‘You have a choice to make’: Alex Gray talks to local teens about vaping, social media, and the power of choice
Editor’s note: Professional Surfer Alex Gray, a South Bay native, has been doing a tour of local schools to give a talk that he first began giving 15 years ago after the death of his brother Chris from a heroin overdose. Working with South Bay Families Connected, Gray is now using the talk to address the vaping epidemic; a recent Beach Cities Health District survey found that one in three Mira Costa High School 11th graders vapes, and the habit has increasingly reached even younger students. This talk was given at Manhattan Beach Middle School on Oct. 7.
by Alex Gray
For the last 23 years, I have been a professional surfer. I’ve had major sponsors who allowed me to travel to places like Micronesia, Australia, and Morocco. I was going to about 18 countries a year, living my dream that started at 10 years old at lovely Torrance Beach.
I rode my first wave at Torrance. We were in every sport imaginable, and my brother went through Junior Lifeguards and learned how to surf and he came home and said, “I want to be a surfer.” And I looked at my parents….and they said, “Yeah, we’d love for you to be a surfer. We have no idea what that means.” But my mom and dad started pushing us into waves at Torrance and two years later, at 12, I acquired two major sponsors, Volcom and Body Glove, and began what would determine the next 20 years of my life.
I wanted to be a professional surfer. I wanted to do it more than anything and was willing to sacrifice, to do anything and everything possible to live that dream. As I got to high school, I was doing tons of competitions. By my senior year of school, I was rated second in the nation through the highest organization of competition in surfing we have in America. I acquired more sponsors and was going to graduate school with the ability to travel on the World Tour that crowns a world champion. I basically had everything that I ever dreamed of and more: my brother’s and my own childhood dream of becoming a professional surfer.
Around that time, as I was just about to graduate high school, my brother sat our family down and out of nowhere told us he had an issue with drugs, that he’d fallen into a trap that had taken over his life, that he was worried he wasn’t going to be able to deal with it. My brother got into using a drug called heroin.
Over the next couple of months, our lives changed. All this focus on school and surfing was put into him, because we were worried for the safety of his life. He did really well. He went through programs and was six months sober. I went to my last team dinner for the surf team; I was the captain for the Peninsula High surf team. And that night we….this is the hardest part of this whole thing. We got a phone call that Chris had overdosed and died. [Long pause as Gray tears up]. I can never get through this part.
That night, and that phone call, is really why I stand here today in front of you guys. Chris was the best person in my life. He was the greatest son and a fantastic brother. After that phone call, my life would never be the same. A couple of months later I sat just like this in front of the Palos Verdes High School because I didn’t want anybody else to ever have to go through what our family did. And I needed to break the stigma that drug use happened to bad people. We were so surprised and shocked that it took Chris’s life that I just realized it could happen to anybody and we all need to open up and stop judging, blaming and putting shame for people making accidental decisions or mistakes.
My brother made a choice; the consequence was to take his life. And to this day, we as a family don’t believe that he ever intended for that to be the end of his story. So it left us as a family…how do we continue? How do I continue? I didn’t surf. I put my surfboard away. I found out what depression was, I found out what loneliness, what isolation was. I mean, I was done. And right at that moment where I was probably going to start making the poor decisions of how to cope with his loss…Thank god for surfing, because I ended up going back to competition, sitting there with a jersey on, and my brother was right next to me. He came to every contest. And he’d be there telling me how to do it, where to surf, how to win, and this lightbulb clicked: Chris is gone. I found acceptance of the fact that he was never coming back again.
I emotionally stand in front of you today because it still hurts to not have him here. But what can I do to honor him, to honor the gift? And that was to continue to move forward with everything he gave me. And when I made that choice — to switch from dark, heavy depressive feelings and use that moment in time, that adversity, that unfortunate circumstance, and allow it to uplift me to do things that I would have never imagined — I learned the power of choice.
The new epidemic
When I gave that speech 15 years ago to the entire high school, my brother’s death was just at the beginning of the opioid epidemic. Now, 15 years later, it is the number one killer in America. And it’s hard for me, going through this process and his story and trying to fight for him, because now I’m here today and you guys have a whole new wildcard before you. And that’s called vaping.
This whole vaping thing for our generation, we look at it and shake our heads. Why? How is this happening? There’s been this mask that’s been put over it and this word, that gets me more than angry, called “harmless.”
“We have this harmless device called vaping.”
“We have a substitute for cigarettes, it’s healthier. You should do this.”
When I go on South Bay Families Connected [website] and get facts like a vape cartridge is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes, I scratch my head. And then it shows there are 18 people in America who have died this year from vaping. It’s like, “Here we go, all over again.” My grandparents died from lung cancer and throat cancer from tobacco use. When cigarettes first came out, it was romanticized in all the movies. “Everybody is doing it.” My grandparents had no idea, the consequences of it. And yet here we are all over again. We have this device that they decided to flavor as cotton candy. You kids are so much smarter than these guys had to go so far as flavor these things as something we like to go to carnivals and eat.
When you get into the facts of it being “harmless,” our federal government has no idea what the ingredients are that are killing people, but they are still allowing these devices to be sold, to you. And you guys are believing it. And I’m sitting here going, please, please wise up to what is really going on here. You have a lot of people making money to the demise of your life.
So when I sit and think about all of these facts, and the ingredients which they have found, like formaldehyde — which is in glue, which is in weed killer — I think they are still hoping you don’t figure this all out. You realize that, yes, there is nicotine in there, so we can get through that lie: nicotine is known as the most addictive thing that we have, and if that is not enough, there is the option to make it a THC vape.
THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. When you talk about psychoactive, you are getting into the psyche of your brain and now you are starting to mess with the way you think. So we have the most addictive thing that we know of, nicotine, and now we have THC. Well, THC is probably the biggest gateway drug, so this now becomes a part of the rest of your life. My brother’s addiction journey started with marijuana. He didn’t ever foresee it going down the road that it did, to eventually take his life.
I lost my brother far before he overdosed that night. When somebody gets into addiction, they lose everything. They lose their family, their friends, their relationships, their homes, their jobs. All they want to do is find that next high. It’s all they care about in life, and when life gets to that point…that was the worst moment in my life, having to tell my brother that I didn’t want to be associated with him if he was going to continue using and treat his family like this. And I sit in front of you, at such a young age…you guys have the whole world in front of you, you can do anything you want, and you are getting duped by these big companies, with severe consequences.
So I sit here and I go, why? At a young age, I can relate to curiosity. I was a curious kid who made mistakes. But the other influence that you guys have is social media.
I need to explain something to you. I have 85,000 followers on Instagram. That’s a lot, but it’s not the 21 million of some of the people you follow. But it’s enough that it’s a part of my life. I hate to say this, but social media and all these people you are following are fake. They, including myself, have an opportunity to choose who we are, and nobody chooses to be the worst version of themselves. To show their bad days. To show the real side of themselves. All people do, and I think it’s the pressure, is to show that one moment, like ‘Today was awesome! I’m doing great! My life is insane!’ And it’s all just a lie. And I really hope you guys aren’t following these people because you think this is what their life is really like. We’ve put this pressure on ourselves to be perfect. That’s what social media is; it’s people being perfect every day.
Chose real friends
When I was in high school and middle school, I remember that I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be part of the cool kids I idolized. I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to please everybody, I wanted to have every friend in the world. And as I evolve away from that, I want to hang out with people who aren’t perfect. I want to hang out with people that have issues. I want to hang out with people that have bad days. Because I am that person.
I’ve never been perfect once in my life. And I think we are all part of this moment where every day needs to be perfect and good, but it’s just not the reality, not the way the human brain works. We were meant to face adversity. My story comes along with the death of my brother, and it’s that moment that my life was either going to jump into this thing that he did, or stop. And I had to sit with myself, and face myself. There is nothing scarier in the world than deciding to sit with your own self, and check-in and see who you are, right?
In social media and at school we can sit and follow each other all day long, and maybe somebody is successful, and you are like, “I’m going to do what they are doing.” But in the end, that may not be what works for you. I want all of you guys to understand that: you yourself have more than what it takes to have the greatest life in the world, to do whatever you want. I am a walking embodiment of somebody that wanted something more than anything, so I went after it with everything that I could. And if I can do it, you guys can do it.
So what can we do to move forward? I think the most important thing is to start surrounding yourself with good people. Choose your friends. Pick who is around you. We should always be around people that are uplifting us, not judging us, there for us when it’s on the worst days. Not when everything is great, ‘Yeah, bro, today is awesome. You are the man.’ Then all of a sudden life hits and they are not around. You want the friends that are there for everything, the ones who will sit and listen, and in return, you do that for each other. That’s what real friendship is. And while we can have all the friends in the world, there’s always going to be somebody, no matter what you are doing in life, who through their own insecurities and jealousy will try to bring you down and knock you off your path.
The most important thing and the way to keep straight and narrow is to have a goal. If you have a goal and you know who you are and what you want in life, you can do anything. That is when you are unstoppable. But we also have to realize that we are not invincible. And life is fragile. That is what I learned from my brother’s death.
It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to have anxiety. It’s okay to have depression. It’s okay to just have a bad day. You should be able to reach out to your friends on those days. The first thing you should be able to do on one of those days is call your friend or go and hang out with them. If you are not comfortable enough to talk about it — which I wish we’d do more of, it’s why I’m standing here today…I hope I am an example for you guys to show you that it is okay to be vulnerable. Sitting here and breaking down and crying over the death of my brother in front of a middle school is the last thing that I want to do. But I’m more than happy to be that example for you guys because we have to do it. We have to let this out, we have to share it, and we have to allow each other to be okay with doing it.
But if you don’t have the guts to do it, or you aren’t feeling it that day, grab a pen and grab a piece of paper. You can sit and write anything you want. Nobody is there to judge you, nobody is there to see what you are doing. These are all tools just to get it out of your head. And if you want to crumple that paper up and throw it away and pretend it never happened, great. But maybe you return to that paper, and you start realizing your thought patterns.
The human mind can be very toxic. And we put ourselves down before we lift ourselves up. I don’t know if I’m alone in that, but that’s the way that my mind works. If we can start weeding out those negative thoughts and start uplifting ourselves with positive affirmation, and really self-care and love, that’s the greatest feeling in the world, when you are comfortable in your own shoes.
Go bigger and better
Another thing I love to recommend is: What is your passion? I got so lucky with surfing. Surfing has fueled my life as a career. But I really have to do it, every day, because it’s the only place where I can get out of my head. In those moments in life where I can’t stop this thought process that’s just taking me into a horrible, dark place, I get to go surf. I get to clear my mind and have a moment to myself. And it’s so important.
You guys have the ability to be and do whatever you want. You just have to believe in yourself.
And along the way, have compassion for each other, because something else that has risen lately is teenage suicide. To be so young and have the feeling that you can’t move forward in life because it’s just gotten to that point…You guys, we have to be there for each other. We cannot individually do this life by ourselves. I’ve tried, and those were the hardest times in my life. So whether you know somebody or not, if you see that person having a bad day, genuinely go ask them how they are. Maybe they just need somebody to say, “Hi.” You know, let’s do this together.
We already have enough bullies and jerks. You guys are the generation to as a group topple all of these forks on the road. I just know that you are better than something like vaping. You guys are smart kids. It comes down to choice. It really does come down to choice. I want to influence you to get uncomfortable. If you feel awkward around a group of people…Maybe you are at a party and people are doing stuff and you are like, “This just isn’t for me.” Walk away. You do not have to do anything in life other than care for yourself, love your family, and be there for your friends. You know what? Go bigger and better. Maybe one day through your actions and the walk that you do, you could save a life.
I am here, the faculty is here, you have a great group of counselors, teachers…I know it can be hard to talk to parents at times, but there are outlets in front of you, and as much as your faculty wants to see you succeed as scholars, they want you to be the best human being you can. They want you to have an awesome life. And growing up in this community, you have every opportunity in the world. We really do. We are lucky. In all my travels, the South Bay stands alone in its support from parents, support from schools. This isn’t normal. So don’t take it for granted. Be grateful you have this, and take it as far as you can. And have fun.
It’s funny, I feel I have two different personalities. You see me surfing and you go, “Wow, that’s the same guy who sat down and cried in front of us.” But this is a serious issue that is going on, between mental health and you guys having to deal with social media, the pressures, the stress, trying to find out who you are. Just take it step by step. Have fun with it. Life is simple, but we only have one life. So don’t set yourself up now for failure. Set yourself up for success.
And that can happen today by dropping that vaping device. Drop whatever vice it is that you are using to try to cope with your emotions, your bad day. We don’t need to cope for anything; we need to understand that it’s okay. And you are okay. And you know what, if you have no one to talk to, I’m pretty good at direct messages. Send me a message. I’ll talk to you. It’s all about communication.
You guys are going to be okay. You will. But I hope I am igniting a fire within you to be the change. Because it’s time, and you guys have more power than you think. So use it.
Hopefully, I’ll see you all one-day surfing. And whoever is the PE/surf teacher here, thank you. When I was in high school I literally had a teacher tell me that I had no future as a surfer. I should pick up football or soccer. Those are more promising sports. To this day I still use that teacher as fuel to my fire to say, “Ha, ha, you were wrong.” And it feels good to prove people wrong. So you guys, do what makes your heart sing. Don’t be afraid to fail. We all make mistakes, and that’s okay. We all have emotions. Let’s be there for each other.
Visit SouthBayFamiliesConnected.org for the “Vaping Facts for Teens” page and to see a short video from Alex, blogs from South Bay youth, as well as important curated national resources. Gray’s full presentation will be made available on the website in January.