“Get Up, Get Out.” How Fleahab Fights Addiction With Surfing
The most winning man at Mav’s on using the outdoors to help get people sober.
By now we hope you’ve seen Everything & All, Stab’s new doc that details Peter Mel’s struggles with drugs, his path to sobriety and that wave. To tell the full story, we brought in Peter’s friend and Maverick’s sparring partner, Darryl “ Flea” Virostko.
As one of Santa Cruz’s most iconic surfers, Flea had a reputation for going all in, both at Mav’s and the afterparty. He’s been open about this, and his compelling story has been told at length before. The innovative and competitive camaraderie with the Westside crew. Money. Drugs. Three consecutive Maverick’s titles. More money. More drugs.
Flea rode the extremes few people can imagine. He saw the highest highs before hitting literal rock bottom in 2008, falling from a 60-foot cliff while high north of town. After the incident, Flea checked himself into a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center.
Today, at age 49, Flea is more than a decade sober and since 2014 has operated Fleahab, an aptly named nonprofit and sober living facility that accommodates up to six men fighting to get sober. On a sunny morning with waves breaking below his beloved Steamer Lane, Flea, like he always does, spoke candidly about his process of helping others who are struggling, why exercise is at the core of recovery and where Fleahab is going next.
STAB: What was that initial process like for you in founding Fleahab?
FLEA: I was lucky to have my family help me with the whole thing. The gap when I first got out of recovery was probably the most challenging. I went from making really good money as a professional surfer to making zero money. It was tough, I had to fill in all these things and do these odd jobs to make money. I was trying to get my feet on the ground but I knew the bigger picture. I wanted to help people recover from drugs and alcohol. I just had a good mindset. I wanted to put my head down and do whatever it takes.
How did you take what you learned from your rehab and apply it to Fleahab?
I knew that I had surfing. Surfing helped me a ton with my recovery. I knew reintroducing things to people, like their passions, would really help them as well if they were struggling with drugs and alcohol. But it doesn’t have to be surfing. Having an open mind to try other sports and see if you like something is something that I wanted to bring to people.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in starting Fleahab?
It’s nuts how you start over again. When all you know is surfing and big waves and traveling, you go from that to learning all these new things. That was tough for sure. But surfing your whole life is something you can do regardless of work or play. Venturing into a new thing was very uncomfortable for me. It was just about getting confidence in doing new things and figuring out a way to make it work. I feel like I can communicate with people well, especially those in recovery. That was the easy part. But learning about the meetings, making sure everyone is doing their minutes, all those moving parts are crazy.
Why is surfing and exercise an effective part of the recovery process?
Balance is the biggest thing in everybody’s life, regardless of having an addiction or being a happy person. It’s about having a balance between play, work, family, whatever you have to do on a daily basis. I feel like that’s what is best for people to be happy in general. With drugs and alcohol, people forget about those things. They get distracted with taking a hit of meth or doing a line of coke or drinking and partying. That takes their time, not that old passion that they loved to do.
What was it like watching your old friend Peter Mel own his story in Everything & All?
I felt like it was about time. Pete kept it under wraps. I was very outspoken when I had a problem and I wanted people to understand that it’s okay to have a problem and it’s time to take care of it. I was really stoked on Pete and how vulnerable and honest he was. That was really hard for him, Pete’s not the type of guy, he’s pretty lowkey. For him to step out and do that was a really big step for him.
Do you think surfers abuse drugs and alcohol more than most? Or do you think it’s just like anything, where some people will and some won’t?
I think it’s everywhere. You could be a Silicon Valley guy that doesn’t even surf and you’re doing stuff. What surfing has going for itself is that it’s so beautiful. After you surf, all the boys are having a beer and one thing turns into the next and all of a sudden you’re going out. Because of the beauty of the environment, I think that adds to it. Think about mountain biking, I’m sure the guys have a cold beer from the cooler after they get down the mountain. I don’t think tennis is like that, but other sports have that mentality, “I’ve accomplished something, now it’s okay for me to drink.” Surfing has that because of the beauty that you’re in all the time. After you surf you just want to hang out and talk and watch the waves. It’s just fun.
What’s the daily routine at Fleahab?
They’re required to do meetings on their own, but if they need more support they can go to after-care. We just try to integrate surfing, sports, or anything they can do on a daily basis, we emphasize that a lot. It’s so important. Get up, get out, can’t hang out at the house. For the most part, it’s been successful and full. I could use five more houses.
What’s your day-to-day look like?
Apart from all the Fleahab stuff, like getting drug tests for the house and making sure it’s still running, I work at the Camp Recovery Center helping the youth surf with [Santa Cruz big-wave pioneer] Richard Schmidt. I also run the O’Neill Surf Shop team here in Santa Cruz. And then there are my kids. They are the daily deal, but I’m there for them.
What is it like to see these guys come full circle and make progress?
For my recovery, I was 37 and I was done with drugs and alcohol. I didn’t want to live like that anymore. But some of them aren’t that way and it’s sometimes hard for me to see. But for the most part, the structure at the house of being accountable helps with that. It’s amazing seeing these people come in shitty and broken and not seeing their family. Then they leave and they’re happy and have a job, so the rewarding part of that outweighs the bad part.
What does success look like for you and for the men in the program?
Just being balanced and happy with where they’re at. It’s not just about doing it for mom, it’s about doing it for themselves.
What are your plans for the future of Fleahab?
I would love to help women. That’s something we’ve thought about for a while now, but it’s really difficult to find housing and rentals. I would love to turn it into a real rehab where I grab them every day and surf. Right now, the schedules are all different. They work, surf and do their thing. It’s hard to get on the same schedule sometimes. But I would love to have a rehab based on exercise and healthy living.
How can the Stab audience help? We’re a nonprofit, so if you want to you can donate at Fleahab.org. And if there’s anyone in the Santa Cruz area who wants to rent their house for a women’s sober living facility, that would be cool.
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