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Interview with poet Bri Bruce

While writing my second book, GriefINK, Tattoo as the Language of Grief, I searched for a poem about mourning. I stumbled across many that were familiar, but wanted that something special that will speak to the reader’s soul. A friend recommended that I contact a young female poet in Santa Cruz, California by the name Bri Bruce.

Her book of poems, The Weight of Snow, riveted me. The depth and cadence of her poetry set against the backdrop of nature solidified my choice of a poem for GriefINK. I wanted to know more about this young woman, and how her writing life has taken shape. Through the following interview, Bri shares not only her writing life, but also how her passions embody her work, creating poetry that whispers into the delicate corners of one’s heart.

Bri, thank you for letting me interview you for my blog. Share a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Felton and spent most of my life in and around the Santa Cruz area. I attended UC Santa Cruz to study literature and creative writing. I currently live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, so I haven’t ventured very far (my excuse always being that I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else!). Some of my hobbies include surfing, photography, and traveling. I’m an avid beachcomber and collect odds and ends, mostly old cameras and books, antique bottles, and the like. I enjoy spending time outdoors and with friends and copy

At what age did you begin writing poetry?

I started writing poetry when I was in junior high. It first became a way for me to express and process my emotions, and I had this consuming urge to create. I have been journaling since I was nine, and poetry seemed like a different, almost more abstract way of dealing with the trials and tribulations of adolescence. My early poetry, of course, while very personal was also disjointed, experimental, and convoluted.  It wasn’t until later that my work really shifted, then began to evolve into the kind of imagistic narrative it is today.

Tell us about the use of nature as your source of inspiration.

I’ve always been fond of the outdoors. I was the kid that, given the choice, would spend all day outside climbing trees, rolling in the grass, getting stuck in the mud up to my knees, and coming home with bugs in my pockets. My parents both had a huge part in raising me to be nature-minded. I grew up camping, fishing, backpacking, surfing, and diving. There really wasn’t any adventure sport or outdoor activity we didn’t do. It has instilled in me a passion to seek the out of doors and immerse myself in the natural. Even at a young age, my upbringing created this profound fondness and appreciation for the natural world that is impossible for me to shake. I’m in love with it, and this shows in my work.

Where do you write? Office or outdoors? Share your writing life.

I would prefer to be outdoors writing longhand rather than indoors on a computer. I still write everything by hand when I’m not using a typewriter (I know, I’m old school). Strangely enough, I also enjoy writing in loud, crowded places. I’m a regular at a few coffee houses around town where I like to hunker down in a corner for a while. I also enjoy writing when I travel and find that some of my best work comes from these instances. I usually keep a travel journal, but I often gather together lines of poetry that I later work into a cohesive whole.

I guess I could say that all of the processes of nature inspire my writing. Writing is in itself a process, and I believe the two are very closely connected. I love observing the happenings of the natural world, and juxtaposing them against our own lives. I feel a greater truth can be revealed, if only simple and rather instinctual or straightforward. My poems always begin as observations or narratives and evolve from there. I keep a small notebook with me at all times and write down certain words or phrases I like the sound of, or the name of a bird or a place I want to write about. Later, a large part of my writing process is stringing these all together.

Give the reader a peek into your world. What is your idea of a perfect day?

My idea of a perfect day to inspire my writing would be some sort of adventure to somewhere I’ve never been. New experiences always stir something in me. I like to go on these “adventures,” so whenever I get the chance to do this, I am immeasurably happy. I find I enjoy them most alone, which is something that others often find interesting. I’m extremely independent and I like exercising that independence. I would rise at dawn, watch the sunrise, and spend the better part of the morning tromping around. I would, however, want to share my perfect day with friends and family at some point, perhaps after my adventure and over a good meal. At night, I would want to sit at a desk with my typewriter and a glass (or bottle) of wine and write and listen to music, staying up late until I’m too tired to think! Drifting off into a fitful sleep full of consuming dreams is always a great way to end the day.

Would you be willing to share a specific experience that inspired you to write?

Sure. Last summer I spent a month alone in a small cabin in the remote forests of Northern California to devote myself to writing my novel and to work on a few collections of poetry. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. I was visited by bears on a regular basis and surrounded by wildlife. The nearest town was a 45-minute drive, and the nearest neighbors were a quarter-mile away. Among many of my experiences, one particular event comes to mind. I had just returned one evening from town to find that the porch light had attracted thousands of flying termites. Needless to say, the small cabin was infested. There wasn’t much I could do but turn the light off, and one by one pick up the termites that had managed to make it inside the cabin and put them outside. I was struck by how, all at once it seemed, they shed their wings and crawled away. In a matter of minutes, I was left with hundreds of pairs of these papery, ash-colored wings. I sat down right then and wrote a poem about it. I think this is a good example of the connection between processes of nature and the processes of a writer, the first step in the process of writing being observation.

I find your poetry to be very deep…beautiful…open to interpretation and it allows for the projection of one’s own experience. At Henry Cowell State Park stood out for me, and I have chosen it for my book GriefINK. What is the back-story behind that poem?

This piece was based loosely on an experience I shared with my mother on a hike through the park. My parents took me there as a kid to feed the ducks on the millponds and watch the trains. After not visiting for a while, I decided to take my mom up on her offer to go with her one day.

What spurred the poem is the sobering acknowledgement of the passing of time. On that day, not only did I realize how much I had changed since I last visited (I was no longer the little girl crouching in the reeds, holding out handfuls of chicken feed to the mallards), but it was really one of the first times that I was completely taken aback by that sense of realizing that someone you love has aged. I suppose parents feel this when watching their children grow, but it was as if I hadn’t been paying attention all these years, so busy and wrapped up in my own life that seeing, actually seeing, my mother looking older to me was like waking up one morning to see your yard covered in snow.

This realization of a person’s aging, and the inevitability of death, was foundational to this poem. The emotions captured in the poem are very raw and human, relatable. It was almost as if I was yearning for the years I had missed, but it was too late. I was facing for the first time the reality of a pending grief I knew would follow in the wake of my mother’s future passing.

When did you know that you wanted to put your poems out to the world in the form of a book? Talk about the experience of writing The Weight of Snow.

The Weight of Snow started out as a collection under a different title that I compiled while finishing my degree at UC Santa Cruz. For my poetry concentration, as a sort of thesis project, I was required to write a chapbook of poems. Many of these original poems ended up in more refined stages in The Weight of Snow, including the poem from which my book gets its title. The original manuscript was titled Middlestate, the commonality between all the poems being that they all took place or centered around the middle part of the State of California, i.e., where I live in Santa Cruz and the surrounding areas.

While I had been published long before that (my poems were first published when I was still in middle school), the response I received from my peers and my instructors was overwhelmingly supportive, and I never looked at my writing the same after that. My instructors, namely Gary Young (Santa Cruz’s first poet laureate), played pivotal roles in supporting and encouraging me to pursue my writing further.

I knew that I wanted to share my work and sending out my poems to be individually published by various journals and online publications wasn’t what I wanted. After working briefly for a small publisher in Santa Cruz where I learned a great deal more about the publishing industry, I officially started my own publishing company, building upon my graphic design and layout skills. It was through this publishing company (Black Swift Press) that I published The Weight of Snow. Since its release last February, it has garnered very positive reviews from a number of esteemed authors, including Gary Young, and is the 2014 International Book Awards Finalist in the Poetry Category, the
2014 San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention Recipient in the Poetry Category, and is a 2014 USA Best Book Awards “Poetry” Category Finalist.

What are some of your current projects?

There are always projects in the works and ideas floating around! Aside from the plethora of notes I have lying around for novel ideas or lines for poems, I am currently working on transcribing a journal I kept on a typewriter during a residency I took last September. It’s kind of a look into the psyche of a writer, as well as an account of my experiences of and thoughts on the craft and my journey.

I’d like to take another residency to focus solely on my novel. If anyone ever has the opportunity to participate in one, I highly, highly suggest it. It’s such an enriching experience. Not only do you learn a lot about your craft, but you also get to know yourself as a writer much better.

My biggest goal right now is to publish five books before I turn thirty. I have four to go, but my second, third, and fourth are almost completely mapped out. I just have to find the time to edit, design, and publish (and hopefully promote beforehand). It’s that fifth book I’ve got my sights on. I have four years to write it!

What are some other aspirations that you have?

My biggest passion besides writing is helping other writers in realizing their dreams of publishing their work. I bring an author’s vision to fruition, whether through designing a book cover or actually helping them publish and print their book. There is nothing more gratifying than hearing an author’s elation at holding their book in their hands or seeing it listed on Amazon. I know this feeling well, and to be able to pass that on to others is very rewarding.

My biggest aspiration of all is to have not only my work but my words to have an impact, even if it’s small. I always hope others can feel through my poems and relate to them, even if it strikes a chord in them for an unrelated reason or makes them think about something else. I want my work to speak to my readers. If I’m able to achieve this, and feel satisfied with my own writing, then I’ve been successful.

Thank you so much, Bri. I wish you much success, and am so inspired by your writing, passion, love of nature, and free spirit. It’s only fitting to close our interview with one of your poems:


When the morning is darkest

we are roused by the birds

in the plum tree. I pull him

from the bed, beg him accompany

me to watch the egrets wake

in the cypress from the mist-veiled

cliff. I want to teach him forbearance,

point to the flowers that have appeared

along the path to the cove—

new irises have broken through

the soil, having burst from winter

hiding. I picture him leaning over

a shallow pool at ebb tide to touch

a slimed blade of kelp, his earlier

stubbornness dispelled. I imagine

I would not feel victory. I’d have

been impassioned by the way he

delicately gathered a fingerling

in his palm to show me forgiveness.

He sees things for what they are,

and nothing more. I’d have given

my hands that he might recognize

humility standing beside the sea,

the enormity of it before him.

 First published in the January 15th issue (Issue 30) of Damselfly Press (2015)


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000032_00014]The Weight of Snow is available through Amazon:

If you are a writer who is looking for direction and/or assistance with publishing, you can reach Bri Bruce at: or

Learn more about Bri Bruce:


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Hope for Hayden: Reflections and a community’s reaction

There are some people who grab our attention; pull us into their presence with their laugh, wit, peace, pain, or circumstance. As I perused through my Facebook timeline—catching up on dog videos, inspirational quotes, and updates from friends—the photo of a boy with striking blue eyes grabbed my attention. His face, his innocence, the softness of expression pulled me into his presence. And then I read the accompanying post: Hayden Jilka, age 7, undergoing cancer treatment. My heart plummeted to my toes, as though I’d nearly collided with another car on the road.10959409_10204209849538812_2391218010777871646_n

It’s been a strange several months for my family and me. We’ve seen a lot of illness, diagnosis, and death. We’ve delivered meals, prayed, grieved, felt a malaise hovering over an all-too-sunny winter. But this face, this boy—Hayden—I can’t explain it…I was so moved.

Through my friend Neal Pearlberg, who hosts KSCO’s Off The Lip Radio Show in Santa Cruz, California, I was able to contact the Hayden’s family. After a few emails and texts, we made a plan to meet. Over soup, salad, pizza fries, and a grilled cheese for Hayden’s little brother, Garrett, Samantha recounted Hayden’s journey.

“Hayden was diagnosed in October of 2014 when he was seven. He’d been experiencing pain in his cheek. We thought he had an infected salivary gland, and a growth inside of Hayden’s mouth was removed and biopsied,” Samantha says. She and her husband, Nate, got the call that changed their lives: Hayden had cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue. The good news is that the success rate is 90% with treatment. The bad news: radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the treatments.

As I listened to Samantha relay this information, I tried to imagine my child with this diagnosis; the worry, the anxiety, the pain of watching my child go through treatments that cause pain, nausea; how he would potentially miss out on “normal” kid stuff due to his treatment—school, parties, sports. Most of us will not experience first-hand what life is like with a child battling cancer. With that in mind, I asked questions that helped me gain a better understanding of daily life.

“He’s amazing. When he feels okay, he skateboards and surfs. He rarely complains. Recently, though, the pain got to be too much for him,” Samantha pauses, and tears up. “The medicines he was prescribed made him so nauseous, and all he did was sleep.”


The family sought out non-traditional medication, and Hayden has found tremendous relief from CBD, Cannabidiol, which is a cannabis compound that does not make people feel “stoned”, yet, according to Samantha, provides pain relief without sedation.

I was curious about the impact that cancer has on a school-aged child; how his peers were responding to Hayden’s diagnosis. Back in the 1970s, I had a classmate who had cancer, and none of this was discussed, which fueled a lot of anxiety, questions, and fear in a number of us.

Samantha shares, “The school did a great job. The teacher sat down with his class and explained that Hayden had cancer; that he may miss some days because of treatment; how he may lose his hair.” Samantha adds that Hayden’s friends have surrounded him, some shaving their heads to match the hair loss that Hayden has experienced from chemo.

“We also get a lot of support from our local church, Twin Lakes, and from Jacob’s Heart.”

This was not the first time that I’d heard of the generosity of Jacob’s Heart, a child’s cancer support service in Santa Cruz County. While writing GriefINK, a non-fiction book about memorial tattoos as a language of grief, one of the participants I interviewed stressed how critical Jacob’s Heart was in offering assistance to her family. For the Jilkas, the added cost of driving to and from Lucille Packard at Stanford and overnight stays were eased by the assistance from Jacob’s Heart.10676158_10204396192037137_6781313206354310526_n

With bills mounting up toward $100,000.00, I felt pride in my hometown that is wrapping its arms around this family. These businesses, individuals, and events have raised morale, money, and support for Hayden’s recovery:

Teddy Bear sales and baked goods at Pleasure Point, Neil Pearlberg’s Off The Lip Radio Show, Terry Campion and the Santa Cruz Boardroom, Ribsys Nickel Holiday Party at Bocci’s Cellar, Danny Keith and the Santa Cruz Warriors, Bud Freitas and Surf School Santa Cruz, Nikki Brooks & Shawn Dollar, Titans of Mavericks, Star Bene, Steve Periera “The Beach Guy”, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery, Freeline Surf Shop, local authors, friends, neighbors, and classmates.

As Hayden’s treatment continues, new conditions arise. When I met with Samantha and Garrett two weeks ago, Hayden was supposed to join us. Unfortunately, he had become neutorpenic as a result of the chemotherapy, resulting in a reduction of a type of white blood cells, which increase his inability to fight off infections or bacteria. It’s not a permanent condition, but when this arises, he must remain at home, and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

During our lunch together, I got a real sense that ordinary life does not stand still for families who have a child with cancer. The siblings need attention; food must be bought and prepared; holidays come and go; bills continue; parents have to work. Garrett and I played “pass” with a piece of paper folded into the shape of a triangle. We laughed. We chatted. I wondered what was going on his young mind. And as we ended our lunch together, he slipped off a rubber bracelet that says Hope for Hayden. “This is for you!” he beamed.


As much as this family feels blessed by the support of others, I was the one who walked away feeling blessed. I was let in to a very private, sacred space: a mother revealing her innermost fears, hopes, worries, sources of strength, and prayers. I count it a privilege to hold the Jilka family in my prayers, to reach out to others on their behalf, and to observe the presence of hope and grace amidst illness. Thank you, Hayden, for touching my life and the life of others.

If you would like to help, here are the links to Hayden’s recovery, as well as links to Jacob’s Heart, and Teen Kitchen, which provide meals to families in crisis.

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Talk it Out: Grief, Peace Officers, and Post-Traumatic Stress

Today marks the two year anniversary of Butch Baker and Elizabeth Butler’s deaths. Both were detectives with Santa Cruz Police Department, and were killed on duty. It’s fitting that on this day, Garry Rodgers, a former peace officer in Canada, shares his insights on stress, grief, and the need to talk about on-duty trauma as a way to heal.

Headshot Image

Garry Rodgers is a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner. He also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response Teams. He is currently an Amazon Top 10 Best-Selling Crime Writer for No Witnesses to Nothing, and Blogger at He has a wealth of knowledge regarding the stress that peace officers and their families experience, as well as first hand experience of what it is to lose a fellow officer on the job. I invited Garry to share his insights about post-traumatic stress, what helps survivors—both peace officer and civilians—after a traumatic loss, and his newfound success of writing fiction crime dramas.
What drew you to law enforcement?
I grew up in a small Canadian town in the 70’s where the Mounties were held in high esteem. I wanted to be part of a greater purpose, to contribute, and to experience life beyond the backward, routine of my sheltered world. I’ve always been a risk-taker and adventure junkie.
You shared with me that you were with your partner on the force—who was also your dearest friend—when he was killed. How did that affect you? What was the process of working through the grief, anger, guilt? Was there a formal way in which the department debriefed you?
It’s 30 years ago this March 19th that RCMP Constable Mike Buday was cold-bloodedly shot in the back by a deranged bushman. We were part of an Emergency Response Team (SWAT) operation sent to arrest a madman wanted for murder in the frozen wilds of the Canadian north. Long story short, he got the drop on us, murdered Mike, then pulled the trigger on me. His round failed to go off and I returned fire, killing him. It was over in two seconds.
Putting my best buddy in a body bag is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not only did I train with Mike from day one, but also he lived with me, and I had to go home to a house with all Mike’s stuff, but no Mike.
Going into his room, I broke into gut-heaving grief… guilt… remorse. I dehydrated from tears and suffocated from a black cloud of guilt. If only I’d been more alert. If only I reacted more quickly. If only I didn’t cheat Mike out of life. If only… if only… if only…
I drank. In drunkenness I’d talk to Mike, apologizing for not saving him and asking his direction, but he never answered. I had to move forward. My grief lasted weeks, then eased with months, and settled out after a few years where I could talk about it without breaking into shakes & sweats.
Guilt and remorse took longer to dissipate than grief. Eventually, I rationalized what went down at that frozen place. We were bloody lucky that it wasn’t a helluva lot worse. Where I saw myself as a loser for letting Mike get murdered, others saw me as a hero for ending the incident and saving other lives. I no longer have guilt or remorse about it, and anger was never a factor.
Aside from my personal black pit at the time, my team-mates and other of Mike’s friends were also in pieces. We were young and this was the first real shocking tragedy we’d experienced. I put on a brave face to help them, which helped me keep it together. The Police Force was so supportive. This was 1985, and PTSD was on the verge of being recognized. We had numerous professionally assisted psychological sessions with the officers involved, direct family members, peripheral colleagues, and anyone who wanted to talk. Talking it out, in my opinion, is the best therapy in dealing with grief. And time.
PTSD is a different animal than grief. PTSD is a very real, very dangerous disorder, whereas grief is a natural, dissipating reaction that eases with time. My feeling about dealing with grief is to have as many people around you as quickly as you can, talk about the good times, and then time will heal. Fortunately, I’ve never displayed the classic symptoms of PTSD, but I certainly know other who have. In fact, I wrote a piece about PTSD that can be found at
We hear of a great deal of marital/family stress in peace officers. Thoughts?
On-duty police officers are always under threat and that breeds an overly protective mentality. Most police officers spend way more time with their cop-family than their own. Their cop-family is always at immediate risk of danger. Being trained first responders, officers will naturally respond to the immediate threat, and leaving domestic issues to deal with later. It’s when they go home that domestic trouble starts.
Wife: “I had a hard day with the kids.”
Officer: “You have no idea what hard is.”
You transitioned to coroner later in life. Describe that decision. How did this job compare to being a peace officer?
I spent most of my policing career investigating homicides, so I had the background in death investigation, which made me ideal for being appointed as a coroner. In my jurisdiction, coroners contract out medical support services, such as autopsies and toxicology, whereas medical examiners contract out the field investigations. I found the science end of the job fascinating, but the emotional end of dealing with families took its toll.
Homicides are rare in a coroner’s workload. It’s the accidents, suicides, and the ordinary natural deaths that get emotional. Crime scenes are extremely protected before the coroner arrives, and then you’re guided in like some kind of savior. Suicides & accidents are less supported, but in natural deaths, there’s usually only the coroner and the distraught, grieving family present. That’s where you have to be part-priest and it’s tough.
There’s little stress in being a coroner as long as you keep it in check. For one thing, you’re never first on the scene. Secondly, you have total control over the scene once you arrive. So the tendency for emotions running away is minimized.
It’s nothing compared to being a cop. There’s virtually no danger to a coroner, whereas it’s the police job to diffuse and secure the situation before a coroner arrives. Coroners control death investigations and have immense powers of search, seizure, and forcing co-operation.
Compassion is another story. In my jurisdiction, coroners are appointed, not elected. The criteria are not only the ability to handle death scenes, but to compassionately deal with emotional, grief-stricken families. That’s the tough part.

What would be your recommendation to peace officers, paramedics, firefighters, counselors, emergency medicine physicians, and nurses, or anyone exposed to high stress on the job?
Talk. Talk as much as you can to family, peers, subordinates, superiors. Group therapy is as good as one-on-one. Bring on professional consultants. Don’t wait until a critical incident occurs. Don’t be reactive. Be proactive. Make psychological awareness part of your training program. And remember – it’s okay to talk about it.

Did you always want to write? Talk about this transition, and how life experience helped shape your writing.
For years I’ve read and written all sorts of things, not just legal, forensic, & technical stuff. Crime-fiction is my genre, and it’s so different from technical writing. For instance ‘suspension-of-disbelief’ devices are used in fiction such as dialogue, character development, and beats. It’s been a huge learning curve.
I went back to school, learned a new craft, and networked with other writers. I also built a blog, which has been really successful, both in polishing my writing voice and getting noticed.

Thank you, Garry, for your openness about grief and trauma amidst peace officers, and the importance of “talking it out.”









No Witnesses To Nothing


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“Get busy living or get busy dying.” Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption

In the early 2000s while counseling children and families in El Dorado County, I had the joy of working with Jennifer Hayes. As a supervisor, she taught me a great deal about children with attachment issues, compassionate care, and how to keep centered when collaborating with child protective services. We also share a love of writing. Jennifer now practices in Bingham Farms, MI. Her step-son Dan is currently battling leukemia.

Because so many of my readers have a connection to loss, I asked Jennifer if she would share this experience, and how they are coping as a family. The following contains her lovely insights as she and her family walk through the darkness of cancer, and the moments of light that shine bright….


“When I write social media posts and blog entries I try to walk a hard to define line between offering a personal perspective and not revealing too much about myself.  It is the ever present code of the therapist – keep your private life private.  It binds us to silence and continually limits how and when we use our voice. Today I am going to take a risk and fully break that code.

Three years ago this April, the morning after his 16th birthday, my step-son Dan went to the ER with severe pain in his hip and odd, small red spots covering his ankle.  Within a few hours they diagnosed him with Leukemia, ALL.  Getting the news was literally breath-stopping.  Since that day it’s been a lifetime.

If you’re going to get cancer, Leukemia is the one to get.  In kids, the prognosis, especially for ALL, is excellent. You have a really awesome chance.  An 80 – 90% survival rate.

So we felt lucky.  Until we fell out of the awesome group.  Last year on New Year’s Eve, Dan had a bad headache he just couldn’t shake.  With cancer you learn, small things often turn out to be big things.  Dan had relapsed.  It was contained to his CNS instead of his bone marrow, which, again, had a very good prognosis.  We had fallen out of the super star group, but we were still in a good one.  Not quite as lucky, but still, lucky.

Two weeks ago, on New Year’s Eve, we found out Dan has relapsed again.  So we keep getting kicked out of the lucky groups.  We are way out of the lucky group now.  Our odds are not as bright.

If all goes as planned, just in time for his 19th birthday, Dan will undergo a bone marrow transplant. If you really want to know what this means, google it.  The short story is, it is a long, incredibly brutal process.  I think it will make the 3 years of treatment he’s already been though look like child’s play.  The year to come will be hellacious.

How do you walk through this?  As my husband said, there’s no manual for this.  We are looking into this dark room and we told life, “Please don’t make us go in there.”  But life is not listening.  How do we walk down this road?  How do you send your child into this lion’s den?

You do it because you have to.  Because you have no choice.  Dan has no choice.  The only choice in the matter is how we walk down it.

So that line resonates today.  “Get busy living or get busy dying”.

We don’t know what this future holds.  We don’t know if we are on the good road or the bad road.  We will not know for some time.  So we will live in the realm of uncertainty.  Of waiting, always, for test results.  To read the tea leaves of what those results mean.  It’s a really crappy road to be on.  We would like off.  But we don’t get that choice.  So we can only decide how we walk it.

What Dan has always chosen, in a stunningly compelling way, is to get busy living.  Every single time cancer has come and hit him again, he has decided to live anyway.  It’s not just the relapses, it’s the things he’s missed because he was too sick, it’s the bouts of shingles, losing the skin on his feet, a mouth full of sores, and spinal headaches. It’s the moment Dan, a passionate tennis player who lived for the game, found out his tennis days were essentially over because the steroids caused his hip bone to collapse.  At 18 he needs a hip replacement.

Yet, Dan has always moved toward living.  Toward what he can grasp rather than what he has lost.  It is Dan doing pushups in a hospital gown while hooked up to an IV.  It is Dan’s response to losing his hip and tennis in one fell moment.  Within a day he told his dad, “I want to get a membership at the Y.  I’m gonna start swimming.”  Because that’s what Dan does.

There are so many ways, times, and points along this road Dan could have gotten busy dying.  But he has not.  He always, every time, choses to get busy living.  He played in a state tennis tournament, winning an intense 2-hour match, the day after he got out of a particularly difficult hospital stay.  He played a regional match on the collapsed hip, falling in pain at one point, only to get up and win that match.  He got into the University of Michigan this year and got himself an internship working in a lab with Leukemic stem cells.  It’s all he’s ever wanted.  Just to get busy living.

Dan has never played the ‘cancer card’ to get anything.  Despite my egging him on.  Not even to get cuts in line at Cedar Point.  Who does that?  Dan, who is too busy focusing on living.  He has been my role model in how to walk this road. Dan is the human spirit in motion.

We now face an uncertain future.  Maybe we face an exceedingly dark road.  And in the midst of that, Dan, as always, choses to get busy living.  Just when he started his college career at The University of Michigan – which by the way he legitimately got into despite Leukemia and a relapse – he now has to withdraw in his second semester.  To face an incredibly brutal journey.  This is a wickedly hard and unfair hit for a kid whose done nothing but work everyday to get to where he is.  But it is what he got.  And Dan, as I write this, is making jokes with his dad over text.  He stuns me every single time.

For me and my husband, what we know about walking this road is this.  If you get busy living, if you go and do your life, if you still laugh and still feel the sun on your face, it helps.  It normalizes you and grounds you.  It pulls you out of despair and let’s you know you will keep on breathing.

The alternative is to get busy dying.  To sit in fear and despair, waiting on what is going to come.  When you are busy dying, everything feels so much larger and infinitely heavier.  So even as the specter of death sits in the room with us whispering, really, the only option is to get busy living.

Your choices are to focus on what you have or to focus on all that you have lost – or may lose.  Neither focus will change the outcome, just how you walk to that outcome.  We can go living or dying.  Either way, the outcome is the same.  But your experience of the road will be vastly different depending on your choice.

I think this is all we can do.  Choose living.  Amongst this living we have our dark and desperate moments, believe me.  But the living keeps us from drowning in that endless abyss.  The alternative would only give all of this darkness a crushing victory.  When the day draws long and you look back over your life, you will find that you either did it living or dying.  You get one life.  You get on chance.  Don’t waste it on dying.”


~To honor Dan and his journey to come, I am asking people to sign up for the bone marrow donor registry or to make a financial donation to the marrow organization.  Signing up for the registry is easy and simply requires you to submit a cheek swab.  The organization will mail a kit to you.

 Every family going through this needs a donor.  They do not do a bone marrow transplant if there are other options.  If you become a donor you will give someone who is going to die a chance to live.  Whatever donor we get will save Dan’s life.  How do you ever measure this?

If you are an ethnic minority, please get on the registry.  Due to a greater variation in tissue types, it is much harder for those patients to find a donor match, especially among African American patients.

If nothing else, please consider passing this post along to help get the message out.

Please go to  to find out more about how to sign up for the donor registry or to make a financial donation.


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Veteran’s Day Reflections: An interview with Jonathan Allen

This is no ordinary Veteran’s Day for me. Sure, I’ve been supportive to our military personnel in word, donations, and thought, but without an emotional connection. Something in me has changed, and it happened on a Thursday in Roseville, California.

I get to meet amazing individuals as I write my latest book GriefINK—a non-fiction pictorial and narrative about memorial tattoos, their meaning, the back story, and how we carry our lost loved ones through tattoo. On an ordinary Thursday, I had an extraordinary experience while interviewing Jonathan, a humble young man who served in Afghanistan.

Bomb Suit 1Jonathan’s tight-knit company was stationed in Mushan, Afghanistan; what he and his brothers call “Moosh”. He was part of an elite company of soldiers known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians.

“We walked everywhere because the terrain was horrible. We were in amazing physical shape. We’d attach to an infantry unit, find an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), render it safe, and dispose of it. There were so many people around me who got hurt. We carried around 80 pounds on our back: food, water, robotics, IED/metal detectors, explosives, evidence collection equipment, clothes. We were constantly getting shot at. I believed I was untouchable; we had an invincibility complex over there; we couldn’t function without that. We couldn’t think or feel when others got hurt, or we would freeze up.”

During his 8th month, Jonathan and two other team members were severely injured while trying to clear an IED. Jonathan was thrown ten feet into a wall. He shattered his arm, suffered a fist-sized hole in his armpit, blew out his eardrum, lost tissue in one leg, and incurred a traumatic brain injury. He spent a month in a VA hospital. “EOD Warrior Foundation was good to me. They sent an iPad and other things to help pass the time in the hospital.”

It took thirteen surgeries to repair his injuries.

“I had a hard time being hurt, and felt very helpless. I wanted to go back. I lost the connection with my unit, couldn’t stay active, and suddenly I wasn’t able to shut out the worry and stress that served me in the field, especially when other guys got hurt. What I survived was not as hard as hearing about others getting hurt or killed over there. I was no longer invincible; I was broken.”

Life also looked and felt different for Jonathan once he left the hospital and returned home. At twenty-four, most of his friends were in college, working, or starting families, and he felt five years behind everyone. The trauma he experienced made it more difficult to relate to friends and family, and yet, Jonathan very much sees himself as a survivor, not a victim.

“My close friends know I’ve gotten hurt, and they are supportive, but I really don’t talk about what happened in Moosh. Some people treat me as if I’m fragile, and that’s annoying. Or, someone may go through a hard time, and while they’re telling me about it, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s nothing like what you went through.’”

For veterans like Jonathan, reintegrating into civilian life can feel like dropping in to a foreign county; home is unfamiliar, and sometimes unsettling. Despite his injuries, Jonathan is creating new meaning in his life, with attendance at a four-year college on the horizon.

“I’m all right, but I was more than all right before I got injured.” And yet, he acknowledges that his life could be radically different; different like one of his closest military brothers who risked his safety; whose self-sacrifice resulted in a double amputation, and two years in a VA hospital.

Veteran’s Day: a day off of work, or school. The gift of meeting Jonathan spurs me to reflect on my freedom, and know that my rights aren’t free. Take a moment to whisper a prayer of thanks, make a donation, post something on Facebook, send an email, or pick up the phone, and thank a veteran who set aside his/her comfort and safety so that we have can have ours.

EOD Memorial

To donate to EOD Warrior Foundation and/or Wounded Warrior Project—non-profits dedicated to injured veterans and their families—visit the links below.

Photo is of the EOD memorial in Florida. It has a plaque with the names of every EOD tech who died in each of the four branches of the military. Every year there is a ceremony to add the names of the individuals who died that year.

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Coping with Grief: A Mother’s Story

IMG_2366Scattered throughout our lives are periods of grief. The loss of a pet, the end of a relationship, termination from work, the death of a parent—all of these bring up a mixture of emotions, and force us to make adjustments. In time, most are able to accommodate these changes, create a new reality, and move forward. The loss remains a part of us, but does not define us.

But, there is a different type of grief. Brought on by sudden loss—death by suicide, accident, or murder—complicated grief is long lasting, and mimics thoughts and behaviors akin to those who have Post Traumatic Stress. Dru Ann Davis is all too familiar with complicated grief, and the impact it’s taken on her life.  I met Dru Ann at her brother’s, Howard “Boots” McGhee, in Aptos, California. Their bond, support, and love for one another deeply touched me. Out of that time together, I spent several weeks gathering my thoughts, and how to honor Dru Ann’s loss…

On September 7, 2009, Dru Ann heard these life-changing words from a stranger: “Your kid is dead.” Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Desiree, was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Desiree was not a member of a gang. She was a carefree, quiet, seventeen-year-old girl who loved to sing. She’d had her driver’s license for just three weeks, loving the freedom of her car that an uncle helped purchase. On that September day, Desiree went to her friend’s for a barbeque. She never came home. Her killers remain at large.

Life for the survivor of a traumatic death can feel unmanageable, even after a significant amount of time. In the case of murder, the anger, violation, inability to protect one’s loved one, involvement in the justice system, and media coverage prolong and fuel the grief.

“I remember thinking: ‘Can I live without Dez?’ I knew I was going to, from this day forward, live in hell without her.”

Vague answers of Desiree’s whereabouts; rushing to a hospital, only to be told that Desiree’s body was not there; Dru Ann’s surviving daughter Taii learning of her sister’s death on social media; and an inability to see her deceased child amplified the horror for Dru Ann.

“The police would not let me be with my girl. I was told that the homicide detective would be calling me. I thought he would call me immediately, but it took him several days. Taii and I went home crying. When we reached home, I immediately got into Desiree’s bed, pulling the covers up over my face, trying to smell her before it should fade. I invited Taii to join me, but she couldn’t. We stayed in separate rooms, crying all night. It remains the very worst day of my life.”

“I have become a different person.”

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, often referred to as PTSD, is often associated with the intrusive thoughts and behaviors that military personnel suffer upon returning from service. Researchers in mental health have drawn similar links between trauma and grief over child abuse, natural disasters, and co-victims (those left behind) of suicide or murder, and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with PTSS.

Symptoms can include:

  1. Recurrent and intrusive thoughts about the event
  2. Sleep disturbances, including nightmares
  3. Avoidance of places, situations, or people that remind one of the trauma
  4. Loss of interest in activities that used to bring joy or pleasure
  5. Feelings of detachment from others
  6. Lack of interest in the future
  7. Feeling numb
  8. Extreme upset or anxiety when reminded of the trauma
  9. Hyperarousal/hypervigilance

In Dru Ann’s case, tasks such as grocery shopping, seeing foods that Desiree enjoyed, and interacting with others in public became overwhelming, bringing up waves of anxiety and upset.

“I have two poster size photos of Dez in her room that I talk to and kiss every day. I’ve almost worn one out. I turn her light on every night so she knows we want her home. I’m on my second pillow that I made from t-shirts her friends made with her face on them, so I have her to hug and sleep with. She also had a little strapless hot pink cheetah t-shirt material blouse I sleep with every night. I take it with me when I go to my brother’s for the weekend. I don’t know what I’d be like if I couldn’t ‘hug’ her in some way.”

“I tell her all day, every day, she is not alone, I’m always there loving her. I tell her what a smart, beautiful, innovative sweetheart of a daughter she is/was. And that I’m here, fighting for justice for her lovely self.”

Part of the problem for the co-victim, like Dru Ann, is feelings of isolation. Like the elephant in the middle of the room, people avoid bringing up the questions or details about the murder, as well as how one is coping, in fear that the co-victim will be further upset.

“No one ever asks me about her case, or how I am doing behind her murder. I know no one wants to talk about it, or Dez, so I keep it to myself.”

IMG_6378As a former grief counselor, I heard this countless times—how the parent, spouse, sibling, or loved one is already thinking about the one who has died; that bringing it up gives honor to the deceased. In essence, talking about the elephant in the middle of the room removes the stigma and isolation that the co-victim experiences.

What can help the ones who are left behind? Psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital found that a combination of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications can help, as well as therapy tailored to address complicated grief.

The Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) offer a list of counselors in one’s area with a specialty in thanatology (death, dying, and bereavement). Therapists with training in this area are more likely to have a deeper understanding of complicated grief, as well as how to proceed in therapy.

In my work with the bereaved by suicide, grief groups specific to sudden loss appear to help those in mourning more than a generalized grief group, specifically in the area of isolation, stigma, and disenfranchised feelings. Sudden loss groups now exist in a number of cities, and allow individuals to be candid with their experiences, memories, intrusive thoughts, and feelings. Often in non-specific grief groups, the survivor of suicide or co-victim of homicide can feel too unique, fearing that their stories are too explicit. Additionally, fellow grievers who have not been impacted this way are prone to minimize their own grief, or experienced secondary post-traumatic stress from the details of such a death.

Grief specialist, author, and speaker, Barbara Rubel, MA, FT, reports that survivors of homicide must also address practical, safety, and legal issues.

“As survivors of homicide, also known as co-victims, cope with their profound loss, they must navigate the criminal justice system and learn their rights. Co-victims need to learn about parallel justice, a fundamental component of justice, which attempts to keep them safe. They must identify their local victim assistance professionals (e.g. Victim Assistance Coordinators and Victim Advocates) who will guide them through the system during a time when grief can inhibit their ability to focus,” says Rubel.

“Co-victims need to understand their rights; learn how to create a victim impact statement, apply for victim compensation through a crime victims reparations program; review all written information given to them, clarify any misunderstandings, and clarify those things that do not make sense to them. I always recommend to co-victims that they document everything for restitution and seek out financial reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses related to the homicide.”

For Dru Ann, bits of joy do shine into her life. Time spent with her surviving daughter, Taii, as well as other family members helps to lighten the darkness. She has become an avid bird watcher, where observing hawks, crows, and hummingbirds keep her going through each day. Writing about Desiree’s life and her death has offered clarity.

“I went to one Parents of Murdered Children shortly after Desiree’s death. I remember the meeting, but was definitely not fully there. No one in that club wants to be a member. I do remember them as being so welcoming and respectful of one another. They always remember Desiree on her birthday, and on her murderversary.”

“Biking to work and home every day gets a lot of emotion and anger out by using my energy. I also put a rose in a bud vase every week, and then save the leaves and scatter them at the bottom of Desiree’s photo.”


Pursing justice also keeps DruAnn going. “I will always be on the Oakland Police Department to solve her case.”

This is a story of a mother’s horror, her fight to find her daughter’s killer, and how she has coped with the intense grief of her daughter’s murder. This is also the story of spirit, strength, and courage. Dru Ann spent many hours speaking to me about Desiree, answering questions via email, and writing pages about her loss, and how she copes on a day-to-day basis. She is a strong survivor, and her words give witness to the human spirit. Our hope is that others affected by traumatic grief will feel less alone in reading her words.

“Maybe in the future I will be able to reach out and help other mothers who are in this horrible club.”

If you know someone who experiences complicated grief, whether by disaster, accident, suicide, or murder, you can help. There are no magic words, no quick fixes, no piece of advice you can give that will heal the wound. What you can do is listen. My life has changed in knowing Dru Ann, and I carry her, her family, and Desiree in my heart.



Below are a list of resources for those affected by traumatic grief.

Grief Speaks: a website devoted to those affected by murder and homicide.

ADEC: Association of Death Education and Counselors. Here you can find a list of therapists with special training in grief.

California Victim Assistance:

FBI Victim Assistance:

Research in complicated grief:

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Interview: Dave “Nelly” Nelson

Skateboarding, Surfing, Photography, and Living Clean

nelly fotoR

Big Wave Surfers aren’t the only extreme athletes who venture out into treacherous, reef-lined waters to catch waves that stand three stories high. The spectacular images of surfers who barrel down those thirty-foot waves are caught by another type of extreme athlete: the surf photographer. Whether he’s at Half Moon Bay’s Maverick’s, Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, or his hometown of Santa Cruz, California, Dave “Nelly” Nelson has caught some of the most legendary shots of short and long board surfers in the past twenty-five years.

His climb to the top is one of endurance, bravery, risk, and humility. Like the champions he’s photographed, Nelly, too, fought the demon of addiction, nearly losing everything, and has landed on calmer shores of sobriety and family life.

A child who grew up thirty miles outside of Santa Cruz in Saratoga, California, Nelly began as a professional skateboarder. After he graduated high school, he moved “over the hill” to Santa Cruz. His love of surf, skateboarding, and the culture of Santa Cruz was both a blessing and a curse. He met up with big names in the surf world whose carefree, and often drug-centered, lifestyles quickly became his. “I was part of a sixty to seventy person crew. We pushed each other in every way.”

Life looked good, on the outside: success, a girlfriend, a lifestyle that he’d coveted. On the inside, Nelly’s drug abuse was tightening its grip. The assumption that addiction is brought on by hard times, disaster, or emotional upheaval did not pertain to Nelly. In Nelly’s case, the opposite was true. Success was his biggest trigger, and by his late twenties, he’d hit rock bottom.

“I lost my house, my car, my girlfriend…everything,” Nelly says.

nelly- splI-1

He pedaled his bike to a recovery center in Santa Cruz, and stayed for six months. When he arrived, he was severely underweight, unhealthy, yet motivated to change. While in treatment, he learned about the need for a daily recovery program, the necessity to change his circle of friends, and to put his sobriety first.

“The biggest challenges in early recovery for me were trying to stay out of uncomfortable situations. Let’s face it, there are lots of them, and what breaks down that wall of inhibition is usually alcohol. I had to be really careful where I went: no weddings, no bars, no house parties with drugs.

“I’d wake up every day, have coffee, watch the sunrise, swim out, shoot some photos, eat, skate, surf, go to recovery meetings, shoot more photos, and say a prayer of gratitude for this new life I’d been handed!”

nelly- splG

Professional photographer, Tony Roberts, who shot Nelly during his career as a skateboarder, was instrumental in Nelly’s fresh start. Over the years, he taught Nelly the ropes of photography—F-stops, lenses, and the use of flash. When Tony decided to move to Costa Rica, he passed the local torch of photography over to Nelly, which gave him contacts that an amateur could only dream. Now clean, and focused, Nelly’s childhood love of photography bloomed. His first photo submission was not only accepted, but turned into a poster at the center of Surfing magazine when he snapped a ten foot wave peeling off on Reunion Island, near Madagascar. From there, he was known for high-action surf photography for O’Neills, and big name surfers, such as Laird Hamilton.

In sobriety, he had one of his closest calls with death while photographing for O’Neill at Pipeline.

“The swell was high, and I was supposed to shoot some of the top O’Neill surfers. When the swell is on the rise, it sucks all of the water off of the reef, creating a dangerous situation. Everyone started to paddle out, so I swam out, too. A big set hit, and I swam into the barrel [of the wave], and got sucked over the falls. I hit the reef, and split my elbow in half. I came up, and another ten-foot wave pinned me. It cracked the water housing for my camera. I was totally out of breath, and thought, this is it. When I came up, I held up my camera to try to save it.”

Later that day, one of the top surfers from Tahiti, Malik Joyeux, drowned in that swell. It was another turning point for Nelly, who, at the time, was expecting his daughter, Kiala. Now that he has a family, he takes fewer risks in his work, knowing just how much he has to lose.

His passion in surf photography is currently short board surfing, catching surfers in spins and flips, along with the use of innovative flash photography in the water. Recently, Nelly was featured in a ten-page article in Surfing magazine where highlights of his work are detailed.

On his mind these days is the epidemic use of drugs, particularly methamphetamines, in the surfing community. Like his surfing colleagues, Darryl (Flea) Virostko, Peter Mel, and Anthony Ruffo, all committed to recovery, Nelly sees how adult/professional surfers set the tone for the youth who idolize them; that if they model drug use, young surfers will imitate that behavior. Likewise, if they see icons take a stand, and support and endorse organizations such as DFS-Drug Free Surfers, then they will follow that wave as well. That said Nelly is at work to see how he can impact youth in surfing, and help them achieve their dreams drug free.

Nelly-and-christy-3971-1Dave “Nelly” Nelson is a miracle. Not everyone makes it out the other side of drug abuse and addiction. If you know someone who needs help, please contact the following:

For a look at Nelly’s breathtaking photography, you can visit his website at:

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Anthony Ruffo: A New Life

Presumptions, precognitions, and preconceived notions: all a part of the human condition. They are rooted in our experience, prejudices, and what our culture tells us about a person, place or thing.

When you hear the word “addict”, what presumptions, precognitions, and preconceived notions come to mind?

We live in a culture where drug addiction, whether legal or illegal drugs, is rampant, and alcoholism abounds. The news focuses on the problem, the causes, which celebrity is in rehab, often capitalizing on others’ misfortune.

Less popular in our media-saturated culture is the focus on the solution; the stories of individuals battling addiction, maintaining their sobriety, and carrying a message of hope to their families and others still stuck in their disease. The story below is one of those stories: a man who battled his addiction for most of his life, and now stands humbly in his community, clean, and willing to share his story in hopes that someone still in the grips of addiction will find encouragement, hope, and gratitude. Meet former professional surfer, Anthony Ruffo.

Across the table of a local coffee shop in Santa Cruz, California, I listened to Anthony’s story. One hour was not enough. A few weeks prior, Anthony and I met at a fundraiser put on by Darryl a.k.a. “Flea” Virostko, for his sobriety project FleaHab. From the limited knowledge I had of Anthony’s past, I knew I wanted to learn more. As I listened to his chronology of addiction and recovery, I understood why his eyes and smile shine so bright. Anthony is a miracle.

314583_10150351451429456_8601811_nAnthony, thanks for meeting me, and for your willingness to share on my blog. Can you tell me about life growing up, and your experience as a surfer?

I grew up in Santa Cruz. I loved surfing. By the time I was fourteen, I’d already gotten into partying. Back then it was a lot of pot smoking, and later on cocaine. My main focus was surf, girls, and using. I got sponsored as a short board competitor, and took 1st place in Santa Cruz’s 1985 O’Neill Coldwater Classic, and 2nd place in ’97 and ‘02. In the 90’s, competing changed a lot, and more professional training and dieting were required to keep up.

What was the turning point in your life where addiction really held a grip on your life? 

I could feel that I was getting phased out of professional surfing in 2001. I had no plan, felt inadequate, low self esteem, and that’s when methamphetamines came into my life.  Meth changed those feelings, and took away my fear about life. But, it caught up with me, and created more problems—daily problems—especially when I started dealing it. At the time, I didn’t think about what I was doing to myself, kids, families, my community. I was caught. Being so high profile, it didn’t take long until my lifestyle caught up with me.

While I don’t want the focus of this interview to be on what went wrong, can you share the consequences? Then we’ll move on to what changed and what worked to move you into recovery.

I had my first brush with the law in ’06. I went to rehab, and had to do community service. But, the rehab part didn’t stick. I guess I wasn’t at my bottom yet. Then, in 2010, I was raided, and this time I had to go to jail. I served nine months in the Santa Cruz County Jail, and wore a monitor for five months with parole. This time was different, though…this time I was ready to take responsibility.

People in recovery talk about moments of clarity, hitting bottom, or a jumping off point in which they know they need help, and their denial is faced. What was that point for you?

A couple of things hit me. One was the loss of a close friend, Peter Davi. We were surfing together in Still Water Cove in Monterey. We hadn’t seen him in a while, and then spotted something floating in the water. I paddled over to him, and found him dead in the water.

The other was the death of world surf champion, Andy Irons, who died of heart failure due to a drug overdose. He was only thirty-two.

You had a unique recovery, in that you don’t practice a traditional 12-Step program, but something associated with breath. Can you tell us about your program of recovery?

I don’t think there’s one way for people to recover. If the 12-Step method works for someone, then great. It wasn’t for me. My recovery program began with Genie O’Malley. Her project at the time was called Clean Mind & Healthy Planet, and is now called Living Breath Project. She found me due to my being high profile, and asked me to come out to New York and stay for thirty days. It got me away from the drugs, my environment, and I learned to practice her three-part breath technique. It involves breathing and positive word sequences that cleanse negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are part of self-destructive behaviors. (For more information on Living Breath Project, see

When I finished her program, we both returned to Santa Cruz and she spent one week there helping others in their addiction.

I also attend a weekly therapy group with an addiction-trained psychologist who works on self-esteem, communication, and the balance between behavior, feelings, and thoughts.

A lot of what I’ve learned is that drug and alcohol isn’t the problem, I am the problem. I need to work on myself, build good relationships with others, let go of negative perceptions, and not focus on others’ perceptions of myself. People have a right to think and feel as they want, and I don’t have to agree with it or internalize it. This is a huge shift for me.

208746_217488958264691_3052015_nTalk about life now…the new Anthony Ruffo.

I feel more peaceful now. I’m less argumentative, and don’t have to be right. I feel gratitude (as demonstrated by the tattoo of the word “gratitude” tattooed on his neck).

I have positive relationships with my parents, the surf community, and friends. Giving back is important to me. I can show other addicts that it’s not hopeless—that they can move forward and get back up.

Part of my recovery involved going into juvenile hall and talking with kids about drugs, addiction, where I’ve been, and how I am now. They listen to me when they hear my story. That I can make a difference in somebody’s life after where I’ve been—it’s amazing.


If you or someone you love are caught in the trap of addiction, the following are some helpful links:

Narcotics Anonymous:

Alcoholics Anonymous:

Living Breath Project:

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Drug Free Surfers – John Solanoa


As a native of Santa Cruz, I have a deep attachment to nature, the beach, and love of surfing, albeit, from the beach or cliff as I admire this sport. Many of us are enamored with those who face walls of water that seem insane to ride.

There exists, however, an entangled relationship between surfing and drugs and alcohol: marijuana, alcohol, and methamphetamines take too many surfers out before their time. Dozens are left to battle their addiction, face jail time, and the damage to their families, friends, and own lives. Those left behind beg the question: how can one reach a culture where surfing and drugs and alcohol lay alongside one another?

John Solanoa, a local surfer in Southern California, who is a well-known writer and photographer in the surfing community, felt compelled to address this issue, resulting in an organization called DFS, Drug Free Surfers. Appealing to seasoned surfers and young alike, he rallied for them to take a stand, promoting a zero-tolerance for use of any drug. Members include Santa Cruz/Huntington Beach surfer Peter Mel, the winner of the past season’s Mavericks, his son John Mel, US Boys Champion, two-time Open Champion Brett Simpson of Long Beach, and San Clemente’s NSSA Champion Tia Blanco, to name a few.

johnmelDSF’s mission:

“…to promote and lift those who practice clean living within the extreme sports lifestyle. To build a vast network of professionals and amateur sports figures to help show the youth of our sports that there is another option to drugs, and to make aware those at risk kids that you can live that happy life you always wanted Drug Free.” 


out-of-breath-SMWhen I wrote my first novel, Out of Breath, which captures a surfer caught in the grip of addiction and its consequences, I had no idea how pervasive this topic was, although I later learned a great deal from Pro-Surfer Peter Mel and his father John Mel, owner of Freeline Surf Shop. Life flows in strange ways, and I was introduced to DFS when John Solanoa was on Santa Cruz’s radio station KSCO. On their show, Off The Lip Radio, co-hosts Neil Pearlberg and Terry Campion (owner of Santa Cruz Boardroom) interviewed John, spreading the word about DFS. Immediately, I knew I wanted to learn more and have John on my blog. Someone is daring to make an impact and a change that can save lives! Below is a snapshot of John’s and my time together, and his story of empowering the surf community to take the pledge to be drug free.


John, welcome to my blog, Can you share with my readers a bit about you and your life?

Hi Susan, thanks for having me. I am from Hawaii, but now live in Huntington Beach, Ca. I’ve been surfing the better part of my life, but have now turned into a weekend surfer that surfs about every third weekend, lol. I have been shooting as a professional freelance photographer for the past ten years, working with Quiksilver, Billabong, and Fox among others. I write editorials with Ghetto Juice Surf Mag, ESPN, O.C. Register, Surfline, Surfing Mag, Surfers Journal, and many others.   

What did you notice over the past twenty years in terms of drug use/abuse amongst the surf community?

In Hawaii and in California I have always seen drug use, but most of it was with the older guys. It wasn’t until the last two and a half years that I started to notice kids losing their way. 

On your website, you mention the death of twenty-year-old Chris Love, a grom (young surfer) whose life was cut short as a result of drugs. There’ve been others, as well, who’ve met early deaths due to the grips of addiction. Was this the impetus behind the creation of DFS?

Yeah, Chris was one of thirteen kids that I knew under the age of twenty-three who died as a result of overdose in the last twenty-six months. It’s been hard on so many people, and I just felt as a part of the surf community I needed to do something. I thought to myself, “Why are these kids dying like this? How does it all begin?” The only thing that kept popping up was peer pressure! These kids all want to be a part of something, they all want to climb that surf ladder of success and from a young age. They are exposed to this party culture that has imbedded itself into the surfing culture, so they think, “If I’m going to get ahead, I need to be a part of this party scene, and then my older peers will respect me not just for my surfing, but for my craziness as well.” So I came up with DFS, and to do nothing more than uplift those who live a DFS lifestyle. Positive peer pressure is born, and it seems to be working.  

What has the response been like amidst surfers, both young and veterans?

We’ve had a great response from so many big name surfers: Brett Simpson, Travis Logie, Nat Young—all on the World Tour. Nate Yeomans, Matt Pagan, Ezekiel Lau, Keanu Asing, Chris Waring and Kanoa Igarashi from the WQS Tour and Pro Junior Tour. And some of the most exciting groms to hit the water this year: Micky Clarke, Tia Blanco, John Mel, Nolan Rapoza, Daniel Glenn, Abby Brown, and Sebastian “Bash” Mendes among others.  We also have some of the most legendary names in the business: Peter Mel, Reef McIntosh, Jason Shibata, and South African Bill Sharp. 

dfs-squareHow can people support DFS?

If you would like to help support the movement you can go to the site and donate or fill out the form to become a DFS registered surfer. We have team stickers for team members and public stickers to help show your support. 

Thank you for not only your time with me, John, but for creating a powerful group of brave individuals who take a stand publically against drug use and abuse in the surf and extreme sport worlds. If this encourages even one person to not pick up that drink or drug, it’s an endeavor in saving lives.

Stay tuned for more interviews with drug-free surfers. Up next: Former professional surfer from Santa Cruz, Ca, Anthony Ruffo, and his story of addiction, recovery, and vision for the future!


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