Speak Your Mind. Part 1 of 4.
Speak Your Mind. Part 1 of 4. A Story From Issue 44.
Bodyboarding has long been a culture infused with adrenaline and hyper-masculinity. Everyone has their sights locked on beating the next guy in competition, or riding the heaviest waves. Human vulnerability was career damaging. And let’s not bullshit each other: the culture of silence around mental health is deeply ingrained in our social fabric. Vicious stigmas yield self-censorship and isolation in those facing personal demons, and such psychological prejudices carry a heavy burden which can lead to tragic ends.
Our community has come to know this in recent times with the loss of both Teahupoo charger Tyson Williams and British talent Jarryd Wingfield. In the wake of these dark events, it’s essential we reflect upon the individual roles we play in harbouring a culture of compassion, respect and openness to everyone in our community who is struggling with mental illness. To help traverse this global breakthrough moment, we asked some of our sport’s most reputable players to share their stories.
In the personal accounts that follow, there are no pretentious, easy solutions; no how-to guides or swift exits or absolute and finite truths about the exhortations of our minds. As these warriors glance into the rearview mirror and reflect on their bouts and achievements, we’re reminded that each one of us is simply giving it our best to get through another day.
Part 1 Phil Gallagher (Movement Magazine Senior Photographer & Publisher of Le Boogie Magazine)
‘I was drawn to capturing bodyboarding through the lens as a way of creating something new. That drive steered me to document new locations, explore different camera techniques and shooting conditions, expose up-and-coming riders to the global scene, start my own magazine and produce my book. But then came a time when I felt I’d given so much of myself to the sport that I was no longer doing it for me. Running a magazine and supporting the industry in myriad forms was causing a lot of financial stress; I just felt burned out. I couldn’t give out more as a human and photographer. I was mentally drained.
It was a period of uncontrollable emotions fuelled by intense highs and lows. Some days I would be the most charismatic person in the room. Others, I wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes and instead felt empty of energy and wandered alone. My fiancée at the time – today my wife – was unhappy to see me struggling and was blunt about it: if we were to take a lifelong commitment, I needed to address what I was going through. Hearing it from someone I respected and planned to share my life with was pretty confronting and it pushed me to seek help, which later confirmed that I was bipolar.
"As an artist and visionary, i found myself the most productive during those periods. And as the manic phases didn’t render me dangerous or delusional, i found them kind of addictive.” - phil gallagher
That said, I don’t think that my condition was a catalyst for stepping aside from the boogie universe. If anything, some of my most creative and craziest ideas came from the high, or manic, stages of the illness. As an artist and visionary, I found myself the most productive during those periods. And as the manic phases didn’t render me dangerous or delusional, I found them kind of addictive.
But what goes up must come down and I was soon slumping through the low, depressive stages. That’s when I’d switch off from everything and stay in bed all day, completely off-the-grid and anti- social. Or maybe I’d lock myself in the office working my brains out.
There were also moments when I couldn’t focus or function like an everyday person, so I’d distract myself with meaningless things, hoping for some kind of healing.
In that dark place, I’d treat myself with partying, heavy drinking and drug-taking to escape from feeling shitty. The next day, however, I wouldn’t be dealing with a regular hangover, rather a genuine moment of weakness that, if failed to be taken care of, would lead me down the depressive highway. Looking back, I reckon that partying was a trigger to feeling helpless and sinking into depression. Other catalysts would be financial stress or the aftermath of feeling rundown from work or an exhausting trip. I guess those emotions crept up from moments of concern.
After seeing psychiatrists and social workers, I engaged in mood- stabilising treatment for a couple of years. The meds were like a resting place for me, giving me time to mentally recharge, clear up ideas and reassess where I lived, worked and the people I surrounded myself with. Ultimately, it helped me find the confidence to carry on with some of the biggest changes in my life: relocating with the family from Sydney to Byron Bay and adding to our parenthood journey with our second child. But since earlier in the treatment, I sensed that the medication wouldn’t work for me in the long run. It made me feel physically numb and I put on some weight. Six months after relocating, I stopped taking the meds and it’s been now five years since I last took a tablet.
I don’t advise dropping the medication – it might not work for everyone. I still have highs and lows, but I feel like I can handle them better these days. I recognize my triggers and I’m aware of the strategies to replenish myself. Being physically active is a big one for me. When I’m feeling run down, I go for a swim, a bike ride or a surf knowing that I’ll return home with the strength to deal with any problems at hand. But it’s equally important to surround yourself with the people you love, have a workspace where you feel happy, eat well and to simply do the things you’re passionate about. For me, these quick healers brought balance to my highs and lows.
The real game-changer in the healing process, though, was being open and vulnerable about my problems. As a young man, that’s the most important advice I have to share, particularly because men have this ingrained culture that says talking about their feelings is a sign of weakness; that they are always expected to be the strongest, the most successful and ride the biggest wave. So it’s hard to suddenly be forced to admit that you’re struggling or that something is making you feel emotions that you can’t control. But you don’t have to be Superman all the time and verbalizing your feelings – either with your family, friends, a professional or a group of men experiencing the same hurdles – lifts an indescribable weight from your chest. It shows that you’re not alone in your battles. That’s why, at home, we dedicate ourselves to making sure our children share their emotions and know that it’s okay to ask for help. How can things ever change if you don’t start embedding them into your home?
I like to think that the stigma clouding men is changing, but I don’t see it being talked about enough – both in Australia and around the world. This conversation is still an elephant in the room, so there were definitely some reservations for me in coming forward. It took time to get confident enough to speak quite candidly about it. As a young male, it would be amazing if I shared my feelings without being ridiculed or talked to my friends without being laughed at and looked at as a stranger.
And yeah, that hypermasculinity is very strong in the surfing world. In a competitive scenario, you don’t want anyone to perceive you as weak. People would potentially distance themselves from you or use it against you in any way. It’s a hard situation. In the surfing world, things get taken too seriously. I feel like the general public looks at it and thinks, “What do they have to complain about? They’re travelling the world and surfing while I’m stuck at a day job”. That’s the stigma around it and unfortunately there’s not an environment where it’s encouraged to talk about it.
I think with bodyboarding it’s a little bit different. There are a few key figures who’ve spoken out about mental health in the past and because we’re such a tight-knit community, these things are better received. Personally, after being honest with my crew about my illness, I felt a great support from my buddies. But there is still a lot more talking to be done and resources to be allocated so that the next generation can find a safe space to be honest about their feelings too. I really hope this reality changes in the sport and that I’m part of the solution. Throughout my journey, bodyboarding was always extremely generous to me. Whether riding or photographing, being in the ocean was consistently a good way to treat mental stress; it’s been a place of healing and resetting. Joining the community again as an active photographer is always in my mind. You can’t just switch your brain off when it comes to checking swell maps, wondering if the surf is good or reminiscing with friends about that time you found a wave. I’m optimistic that this year I’ll continue to be out shooting waves when the conditions are good. My reasons to do so remain the same as they ever were: to share experiences, enjoy them with friends and reset the body and mind.'