The Drop: Surfing, Addiction and God

By Mark Judge Published on July 23, 2021

Thad Ziolkowski has written a beautiful and spirit-filled book. The Drop: How the Most Addictive Sport Can Help Us Understand Addiction and Recovery explores surfing and its relationship to addiction. Equal parts memoir, scientific exploration and search for God. Equal parts Thomas Merton, the Beach Boys and Oliver Sacks. It’s wonderful.

Ziolkowski argues that surfing, like drugs and alcohol, offers an escape into a “liminal state.” It’s a kind of place in between heaven and earth. The beach is a spot between the everyday world and something grander, both primal and dreamlike. Drugs and intoxicants also offer an escape to an in-between place. On top of that, there seems to be something in the brain chemistry of a lot of the best surfers that lures them into drug and alcohol abuse. The same hyper, quick-scanning brain that can negotiate split-second decisions while catching a wave often craves a similar rush on shore.

Of course, while surfing is a healthy activity, addiction is destabilizing, evil and often deadly. The Drop is an attempt to liberate surfing from the toxic drug culture that has been a part of the sport since the 1960s.

Addicts and Surfers

The author himself got into drugs and alcohol shortly after his parents divorced when he was a kid in 1968. “I felt anguish and confusion about having failed to be what I assumed I always was: the product and embodiment of the magic that had attracted my parents to each other and by all rights should have kept them together.”

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Ziolkowski’s mother remarried and moved the family to Florida. There, he thrived as a young surfer, winning competitions. Ziolkowski also started smoking weed, and eventually graduated to alcohol and cocaine. He poetically observes that an addict’s first hit and a surfer’s first wave are linked in the brain through the “thrill of being gathered up and borne along as if by magic.”

The author is a highly accomplished writer with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale. So there are classical references and some sentences that may require a bit more effort on the part of the readers — who might sometimes feel like a grom in a high tide of postgraduate syntax. Ziolkowski is also a very good reporter, providing short and compelling biographies of great surfers like Kelly Slater and Andy Irons and explaining the neuroscience of addiction.

Using One Addiction to Displace Another

Ziolkowski is wise and experienced enough to understand that there is a danger in using one addiction, surfing, to displace another. I don’t know what the author’s faith is, but this is a right ordering of things that Christians can understand and appreciate. For people who have dealt with addictions, surfing — or skydiving, skateboarding or swing dancing — can be part of a rich and fun new sober life. But it is not a replacement for our primary and ultimate devotion to God, the creator of the earth and its oceans. “It’s sad to think of all the opportunities I missed because I’m so obsessively addicted to surfing,” surfer Ken Bradshaw, who doesn’t have a family, tells Ziolkowski. “Don’t be me. I don’t have what most people want.”

For people who have dealt with addictions, surfing can be part of a rich and fun new sober life. But it is not a replacement for our primary and ultimate devotion to God.

When surfing is seen not as a god but a gift of God’s creation, it becomes glorious. Viewing a spectacular photograph by surf photographer Ron Stoner, Ziolkowski is awed: “the stirring perfection of it, the sense of amplitude, of space and light as alive — the fact that such glory exists on earth.”

Altruism on the Waves

In the second half of the book, Ziolkowski examines how surfing has become more mainstream in America since the 1960s. While it can be argued that surfing is a libertarian activity — “you paddle out alone, you fend for yourself” — Ziolkowski more accurately observes that “surfing is a highly tribal activity, with bylaws and mores passed down as a kind of shared history among peers.”

This tribe has expanded in recent decades and become more altruistic, with surf organizations serving veterans with PTSD and kids with special needs. Ziolkowski’s description of veterans and autistic kids coming to life through surf therapy are inspiring.

Freedom From a Dangerous Myth

At one climatic moment of self-realization, Ziolkowski had to separate himself from the drug culture that was a part of surfing, as well as the idea that great writers like him all had to have addiction problems as part of their story. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hunter Thompson — Ziolkowski had bought the story that to be creative was to be addicted. His account of how he freed himself from that dangerous myth is beautiful:

I metabolized this moral so completely that many years later, when I finally and decisively quit, it was like psychic surgery: I had to plunge into and seize myself, drag me out of the underground steam of this story about the drunken, visionary poet into which I had waded blind, becoming a votary of it, someone in whose veins flowed intoxicants. I rested on the bank beside myself, watched as I opened my eyes and sat up.


Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C.

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