Sunny Garcia Surf Champion, Triathlete & legendary free spirit : Shares his struggle with depres
"My best race so far" was the instagrammed news yesterday from Sunny in Oceanside California, where he had just completed the IRONMAN 70.3 in 6 hours 20 minutes that morning. At 45 years old, Sunny's abs, psychological drive and spirit of commitment are on par with other all-around athletes in history such as Lou Gehrig, Wilt Chamberlin, Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe and Jim Brown. But the news to me was that in-between achieving the personal best victory and then posting about it that evening, he replied to a message I had sent him. I asked if there was anything I could share as a therapist with the children and "big kid" surfers (ie: adults) around here about how he copes with depression. I had learned about it recently as everyone else had, on social media.
In his well known "do it my way" fashion, Sunny Garcia went to his popular instagram account three months ago to announce to the world that he suffers from depression, and asked for help. This powerful and rare reaching-out, is a stark reminder that depression happens to successful people too. While I read and watched videos of Sunny interviewed over the years, I found myself looking for the "why" many people do when they hear about someone with a mood disorder. I didn't wonder because I was unaware that depressive disorders span every age, culture, socioeconomic and gender profile, or because I didn't know that depression exists steadily in the U.S. Population at between 5% (lifetime recurrent) and 10% (event related). But because I am simply awed at Sunny's public and professional journey and that is only a sliver of his whole self.
Sunny and I are near the same age, and I have grown up in a surf culture beach community in California, so over the years I have heard his name referenced over and over again as synonymous with competition, glory ,savage victory and strength. And that is one big reason elite athletes have such a hard time admitting, and then accepting help. Not only is it against their drilled in nature to admit defeat in a less than supporting and sometimes cutthroat environment, but in the culture of sports, “mental toughness” is as valued as physical prowess and acknowledging their struggle can be feared as acknowledging they're "through". This can be especially exacerbated in the case of athletes when nearing the end of their active competition years as they are often training since youth with sport peers serving as replacement "family" members, providing the only attachments of depth the athlete may identify with. Sunny describes himself as coming from a very poor family and "broken home" as his father left at age 5. Sunny then left too, as much as possible. Surfboard under arm and without provisions of food or water for the day, he walked 5 miles to surf, and surf and surf. The ocean is his ohana as much as the people he found at the beach in the simpler surfing culture of the 1970's and 80's. That place, time and every interaction was the way he connected and achieved attention all humans need as they grow, and where he formed his identity. The identity of the charming wild and free spirited fierce competitor, willing to sacrifice and fight for his place in the sun. In the ocean he gleamed like a sun. He is after all, "Sunny" Garcia. As the business of surf in the 1990's and thereafter came to dominate attitudes, professional focus and money, money, money, Sunny undoubtedly felt the loss. Indeed in several YouTube videos I watched, Sunny laments the "uncontrollable" and "unstoppable" domination and superficial marketing of the "purity of surfing" by corporatization of the surf "lifestyle" industry as well as the rule laden, snide and vicious competitiveness of the branded sport. His grief is palpable as he explains in a video interview that "Hawaii has not benefitted in any way from the surf 'industry' and in fact has suffered".
This is the part of his story where my energy goes. As a psychotherapist, a human, a once child and now mom, my heart fills and aches a little. In a powerful interview from 2013 for The Inertia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wzeyzo754LI) Sunny shares his simultaneous strength and vulnerability when he describes the true meaning for him, of "aloha". "Aloha is how Hawaii used to be. Aloha is when you see your friends that you haven't seen for awhile and you are so happy to see them and really inviting, It's just that feeling of pure love, ya know? Just pure happiness." Watching the monster of industry with young hungry, sponsored and sometimes smack talking, competitors flown in from all over the world claiming space, rights and attention in and over his One hanau, his ohana, must be a challenging letting go for Sunny. He appeals for "respect" to not come "piss in my backyard", and I feel myself wanting for him to be able to school the world on the topic I think he really cares about; love.
Even recently Sunny has described "haters" that I easily found with a cursory search on the internet who still gossip, slander and kick at his sharing his depression with the world. Comments such as "There's the Kleenex for when you start cryin'" and "That's what he deserves for being a dick all these years", make me grateful I am not in the position of celebrity or fame. Beyond the puzzle of identity and security when coming from a poor and broken family of origin, the false sense of self and driving pressure cooker of elite sport, fame in itself seems like a tricky psychological burden at times. The recent years of Sunny's evolvement feel to me, as a rising up and settling in to a more balanced and authentically humbled man.
In the Inertia interview Sunny reveals his priorities and values when he talks about his biggest fear in life as "losing my family", his wife, children and grandkids...and then he quickly defrays with a serious but sly sparkle in his eye and says, "and sharks, seriously, sharks". But I know better, we all do. Fear doesn't equivocate restraint for this keiki of the sea and kanaka of heart, as he dives in as he always has, to surf, to swim, to ride, to be a family man, to be a friend and advocate for others, to be free.
Sunny's reply to me exemplifies exactly that. I asked him about how has he been getting through, and what does he suggest for others who feel overwhelmed or sad, and he prioritized answering that question before posting about his monumental day to his own followers. He said he has been doing triathlons because the training keeps him busy and his mind off things. He said he also tries to be around people that he loves. He explained that staying busy is good, as long as you like what you are doing. And then he congratulated me, for being a sober person. Three hours after completing his personal best in the IRONMAN 70.3, he congratulated...me.
The vibrant Sunny Garcia, who has his whole life put himself to the test in his body, mind and heart for the spirit of competition, is a generous fighter. In announcing to the world that he struggles with depression, he bares his real muscles for fighting real battles, in the name of the things that matter to him most...and he lets us all watch as he paddles out for his personal best in love and health. Best to you Sunny, and congratulations!
ABOUT DEPRESSION: Many people, not necessarily in elite sport, experience the same root concerns and drive factors related to family attachment strain, identity blurring and social/societal stressors and they can experience depression too. It may not be fully realized until an event such as a death in their family, divorce or other traumatic experiences and/or loss. Another factor to consider is that some persons are biochemically vulnerable to these environmental stressors. In fact most theories about depression consider some variance of the two are likely to be the culprit.
For information about depression, it's symptoms and treatment recommendations, the National Institute of Mental Health is a great resource, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml and please see your doctor or mental health provider as soon as possible. Depression is nothing to be embarrassed about. Seeking help may seem like a risk, but it is a healthy risk.
Lynn Talmon 2015