Every time Sebastian Slovin is by the Pacific, with its foamy waves lapping on the shore and the cool breeze flowing through his shaggy blond hair, he thinks of his father Vernon.
“We spread his ashes there and from that moment on, every visit was an opportunity to reconnect with him,” explains Slovin. “It’s a place of healing for me since I see my dad as part of that environment. It’s a metaphor for him in a way.”
Slovin was only 6 years old living a seemingly idyllic childhood in La Jolla when his high-performing father Vernon Slovin, a native of South Africa and for a time one of the highest-ranking swimmers in the world, found himself buckled under financial stress and chained to the shackles of a debilitating depression when he made the decision to take his own life.
It was a moment that would take over a decade for a young Sebastian to fully grapple with — and have far-reaching repercussions for the rest of his family: his mother Susan and sister Tanasa.
“At the time, my sister really expressed her emotions about it. She was upset, angry and sad,” the now 34 year-old Sebastian Slovin explains. “I went the opposite way by totally shutting down. I didn’t think about it and didn’t let anyone in. It was the only thing I knew how to do.”
It was only after years of soul-searching and an eagerness to learn his father’s legend that Slovin finally faced his feelings head-on. It’s this winding path of self discovery that inspired his aptly titled book “Ashes in the Ocean,” a memoir that both extrapolates his tribulations and lessons, aiming to raise awareness about the deep stigma of suicide in a society that seems to only want to shy away from the tragic phenomena.
“If there was a family gathering and if my dad’s name even came up, there’d be a clearing of the throat and the topic would typically be changed,” he remembers, the very taboo of suicide itself causing a young Sebastian to run away from his pain instead of tackling it head on. “My best friends didn’t know for many years. It didn’t seem like an appropriate topic to talk about.”
It wasn’t until his senior year of high school when Slovin had a heart-to-heart with a friend his father was close with that spurred him to truly begin to open up about the magnitude of the tragedy handed to him.
“Suicide has all of this power because people are scared to talk about it,” explains Slovin. “When you feel like you have to keep it all inside and a secret, that’s when things manifest and grow and become monsters. It becomes way worse than actually facing it.”
For Slovin, the stigma and its resulting silence intensified the pain. Ironically, on the surface his teenage years were full of success: a passion for bodyboarding soon turned into a serious pursuit and he traversed the globe as a professional. He was also surrounded by friends and seemed carefree. Deep inside, however, sadness brewed.
“I wrote in the book that for many years I felt trapped in this shadow and felt destined to follow in my father’s fatal footsteps,” he explains. “But the conversation with my dad’s friend allowed me to look at my father’s death in a different light. I thought to myself, if the past can’t control me, why do I have to fear it? And if I don’t fear it, I can confront it and learn from it.”
Hence, a humble mission statement for the book: to shine a light on a starkly dark and little understood subject in the hopes of helping others who could be going through the same pain.
“I felt like I was alone from age 6 to 17 basically,” says Slovin. “Things are so much worse when we think we’re alone and that’s what the point of ‘Ashes in the Ocean’ is. Letting people know they’re not alone.”
That’s not to say the process of getting his story down was an easy one. It took 10 years of stops and starts to bring the 222-page book to life, which chronicles everything from Vernon’s swimming days up to Sebastian’s emotional awakening.
“I’d sit, buckle down and begin to write, then just get overwhelmed with the intensity of it,” Slovin explains. “The book was terrifying and difficult to put together. Especially the more vulnerable pieces. At the same time, it was cathartic and healing to get it out.”
It was an arduous task made worth it when Slovin thinks about the impact his memoir could have on someone living in the dark and dealing with the same emotional shadow.
“I’ve received a ton of messages on Facebook, people who have seen little blurbs about it saying that it resonates with them. I’m very thankful that it’s giving them the opportunity to talk about it, because that’s what drove me to write it in the first place.”
Today, Slovin lives in Encinitas, where he and his wife, Sonya, run Nature Unplugged, a company whose mission is to reacquaint people drowning in technology with the beauty of the natural world. He also hopes to continue to diffuse the stigma surrounding suicide in any capacity he can, whether through the book or public speaking.
“I’m feeling a mix of emotions because it feels scary putting it all out there,” explains Slovin of revealing his deeply personal story to the world, one he kept to himself for so long. “At the same time, I feel very happy that I stuck with it and grateful for the opportunity to have written it.”
- Rob LeDonne is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Ashes in the Ocean” book launch and signing
When: 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22
Where: La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave., La Jolla