When my dad texted the family and asked if anyone wanted to join him at a movie screening downtown, I was the first one to say “sure.” I clicked the link he sent over and sort of glanced over it. It was a surfing movie, and the featured athlete had bipolar disease, but it was titled “Kissed by God” so I assumed the story would be one of redemption and he would overcome his obstacles to become a beacon of light to others in his situation.
No one else in the family could make it, so I looked forward to a fun night with my dad.
When the next Monday came around, that was exactly what I experienced until about a minute and a half into the film. One of the opening scenes showed Bruce, the brother of the featured surfer, Andy Irons, in front of a simple black backdrop with tears streaming down his face as he breathed through the flood of emotions. The first sentence he chose was something along the lines of, “I never thought I would have to sit here and talk about my brother,” and it hit me in the heart as the lump formed in my throat. This wasn’t going to have the happy ending I expected.
I sat through the two-hour film getting more anxious as it went on. The sweeping, glossy scenes of gigantic waves and 1970s Hawaii calmed me in between shots of his rampages with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and more. Half of the scenes were dramatized events featuring shadowy actors who resembled the real people, but the way it was shot made you feel like you were the one high on whatever they were. The camera was shaky, the noises were loud, everything was fuzzy and flashing with lights. The way all of his friends and family spoke about Andy Irons was searing. Clearly suffering from but not officially diagnosed with bipolar at a young age, he turned to opioid drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin to self-medicate. The longer the film went on, the sicker I felt about what I knew was going to happen.
The opioid crisis in our country comes to my attention in waves. Seattle, particularly, has a staggering population of people experiencing homelessness, and it’s hard not to wonder when you walk by a crowd of twenty or thirty tents how many of their inhabitants are struggling with this exact disease. Just a few months ago, I heard a heartbreaking story (and I feel that’s an understatement) about a local treatment facility that allowed NPR to interview one of their patients—a young woman who was addicted to heroin. She’d been in for weeks and was full of hope. “This time I’m going to get better. I’m really doing it this time,” she’d told them. And at press time, they’d reported she had left the center and was back on the drug, living on the streets. I think about that woman now and then. I heard her voice—she was real, she was humanized. And I wonder, is she even here still?
I struggled with my growing anxiety as the film progressed, but the hardest part came at the end of the film. My anxiety gave way to aching sadness when the filmmakers asked, “What would you say to Andy now, if you could talk to him?” And Lyndie Irons, Andy’s stunner of a perfect southern California beach goddess wife, could barely get the words out. “I want to tell you about our son, Axel.”
I bit my tongue hard to avoid drowning in uncontrollable sobs, and then harder when the slow-motion scenes of young Andy Axel Irons running across the terrains of Kauai kicked on. Lyndie had been eight months pregnant when Andy died in a hotel room from a drug-induced heart attack, on his way back home to Hawaii. The six-year-old ocean wonder, little Axel Irons, surfed as well as anyone I’d ever seen. How special—what a blessing—that Andy could leave Lyndie with this miniature half of a surfing legend, at precisely the time she would need him.
Andy’s profession glamorized his sport, and glamorized the partying, so much so that it could be hidden easily from the public. No one knew until after the movie came out that he won competitions and medals and championships high on cocaine and alcohol. Andy Irons’ is a huge story, one I hope millions of people get to see, because it forces you to look outside the movie screen and realize this is the small story of thousands of people just in our country alone. Over 115 people die from opioid overdoses every day in America. Tragically, so many of them are on the streets with no access to help or support, but some run in much flashier circles, or even in our own.
Of course, the opioid crisis is just another one of those things in our country and our world that need our attention, compassion, and our dollars. It’s a sad truth and reality that we can’t fix everything—but we can always help, and work towards something better. I’ve shared on truelane before that I donate 10% of all my income, and this month, I will be sending half to the Andy Irons Foundation and half to the National Alliance for Mental Illness. The darkness that some people face within their own minds shouldn’t have to be faced alone—and even though it’s up to them to seek help or even just accept it, the rest of us must never stop trying to offer it.