Arts & CultureArts Features

Local Skateboarder Documents Struggle with Schizophrenia in New Book

Troubled Waters

Fascinated with skateboarding since the age of 5, Jason Waters hopped on his first board at 10. By the time he graduated from Myers Park High School in 1994, his skating skills had grown by leaps and bounds. A few years later, Waters made a long-planned trip to Philadelphia, a mecca of American skateboarding. It should have been a high point in Waters’ life, but he was harboring a secret that was beginning to drastically alter his life. Upon his return home to Charlotte, he decided he could hide his affliction no longer. 

Jason Waters hits a wall ride. (Photo by Richie McCorkle)

Soon after turning 19, Waters started hearing voices and found it difficult to sleep. He became delusional and paranoid, convinced that friends, family and strangers were out to get him.

“There were nights when I would have both visual and auditory hallucinations,” Waters says “I’d be trying to sleep [when I’d] hallucinate there were sirens outside my window.”

His family called in doctors, who diagnosed Waters with schizophrenia.

“I was 20 years old, which is a normal age for people to get diagnosed,” Waters remembers. At the time, however, Waters refused to believe the doctors, convinced they had made a mistake.  

“I was totally in denial,” he says. “It took a while for me to accept it.”

Now, at age 45, Waters has been in recovery for more than 20 years. He’s not only accepted his condition, he’s self-published a book about it. Co-written with Adam Sutton, Unbalanced: A Life of Schizophrenia and Skateboarding, debuted February 5 on Amazon, where it is described as “a raw and sensitive account of how [Waters] went to the edge and back.”

“It’s a book about dreams deferred and hard truths,” writes local author Jeff Jackson (Destroy All Monsters) in a blurb for the volume,a candid and clear-eyed account of living with schizophrenia that demystifies the disease.” 

‘Unbalanced’ is on sale at multiple independent locations around Charlotte. (Photo courtesy of I’ve Read It In Books.)

Waters simply calls his book, “A field guide to recovery.”

In addition to writing the book, Waters also supplied its cover art. He’s been drawing for as long as he’s been skateboarding, so it’s no surprise that much of his art is painted on skateboards. In addition to showing his work at exhibits, Waters has designed stickers, t-shirts and graphics for local skate shop Black Sheep. He’s also a medium format photographer and a video producer, making the documentary Sea Legs, which is about adapting to the emotional and mental see-saw of schizophrenia. 

Waters is showing some of his work at his upcoming Eastland Exhibit, named for the popular but endangered Eastland D.I.Y. skate park, on March 5 at Armada Skate Shop. Meanwhile, Unbalanced is currently on sale at Black Sheep and I’ve Read It In Books, an independent bookstore located inside Tip Top Daily Market. .

Skateboarding and schizophrenia

Waters’ family moved to Charlotte from Bristol, Tennessee, when he was 5 years old. He started skateboarding five years later. What drew him initially to the sport was language, words for equipment like Vision Gator, names of skaters like Mike McGill and terms for basic tricks like wallies and acid drops. 

He shares a black and white picture of his teenaged self executing an ollie, a trick where both rider and board leap into the air without the use of the rider’s hands, and the first trick learned by most aspiring skaters. In the photo the young Waters looks free and weightless. 

A young Jason Waters ollies over a stump. (Photo by Brian Tucker)

During this time, he was also drawing whenever he had an idle moment. “Skateboarding is a creative outlet and so is art,” Waters says. “They go hand in hand for me.” 

Soon after the ollie photo was taken, Waters started going through hell. He remembers 1996 as a particularly harrowing year. Waters dropped out of the city’s skateboarding scene to concentrate on his recovery. His doctors put him on antidepressants, but they didn’t work. 

“It took a while to figure out what medicine I needed,” he says. It also took time and effort for Waters to realize what was real and what wasn’t. A big step forward in his recovery came when he started asking himself if he was hallucinating or not.

 Prior to his diagnosis, Waters started experimenting with recreational drugs and alcohol. In retrospect, he feels he was self-medicating, but the drugs were making his situation worse. He believes he was just slapping a Band-Aid on his issues. 

“Then in February 1999, I quit all the drinking and drugs. I just went stone cold sober,” Waters remembers. “From there I started to get my feet on the ground.”

Another breakthrough was a chance meeting with Bill Strobeck, whose mother was also schizophrenic. Strobeck could relate to what was going on with his new friend better than most.

“Instead of turning my back on [Waters], I tried to understand him … as many people should,” Strobeck writes in a blurb for Unbalanced. With medication and support from family and friends like Strobeck, Waters’ mental health improved. He got back into the skate scene and soon felt able to attend college.  

Partners in life and expression

Waters attended UNC Charlotte, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in art with a focus on drawing. At a friend’s birthday party, he met fellow student Jenny Hansen. She had a Holga, a medium format camera, and the two struck up a conversation about photography. They became friends, collaborating on projects like a D.I.Y. photography ‘zine.

“I shot the film,” Waters says. “Then she took the film, wound it back, and then she shot over it. We did double exposures that were part me and part her.”

The pair began dating. After they both graduated in 2005, the pair continued their relationship, and in 2016 they married. Their son Julian turned 16 months old in early February.

Jason Waters with his family at U.S. National Whitewater Center. (Photo courtesy of Jason Waters)

Waters believes support from family and friends is probably the biggest piece of his recovery  puzzle. He cites Jenny’s acceptance of his condition and his mother’s advocacy for more understanding around schizophrenia. 

When Waters got sober and returned to skateboarding, his friends encouraged him to come out more often. Eventually his skater friends became a kind of support group. In contrast to his previous loneliness and paranoia, he was now part of a community, which has proved to be a valuable resource. 

“I’ve gotten jobs and opportunities because I’m a skateboarder, “ Waters says. “It just continues to grow in a positive way. Friends are huge.”

Friendships also sparked Waters’ foray into writing and publishing. Unbalanced owes its genesis to a wedding, says Waters. Attending the nuptials of Jenny’s college friend Liz, Waters was taken with groom Adam Sutton’s self-penned vows

“I was drawn to the way Adam used words,” Waters says. 

Fast forward to a party at Sutton’s house in 2014. Waters and Sutton were sitting in lawn chairs in the backyard, talking about Waters’ passion for skateboarding, his wild ride over the edge into mental illness and his recovery from schizophrenia.

Sutton shared that he was a professional writer, and the two men hit upon the idea of turning Waters’ story into a book. Through interviews with Waters, conducted by Sutton, the volume took the shape of a memoir.

Over the course of five years, the collaborators bounced the project back and forth, editing and shaping it. Waters, by then no stranger to talking publicly about his illness, felt the book was taking his tale to a new plateau.

Waters shopped the finished product to agents and publishers for a year. When that approach failed to gain traction, he and Sutton went with Amazon self-publishing.

Skateboards, art and word salad

Waters’ recovery continues to this day, courtesy of support from friends and family as well as medication: 10 milligrams of Zyprexa (Olanzapine), which he has been taking daily for 15 years. He also relies on skateboarding and art, two passions deeply entwined in his personality, to help him through rough spots. Even now, he says his biggest obstacle as a schizophrenic is talking about his thoughts and feelings. He’s cleared that hurdle by learning to speak through his art and skateboarding. Both are means of expression, Waters maintains.

“With skateboarding you admire these guys you see in magazines or videos,” he says. “Then you try to copy their tricks, and you emulate them.”  

Once a skater learns to do the tricks himself, his next step is finding and developing his own voice, Waters continues, and discovering his individual contribution to skateboarding.

The same process informs art, Waters continues. He had one of his first shows at Dish in 2005, and he’s shown a lot of work at the now defunct Gallery 22, but he particularly remembers the thrill he received when he painted his first skateboard in 2007.

Jason Waters’ “360 flip” illustration.

“It was a big deal to me to have my art on a skateboard, and I was very proud of it,” Waters says. “I also believe that recognition helps with the illness. If you’re sick and people rally behind you it does something good for your mentality. It gives support.”

In a similar way, Waters has also received help through the written word. When Waters was haunted by schizophrenia, he remembers being constantly bombarded with paranoia. He started writing to put those feelings to rest. 

Although it’s come into common usage, the term “word salad” is defined in the psychology field as “a jumble of extremely incoherent speech as sometimes observed in schizophrenia.” So, when Waters was writing during the depths of his illness, he was writing word salad.

“I’d take little pieces of this and that, this word or prefix or suffix,” Waters offers. “I wrote down a word called ‘orison.’”

Looking it up, Waters discovered that orison means “mystical ladder or a prayer.” He took the definition as a challenge, a riddle asking Waters how he was going to climb out of the hole he was in. Then Waters realized if he took the letter O out of orison and replaced it with P, he had the word “prison.”

“I started thinking I’m in a prison in my mind and I need to get free.” Waters believes the wordplay manifested in his mind as a way to deliver him from delusions and paranoia. 

“It’s kind of like the film A Beautiful Mind, where you’re cracking a code,” Waters offers. “With this mystical ladder I had a prayer. I had a way out.”

Waters, who was diagnosed in 1995, says it’s a different world now. With increased  access to information about schizophrenia and mental illness available, he hopes his experiences can contribute to that well of information. 

“I want people to find my story positive and inspiring,” Waters says, “It’s basically a survival guide.” 

Become part of the Nerve: Help us continue to connect community and culture and tell the overlooked stories of everyday Charlotte. Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and opt-in to our email newsletter.  And if you’re a patron of the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of the local scene you’ll find in town. 

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *