About a month ago, Vice released a documentary entitled, “Gone: How Mental Illness Derailed the Career of a Promising Young Skateboarder,” that focused on the story of Paul Alexander, a ripper from England who you probably haven’t heard of because his skating was sadly overshadowed by his bouts with mental illness. It’s a touching look at a troubling story, and had me wanting to know more about its creator and subject.
Fortunately, soon after its release we got an email from Tim Crawley, one of Paul’s friends and the director of the documentary, asking if we’d like to put up some unused clips of Paul’s skating that he’d unearthed during the making of the film. Of course we agreed, and took the opportunity to ask Tim a few questions over email about the making of the doc and about Paul’s status. Tim even went so far as to act as the liason between us and Paul, who is currently completing a stint in the mental hospital, so that we could hear directly from the subject himself. So check out the video above, starring Paul and a lot of his mates featured in the documentary, and read about what they have to say below, it’s worth it.
Tim, you grew up with Paul, and have seen him through some tough times. How was it making such a personal documentary about your good friend’s struggles with mental illness?
Tim Crawley: Making this film has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. The subject matter is so taboo, stigmatised and rarely talked about, and, as you can probably gather, Paul has a kind of legendary status in Bristol. At the start of the project one of Paul’s close mates and his brother expressed to me that they weren’t sure it was a good idea to make a film about this. They both lived with Paul in the height of his illness in Bristol and it affected them quite a lot. His brother used to sleep in the doorway to try and stop Paul wandering off into the night and getting himself into trouble. These concerns were natural, but they definitely played on my mind throughout the process.
I started making the film independently about a year ago, and I managed to get it fully commissioned through Vice. But when I tried to call Paul up to give him the good news, I find out he’s been sectioned again and is back in the psych hospital. I was like, shit, it’s all over. But the Vice producer Ben was surprisingly supportive and confident we could still make a good film from it.
We went in to visit Paul just for a chat and I could tell he was heavily medicated and not very well. I’m suddenly in a situation where I have one of the biggest media platforms in the world due to come in and film a master interview with Paul when he’s really not in a good way. He seems to get more stressed out when he’s locked up, which is understandable, and as a friend I can see the toll it takes on him. That’s when I started to juggle all these levels of morality in my head and asking myself if I was doing the right thing here.
The editing process was the hardest though, because that’s where you need to be most sensitive to the personal story I was trying to tell. In the last week of the edit I actually got one cut through and burst into tears (which seems a bit comical now looking back on it) as the Vice editors had made a change that I thought was a bit too intrusive on Paul’s state in the hospital interview. Eventually I realised it wasn’t exploitative and calmed down a bit, but the pressure was really high.
Thankfully all that stress and worry slipped away when I drove up to the hospital in Leicester and premiered the film with Paul in my car in the hospital car park. Halfway through he shook my hand, gave me a little bro-hug, and told me he thought it was amazing. I can’t tell you how good that felt and how much my anxieties slipped away. It’s definitely one of my favourite life moments.
The documentary seems to make a connection between Paul’s heavy weed usage and his paranoia. What role do you think marijuana had on Paul’s illness?
Well I personally don’t think smoking weed will make you go crazy, but weed is definitely a part of Paul’s story, and that’s why it features so prominently in this film. I mean, there were other people like Danny Wainwright who would smoke just as much as Paul and be fine, in fact, Danny’s one of the most together people you’ll ever meet. I do know that once Paul became ill, weed has on occasion triggered an episode, but I also know there’s plenty of times when he’s smoked and has been perfectly fine.
I don’t want people to blame his illness on weed, but I do also think that weed can be used a bit irresponsibly, and if the film makes a few kids think twice before committing to a lifetime of smoke then that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of factors that play into it: trauma, genetics, and even random selection. This can and does happen to anyone, especially young men who are growing up and trying to work out who they are, figuring out their masculinity and personal identity, which is why I think this story is so important to share with skateboarders.
What’s the message you want the viewer to take with them after seeing this documentary?
Since its release the subject of mental health has really been thrown out into the skate world for discussion, and that’s just what I was aiming for. So many people in the comments section on YouTube are saying they’ve had similar experiences to Paul, and that they thank him for sharing his story. The feedback has been amazing and we’ve even had people in the mental health field take an interest in his case.
The best outcome from the film would be if professionals in the mental health field took an interest in Paul’s case and would be willing to look into alternative treatments for him. He’s the perfect example of why stuffing someone full of drugs and locking them up isn’t always the best treatment, and nobody really questions the fuckers that do it. Also, we were thinking of trying to get a run of ‘Paul Alexander’ boards done if he’s up for trying to skate again, and then using the proceeds from the boards to pay for his treatment. So if anyone out there thinks they can make that happen, hit me up! He’s definitely got a fan base.
Paul, you may be the greatest backboarder I’ve ever seen. How’d you get so good at it and how many times have you busted your face by missing the catch?
Paul Alexander: Back in the day I broke my wrist while skating, but I still wanted to be able to practice. So I took my brother’s asthma pillow which was pretty firm, and realized I could bust some tricks on it while lying on my back. Eventually I tried it out on a board in like 1993 and would practice loads and do my brothers head in with all the noise when the board fell off and would knock over something like the TV, which made me chuckle. I remember doing a quadruple switch flip in 1994, and being pretty stoked on that. I also had my own trick which was named the Smashy Flapjack (Smashy being my nickname, and the flapjack being a 360 half flip that lands on your toe then you spin around as many times as you can then flip it back).
Obviously I’ve fucked up a few times, but I normally just catch it with my hands or kick it away. Sometimes it hits my shins and I think I’ve hit my face about 3 or 4 times. I even got a black eye from doing it once. But normally I’ll just catch it or kick it out of the way and it’ll knock over some prize antique over or something, haha…
Was it difficult to be the main feature of a documentary that was so personal about your illness? How has its release effected you?
It wasn’t that difficult because I’ve spent so much time in the system that I’ve had to talk about it so many times. To be honest I didn’t really want a lot of people to feel sorry for me, but I just thought, well, let’s get it out there and see what happens. I mean, I knew there must’ve been other people out there who’ve been through similar stuff, so maybe this film will help them process it. I’ve talked to some people in the hospitals I’ve been to and they’ve felt similar things, like that cars were following them or strangers filming them, so I think it’s a more common problem than people let on. I don’t mind talking about it, and, in a way, it’s kind of therapeutic to let people know what I went through and that I don’t think like that anymore. I don’t have delusions anymore, but I still get hospitalized when the pressure of my situation gets to me. But I’ve spent the last 14 years of my life going in and out of the hospital, and I think that’s enough to make anyone angry and frustrated.
What kinds of medicines or therapies have helped you in the past? And which treatments haven’t helped, or even hurt your progress?
I think I was stoned when I first went into hospital, and I was obviously not quite right judging from what I was thinking then, but I can only say the medication they game me made me feel worse and more ill. I’d get out and throw the medication away and feel better, and then the psychiatrists would say, “oh, isn’t this medication wonderful?” And I’d think they were wrong because when I’m medicated I can’t skate or even talk to my friends properly. So in their eyes I might be doing well, but in my eyes, I’m not. As a skater, I always wanted to be progressing, so when I’d get hospitalized I’d always try and escape. I think I’ve escaped 4 times from secure units. One time they put me in Section 3, which means I’d be there for at least 3 months, so when I saw my chance I just ran out through like 4 security doors with a bunch of nurses chasing me. I knew my time was limited, so I legged it through these gardens straight to the local skate spot, the Quay, and ran up to some kids like, “quick, give me your skateboard and film this shit, I’m about to bust a sick nollie backside flip!” The kids must’ve been like, ‘who’s this guy that just escaped from the mental hospital talking about some nollie backside flip?!” But, I mean, that just goes to show how much I hated having my freedom taken away from me.
I think laying off the weed helped me recover, and after a while I got off the meds and felt like the Paul that everyone remembers. Then of course the cycle started back up again. After you’ve been put into a mental hospital, people just assume you’re always gonna be ill, especially the psychiatrists, and that kind of gets you stuck in a cycle. The doctors get used to seeing you sedated and when you come off your meds and your natural character springs back, they think you’re just being crazy. I’ve got a really vivid imagination and my true personality can be a bit manic, which I quite enjoy, but the doctors can’t accept that. In my initial admissions into hospital, the doctors used to think that me speaking about being a kind of semi famous skater was part of my delusions, and they never believed I could actually skate. Now that the films come out some of my nurses actually give me respect and realise that this was a big part of my life, but the psychiatrists just laughed the film off and thought I was being delusional when I told them it might get a million views on YouTube. You can see my frustration…
I think there are a lot of people in the skate world that struggle with their own mental health. Do you see any linkages between being a skateboarder and suffering from mental illness?
That’s a difficult one, man, I don’t really know. I guess it could be associated with the many highs and lows that you get with skating. Like, if you have a good skate and you make some tricks you’re really stoked on then you’re on top of the world, whereas if you have a bad skate and it doesn’t meet your expectations you can get really low. I think that comes down to the fact that skateboarders care so much about that act of skateboarding, and I guess that could be accentuated if you’re trying to make a living out of it too, that personal pressure combined with the pressure of sponsorships is a lot.
I did see in a video somewhere that Josh Kalis got locked up in a psych ward for a bit at some point, and that was interesting for me because Kalis has always been an inspiration to my skating. So to know that he may have been through something similar makes me think there are some skaters out there who understand. I also think the lifestyle that comes with skating may contribute towards it, like I wanted skating to be my job so I never went out and got a normal job, I just skated for 10 hours a day and smoked loads of weed, you know?
Are you able to skate at all? What’s your current situation?
Well, I’m currently in Hospital and I’ve been in here for about 7 months now, but I’m due out soon. I could probably still skate, but nowhere near like what I used to be able to because I’m on some real strong meds. The side effects are so strong it makes it really difficult to do anything physical and your brain just doesn’t react to stuff as quickly as you’d like, so social situations are quite hard too. I get a bit frustrated if I do try something like a good backside flip or something and I just can’t do it as well as I could if I was off meds. I’m sad that I’ve been set back as much as I have recently, especially now that the films now come out and people want me to skate again. I’m pretty determined that I will skate when I’m out of hospital to whatever level I can, even if it’s just cruising around hitting up some curbs. I just hope people don’t expect me to be amazing at it.
I just wanted to say that I’m stoked that my film has had such a big impact and that people who I care about, like my friends in the film and those that have got in touch, still hold me in high regard. It really means a lot to me and I’m looking forward to seeing people when I get out.