Talking with Jake Anderson—former pro skateboarder, star of Deadliest Catch, which picked up its 13th Creative Arts Emmy earlier this week, and author of the autobiographical bestseller Relapse—I’m much reminded of lifelong friends. It doesn’t hurt that he skates, nor that he’s from a working-class background, nor even that he’s battled the demon of drug addiction. He’s lived enough for more than a few lifetimes, yet he maintains a down-to-earth demeanor that make him incredibly easy to shoot the breeze with.
Anderson doesn’t seem terribly used to even his modest amount of fame. Periodically he stopped me to ask if he was giving good answers. He was. Which made for probably the best interview I’ve ever done in my life. So what can you learn from a man who has overcome multiple drug addictions while losing his sister and father in the span of two years? A hell of a lot.
“I want to be a symbol of hope for people in similar situations. I want people to see me and say, ‘Jake made it through it and I can too.’ That’s what keeps me going and keeps me sane.”
How do you make the transition from pro skateboarder to deckhand on a commercial fishing boat?
I used to fish in the summer. I’m no stranger to hard jobs. My friend Casey Rigby— who is a really well known but underrated pro skater—and I were about 19 and worked at a refinery. We were looking for jobs where we could work for a month or two, save that money and then move to California and just live off that money and just skate and not have a job.
So you were fishing even when you were skating?
Yeah. I used to fish every summer and make $10,000 to $15,000 and you’d live off that as long as you could. Nowadays $15,000 doesn’t take you very far in California. Once I shattered my ankle, I didn’t like living so cheap. He was good with money, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t interested in getting a job doing valet parking or delivering pizza. So I worked my way up north on a factory trawler. After I got into the drugs and the alcohol real bad, I just stayed in Anacortes [Washington]. My uncle just told me that the skateboarding thing wasn’t working out and told me to start crabbing.
How did that go over?
The show had been going for a year or two before I went there. I wasn’t interested in being filmed. It had no appeal to me to be on Deadliest Catch. That’s why I fit so well with Sig. I didn’t want to fish on that boat because they work really long hours.
Which was probably the last thing you wanted to do. My old man is an ironworker and growing up I wanted to be anything but that.
Yeah, it was literally the last job I wanted. It’s super dangerous and it’s really physically demanding.
You’ve been very frank about your addiction. What’s your poison?
I kept switching drugs. Alcohol was the worst drug for me. That was the one drug that I should never be around. I have been addicted to all of them. I switched drugs from weed to vicodin to cocaine and weed and vicodin. The worst was OxyContin, which we all know is heroin. I hit it with alcohol and switched to methamphetamines. It was almost an accident, but it was with the methamphetamines where I really hit rock bottom.
What was that moment like?
It was raining and I had this chewed-up skateboard with no nose, no tail, putting motor oil on it to keep the bearings going. I was sitting there and I thought the cops were following me and it really hit me: I didn’t understand how I got there. I had that moment of clarity. It was six years later that I finally got clean.
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What happened six years later that got you to get clean?
I was living at home at 28 driving around in this expensive car and I realized it was all a front, it was all a facade. I don’t know how I was aware of that because when you’re really involved in alcohol, it’s hard to realize that. I had one moment where I woke up and I just ran with it. I found a support group and hit it real hard. At that time I was just a greenhorn on the Northwestern and a failed skateboarder and I wasn’t going to accept that. That’s been my number one thing in my life is staying sober. That’s been my saving grace and helped me to accomplish every goal I’ve sought after.
You lost your sister and your father pretty close together. How did you get through all that loss without relapsing?
It’s really the foundation that was taught to me… I don’t want to use the word sponsor because we don’t really believe in promoting the program. But I’ll say that my best friend Scott taught me how to live. It was him that taught me that and gave me a spiritual foundation for all that loss—after my sister died and my father went missing and died and Scott died in 2011.
Going back I had fought from age 21 to 29 to get away from drugs and alcohol and to me that was far worse than dealing with the loss of a loved one. With my dad and my sister dying, I was willing to make choices to be happy or sad as a sober person. It was easier for me to deal with because I had been imprisoned by addiction for 13 years. I was free from all that suffering that I caused for myself and I wasn’t willing to go back. I had fought way too hard and that’s true today and hopefully tomorrow that I remember that one early morning in the rain trying to figure out how to get out.
I can’t even imagine losing my father. What’s it like not knowing how he died?
That’s been the most frustrating thing ever. I’m not religious, but I believe in God, and when my dad was gone, I believe that God took him and it’s out of my hands, it’s just going to be that way. But not having any answers about his disappearance, it’s hard. It creates a lot of tension between the police and the people who last saw him. Especially having that spiritual side it can be hard to blame people who might be innocent.
One of the people who last saw him just died, so we’ll probably never know. When someone dies and you have no answers, you want to blame someone. It changes from hour to hour and day-to-day what the theory is. Now I just feel peace and if that kid did something to him, I forgive him and pray for his family and hope that it doesn’t happen to someone else, especially when you’re dealing with drugs. I want to be a symbol of hope for people in similar situations. I want people to see me and say, “Jake made it through it and I can too.” That’s what keeps me going and keeps me sane.
You get asked this all the time, but I have to try to get a better answer than most: Why do you keep fishing?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I really don’t. There’s a lot of pride and ego that goes with it. You’ll go 30 to 40 hours and you’re still at a full sprint. You ask yourself, “How can I do this?” But not everyone can and that’s what keeps you going: No one else can do this. I’m a small guy, I weigh 140 pounds and most guys in this industry are 6 feet tall, 200 pounds or 6’6”, 300 pounds. Me being really small and doing the job of a really strong man, I feed off that adrenaline when I get to hour 30 and I see big guys crumble and I’m still ready to go.
That and I don’t really know how to do anything else. I’ve looked at any other job possibility but I don’t think it would support me, I don’t know how to do it and it’s not going to fill my adrenaline like crab fishing does. I laugh at 30-feet high waves. We’re still moving pots around in a 50-knot wind. Those are the things that you see that most people are never going to see. The things you accomplish with your teammates, most people can’t do that. Maybe in the military. But just to us as hardworking American citizens, that’s as close as you’re going to get to that kind of camaraderie. That’s what keeps me coming back too.
It’s hard to step away from the people who would live and die for you.