Depression of an Australian surfing legend, battle against alcohol
Australian surfing legend Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo has spoken of his long battle with mental illness and his recent ‘third chance’ attempt to get sober.
These days, the 53-year-old is comfortable enough to delve into his darkest chapters – the bouts of depression that saw him abandon a world tour when he was in his prime and his days. destructive periods of drug addiction in order to self-medicate.
But in the 1980s, when the humble 17-year-old makes waves in international surfing, the guys haven’t talked about their struggles.
No one has really done it, Occy, as he is known, told news.com.au.
“I had no idea what was happening to me, absolutely none,” Occy recalls.
“At the time, we weren’t talking about mental health. You felt like what you were going through only happened to you. There wasn’t much of a way to talk to other people – it’s not like now with social media.
“So I didn’t tell anyone about it. The advice was not very important at the time.
When Occy left school after 10th grade, he was already a rising star on the local scene, having won his first amateur schoolboy competition at age 13.
He left home and went on tour with the Association of Surfing Professionals, peaking at the age of 17.
“It was a really quick life to be on tour,” Occy said. “And it burned me.”
The fierce nature of elite competition, coupled with the less healthy elements of being a young man put in the limelight, has taken its toll.
“I thought I was just homesick,” he said of dropping out of a world tour at the age of 19 and returning to Australia.
“I came home and hibernated. I gained a lot of weight which gave me a lot of anxiety. I was paranoid that someone saw me like this. I stayed inside. It snowballed.
“I was stuck in this area.
“The depression was not constant. It came and went. But it was hard. It was a little weak to experience something like that. You haven’t mentioned it. You have tried to maintain control yourself.
Her battle with the Bottle, which will be a lingering demon for decades to come, began in her early twenties.
For several years he was just a shell of himself and it weighed heavily on him.
“When I left the tour I was rated pretty well,” he said. “Then I was nothing – I weighed 110 kilograms and hid away from the world. I self-medicated with alcohol – crushed it, woke up with a hangover and went back to the store of bottles.
The long road back to fame started as an accident, when his sponsor Billabong wanted to use Occy in a new series of commercials.
“That’s why I started to lose weight early on,” he said.
“Billabong didn’t necessarily want me to come back to compete. They feared it would ruin my image. I had had such a good career before I left.
“They needed to use me in advertising and stuff so I had to look healthy. It was the initial motivation to lose weight. Then I thought, I’ll come back.
Occy said it was a gamble to get back into the sport he left as champion, with the very real possibility of him falling apart and becoming his legacy.
He was fit, healthy and training constantly, but when he requalified he found the surf “had improved a lot and a lot faster”.
In 1998, Occy stunned the sport when he came second behind legend Kelly Slater, and impressed again a year later when he won the world title.
“It was such a sanctifying feeling to be able to come back,” he said. “Everything was great after that, from a career point of view. “
Talking about his weak spots is something he considers important – a kind of community service, offering hope and inspiration to those in difficulty.
“I’m generally a fairly open person,” he said.
“Different people go through higher ups and downs. It’s important for me to share my story… maybe it helps others. Hope this is the case.
As he explained, getting back to top form and winning a world title might have put his professional life back on track, personally things were still a bit of a mess.
“I think I have an addictive personality,” Occy admitted.
“I’ve been sober for almost two years now. It was really hard. I have tried three times now – the third time was the charm. I am fortunate to have people around me who really wanted me to be successful.
“I felt physically sick because of it. I really wanted to get away from it – I think that was the key for me. It was something I really wanted to do.
“The first two times, I didn’t really want to get sober. I was sneaking in and drinking when people thought I wasn’t. It was almost worse than being a drinker. It’s pretty ugly.
Now, Occy is channeling that addictive, almost obsessive nature into “living life and loving life”.
He gets up before dawn, hits the waves near his home on the Gold Coast, then gets busy being outdoors, spending time with his kids, and playing golf.
“With an addictive personality, when you are bored, your vices become really relevant at that point and your mind starts to wander. It’s like, too much time to think.
“I stay very busy all day, go to bed early, then wake up early and start over.”
It is a proven approach. Occy said he “doesn’t miss alcohol at all.”
Keeping busy isn’t too difficult, having welcomed a new baby boy into the world two months ago – Java. He also has Jasper, who is two, and two older boys – Jay, 16, and Jonah, 12.
“Everything is fantastic. I’m enjoying life to the fullest, ”he said.
He spends a lot of time at the beach with his son Jay, who follows in his footsteps as a surfer “with a great future”.