Frank Paine
(Photo: Anna Wilder Burns)
The Daily Rally

Frank Paine Finds Confidence in the Sea

The surfer’s agoraphobia was preventing him from living the life he wanted, so he reached out to his wave-riding community for help

Frank Paine
Anna Wilder Burns

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Frank Paine told his story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.

A panic attack for me is what I imagine a heart attack would be. Pounding heartbeat, a numbness in the face and hands, shooting pains in your chest. It feels like it’s going to be the end. It feels like you’re going to not be able to breathe, you’re not going to be able to carry on.

It doesn’t seem like there’s anything that you can consciously do to stop it. You can’t tell yourself I’m okay. You can’t tell yourself, I’m 40 years old, and I’m not having a heart attack. That can’t be the case. And I’m a surfer, I’ve got a great heart.

Frank Paine. That’s my given name. I didn’t come up with that name myself. But of course it has been the butt of more jokes than you can imagine.

As I get older, it gets more difficult to describe myself. I have a big mustache. I kind of look like a cowboy. I’m not exactly the surfer-looking person you might imagine. Kind of bushy, old, and gray. I think I have a pretty valuable sense of humor.

I’m from Hermosa Beach, California. Been surfing for around 60 years. It’s kind of what I do. It’s part of the community that I belong to. A great, great bunch of folks. It’s a beautiful thing.

I suffered from agoraphobia, which is a Greek term for literally, “fear of the marketplace,” and fear of being out in the open and being out with people who you do not consider safe. And that was very crippling. It was the kind of thing that really defined me for a great long time.

I first learned about agoraphobia when I would try to go on a surf trip or try to move around without a safe person, and realized that I’d suddenly become panicked and have a panic attack.

I think a defining moment was when I was traveling to Sacramento as part of my job and had a full blown panic attack driving back. I just felt that it was the end; that I was not going to be able to move any further, that I was now trapped in this prison of agoraphobia.

It started out with that Sacramento incident when I was driving, and then minor attacks throughout that time. Trouble going to work, trouble leaving the house, making a lot of excuses for why I couldn’t do things. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go to New York. Why would anybody want to go to New York? New York’s a fabulous place. Everyone should visit.

I think the turnaround for me was that I had a family at the beach. I had a family with the people I surfed with, and they were concerned about me. They didn’t want me to feel bad. They wanted me to feel comfortable. They wanted me to know that, hey, if we go to Santa Barbara, you’re going to be okay. Redondo to Santa Barbara is probably an hour and a half. I mean, it’s not the end of the world, but they created safe barriers for me and taught me that I could finally relax. And that I didn’t have to have these intrusive thoughts that suggested I was going to die or my heart was going to stop.

As I stumbled along through this journey, as the community became richer, deeper, that was very helpful for me. That was really the thing that turned it around.

I started coaching surfing at the local high school with a friend who was a safe person. I had gone to Redondo High School, my alma mater, and a few years ago the coach from Redondo High School asked me if I’d like to be his assistant. Said, “I’d love to.” It makes a nice completion of this circle. And I was already in my sixties and I said, “You know I don’t know how long I can do this.” But I started going to the beach in Hermosa, and I started one by one. It was very exciting, and very comforting and welcoming.

It’s the knowing that we all have each other’s backs, and that makes it sound more critical than it really is. But out in the water, things can go terribly wrong. And it is comforting to know that people are with you, understand what can happen, and are there to help you out.

As a recovering agoraphobic, I would say, as difficult as it is, you have to be authentic and say, “I’m really in a bad place right now.” Seek out the kind of attention you need, whether it’s medical or personal or whatever. I think you will find that there are people waiting to help you.

I think that’s very powerful.

Frank Paine is a 73-year-old surfer and the star of a new film To Be Frank, directed by Anna Wilder Burns. Frank is a local surf legend at Hermosa Beach, California. Through overcoming his agoraphobia with his community of surfers, Frank has traveled throughout California to Mexico, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. To learn more about Frank, follow @tobefrankfilm on Instagram.

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