Surf-Head

Psychiatry in waves.

Fantability Vs. Viscereality…Oh, and Surfing

Digital vs. analog, fantasy vs. reality when treating malaise and depression

I keep almost writing a piece on winter surf as a paradigm for hope and a hedge against depression. It would go like this:

 

Braving the winter surf as cure
Imagine, or more aptly, recall a bitter, subseasonally cold day in the post-holiday-crash season. Barring flames and flowing lava, the outside is as unwelcoming as it gets. The promise of at least two to three months of this completes the classic, animal model for depression, via learned helplessness. Stuck in a cage, the rat (you) gets an electric shock with each effort it makes to mitigate the dread of it’s circumstances. Lick the water bottle? Shock. Nibble a chew stick? Shock. Break for the door? Wait for it… shock.  In the human case, the construct may feel mushier. Try to read a book? Malaise. Swallow three stale cupcakes? Nausea….malaise. Pour yourself a beer at 3pm? Buzz…guilt…nausea….malaise. Ultimately the lesson of this inescapable paradigm seems regressive hibernation, and learned helplessness or impotence-based depression.

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Now imagine a tiny, precariously placed web-cam shooting perfect, glassy 5-ft barrels, with a wisp of crest blowing off in an offshore breeze. A lone soul-surfer vadels down the line, as if placed for effect and scale.  Shoulder to head high perfection. This is not Hawaii, Costa Rica, or Bali. The snowy foreground trans-morphs trite fantasy to sublime surreality. This is Rockaway. Borough of Queens, City of New York. An hour out on the A train.

The existence of that cam, that silent shot persisting through winter has always been my digital talisman and key to the gates of liberation and transcendence. Enough to score a chink in the snow-globe of winter limitations, isolation, suffocation. Notably, it’s not a vision of Hawaii, Nirvana, or a glorious after-life, rather a fanatability (fantasy-possibility hybrid). I could actually be there in under an hour, escaping the shackles of learned helpless depression. 

I keep almost writing about that because I get so excited that such a fantabilty, aided by low-res video seems enough to liberate the spirit from routed-in tracts of despondency. I don’t actually need to surf to transcend my misery. (After all, the web-cam is leaving out the frigid north wind and 15 degree base-line temperature). Just knowing I could do it breaks the self-reinforcing cycling of frustration.

But, the reason I don’t write that piece is that, on some level, I know that the digitally illustrated fantability is not quite the good stuff. Yesterday, encouraged by an apocalyptically prescient temperature spike to 48, I took the fantability to analog experience, and went surfing. Shoulder to head-high waves. 30 knot side-shore winds. 46 degree water temp. And not a soul around but me. Between mid-tide sea surges, the Michelin-man thickness of my winter wetsuit, and the cold spray in my face, I only had the fortitude for an hour in the water. But the three clean rides I caught, each with two or three crisp turns in the silence of my wetsuit hood transcended the power of any mere fantabilty. Let’s call this refueling by total immersion of body and mind a visceral reality, or hell, viscereality. If imagining the possibility of surf is waking to the smell of bacon on a winter morning, this was devouring a suckling pig off a spit following a morning joust. Despite everything we can recreate, reproduce, rationalize, or justify, the return to the visceral, the natural, and engagement to the fullest extent we dare risk always trumps mere mortally laid plans. I’m no animistic, crunchy hippy, but, 8 out of 10 times, a return to the natural source is where the true money, redemption, and liberation hide out. GD

Greg Dillon, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at the Weill Cornell Medical College. more...

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