curl Curl Beach, I began the journey back to my heart and my true self. A series of tough guidelines followed in order to rebuild my personal integrity. Slowly and safely, but surely, I was guided.

By thoroughly working Step One of the Twelve Steps, “one day at a time,” honesty became my very first spiritual principle, followed by the Second Step and partially the Third Step before discharge six weeks later in late January 2007.

I was frightened beyond belief of being outside in the real world without drugs between “it” and me, but I did what I was told by friends in the fellowship of NA. My counselor asked me to write down the main goal of my recovery. I wrote “to be able to share my heart and life with others and grow emotionally.”

Being a hard nut for the Twelve Step process, my first sponsor sent me back to the very beginning of Step One. I listened and I acted; I could hear and take guidance for the first time in years. I dug in and felt the gifts.

I thoroughly loved meetings and hearing stories I could identify with, gradually stringing together days, weeks and then months of clean time. All the necessary elements were coming together without much effort on my part – much less effort than holding up the mask of denial while using. My relief was palpable in my body and visible on my face; it felt nice to hear the positive remarks.

My dis-ease has a very short memory – it will find a convenient angle on reality, just the way I want it to be and not the way it actually is. In the time between my last drink or drug and now, there have been plenty of moments where using and drinking may have been an option, but I am clear – one taste of my drug of choice and Bingo! I would be off and running.

Sometimes that sensitive little boy who lost his mother too early to comprehend comes out – fearful, unaware and lightheaded – grasping for answers that aren’t there, especially around women. No wonder I have been given three daughters whom I dearly love and connect with today. Either my Higher Power has a great sense of humor or simply wants me to learn the lessons as swiftly as possible so I can hand this guidance on to others!

These days, I attend several meetings a week to help me stay alert to my tricky dis-ease. I sit with my sponsor regularly, share and occasionally write on the Steps, especially when inner resilience appears shaky. I have several sponsees whom I guide with the knowledge that has been handed to me. The miraculous change when spiritual principles are practiced and alive in our lives is unfathomable; I absolutely love seeing the glow of recovery on people’s faces.

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Tom Carroll is a two-time Association of Surfing Professionals’ World Surfing Champion and co-star of the TV show, Storm Surfers. He is widely considered one of the best surfers ever. Tom was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1990 and into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1999. Surfer magazine ranked him #7 in their 2010 Greatest Surfers of All Time feature. In 2013, he and his brother, Nick, wrote TC: Tom Carroll, a long-awaited biography of this Australian surfing legend.

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