Andy Irons—considered one of the greatest surfers to ever grace the waves—died in a Texas hotel room in November 2010 when he was just 32 years old.
After his sudden death, autopsy results revealed the surfing legend died from a combination of a heart attack and mixed drug ingestion. The revelation gave a small glimpse into something Irons had long kept secret from the public: his difficulties with bipolar disorder and drug addiction. Now, eight years later, those who were closest to Irons—including his wife, Lyndie Irons, and his longtime surfing rival, Kelly Slater—are opening up about the iconic athlete in a new documentary, Andy Irons: Kissed By God, which dives not only into Irons’ legacy in the ocean, but into his struggles with mental health. The documentary opens in theaters nationwide on Thursday.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do because I kept his personal life a secret, but it was also very healing and felt right,” Lyndie Irons tells PEOPLE of opening up about her late husband in the film. “He could never be honest in interviews about what he was really going through, so it was healing for me, though it was painful at the same time.”
When Lyndie first met Irons at a California bar in 2002, she says she had no idea he was a star professional surfer on the verge of securing three consecutive world titles against the legendary Slater. It was his charm and his charisma that won her heart from the start.
“We fell in love at first sight. We were never apart from that day on,” Lyndie remembers. “We were instantly in love. He was hilarious, wild and handsome and we had so much chemistry right away. It was crazy.”
A few weeks after meeting at that bar in Encinitas, Lyndie moved to Hawaii to join Irons as he prepared to go on tour. But as Irons claimed more wins with each passing competition, Lyndie increasingly noticed that he was having difficulties with mood swings and his growing OxyContin addiction.
“His personality was filled with severe highs, lows and depression,” Lyndie says. “The opioids were really scary. I saw his whole life change—his body change, his face change—everything changed when he got addicted to opiates, and that was hard.”
Then, in a move that shocked the surfing community, Irons began an almost two-year hiatus while in his prime when he suddenly dropped out of the 2008 world tour. As Surfer Magazine wrote then, Irons seemed as if he “was coming apart in front of our eyes” during his heats that year, and he would become visibly frustrated when trying complete basic tricks on the waves.
Irons skipped the tour the following year and returned to the circuit in 2010.
“We worked really hard for him to get sober at times and those days always outweighed the really hard, dark days,” Lyndie recalls of the family’s attempts to help Irons stay sober. “I loved him so I was always going to be there to help him, and I did try everything. I did everything I possibly could to be there for him.”
But Lyndie says Irons felt that he needed to self-medicate to deal with many of his issues, which he never felt comfortable opening up about.
“No one really talks about it, but I think he was embarrassed. He didn’t know how to control it and it was really sad,” she says. “We never really worked it out. It was just like, this is what you have, and deal with it. There were no tools or help to work with someone with bipolar or even addiction back then. I was just doing the best I could, but I was in my early 20s, I had no idea.”
Then, on the night of November 1, 2010, Lyndie and Irons shared what would be their last conversation with each other over the phone as the surfer made his way back to Hawaii from Texas.
“When I woke up, it was at three in the morning or something, I called the hotel and I talked to him. He didn’t cry, but it was almost like he was saying his goodbyes,” Lyndie says, through tears. “I called the next morning and saw that he didn’t text or call, so I called the hotel and asked them to go knock on the door. Police called me back two hours later and told me that he had passed away.”
Lyndie—who was pregnant with the couple’s son, Andy Axel, now 7—when her husband passed, says she hopes that by opening up about Irons’ private struggles, other families may feel comfortable seeking treatment for their mental health.
“I think addiction and mental illness, there’s not enough awareness and people talking about it to get help for their suffering,” she says. “People are struggling and it’s okay to ask for help.”
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To honor Irons’ legacy, Lyndie helped to start the Andy Irons Foundation to help young people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse.
“You’re not alone and there are tools to help people who are suffering like he did,” she adds. “I didn’t have any and I wish I did, he needed a lot of help. I was just doing the best I could.”