The old adage "skateboarding saved my life" rings especially true with former pro skater turned children's book author Jim Bates, who has battled clinical depression his entire life. Over the course of my 17-year career I've interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of skateboarders, and I'm often asked which was my favorite interview. It's a difficult question to answer, because after a while they all seem to blend together. It's hard to discern one sex/drug/booze story from another, but I can say without a doubt the most memorable and difficult interview of my life was with Jim Bates for Big Brother in 2002. It rattled me to my core, and a dozen years later I still think about him.
Big Brother, for the unfamiliar, was Larry Flynt's naughty skateboarding magazine. Its interviews were always antagonistic and confrontational. I was hired to fuck with people, and that's what I did. That's what I set out to do with Bates, whom I'd never even heard of. I knew I was dealing with a unique specimen when he answered my first question, "Who the hell are you?" in a very sad, meek monotone. "I'm Jim Bates," he said. "I'm nobody." He told me that his depression made it very difficult for him to speak with people, and that it had led him to attempt suicide numerous times. I quickly pulled the e-brake on my torturous line of questioning. I tread lightly for the rest of our conversation for fear that something I said might push him over the edge. In the end I felt like we had a pleasant (although heart-wrenching) conversation. Just to make sure he was OK at the end of our interview I asked him, "You're not gonna kill yourself when you read this, right?" His deadpan response: "I hope not."
I've thought about those words for 12 years. I've often wondered what became of Jim—if he ever got a handle on his depression, if he'd changed his views on taking medicine for his imbalance, if he, in fact, committed suicide. Then recently I saw a post on Facebook announcing that the very same Jim Bates had written and drawn a children's book called The Boy Who Skated with Dragons, and was doing a book signing at Skatelab. I raced down there to track him down and find out how life had changed since those dark days. I was happy to hear something of a bounce in his soft voice, and that he'd recently turned a corner on his depression. This book, he told me, was a huge factor in his newfound happiness. Order one for anyone you know who has a kid here.
Jim Bates and Eric Koston. Photo by Josh Powner
VICE: When I interviewed you for Big Brother in 2002 you were an up-and-coming skater, but you were at a bad place in your life. How have you been since?
Jim Bates: I've been skating every day and doing a lot of artwork. Also I just got my book published, so that's exciting. I've just been focusing on the creative things I enjoy doing and sharing them with other people.
You sound like a totally different person. Your voice has some real bounce to it.
Yeah, things have changed a lot over the years. Back then I was still skateboarding a lot. That was my focus and the one thing that made me happy and got me through the day. I was struggling with depression and anxiety and being shy. It's been difficult for me growing up talking to people, making friends, and reaching out. I think being shy led to depression and not feeling good about myself and made me forget that I have worth. I felt really alone and lost. I don't know specifically when it changed, but I did go to therapy and at a point started to open up and was willing to try little by little. It took a long time. Many years. Small steps. I pushed myself to try new things and was able to talk more and make friends and get through that slowly. Even just recently I changed my perspective of how I look at life and all the opportunities that I have and have had. I was always grateful for skateboarding and having sponsors, but off the skateboard I had nothing. Skateboarding was the one thing that gave me a purpose in life and kept me going.
When we last spoke you didn't like the idea of taking any medication. Did that change? Do you take meds for depression now?
No, I actually never took medication. I've always been against that. I've always been drug-free. I've never drank or smoked or gotten into the party scene. I wasn't really open to medication. I just wanted to do it on my own terms and I was able to get through it somehow without them. Having the support of my family helped a lot, but it was really up to me to want that change. I finally got to the point where I started to try.
Was there one particular moment where you had an epiphany? It's amazing that you battled depression for over 30 years and then suddenly snapped out of it.
I did read some books recently that made me look at things differently and open my mind. They were The Power of Now, and A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle. They changed my perspective and taught me to live in the moment instead of living the past over and over and not to look too far into the future toward what may or may not happen.
What is your actual diagnosis? Clinical depression?
Yeah, mainly depression and anxiety. I was always really shy and self-conscious and insecure. I think being shy and depressed go hand in hand.
You mentioned the support of your family being so instrumental, but in 2002 you were attempting suicide, slitting your wrists, and you said your family was unaware. Did they see that interview when it came out? If so, what was their reaction?
I was pretty good at hiding it, but they may or may not have known because parents just know these things, even if their kids try to hide them. They knew I struggled with depression and was unhappy and they were sad about that.
Portrait courtesy of Jim Bates
You once told me you hated yourself and that you were really ugly. Has that changed? Do you realize now you're not an ugly person?
I'm able to look at myself much differently. I don't think I'm the greatest-looking person in the world but I'm not the ugliest person, either. I accept how I look and who I am. I don't hate myself anymore. I don't judge myself as harshly as I used to.
What advice would you give young kids, fellow skaters, who might be battling depression?
I would say to try and not take things so seriously. Look at both sides of things and have an open mind and think about how things could be a lot worse. There are people who have much less. I mean, some people don't even have all their limbs and they're still positive. So that's something to be grateful for in itself. Everyone is unique and that's what makes us special. If everyone were the same life would be kind of boring. I also think therapy can be helpful to those who are open and willing to try. I know for a long time I didn't accept therapy. I was just forced to go so my mind was closed. But when I opened my mind I was able to work on the things they suggested and you can find the things that do work and it can really help.
Let's talk about skateboarding. Your claim to fame is in 2005, when you won $15,000 by skunking Eric Koston at his own Eric Koston Game of Skate. He didn't get one letter on you. What was that like?
That was just amazing. I can't believe that happened. It was like a dream. I was pretty nervous when they called me to go against Eric Koston—he's someone I've always looked up to in skating, and every year he makes it to the finals. I figured there was no way I was going to beat Koston and somehow I won and then I went to the finals and won the whole thing. It was mind blowing.
Mike Mo told me you were like the Valley's own Rodney Mullen. He said he's never seen you miss a trick. That being said and beating Koston at his own game of Skate, why do you think your skate career never took off in a big way?
I think part of it was my personality. Just not being able to put myself out there and approach other people and believe in myself and my self-worth. If I don't believe in myself why should anyone else? It was hard for me to pursue people and get sponsors. I did some amazing things with skateboarding, like traveling and getting in the magazines, and I'm truly grateful for that. That was what was meant to happen and it led me to where I am now, so I can't really regret anything.
If you didn't have skateboarding do you think you would have made it through those years? When I talked to you it seemed like skateboarding was your entire world.
Yeah. I would hope that something else would fill that—maybe it would be artwork or another passion of mine, but I honesty can't say. Skateboarding has really helped me. It's a great thing for kids to have because you can make friends and have fun and build confidence.
What eventually happened with your professional skateboarding career?
I rode for some smaller companies that went out of business. I kept skating and stopped pursuing sponsorship and focused on having fun. I felt like I got to do a lot in skateboarding and was happy and grateful for that.
What was your biggest pro check? Aside from the $15,000 Game of Skate one.
I didn't really make that much money skateboarding when I was pro. I think, maybe, $500 in a month.
What do you now for a living now?
I work at a printing company and I'm trying to focus on my artwork. I'm hoping to write more books and focus on my artwork and making a positive impact on kids.
Let's talk about the book. It's quite autobiographical: a shy young boy can't talk to others so he dresses up as a dragon when he skateboards and creates an imaginary world.
Yeah, I've always been into art and drawing and being creative. Part of the book came from life experience and part came from my imagination and I put it together and wrote and drew the story. I hope it's a positive thing for kids to read. I think it's a fun way to give them positive examples of how to get through struggles. It's been great. A lot of people have given me positive feedback, which has helped me push myself to interact with the community. That's not always easy for me.
With writing books comes doing readings. How have those been for you?
I just did my first actual reading of my book to kids at a skateshop in Moorpark, California, called the Avenue. One of the owners told the kids that I was a professional skater and one of them came up to me and said, "You don't skate." It was funny. I didn't argue or challenge his comment. Later, after the reading, I did a little skate demo on the flatbar, ramps, and flatground. He didn't say anything after that. It was all in good fun.
We started out with some coloring activities with black and white drawings that I did for the kids. After that I asked them to sit close since I have a quiet voice and all the kids and parents sat and listened as I read the whole story. I was surprised that they all sat there the whole time. Once it was over everyone clapped and I got some positive comments. It was a great experience for me to practice reading in front of people and sharing my book. I felt confident reading it to the kids and was happy that I didn't mess up or stumble any words. Being shy and insecure wasn't even a factor when I read the book to the kids. I'm not sure if it was the fun atmosphere or just the fact that kids don't seem to be as judgmental as older people, but whatever the case I was able to share my book without hesitation and my voice seemed to be solid and loud enough for everyone to hear. I'm grateful for the opportunity and looking forward to doing more with my book, artwork, and being a positive impact on kids.
Before we end this I need to tell you that you really fucked me up 12 years ago. I ended that interview by asking if you thought it was a good interview and if you were going to kill yourself when you read it. Your response was "I hope not." It was a Friday afternoon and you ruined my weekend. I was worried about you all weekend and Monday, when I got back to the office, I called you to ask about some photo or something, but it was really just a call to make sure you were alive and OK. It was, without a doubt, the heaviest interview I've ever done.
I want to apologize. I'm sorry for that. But I'm grateful that you do care. I'm sorry that I put you through that. I'm sorry that I put other people through that, too.
You don't have to apologize. I'm just glad to hear you're doing well and that you're in a better place.
Thanks so much.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-Talk (8255).