Former Downeast Maine Man Finds Recovery Amidst The Waves
The first time I met Robbie Harriman, was 2 years ago on his wedding day. He and his now-wife, Lacey, had hired me to DJ/Emcee the event. And as I listened, as the officiant told their story during the ceremony, I couldn't help but be moved by the details of how they met and the obstacles they had overcome to be together.
Robbie met Lacey at an addiction support group. She was accompanying a family member there and was instantly taken with him. Fast forward to the present day, and they are happily married and expecting their first baby this year.
What I found really fascinating, was Harriman's story of addiction and subsequent recovery, and how the water--specifically surfing and wakeboarding--has played a big role in his sobriety.
I asked him if he'd mind sharing his story. He did not mind. So here's how a former Downeast Mainer found his way from addiction to sobriety, amidst the waves.
Robbie Harriman grew up in Blue Hill and Stonington...
"Coming from a family of fishermen going back several generations, I have always been drawn to the ocean. After a few summers of stuffing bait bags, I knew lobster fishing wouldn’t be my career – but the ocean has always called to me.
Growing up I wasn’t very good at traditional team sports, and never really had much interest in them anyway. Alternative 'extreme' sports always appealed to me though. I liked the idea that I could learn the skill on my own and hone it in, essentially competing against myself instead of others. I got into skateboarding at the age of 10, which I found to be a great outlet."
At about the age of 15, Harriman started experimenting with substances.
"I always felt "different" from other kids. As far back as I can remember. Like I was less than, not a part of... Like something was missing. I felt like I didn't fit in with my friends, or any group really. I was never comfortable in my own skin. I saw substances and the part lifestyle as a potential way to connect with others. I thought maybe it was the piece I was missing. And to be honest, it was. When I started using, it worked. It relieved me of insecurities and social anxiety. The using crowd made me feel like I was finally a part of, as the expectations were low. So substances worked... Until they didn't. I took a detour in life – dropped out of high school and lost myself to drug and alcohol addiction. At that point, I abandoned all other hobbies and interests in favor of substances and gave up my skateboard. My addiction progressed quickly, and consequences started to stack up. I found myself a high school dropout, homeless wandering the streets of Bar Harbor all night. I ended up disconnected from everyone - including (and especially) my family. I was jobless, unemployable, hopeless, and sick. In the end, I had alienated everyone in my life to the point where nobody would lend me a single penny or let me crash on their couch. And on top of all that, the drugs and alcohol were no longer doing their job by providing the relief they promised me in the beginning. This low point of hopelessness and desperation put me in a place where I knew something had to change, that I couldn't go on living like this."
6 months before his 21st birthday, Harriman got clean.
"I was finally desperate enough to try anything. That's when I found recovery in my early 20’s and started going back to my family’s camp on Schoodic Lake in Brownville Junction Maine. In 2010 I bought a wakeboard at Marden’s. It took several tries to get up, but once I did it felt incredible to glide on top of the water, and I started trying some tricks which gave me a great rush. From that point on I would go 'upta camp' every summer, when I could, and would always make it a point to get some time on the wakeboard, even if the weather wasn’t great."
"The only thing about wakeboarding is, in Maine, there’s a very small window to do it – so I only got to go maybe a few times a year between life responsibilities and rotating weekends at my family camp. During COVID, we chose limited our travel home to Maine which meant no camp and no wakeboarding last year."
When Harriman couldn't wakeboard, he turned to learning a new water skill.
"Two years ago I found surfing at 36 years old. In late 2018 to late 2019 I was traveling to Puerto Rico for work on a regular basis. Sometimes I would be there for a few weeks at a time and would look to find things to do over the weekends when I wasn’t working. I had always wanted to try surfing, but there just seemed to be so many barriers to entry. But in March of 2019 a friend I made on the island surprised me with a skydiving trip one weekend in Arecibo as a 'bachelor party,” I realized the biggest barrier was actually in my head, and it suddenly seemed much smaller after jumping out of a plane. So, the next day I booked a surf lesson."
" I fell in love immediately. I felt connected to the ocean and found peace out there. It’s humbling; a reminder of how vast, powerful, unpredictable, and beautiful the ocean is. There was quite a learning curve at first. After an hour of instruction and a little push into the waves by the instructor, I was able to catch some whitewater to the shore. A small feat – but I knew this was something I needed more of! I was bound and determined to catch a green wave (the term surfers use for getting up on an unbroken wave). Each time I surf a learn an important lesson. That first day my lesson was 'remember to bring a towel. I came home from that trip ranting and raving to my wife about it, and immediately started researching boards and wetsuits. But I also knew surfing the northeast year-round – while possible – was a whole different ballgame."
But Harriman was not about to let a little thing like "the cold" get in his way.
" My first time cold-water surfing was another humbling experience. There were 25-30mph gusts and 9ft waves. I had no business being out there and would advise against this. But I had my brand-new board and accessories, so I was anxious to get in the water. Again my ego clashed with my abilities, and I gave in to my grandiose ideas of catching 9 foot waves my first time surfing in New England with my new board and gear. It wasn’t until months later, many sessions and a healthy dose of humility that I was able to catch my first green wave."
"There’s a great rush that comes with catching a nice long (or even short) ride on a wave, but there’s also serenity in just sitting out there floating. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets sitting out on my board, sharing the moment in silent appreciation with a few other die-hards between sets on a cold winter morning or evening.
Harriman found his time in and on the water, amidst the waves, to be a sort of therapy, peace and a release.
"I love the ritualism – checking the surf forecast websites and beach cams, packing up the gear the night before, taking the drive (sometimes 2 hours or more), waxing the board… My wife has made the comment that I am NOT a morning person at all – yet surfing is somehow the only thing that will make me spring out of bed with excitement at 4 AM on a Saturday or Sunday morning in the dead of winter. I now have a collection of boards and accessories, and a GoPro to capture some of my adventures on video.
I’ve also found comradery with a small group of guys I’ve met through surfing and bonded with over the past year. We have a group text and plan early morning or evening sessions at local spots before and after work, and road trips on the weekend to wherever the swell is best (anywhere from southern Maine down to Rhode Island). We challenge and encourage each other to do better, and all celebrate when any of us catches a nice ride."
Coming home to Maine.
Harriman and his wife moved from Maine to Massachusetts 5 years ago. While Covid kept them away last year, they were delighted to get to spend some time, back home in Maine waters this summer.
"Last week we took some vacation time to spend at the family camp on Schoodic Lake. It had been a few years since I had gone wakeboarding, but I found that my experience surfing translated well and was able to pop up and pull out some tricks almost like no time had passed."
"Surfing has given me more than I could have imagined… A hobby, a passion, friends, physical fitness, meditation, humility, teachability, and so many beautiful experiences. During COVID when everything else was shut down and all sports and other events were canceled – I was so grateful that surfing was never canceled.
The physical exercise is second to none. I prefer exercise that has a mission or end goal. I hate forcing myself to run endlessly on a treadmill with the only end goal being just to 'stay in shape.' With surfing, I find myself exerting energy to the point of exhaustion, and still not wanting to stop! I’ve never run on a treadmill for two hours straight and thought 'Man, I just wish I could keep doing this for another 3 hours!'
"This newfound drive has prompted me to exercise, stretch, and work on my balance out of the water between sessions, to condition and strengthen myself to be able to surf better and longer.
Not to mention the therapeutic value… After 5 hours of intense paddling and catching waves, I find myself completely at peace. I can expel all my anxiety physically, and center myself with the ocean. I often paddle out with a head full of problems, and paddle back in a few hours later with nothing left but serenity and gratitude – feeling connected with my spirit and the universe through the ocean."
E.E. Cummings once wrote:
"For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it's always ourselves we find in the sea."
In this case, Harriman has found the best version of himself. And from the looks and sounds of it, he's continuing to make that version even better.
Wishing Robbie, his wife, and his soon-to-be daughter the best of luck in the future. May it be as bold and as bright as you continue to make it.