VANS OJO FEST 2023 | VIDEO + RECAP + GALLERY
It’s mid-morning on Saturday, January 21st, and an array of rails, boxes, and the sort lay waiting in the shadow of the...
JESS KIMURA IS LEARNING TO DROWN
Jess Kimura a.k.a Danger Pony is a household name in snowboarding having filmed the most progressive street snowboarding video parts and produced critically acclaimed movies, The Uninvited and The Uninvited II. Very soon the rest of the world will have the opportunity to know her and her incredible story through the new film Learning to Drown, slated to be released on a major streaming service before the end of the year. The film chronicles Jess’ tumultuous snowboard career and her battle to overcome her immobilizing fear of water after the tragic loss of her partner Mark Dickson. Directed by Ben Knight and presented by The North Face, this film resonates with absolutely everyone that watches it. It shines a light in the depths of despair. Facing her fear of water as a last resort, in a “who cares anymore” state of mind, Jess Kimura battles back stronger than ever and not only overcomes her water phobia, but even finds healing in the ocean. She shares some insightful views on managing clinical depression and what helped her get through one of the scariest periods of her life.
By Rob Lemay
How did the film come about?
This little light bulb went off. I wanted to share this story, and the lessons I was learning. How I was healing by throwing myself into unknown territory, by facing my biggest fear. It was an opportunity for me to be open. I know people could see me snowboard and think I’m ballsy or whatever. But I wanted to show that you can also be gnarly and courageous and totally suck at what you’re doing at the same time. All you have to do is just try. I wanted to tell people that they shouldn’t be afraid to try.
So I thought, “Oh, this is such a cool idea for a little video piece.” Mark Dangler, my longtime friend and team manager at Capita, was coming down to visit me in Mexico, and I told him to bring his camera. He stayed in my little camp with me and just documented some of my life down there, filmed me eating shit on some waves and sometimes standing up on them. We shot a quick interview with Fran (Mark Dickson’s mom) and myself. He put together a little video which I showed to The North Face, who I had just started riding for. They loved it. They hired a production crew and it really snowballed from there.
How did shooting the film go?
We shot for four days down in the Baja in Mexico. The whole point was that we were going to interview myself, interview Fran, capture a bit of what my life was like down there, and get some surfing clips. My interview went on for, I want to say two and a half hours. I couldn’t even remember what was talked about. I did find it weird that they were asking me about snowboarding and my childhood and all this stuff. In my head I was like, “Oh no, this is supposed to be a 10-minute video on facing your fears. What does my history have to do with that?” I blacked out during the interview. After we finished, they were all crying and they were like, “This is the best interview we’ve ever shot.” And I was like, yeah, sure. I’m sure you tell everyone that. Nothing came from a script, it was all from my heart, even though at the time I didn’t feel like I had really said anything profound or moving. They were like, “It’s just so beautiful.” I was like, “What the fuck did I say? I don’t remember.” Because I was so stressed out. Then when I saw it for the first time, once Ben Knight, the director, had it to the point of the first cut, I opened the link and it’s 40 minutes long. It was supposed to be 10 minutes max. It’s 40 minutes long and it’s about my whole life. I was like, “Whoa, what the fuck?” The first time I watched it, it was insane to see it all together.
It’s such a classic underdog story in a way. To overcome and to do everything that you’ve done Jess is just amazing. It’s very special.
Thank you. I hope that the viewers can get something positive out of it. Even if it’s just knowing that they aren’t alone in the struggle.
Was the process therapeutic in the end, or were there days that you wished that you hadn’t signed on to make the movie at all?
Yeah some days I’m definitely like, “What was I thinking?” When I don’t feel particularly open to talking about this stuff. And for the viewer, they are seeing the whole story for the first time. But for me, I’ve been living it. So there is this fear of having to relive the trauma over and over but I think that’s the irrational part of my brain speaking. In the end the most important thing is that something good comes out of all this bad.
One of the stand out points in the film is how you talk about how depression comes in waves and you can’t look at life being black and white. You can’t think that when you’re good that you won’t be bad again, and vice versa. I just think that’s so important for anybody struggling with depression to hear. That it’s ongoing for most people, and that you need to prepare yourself for that next wave, good or bad.
I have some days that I’m fine, and some days I’m fucked. I want to be careful to make sure people know that. Because when we watch other inspirational stories about people coming back from trauma, from injuries, people coming back from whatever kind of adversity, and we can’t help but compare ourselves to them. When someone’s making a film about something, not all the parts can be included, so it’s kind of inaccurate to be comparing ourselves to other people and being like, “Fuck, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just get my shit together? Why can’t I be more positive with this injury? Why can’t I make a comeback?” I definitely want people to know that it’s an ongoing struggle. Not because I want their sympathy but because I don’t want them to feel like there is something wrong with them if they are having an ongoing struggle as well.
Do you want to talk about your history with mental health?
When I was around 19 or 20 years old, I kept going to see this doctor for stomach issues. Looking back, I think it was anxiety related. He gave me some sample packs of these really strong antidepressants, with no real explanation. Just handed them to me, like “Here, try these.” They made me feel really sick, so after a couple weeks I just stopped taking them. A few days later I started having panic attacks, and feeling like something was really wrong. I mean that’s an understatement. I felt like I was going to die but couldn’t. Like living in some kind of nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from. I didn’t even consider it could have been from stopping the medication suddenly. I just thought there was something wrong with me. I ended up in a crisis center. They sent me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with schizophrenia, among other things. I was put on a pile of medication: tranquilizers, antipsychotics, benzos, antidepressants; all of it. I would tell that doctor that I wasn’t hearing voices, he told me it was because the medication was working. I remember my mom telling him I had plans to be a pro snowboarder and he told her I should manage my expectations. If I could get off disability and just live and keep a normal job, I would be a success story.
After three years, I slowly got myself off as many of the pills that I safely could, basically broke out of there, and moved to Whistler. I was really angry, I felt like they had stolen years from my life. Really important years that I couldn’t get back.
Are you still on medication?
Yeah I’ve been on antidepressants ever since. I think I have always had issues with depression and anxiety. I just didn’t know what it was called back then. So, I have accepted that I should be on medication. Because if I’m being honest, we are talking about severe clinical depression. Not all the time. But it’s not something I can just ‘namaste’ away. [laughs] For those who say I can cure myself with an anti-inflammatory diet. There are other factors that made it worse. I’ve hit my head a lot snowboarding, and had lots of concussions. That compounds the depression and then you throw substance abuse in the mix, all the destructive things I was doing to try and feel better just for a short period. I got to a really low point and I really felt like I would never be able to pull myself back up.
I don’t want to be too direct, but it sounds like you when you’re really low you might be having thoughts of suicide, but your saving grace might be from knowing how hard it is to lose somebody, and to be left behind.
Well, yes and no. Because you pass a point where you are like, “I’m such a piece of shit, everyone would be better off without me”. And part of the disease is that you really really believe that. I was so convinced that I was a burden to the people around me because I just couldn’t get better. I just wanted to take that off everyone, to take that off myself. So I made a deal with myself, that I would try all these things I had always just told myself wouldn’t work, or weren’t for me. I would do things by the book and then when it didn’t work, I could leave here with a clean conscience, knowing I honestly tried my best.
So I started researching, opened myself up to some new ideas. I started seeing a therapist and to be honest, I was like, “This is bullshit, this isn’t helping, I’m just telling someone all my problems and not finding any solutions.” But turns out she knew the psychiatrist in town and after I told her my story, she called my doctor to make sure I got a referral. So even though I didn’t find the therapy particularly helpful at the time, it still opened a door for me somewhere else.
I was terrified seeing a psychiatrist again because of what happened the last time I got involved in that system. But the doctor was this woman who seemed pretty cool. I felt like I could actually talk to her. She listened to my whole story and she’s like “That’s fucked, let’s do something about this. I understand why you would be scared to mess with your medication after all of that but just humour me”. She told me, “Look, you have had some really bad luck, because the medication that you got in those sample packs, we don’t even prescribe anymore because it’s so dangerous. Second of all, the one that you’re on now, we barely prescribe anymore because it’s notoriously hard to get off and the side effects are brutal. We have better stuff now with way less side effects.” So I had to get off that shit. There was no way around it. And like I had anticipated, it was fucking hell. I had to be monitored. I was just hiding in a blanket, and couldn’t leave the couch. Couldn’t have a conversation or take care of myself at all. And it took a while. I was hitting up the doctor being like, “I thought you said it would only be bad for 2 weeks,” but it actually took three months to get to the point where I could function again. And the whole time I’m thinking like, “Why did I do this? This is so dumb.” But I had to stick it out.
In the fall of last year things really shifted. I did everything she suggested; quit smoking, did vestibular rehab for my head injuries, got the light therapy lamp and used it exactly as directed. For the first time since Mark died, I didn’t sink back into hell as the winter started. I ended up having a really great winter and rode more days than I have in the past 3 years combined.
I’m happy that you’ve come out of it with a positive attitude and that you’re back to snowboarding and you got the tools to help fight your depression.
Yeah, I think it’s important to tell the whole story here because when you watch the film, it might look like I have shit figured out. But I’m still going through it. During a particularly low point, I had to watch the film again to give my final notes but I really wasn’t in the mood. I finally watched it last minute, before I had my meeting with the director and I came out of it feeling so inspired. I was like, “Yeah, you know what? You can do it. There is always hope.” I fucking gave advice to myself. I was laughing after, because I was like, “You’re right. you’re right. This is just one of those waves. It will pass.” And it did. That just goes to show how if somebody is out there and you’re feeling just terrible, thinking you’re a fucking loser and you can’t get your shit together, that doesn’t mean that that’s you all the time. People might look at me and think I’m a success story in snowboarding, but the thing I’m most proud of is having the guts to finally get some help for something I had been struggling with silently for so many years.
I hope everyone has the opportunity to see the film. And it would be great to see an extended part, a follow-up with the story that you just told me focusing on what you’re still going through.
There’s a lot more to tell. But how many people get a chance to tell any part of their story in the first place? Very few. Especially in snowboarding because people just want to hit the surface. But things are starting to change.
I’d like to expand a bit on the mental health stuff so that people know that they’re not alone. I remember just being so desperate to meet someone that I could talk to about it because I was too embarrassed to bring it up to my friends. I thought people would think that I was going to attack them or something, that I was mentally unstable. I guess I want people to know what that doctor taught me, that depression is treatable and medication is not necessarily forever. It doesn’t mean you are weak because you take it.
So you would encourage someone who is struggling to get some help?
Yes. It’s really easy to give up and be like well, that doesn’t work for me, or that won’t work for me. Take the same approach you do when you’re learning a trick. Don’t worry if you don’t land something the first try. Don’t expect that everything’s going to be sunshine all the time, it’s definitely not. That’s the point. It’s like the law of physics that there can’t be light without the dark.