That Andy Irons was a ferocious competitor isn't exactly breaking news. One of the reasons Andy became surfing's cult of personality at the turn of century was because of his raw emotionality–fiery, unabashed, at times bordering on unhinged.
The fierce, at times angry nature of Andy's competitiveness was relatively unseen when he came on tour: Perhaps the most famous moment from a competitive surf heat in the mid-'90s was Rob Machado giving Kelly Slater a high five in the midst of the '95 Pipe Masters semifinal, which isn't quite the same as Sunny Garcia coming to blows with Neco Padaratz during the '07 version of the event.
But now, eight years after Andy's death, and with the release of Teton Gravity Research's new documentary, Andy Irons: Kissed by God, the surf community has come to learn that there may have been something adding to his intense competitive nature: He suffered from bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is symptomized by intense mood swings, wherein a person can go from euphoric to depressed seemingly at the flick of a switch. And while it might be assumed that having a mental disorder would hurt a person's ability to live a productive life, the reality is actually that bipolar disorder often can manifest itself in people achieving incredible accomplishments.
While sufferers of bipolar disorder often experience delusions of superiority to the outside world, when they actually find something they are naturally talented at, they often times chase it with the fervor of a dog after a mail truck.
"The manic high, the achievement, 'I am the best in the world.' It wasn't delusional for Andy," Dr. Mark Vonnegut told Teton Gravity Research about the disease. "I think for a lot of [bipolar sufferers] it's not delusional, you really are fantastic and you're in touch with amazing things, your mind is working better and faster. "
Vonnegut is the son of the legendary writer Kurt Vonnegut, and is at the forefront of bipolar research in the United States, having managed to graduate from Harvard Medical School despite suffering from bipolar disorder himself.
"I think [Andy] was probably trying to bring himself back into the world and fight against the illness by achieving so much," said Vonnegut about Andy's frequent outbursts of emotion in competition. "I think Abraham Lincoln in his writing was fighting the same demons ... And Van Gogh, by being able to concentrate on the painting in incredible ways was in part trying to fight against an illness. So I think that that's part of why Andy was able to achieve those things."
"It seems to me, from what I know of him, Andy was very gifted," said Vonnegut. "And being able to pursue that gift and achieve remarkable things helped him stay well."
Vonnegut said that those who suffer from bipolar disorder will flock to the feeling of achieving true greatness almost as if it was a drug.
"Bipolar people, it's really really hard not to be the best at something. It's just... It doesn't feel like it's enough," said Vonnegut. "It must have felt great for Andy to be able to surf as well as he did. Or for someone to write the way the way Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky, or Mark Twain, or Abraham Lincoln, or my father wrote. How the hell do you do that? How do you write better than anybody else? How do you surf better than anybody else? How do you do that? And bipolar sufferers can– because of their skill and talent–be able to focus on what they do, and do it incredibly well. And for Andy, it was surfing."
Unfortunately, for Andy–as with all bipolar sufferers–with the manic highs came manic lows.
"I think it's tragic that 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," Vonnegut said of the lows. "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."
Those lows often manifested themselves, as Fanning states in the above clip, in incredibly variable behavior from Andy in and outside of the lineup.
"During [contest days] Andy would be like, 'You're the fucking devil, I wanna kill you,'" Kelly Slater told TGR about Andy's mood swings. "But when a contest ended and we had a couple beers, he'd be hugging me and telling me he loved me."
Ultimately, Andy never received the help he truly needed for his mental disorder, and it may have led in some part to his demise. But the mental health landscape today is far different from eight years ago. If you–or anyone you know–might be suffering from a mental disorder, please, contact SAMHSA and get help.