Childhood lasts a lifetime – Skateboarding as a form of self-harm: A conversation with John Rattray


John’s skateboarding needs little introduction and his ascendance to international acclaim from the improbable origins of Aberdeen, Scotland sounds like a classic formula for skateboard lore. Carving a skateboard career out of the Granite City is as tough as it sounds, and this conversation could quite easily have been a retrospective look at a transatlantic career, which developed from his indelible style on a board.
Rather than sticking to that brief, John proposed that, instead, we begin with a single statement and take
it from there. John’s thought-provoking statement provides the basis of our chat and, drawing on his own reflections on the interplay between skateboarding and childhood experiences, he explores the deeper meanings behind it. John explains how his knowledge of mental health and neurobiology has helped him to develop his own understanding of how luck, pain, skateboarding and change might have converged to influence his adult life.

Interview by Alex Irvine

‘Childhood lasts a lifetime – Skateboarding as a form of self-harm’… To me there’s a kind of seriousness and a playfulness in that statement. Is that true, do you think?
John Rattray: I heard the statement ‘childhood lasts a lifetime’ from somebody that works for an organisation called Prevent Child Abuse America. Their mission is, more or less, to try and reduce childhood adversity and trauma for kids so that they have better health outcomes long-term.

If you study psychology, you’ve likely heard about the adverse childhood experience study. What I’ve been learning about lately is some of the neurobiology that’s being layered on top of that in the last decade or so. It gives us an idea of like, okay, here’s what we saw sociologically with the adverse experience study, now, here’s the neurobiology that shows us why the chance of negative health outcomes increases for those of us who experienced more adverse shit when we were young. So, the idea of ‘childhood lasts a lifetime’ is the idea that the trauma or extreme prolonged, unpredictable stress that we experience when we’re young, impacts our brains and nervous systems as they’re growing and developing.

Those experiences stay with us because the human brain and nervous system is not a computer, it’s a biological system [like a tree] and it grows, and then those branches that are inside us from when we were a kid are still there when we’re a grown-up, and they’re still responding based on what we experienced when we were developing as a kid.

That’s the idea in ‘childhood lasts a lifetime’ for me. It’s been really helpful to understand that, as somebody that experiences maybe outsized anxiety responses as an adult. And who grew up with an alcoholic in the household (my dad),
who died when I was 13. That was chaos, culminating in catastrophe.

Understanding that as you’re growing up your brain and nervous system’s developing in response to the en-
vironment you’re in. It’s learning to predict what type of world we should expect to encounter in the future. And if we don’t learn about these mechanisms, then these mechanisms—essentially our stress response—will kind of run the show to a certain extent when you’re an adult. This can increase the likelihood of poor mental health outcomes. That’s the idea there.


Was skateboarding on your mind when the ‘childhood lasts a lifetime’ statement was formed as a topic of conversation for this magazine?
No. But now that we’re talking about it, and now that we just parsed out that it’s negative childhood experience, yes, that’s what we all think about because of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) but, also, the positive stuff that happened to you lasts a lifetime. Protective factors. Those are there too.

Some of those positive things with skating are this sense that I’m a part of something bigger than myself and I’m valued and, you know, part of a crew. I now have friends all around the world that I can pick up the phone or go to a city and meet up with and we have that common experience, that it’s us, together versus the world. That’s all in there subconsciously, imprinted in the depths of our brains automatic systems that help us form our worldview. Part of my default worldview became that I belong to something. Skateboarding was that for me. Being a part of that community, for sure helped develop my resilience; and helped me get through.

And we did that as kids without even realising we were doing it. We naturally do that. And if you’re lucky, then you find a good, healthy crew of supportive creatives. That was lucky for us, I think. That’s the positive part that helped me become more resilient and counteract the catastrophizing that my brain has a tendency to get into. Putting that together has been really helpful, like, ‘Oh! My brain is having a natural response to what it experienced when I was a kid’. Then, as human beings, we need to feel part of a trusted community. We need to feel like we’re valued by some group. That’s how we evolved. And skating offered that, without me even realising it.


So, skateboarding [might serve] as a potential alleviation of that difficulty. I started to think about the idea of belonging, and how escaping from difficult situations can inadvertently result in a sense of communal belonging supporting you in another way.
Yes, the idea of escaping gets talked about a lot. An analogy I think about sometimes is when I did my ACL. I tore it by putting too much stress on the ligament and the ligament broke. The same principle applies to the nervous system. Because it’s a physical system too. So that idea of escaping is really removing yourself from a stressful environment. And then what you’re finding in skating is two-fold.

The act itself is rhythmic and can help us regulate emotionally just by doing it, and then the connection to community,
that’s the next part of the puzzle – what you need to be emotionally healthy.

The narrative around ‘belonging’ in skateboarding is well-trodden ground, isn’t it? You know, the ‘we’re one big family’ kind of idea has been written about a lot…
And it can become hackneyed or clichéd. I like to dig in and [think] why is that? We evolved as human beings to need to be part of a group, because to be not part of a group is existentially threatening.

You can die in the wilderness. Alone. We work together. I’ve said this a few times: we did not evolve as lone wolves, and neither did wolves.


The subculture of skateboarding provides some belonging, but within that, there’s also a kind of separation from society as well. I don’t know if you get that same tightness or bond in other social groups because skateboarding is smaller than other social groups, or maybe because it’s ‘other’ and then this changes things…
I don’t know, I think skating is different in terms of the extent or lack of formal structure around it. It’s like, us together, figuring out what we want skating to be, versus the world.

But I think you can get that same sense of belonging with anything, with the little football team that you’re part of, or just going and playing tennis with somebody, as long as it’s not a toxic environment there too. That’s another piece of the puzzle. Skating is a bit of a dice roll because it’s kind of the kids doing their own thing. It definitely wasn’t always healthy growing up with the amount of cider and weed and all the rest of it that was floating around.
I do think skating is interesting because it does have this multi-generational thing, especially nowadays, there’s like older skaters that’ve been through it and hopefully come through it in a prosocial way and have their heads switched on that are looking after things to a certain extent. Maybe I’m dreaming though.

I also thought, maybe as another layer on top of that – maybe where I thought the playfulness was – is that, as a retired pro skateboarder [the idea] that childhood lasts a lifetime, that skateboarding is like a childlike thing to do. Maybe you’ve experienced people saying ‘isn’t that for kids?’ or ‘aren’t you a bit old for that kind of thing?’
I don’t know that people overtly say that out loud… But I do sense that there is some bias against skating, you know. I imagine it’s because people can’t help but think of it as a childish thing. And you could take that as insulting at first, but then you remind yourself, as an adult, retaining that childish nature is so important, that playful, curious, creative nature is so important to health and to being a good or innovative contributor to whatever endeavour [you undertake].

We need to be curious and playful, and skating sets us up with that. If we take the lessons of skating and think through them like that and apply them, it’s such a good lesson to take with us from childhood all the way through life. Whether we keep skating or not. To diminish it and to think it’s not valuable I think makes… It makes society wrong and we’re right. Ha ha!


I think that’s the nail on the head. So we’ve come from this kind of quite bleak seeming statement to something else too. Obviously, there’s hope in there knowing that you can change, right? 
Yeah, right there. The whole big takeaway of everything I’ve been reading about over the last few years is, the brain can change. And so, in the manner that it can change to a point where you’re in a really bad place, the fact it can change means it can also change to get you back to a good place. It’s a constant evolution and growth that’s happening, like literal branches, you know, neural pathways and all the rest of it. It’s a growth process. But the brain grows according to the environ-ment it’s in, according to the stimulus it receives. So, we can intentionally guide ourselves in positive ways… And we can be more intentional when we have a reasonable understanding of how it works. Which we do.

Absolutely. I think there’s kind of a momentum when you’re skateboarding and you’re younger. It’s just because you’re so engrossed in it, everything’s just happening. When do you think you were able to gain enough perspective to realise that it had had a positive impact in other aspects of your life? 
I mean, for me, probably in my 30s and 40s, as I had to transition out of being a pro skater, into life after skate-boarding and find a different way to make a living. I’ve thought about this a lot, like all the stuff that I’ve been learning about and trying to put out there in the world lately is all the developmental neurobiology stuff—how our brains develop over the course of our lives.

And then the in-the-moment neurobiology stuff – how does your brain process information right now? And then, how is that affected by the stuff in the past?
And then, what developmental stages are you at throughout the course of your adolescence, your early adult life and ongoing?

You kind of get this sense that you’re getting something amazing from skating as a kid, as a youth, and then as a young adult. But when you learn about neurodevelopment… [that] it develops in sequence. So, your brain stem develops, then your limbic system and your social attachments develop, and then your cortex develops. And if you’ve read anything about this, it’s not until your mid-twenties, roughly, that they say your cortex is more mature, it continues to grow and change, but it’s the last part to develop as you grow up. So, how useful a lot of this develop-mental stuff is for somebody that’s 18…

I’m not sure because there’s still years of cognitive development to happen before you can look back. You don’t have the time; you’ve not lived it yet. That said, we can be affected by experiences all the way from in-utero through when we’re a baby and on, so perhaps the brain development stuff is helpful to understand at any point in life really. I hope so because it’s super interesting and I’ve found it super helpful.


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I’m wondering about your idea of skateboarding as self-harm. Where do you think that comes in?
I think that my dad dying pushed me, because our natural response to really emotionally painful things is to try and
get away from them. So, skating and the physical pain of learning to skate was my escape. And my layman’s understanding
of what drives self-harming behaviours is that that’s the pathway – replacing emotional pain with some physical pain. So, it’s like a surrogate in that sense.
You have to push yourself pretty hard to get to where I got. I mean – just to self-promote – you don’t learn to skate handrails without really not being too bothered about putting yourself in the way of physical harm. You know, you have to push yourself and you also have to manage your stress response to get there. So that’s the double-edged sword thing again, of putting yourself in danger, but you’re also learning to regulate yourself.

Do you think there was a control element to that for you? In testing your mettle?
Yeah, I think so, and I think when you’re young, you’re an adolescent, or a kid, I don’t know that you necessarily are consciously saying, like, ‘I am living in a situation where there’s a lot of uncontrollable, unpredictable stress, and therefore I want to go and have this situation where I’m in control of the risks I take.’… It’s more like, you’re driven and you find this thing called skating that gives you something that you’re not getting at home, you know, or provides you some control that you’re not getting at home—or didn’t get at an important time when you needed it. But the feeling that you get, of being in control, subconscious, subcortically or whatever we want to call it. That’s one of the things skating offers for sure, that ability to be in control of the risks you’re putting yourself into.


I think there’s quite a bit of difference in how self-harm is understood generally, right? I think most people think of cutting. It goes way beyond that, obviously, but I think that’s like the most common thing that people’s minds jump to. I understand it as people trying to regulate emotions or trying to, trying to feel something or trying to feel less of something. I wonder about skate-boarding, it’s quite a different thing, maybe there’s a different intention than with other forms of self-harm…
I mean, just learning to skate is painful. You don’t just go straight to handrails and scrape your face off the ground when you wheel bite. So, there’s an element of pain. Something I learned recently that I thought was quite interesting, that may be relevant, was the areas of your brain that are associated with pleasure and reward—there’s the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, and then the activation of the dopamine pathways. That system is also related to the release of endorphins, and you get endorphins when you do various things. Many substances will release endorphins, and so will cutting, and physical pain. And, I didn’t know this, ‘endorphins’ are endogenous morphine. It’s your body’s self-produced morphine. That’s what you are getting. Skating is healthy and long-term beneficial, but there is that element of pain that you get from it, that releases endorphins and will have that same calming effect. That’s kind of it. [With skateboarding] you have to go for things that you’re not sure you can make. And slam. A lot. And that’s painful. Is there something in pushing yourself into that because you are calming yourself from the fallout of emotionally overwhelming things, like the loss of a parent. So, the parameters of, when does self-harm become negative or unhealthy and in need of intervention, versus what are the limits of using that mechanism to soothe yourself where the outcomes long-term are okay, I think there’s always parameters like that with these things.

Do you think that some people might view that as quite a negative idea, thinking of skateboarding as a self-harm behaviour, given some people’s assumptions around self-harm.
I mean, it seems like we’re getting to splitting out the difference between prosocial and antisocial versions of self-harm. Antisocial broadly, just meaning like, it’s not seen as ‘okay’ in the broader culture. And then prosocial being like, it’s got some positive benefits and you’re able to interact well with other people. I don’t know… Does it concern you to put that idea out there, of skateboarding as self-harm? I just think it’s an interesting angle. That’s my personal experience, that there was a bit of that in learning to skate and pushing yourself and going through the pain of doing it, but I was in control, and skateboarding is generally seen as a prosocial activity.


I’m not concerned about the idea at all. I suppose I’m playing devil’s advocate to try and pick it apart a bit. I don’t think the statement is anything but interesting, really.
And, I think that if I really sum it up, and we put it back into perspective, we’re not doing some broad meta-analysis of all skateboarders and what their motivations are. We’re talking about what my motivation was. Emotional distress drove me to push myself further than my peers. And that’s it. So that’s my experience. When I look back at it, I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s something in that, maybe you have subconscious desire to experience some pain,’ because it does release endorphins and does its mechanistic job of calming you down from whatever’s going on in your head and whatever is being driven in those base, lizard-brain emotional systems.

It puts you in some control over the experience. Skateboarding provided a good option for me. I guess it’s kind of circling back to what we started talking about at the start of our conversation. Looking back, one of the reasons I pushed myself to the level I did, was, I believe, to try and counteract emotional distress that had happened when I was a kid, when I was 13 or whatever. It’s interesting, the dichotomies that we’re surfacing. Like there’s antisocial or prosocial avenues kids can take.

And a lot of it comes down to luck.

I was lucky that I saw skating as a kid.

And then Quarterback (American sports store/skate shop) opened up when I was young, and so skating became
a viable option.

And then I was reasonably good at it, so that was encouragement to continue.

And then, luckily, with what I was escaping emotionally, I found a fairly positive crew. You can quite easily find be-
longing in really toxic or bad circumstances too, or not find something like skateboarding that helps you, that does what it needs to do for you to get through heavy emotional fallout.


So, for you, skateboarding was a safe place with some degree of control and a bit of punishment? 
And then a healthy dose of risk. Then there’s the idea that the old social structures that would keep adolescents safe, the village model, the extended family, all of that’s kind of broken down for so many people. So, there’s this bigger macro thing that’s happened as well, maybe beyond the scope of what we’re trying to do here, but [there’s] something interesting there.

I think connection is a really important thing, isn’t it? And I think skateboarding provides a lot of that, even globally, like you mentioned before.
Yeah, the surrogate for the village that has broken down over the course of the last 50, 100, 150 years for humanity. It’s a survival strategy that’s worked for some kids and it doesn’t work for everyone, because it’s as tribal as anything else. Because it’s comprised of humans who are both awesome creative angels, and damaged conniving demons all at the same time.
But we can save that conversation for next time.