Surfing the tide of a wild mind
Being diagnosed with a mental health disorder can be scary. It can leave you feeling trapped and hopeless. Writer and friend of The Indigo Project, Jonno, knows this all too well. Here, he shares his story of being diagnosed with a mood disorder, and how a remarkable meeting with gutsy surfer-entrepreneur Grant Trebilco, helped him feel differently about his condition and how it could be harnessed to help spread awareness and break the stigma of mental health.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 21. I didn’t think that would ever be something I’d announce publicly. In fact, when it happened, I distinctly remember feeling like it was a death sentence.
Bipolar disorder, no matter what form it takes, is no picnic. It’s tricky to pick up, a real minefield to treat and often difficult to extricate from someone’s personality. Mine began to manifest itself during high school and flew under the radar for so long largely due to my generally gregarious and over-talkative nature. But by my first year at University, it was clear something was very wrong.
“I slept for a total of about two hours, behaved incredibly recklessly and was almost entirely out of control. It’s still quite amazing I didn’t end up in jail.”
I went through least three prolonged periods of depressive shutdown, which would eventually cost me my law degree, not to mention entire weeks where I slept for a total of about two hours, behaved incredibly recklessly and was almost entirely out of control. It’s still quite amazing I didn’t end up in jail.
Various doctors prescribed me every drug in the alphabet, none of which worked for long. Some were such heavy tranquilisers I became a bloated, shuffling zombie, others messed with my now-fragile chemical balance and inadvertently tipped me over the edge. The Mental Health Crisis team were called to my house on more than one occasion to stop me doing something dangerous, like jumping off the balcony or setting fire to our place because I had taken to smoking inside at all hours of the night. It was a ride nobody would let me get off.
When I was formally handed my diagnosis, I cried for so long outside the psychiatrist’s office that my Dad literally had to carry me back to the car. I thought I would never get a fulltime job, find success, get married or be happy. It was very clear to me that this was not something I would ever tell an employer or partner.
A number of years later, I met Grant Trebilco, who also has bipolar and founded OneWave. He made me feel differently. Grant, to use his parlance, is a ‘weapon’. He has been busting down stigmas around mental health long before it became something trendy that brands co-opted to sell yoga pants. And in the surf community no less, notorious for being closed-off, aggressive and insular.
Grant and I have very different backgrounds, but it turned out we also have a lot in common. We have worked together informally for years, but I always wanted to find a way to step it up and help OneWave grow even larger.
I’ve always had a lot of energy, especially when it comes to working on pro bono projects I’m passionate about. A few years ago, that culminated in a music festival in support of the gay marriage vote, but if I think about it realistically, it’s been happening forever. It’s where the manic part of my disorder comes in handy;
“I can push harder and fight longer for something if I believe in it. I will work all night and day, take on multiple roles and never give up. It took me a long time to realise that, when harnessed correctly, this was a gift.”
Grant has also learned this about himself. He has gone from grassroots activist to media personality and global community organiser in only a few years. He and I caught up for coffee when I was back in Sydney. As we looked for new ideas for OneWave, I explained that a big barrier for first time or learner surfers (like I was, at 25) is the cost and accessibility of boards. Even a terrible foamie is $300+, and that skyrockets the better you get. It means that many people who could benefit from the salt-water therapy that OneWave offers may get cold feet.
The result of that conversation, The Free The Funk board, launched last week. It’s a unique partnership with Awayco, which lets you rent boards all around the world and Mick Fanning‘s softboard line. (Yes, that Mick Fanning.) We did this whole thing for go to whoa in about a month, with a core team of three. That’s everything from PR to partnerships to photo shoots. Grant’s energy is infectious, as is his attitude, so needless to say, none of this felt like work.
Anyone can book this board free through Awayco on Fluro Fridays to get out in the water and get some headspace, no matter how old they are or their skill level. Our pilot takes in Bondi, Maroubra and Cronulla, but this is easily scalable. If people love it and use it, there’s no reason it can’t go global.
The project deliberately coincides with OneWave’s 6th birthday, which hit over 100 beaches simultaneously across the world last week. One of those was at my beloved Bondi while I sat in my kitchen table in London, acting as a remote publicist. It was incredible to watch, even if only through Instagram.
Pulling this together cross-continentally tested my own mental strength, but I am so happy. I am happy I’m alive, I am happy I can help the people and the community I love and I’m happy that the scared 21-year old finally found a positive outlet for his unexplainable, unwieldy energy.
Kanye West has said a lot of questionable things lately, but he got it right last year when he said bipolar disorder isn’t a disability, it’s a superpower. Learning to utilise this does not happen overnight. There were many dead-ends, frustrating meetings, grand schemes and failed attempts to get to the point where I can be confident in what I can do and how to do it effectively. That includes looking after myself, getting enough sleep, checking in with experts and exercising. Superheroes aren’t born, as the saying goes, they’re made.
Grant’s certainly made himself into a bright fluoro superhero. I’m just glad to be along for the ride.
The Free The Funk pilot starts Friday 29 March and you can book your Free The Funk board right here.