Andy Irons' life was one of momentous highs and staggering lows. Unfortunately, as we now know, the former three-time world champion's struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction ultimately derailed his life, and eventually lead to his untimely demise. And the sad reality of bipolar disorder is that it often goes hand-in-hand with addiction.
According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rates for co-occurring disorders–that is, someone suffering from a substance abuse disorder while already suffering from bipolar disorder–is exponentially higher than the population at large. Per the SAMHSA's numbers, somewhere between 30 to more than 50 percent of all people who suffer from bipolar disorder suffer co-occurring disorders.
"I don't think anybody really knows why people [with bipolar disorder] gravitate towards addiction," Dr. Andrew Nierenberg, the Director of the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, told TGR. "There's one hypothesis that people are self-medicating. That may or may not be true. There's just another hypothesis that they're prone to sort of go over board with a lot of the drugs. But again, just think of it that here you have a brain that's dysregulated."
"We all take for granted being regulated, right?" Nierenburg continued. "So, you can regulate your impulses. If you're walking by a car dealership, you really see a car that you like. You don't all of a sudden say, 'I'm buying that car. Here's $50,000 that I don't have.' You don't do that. You say, 'Hey, I'd really like that car. I can't afford it. Not a good idea.' So, you don't do that. And when people get dysregulated, they'll say, 'Fine, I'll go buy that car. I'll just do that.'"
And for many with bipolar disorder–according to Dr. Mark Vonnegut, who researches bipolar disorder and suffers from it–one of the ways to chase the feeling of regulation, of normalcy and validation, is to chase achievement.
"I think as you're growing up you want to know what's different about me and what is it?" Vonnegut said of growing up with bipolar disorder. "What can I do about this? I never liked any of the answers."
Vonnegut says he was inclined to chase his manic highs with unrelenting fervor in much the same way Irons was–at the detriment to his life outside of surfing.
"I think it's tragic that in the... While you are achieving so much, that you are probably not a very good brother, you're probably not a very good son, you're certainly not a very good husband and so forth," said Vonnegut of his own obsession with accomplishments. "And so it looks like the price of achieving so much, it comes at a cost and it certainly comes as a cost to the families.. I was so driven at one time to prove that I wasn't mentally ill, that I could be the best pediatrician, and the odd thing is Boston Magazine named me the best pediatrician in 1986 or whatever it was, it wasn't enough for me. I said, 'Why aren't I the best pediatrician in North America or whatever?' While you're in that drive to achieve to fight the illness is nothing's enough."
"And I think the other side is becoming connected to your family, to friends, to whatever, and lightening up," he continued. "Andy never got a chance to lighten up."
As Vonnegut hints to, Andy unfortunately never received the help he needed, but it's never too late to get the help you need. If you suspect you or someone you know might be suffering from addiction or a mental illness, please contact the SAMHSA.