A former drug and alcohol abuser finds a new way to get high-- with Stand-Up Paddling.
My body writhed with exhaustion as I navigated through the river. I was nauseous, dizzy, and disoriented. I was only 3 hours in to a 24-hour race and my body was telling me to stop. I couldn’t feel my toes, but I had to do this - it meant so much to me. I gritted my teeth and pushed on. The 220 Kilometre SUP race from Kingston to Ottawa was agonising. My weak legs, vacant expression, and fuzzy mind were symptoms I had experienced before - in another, darker life. But this time they were not due to wanton ingestion of outrageous amounts of illegal substances.
I was blessed with growing up on The Great Lakes, which meant I was always surrounded by water. I started windsurfing and kitesurfing when I was a young boy and got into paddle boarding in my 20s. I really loved the sport and competed in every competition that was hosted in my town, many ending in triumph. Everyone was telling me to take it somewhere and I believed I could.
My training ramped up and I was aspiring to compete internationally, when a divorce shattered both my life and paddling dreams in one hit. At the end of each day, instead of going out on my board, I would go to the bar and drown my sorrows in whatever I could get my hands on. It took over my life and I hit rock bottom. My drug of choice was cocaine, but I took a liberal view toward the alcohol I would drink. If it could mess me up, I was for taking it.
I lost my business. I lost all my money. I lost a lot of friends and connections with family. I lost contact with my son. In an act that perversely sealed the loss of my paddling career, I sold my board and paddles for money to buy drugs and alcohol. But I was in denial, I didn’t think I had a problem, I always thought I could get out of it if I wanted to.
In 2019, after 4 years of this, a long, embarrassing binge finally brought me to my knees. I was with my current girlfriend, Leanne, and she had some friends over at her house and we were drinking. I made myself look like an idiot. I was that drunken guy at the party and then some. She told me I made myself look foolish in front of her friends and hearing that made me feel disgusted with myself. That is when I realised, I needed to get some help. I was suddenly determined to get sober.
I tried Alcoholics Anonymous, but that just wasn’t working for me, so a friend of mine suggested that I get back on my paddleboard. I was 38, so the idea of competing professionally, a real possibility in my 20s, was long gone, but I was curious to get back on the water. As with everything else in my life, I jumped into it with both feet. I started paddling and SUP surfing any time I could: after work, before work, every weekend. My passion for the sport was still there. I hadn’t doused it despite 4 years of trying.
We need to route our addictive energies into something positive and away from the craving that still gnaws at us. Going out on my paddleboard became that for me. The high I experienced when I would go to the bar and have a drink or go to a drug dealer for some drugs is the same high I experience when I paddle. It’s a natural high. I could so easily go back to alcohol or drugs, but instead of driving to the bar, now I drive to the beach.
I watched the 2019 broadcast of the APP World Tour and saw the competitors paddle faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, and it reignited my dream to paddle professionally. Now, my days consist of going to work and then going to the beach to train, as I furiously try to retrieve what I lost in my 20s. It's working. I am beating personal bests that I set years ago and have applied for a wildcard for the APP World Tour and am hoping to compete this year.
I also dream of using my story to help other addicts. This year, I am hosting ‘You Can SUP’ sessions in my town, offering Stand Up Paddle sessions to adults with alcohol and drug addictions. I want to introduce them to the ocean to help them to get back to a sober life.
It's now a year and a half since I put down my last drink. I have a girlfriend, 3 step-kids and my own construction company where I work 12-hour days. I would lie if I said It isn’t still difficult to stay sober, it’s difficult every day. But instead of reaching for a drink to deal with it, I grab my board and go paddling.
Stand Up Paddling has saved my life. I think I would be dead or in jail if I hadn’t re-found it - that’s how low it got for me. Now I have an amazing support network thanks to my girlfriend, and I have begun to rebuild bridges with family and friends that I lost. I have realised that there are much happier places out there than the bottle and I want to help others realise that too.