Speak Your Mind. Part 4 of 4 - Andre Botha

Photo:  @joshuatabone

Speak Your Mind. Part 4 of 4. A Story From Issue 44.

This story is a continuation from Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of Speak your Mind. On our final week of the 4 part series, we talk with Andre Botha about the fight that he has had with mental health in the past few years. The story was originally published in Issue 44 of Movement Magazine. Written by Ricardo Miguel Vieira

Mental health has been a subject that was often prisoned in the shadows by its keeper, hidden there like a murderer of masculinity. But, after the recent deaths of two of our beloved brothers - Tyson Williams and Jarryd Wingfield - we feel that it is a subject that needs to come out of the shadows and is discussed; after all, one in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year so chances are someone in your close circle of friends - or you - are struggling with mental health right now.

Part 4 Andre Botha

‘Since childhood, bodyboarding has been a ubiquitous presence in my life. When I was younger, I was literally obsessed with it. I paddled out every single day without really minding about the conditions. At 15, I landed a sponsorship with Billabong that included a huge travel cheque to chase the best waves in the world and thus become the most evolved rider I could be. With both the financial support and my own drive to be a champion, I dropped out of school and went on carving a path that enabled me to win two world titles while exploring the ocean in many different locations.

But with the relief of winning the second title, and proving that I wasn’t just a young fluke, I lost the drive to compete and apply myself fully to bodyboarding. From an age point-of-view, I was a naïve 18-year-old working through his own changes. As I tried to figure out certain things in life after an undivided dedication to the sport, I decided to move on and seek a new direction.

Soon after securing my second title, I relocated to California to live with a girl I fell in love with. I went full on into the relationship and discovered new interests along the way, like photography and art. I was spending less time bodyboarding, popping up in the lineup only when the heavy swells and good conditions hit the coast.

Alongside these life transformations, a chain of events slowly unfolded and stealthily turned things darker. Over the course of three years, my sponsorship with Wave Rebel crumbled when they figured out that I had been riding bodyboards shaped by Nick Mesritz, Billabong shaved my pay substantially as they started to pull the plug on the sport and although continuously active on tour, my results in contests went downhill. Those decisive moments built over time to put me in a weird frame of mind. I lost a lot of weight and indulged in heavy partying and alcohol abuse, serving as a distraction from the challenges ahead. Then the relationship with my girlfriend went to ashes, which left me with proper and deep heartache. The wheels fell off and I ended up falling into a depression and moving to South Africa to recover from years of shattering events and damaging debauchery.

"It’s easier said than done but I think getting to know yourself is an important part of the healing process.” - Andre Botha

Staying in Durban with my parents, my life entered a limbo. I was without sponsors and depressed from the unfolding circumstances of past years. For the first couple of months I stayed idly put, then moved to Cape Town to work for almost a year in a family Bed & Breakfast. During this long period, I seldom paddled out. Midway through my new life, a sponsorship came into play and I regained my motivation to get back into bodyboarding. I guess working at a regular job after a life chasing waves was a real eye-opener to how fortunate I was for having the opportunity to boogie and travel. So I went back to Durban and trained hard for three months until I was finally fit to travel.

As I roamed and surfed the world again, I found myself slowly slipping into those old, extreme habits. I’d surf when the waves were good, but not as much as expected. I just wasn’t serious about it and took the money from the sponsorships for granted. Soon enough, I’d be out there living on the edge, partying loads and substance abusing. And once things got out of hand, I’d return to South Africa, stop drinking, focus on training, bodyboarding and eating well until I was ready to go on the next trip and replay the same behaviour. This vicious cycle went on for quite a while, fuelled by an underlying depression. I ended up pissing off everyone in the bodyboarding community.

This destructive pattern went on for years until I reached my final bout with alcohol abuse in 2012. I had just come out of a year where I lost my sponsorship with Turbo and my dear friend, Eddie Solomon (from 662 MOB, a brand that has supported me throughout my career). My bodyboarding career went to shambles and I didn’t ride a single wave for eight months. After a period living in Morocco with my wife-to-be, I returned to South Africa and we both started working for my father researching renewable energy. In July of that same year, Trish and I celebrated our wedding; I drank so much that when I woke up the next morning, I felt like I was going to die. After years of ruining my body with alcohol, reality kicked in and I had an anxiety attack that scared the crap out of me. Right there I decided that I wanted to live and promised myself I would never drink again – and so it goes up to this day.

Photo:  @joshuatabone

Over the years, I’d developed this practice of being able to come off drinking so I knew I had the willpower to do it and when the moment came, the thought of it just didn’t cross my mind. I’m aware that not everyone is able to just “come off” an addiction or a depression like that – I, for one, have been dealing with anxiety and depression for the past couple of years. But people have to find whatever routines and practices work for them to overcome their struggle. Of course, it’s easier said than done but I think the experience of getting to know myself is an important part of the healing process. It was surely during my deepest, darkest times that I got to know me a bit better, allowing me to appreciate where I come from.

I was quite rebellious against people who were trying to help me. From my experience, I went out of my way to show to others that I needed help. I was fortunate to have people coming to me in those moments. I was very blessed that some in the bodyboarding community actually reached out to my parents when I was out of control, even if at first I got angry at them for betraying me. But really, if you care about someone, then you just do what needs to be done. Still, despite the help, I could only be where I am now by my own means. It was ultimately a personal decision to change my ways and nowadays I just seek help if I need it. Letting go of my ego definitely accounts to part of my recovery process.

I’m stoked to still be able to travel and live the bodyboarding lifestyle. It’s something I’ve always relied on since my teen years and contributed to my recovery. Being married for six years also brought stability to my life and as we’re about to have our child, I’m just excited – and naturally scared as well – for the next chapter.

Nowadays, I rely a lot on physical activities to keep my mind healthy. Jogging has been my saviour in life – it’s a simple release and organises the brain a bit. For a long time, I also carried around a sketchpad with me; it was a way of being a bit productive during dark times. Creative release can be very beneficial. If you start drawing on a blank canvas without a mental reference, the image will form itself as if the universe is guiding you. Ultimately though, what boosts my wellbeing is to ride heavy waves. It gives me straight relief while finding the right balance between dangerous and risky situations. Those are humbling lessons that I’ve learned through bodyboarding and that I make sure to apply to other facets of life. I know for sure that I’ll just keep on driving towards the next wave.'

We dedicate this feature to Tyson Williams and Jarryd Wingfield.Need someone to talk to? Reach out to Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636; beyondblue.org.au), Lifeline (13 11 14; lifeline.org.au) or your national support service.‘