Waves of Recovery

news2fleaFirst residents drop into Flea’s surf-centric sober living environment

The Danish writer Isak Dinesen once wrote, “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.” This belief anchors Darryl “Flea” Virostko’s unique Santa Cruz sober living environment, FleaHab, which opened its doors to residents on Saturday, Feb. 1.

The low-key launch of FleaHab, which Virostko describes as “a trial run,” is the culmination of three years of planning and approximately $47,000 in fundraising. For now, the program entails three residents and a house manager living together in an undisclosed Santa Cruz location. “We’re not starting with a full house,” Virostko explains. “But we’re talking to potential applicants and may accept a few more in as little as a month.”

In addition to 72 hours of sobriety before arriving at the house, residents must attend recovery meetings, submit to random drug and alcohol tests and interact with their housemates. “We expect our residents to be respectful of others and help one another,” Virostko says. “Having a support network and being in service to other people is a big part of getting clean. You have to know how to ask for help when you’ve hit rock bottom.”

Virostko knows something about hitting rock bottom. Literally. In 2004, the three-time Mavericks contest winner was one of the best surfers in the world—as adept at dropping into 50-foot waves as he was executing acrobatic airs on five-foot waves. Yet a debilitating methamphetamine and vodka addiction shattered his lucrative surfing career after a near-fatal tumble off a cliff near Davenport.

The resulting injuries, including a compound fracture in his left forearm, dry-docked the surfer. His substance abuse spiraled out of control until 2008 when friends and family staged an intervention, convincing him to enter rehab.

While Virostko credits his 28-day stay in rehab as essential to his recovery, he says it lacked a vital component for someone like him—physical activity. “Rehabs tend to be really inactive,” he explains. “There’s a lot of sitting around. The only time people move quickly is when they rush outside to smoke cigarettes during a break.”

For this reason, the FleaHab program places a heavy emphasis on the importance of exercise—specifically surfing—in the recovery process.

“Everyone’s recovery is unique,” Virostko says. “The daily schedule is pretty open-ended, but we encourage residents to get physical at least twice a day. It’s important to fire their endorphins and get them tired.”

Science agrees with Virostko. A great deal of research has been done on the potential for exercise as a therapy for clinical or subclinical depression or anxiety, and the use of physical activity as a means of upgrading life quality through enhanced self-esteem, improved mood states, reduced state and trait anxiety, resilience to stress, or improved sleep—all of which are vital to overcoming addiction.

Virostko plans to be personally involved with FleaHab residents’ physical activities. “In the beginning, I’ll be at the house twice a week to bring residents to surf sessions, the skate park, mountain biking or the basketball and tennis court. I can also drive them to meetings and job interviews—whatever they need to get done that day,” he says.

Virostko is quick to point out that, despite its name, FleaHab is not a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. It’s a three-month sober living environment that is more akin to a halfway house than a traditional 28-day rehab. “We’re trying our best to be as selective as possible,” he says. “In some cases, we just have to take their word that they’re serious about recovery—because if they don’t really want it, then no amount of support is going to work.”

In exchange for living at FleaHab, the residents pay rent for their rooms. If they’re doing well after three months, an extension will be considered.

Virostko knows he has his work cut out for him. “Launching FleaHab has been very scary,” he says. “Raising the money was such a difficult process that actually spending it is stressful—and fundraising is an ongoing process.”

For the past three years, raising the money has been a family affair. FleaHab’s board consists of Virostko’s brother, mother, aunt, and his father’s cousin. It is rounded out by Nancy Napoli, a recovery expert who also serves on Santa Cruz County’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, and Lars Shallburg, a local criminal defense attorney.

“We’re in a position to help a lot of people, but money’s the thing,” Virostko explains. “This is just the beginning and we’re going to need to all the support we can get.”

Fortunately, Virostko has built a lot of equity in the Santa Cruz community—especially over the last five years. “I’m committed,” Virostko says. “FleaHab is good for Santa Cruz, but it’s good for me too. It helps keep me active and sober. It’s a win-win situation.” 

To learn about donation and volunteering opportunities with FleaHab, and for further information, visit

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