Ups And Downs: Can Surfing Help Your Mental Health?
That blast of Moroccan heat when the doors open at Agadir airport has never been more welcome. And, as I board the minibus that will take my group to the retreat, it is hard to balance the familiar holiday feeling with the reticence when anticipating just how much of yourself you might share with these people, complete strangers. Because this isn’t a holiday. If mental illness were a physical affliction, the week would be tantamount to invasive surgery. I’m here to be cut and probed at the aptly named Resurface, a surfing retreat. There is no one type of person here. Recovering drug addicts, abuse survivors, co-dependants and straight-up sufferers of mental health issues are all in attendance. Being in the latter camp almost makes me feel dull, if not slightly unworthy.
This trip was planned almost two years ago – scheduled for May 2020 – and since then, it’s safe to say, mental illness has become a far more obvious and widespread issue. We’ve all been staring at walls, looking inside ourselves that little bit more than we’d like. Zoning out while Netflix asks, “Are you still watching?” Sleeping too much or too little. In a constant state of high alert, craving face-to-face human interaction, but terrified of the consequences interaction could bring.
For me, the timing couldn’t be better. It’s an opportunity to escape a vicious circle of overworking, isolation and self-criticism. I reason that, even if I get nothing from the therapy, learning a new sport and receiving a healthy dose of vitamin D, away from breaking news alerts, will do me good.
Mr Josh Dickson, a psychologist and therapist for trauma recovery (and a man who looks far younger than his years) is Resurface UK’s founder and clinical director. Working as a psychotherapist specialising in trauma and mental health, he saw the chance to take his work further. “I’d read The Body Keeps The Score, which talks about psychomotor therapy, essentially psychodrama, to help heal attachment wounds to past trauma,” he says.
He wasn’t sure where to take it, then, on his 40th birthday, Dickson was in a yoga surf retreat in Sri Lanka, when he had an idea. He’d had a good day and was feeling that warm bubble of creativity when, “Boing! The thought popped in. Why don’t I try to combine this with a therapeutic retreat?” He spoke about it with his wife, Dr Kristine Steffenak (a doctor of medicine and cofounder of Resurface), and after a successful trial in Devon, they tried Morocco and started building it up. Pre-Covid, they were doing up to one retreat a month.
Resurface’s base is about half-an-hour’s drive from the city of Agadir, in Tamraght, one of a number of rustic settlements dotted along this stretch of coast, most of them dating back to the western hippies who first came to this area in the 1970s and relabelled the bays and beaches with names such as Crocodile, Dracula and Camel. One of the prime spots in the world for surfing, thanks to its variety of sheltered coves, open bays and jagged breaks, it offers something for every level of ineptitude, down to and including mine.
Each day is divided into five sections: morning yoga, a lecture and workshop, four hours of surf lessons, experiential group therapy and evening mindfulness and meditation. Everything but the surfing takes place in the Riad Dar Haven, a beautiful classic Moroccan structure with a pretty courtyard at its centre, located on a dusty, uneven backstreet. Every morning we are woken twice by the calls to prayer and, as the sun starts to hide behind the ocean, we practise meditation on the roof to the sound of the evening call.
“There’s no question that surfing is therapeutic, but it’s there to prepare you for the deeper group work later. It doesn’t have to be surfing. It can be any flow-state activity”
For the surfing, we go where a surf forecast app, which uses swell direction, wave size, water temperature and other sophisticated-sounding factors, tells us. Sometimes it’s just over the road or a 90-minute drive through the banana farms and argan groves to the picturesque surf town of Imsouane.
I repeatedly somersault headfirst into a surprisingly warm Atlantic Ocean, the briny water sweeping over my body and up my nose. Somehow, I manage to stand up on the board by the end of the first session. The effort of pushing through the breaks to get out there, sitting on the board waiting for the swell, going through the motions of attempting to stand as the perfect wave carries you back to the beach… And repeat.
As I breathlessly trudge against the rip tide back to the shore, a surfboard strapped to my left ankle, any opportunities to worry about the afternoon sessions are usurped by concentrating on the present. For someone who has suffered with anxiety and chronic depression and catastrophises on a regular basis, this is nothing short of miraculous – and this isn’t even the therapy part of the week.
At Resurface, the surfing is expressly not therapy. It is a chance for the mind, if not the body, to recover and process and, through a combination of serotonin and dopamine post-surfing, essentially being happy and knackered, make the brain more receptive to the heavier parts of the day.
“There’s no question that surfing is therapeutic, but it’s there to prepare you for the deeper group work later,” says Dickson. “It doesn’t have to be surfing. It can be any flow-state activity.” A flow state, better known as being “in the zone”, is when one is fully immersed in an activity – just like me writing this right n… Oh, hold on, someone’s liked one of my tweets…
“The powerful thing about group work is you bust yourself in the mirror a lot. A grief addict would probably see themselves in someone else and go, ‘Oh my god, that’s what I’ve been like’”
Every afternoon, we nervously seat ourselves on cushioned benches in a perfectly pleasant group room in the riad, although, as the week progresses, it increasingly feels like the Red Room in Twin Peaks. One brave person volunteers themself for “the work”, basically a psychodrama. They pinpoint a particular trauma in their life and choose people from the rest of the group to play the participants in this scenario. The person will then address an individual whom they feel they need to talk to. This could be anyone from an abuser, a neglectful parent, an estranged sibling, a bully or even their younger selves. The roles are then reversed in a technique called mirroring, where they assume the other role and their words are repeated to them.
The process is so involving that the group members playing the characters must “de-role” at the end – “I’m not your brother, I’m Matt” – in order to draw a line under the scenario. We then debrief with observations and comments, but no judgements. As I said, this isn’t a holiday. I find myself needing to be on my own for a while afterwards, unable to converse at dinner due to a racing mind, unable to settle, dissociating, cutting a solemn figure in the throes of a thousand-yard stare. But this process is cathartic, says Dickson. “The powerful thing about group work is you bust yourself in the mirror a lot. So, for example, a grief addict would probably see themselves in someone else and go, ‘Oh my god, that’s what I’ve been like.’”
The intensity of those afternoons is a lot to handle. As the week goes on, I notice my anxiety building, the pressure I’m placing on myself to do my work is giving me sleepless nights and nervy days, an uncomfortable juxtaposition alongside the beating sun and sandy beaches. But something happens on the final day where I no longer find myself a ball of anxiety when I enter that room. Maybe I’m just too tired to feel nervous. Maybe I knew I needed a good end for the story.
A few weeks later, I am still processing all this and still spinning slightly. I didn’t have the palpable breakthrough some others had, but I did leave something there, a burden of guilt, possibly. And the fact that the group validated my struggles was a huge moment for me. A “regular” mental illness had made me feel unworthy next to the other stories here, but this isn’t Top Trumps. Your suffering, whatever shape it comes in, is justified.
Much like getting up onto a surfboard, the experience forms a strong foundation on which to build. You see the wave coming and recognise the one you’re going to ride. You keep your head up, paddle and maintain your balance. As you improve, you can steer into that once intimidating wave that has swept you up and maybe have some fun with it. By the end of the week, I’m managing to stand up every time I try.
Illustration by Ms Ana Yael