Former South African addict helps others kick the habit – by surfing

Lenny Stolk started LJ's Surf Clinic this fall in Cape Town, South Africa. The clinic's goal is to help addicts get clean.

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    Sober dude: Lenny Stolk (l.) comes in from a session with A.D. Sabeh at Muizenberg Beach in Cape Town, South Africa. Mr. Stolk started LJ's Surf Clinic this fall to help addicts kick the habit.
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They've ridden the high and lows of addiction and now a group of recovering addicts is learning to surf the waves as an unlikely part of their rehabilitation program.

Patients at the respected Tabankulu Recovery Center in Cape Town are encouraged to take up the sport to help wean them off their various addictions and personal problems.

Once a week the assortment of people struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, bulimia, and other troubles pick up their boards and learn to surf in the waters around South Africa's "Mother City."

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Their tutor, Lenny Stolk, is himself a former heavy drinker and drug addict who kicked his habits seven years ago.

After rehabilitation, Mr. Stolk returned to work but was made redundant in June this year. It was then he thought about starting up LJ's Surf Clinic.

"I spent 90,000 to 95,000 rand (around $8,800) on the van and surfboards and spoke to the clinic," says Stolk. "I did not want it to be a surf school.

"I wanted it to be a surf clinic to help addicts and people with problems," says Stolk. "I've looked on the Internet and can't find anywhere else that offers it."

Since September, Stolk has taught about 20 people to surf.

Tabankulu divides its treatment program into three different stages based on a 12-step recovery plan.

The clinic attracts people with drink and drug addiction or behavioral problems from around the world. Most are from Britain and different parts of Africa, but it currently hosts people from Sweden, Holland, and Ukraine. They pay some $15,000 for a typical nine-month course of treatment.

As well as surfing, patients can learn, among other things, gardening, cooking, yoga, kung fu, or painting, supplemented by therapy and counseling.

Surf therapy

Once a week, Stolk teaches two groups of five or six surfers, but he is keen to stress that it is seen as a "reward" for progression with other elements of the program.

Among his current crop of surfers is A.D. Sabeh, a Ghanaian who only has one leg.

Mr. Sabeh, who lived some of his teenage years and early 20s in San Francisco, lost his right limb in a nightclub shooting by police in Ghana's capital, Accra.

Standing up on his board, Sabeh balances on one arm for a few seconds before regularly falling off – but he's not giving up.

Sabeh says learning to surf in South Africa was nothing compared with giving up alcohol and drugs. Despite being in and out of rehabilitation centers, he was unable to beat his addictions until he joined Tabankulu 10 months ago.

"I was a bit skeptical about learning to surf, but I've got a good teacher and he's given me the confidence," says Sabeh.

"It takes my mind off drugs and my treatment," he says. "It's given me hope for the future."

Cinic administrators say that surfing offers a new challenge for patients and fills a gap when they might otherwise be tempted to revert to bad habits. "It's about having fun," says Tabankulu director and owner Hugh Robinson. "The biggest task for a recovering addict is finding new enthusiasm for life. Surfing gives that – it gets the juices going, new excitement and passion. Also, when you get out into the sea on your board you realize how large the world is and how small you are."

The call to ride the waves

"[Surfing has] been a 'calling,' " says Stolk. "I love rugby, but you can't beat getting out there into the water. It's physical exercise and if you've been addicted to drugs or alcohol, you're not used to it. A lot of [the patients] think they can't do it, but once they begin to stand up, it fills them with confidence."

"It's easy to say no and go back to drugging and drinking, but learning to surf gives you a real sense of achievement which is important," says Stolk.

"It normally takes four or five times before they start getting up on the board," he says. "You're out there, on the sea with nature. It's excitement and adrenalin, but if they don't complete other parts of the program they can't come.

"I know what it's like when you give something up," Stolk adds. "It was OK for me because I've always surfed. But for those who've always drugged, you need something to fill your gap. It's a good, clean sport and can be addictive!"

Stolk, who is tan and looks remarkably healthy for someone who has spent nearly two-thirds of life addicted to alcohol and drugs, is modest about his success so far. "They all want my cellphone number and I've not had anyone dropping out.

"I seem to gel with them," he says. "They know what I've been through – I'm open about it. I hope they can see that I've given up drugs, and so can they."

The tutor's struggle with addiction

Along with alcohol, Stolk smoked marijuana, heroin, and crack.

He held down a full-time printing job, until one night when he collapsed at work among friends.

Born in Durban, South Africa, Stolk has lived most of his life in Cape Town. He's been surfing for nearly 40 years, but prior to giving up alcohol and drugs, he had never had time to teach his daughter Shalen or son Justin, to surf.

He started drinking and smoking about the same time he took up surfing – at age 16. "One drug led to another," he says. "I didn't consider it a problem – I enjoyed doing it and didn't care.

"I did it for more than 30 years," says Stolk. "In 2001, I ... was given an ultimatum: go into rehab or lose my job. Three weeks later, on Nov. 25, 2001, I went into rehab, but wasn't interested. Then, one and a half weeks in, I just had a 'vision' and I gave up.

"I don't know what it was, it wasn't religious or anything like that, but I decided to give it up – everything."

At the time, he says, all he could think was that he couldn't remember anything about the past 30 years. "I felt really sad inside, because at 46 years of age, I had no memories. Those three weeks changed my life, and I've not done any [drugs] since then.

"The first two months were the most difficult," says Stolk. "Before if I hadn't been surfing, I'd be in the pub or in a room taking drugs.

"I asked 'what am I going to do with my time?' People around me were worried that if I didn't fill up my time, I'd go back to drugging and drinking," Stolk says. "Surfing had always been a part of my life so I decided it would be my way out."

Now, he's helping others to see if it can be their way out as well.

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