and I gotta get to rock bottom
In reflecting on my jiu jitsu journey so far, I’ve realized that what’s defined me has been a lot of the hard times that I went through and the mistakes that I’ve made along the way. It’s easy to write a clinical essay that focuses on how one can avoid those mistakes, but at the same time, it’s much more honest to talk about one’s experiences of them.
I have been lucky to not have experienced very hard times in jiu jitsu — things like sexual assault/harassment, catastrophic injury, or complete pandemic meltdown of my business. However, I have experienced is meaningful to me and worth a retrospective, because it is in those turns and twists that has brought me to where I am present day.
Pressing Pause on Jiu Jitsu
I was training in New York at what I came to realize was one of the best academies in the country, at least in terms of instructor star power. Yet, I was horrendously unhappy.
Jiu jitsu classes took place in the evening. Even in New York, it seemed that most people who showed up to the gym weren’t glued to their work emails on work phones like me, or sprinting to catch a train at the end of training, or getting on the phone with their partner and begging them to come to class even though they clearly dislike jiu jitsu. Everyone wanted to be there, and as desperately as I wanted to be there, I couldn’t.
I had a mortgage-sized student loan debt that wasn’t getting any smaller, and I wanted to pay it off while I still could with my law firm salary. I could spend A LOT more resources on a membership, extra transportation costs, and loss of sleep, all while trying to get by on minimum loan payments. The other path was to put jiu jitsu on pause and dive headfirst into work, so I could get the money to pay off my loans.
During that time, I didn’t train at all — not even solo drills or watching instructionals. I remembered that when I returned to training, I realized that rolling with men made me nervous, and I had to work my way through that trigger. And, after I saw a few former teammates go on to win big tournaments and advance in rank, I couldn’t help but throw myself a pity party.
Paying off my loans is still a huge point of pride. At the same time, I had to learn to work through feelings around “what could have been” scenarios. Whenever I look back on my past, I used to always believe that I could have accomplished more than what I did. My mindset was always to do more as a way of proving to others (and myself) that I was something worthwhile.
Lately, I’ve been more focused on being more gentle with myself as I look back on my past. It would have taken a monumental effort to work 60-80 hours weeks, commute at least an hour each way, maintain a solid relationship with my partner, and to get enough sleep. I probably would have failed at it anyways. This re-framing has helped me get over the mixed feelings I had about putting jiu jitsu on pause.
I had been training really hard in 2019 and competing a ton. I was turning 30 that year. 30 was a scary number to me because as a 20-something, people told me that my body would slow down dramatically and I would be a sad slug on the mats. I was still very much concerned about how I would appear when I was 30, rather than who I would be. All this translated to being a try-hard blue belt trying to compete and win single-elimination tournaments, to varying degrees of non-success.
Getting ringworm put a stop to all of that training, instantly. But what was the worst part was that this was not a mild case of the ‘worm. This was a severe, crater-scar-leaving, washing-the-sheets-daily firestorm of an infection. In the midst of all this, my 30th birthday arrived.
I was standing in the kitchen when I told my partner, “Well, I never thought I would spend my 30th birthday unemployed and with ringworm, but yet, here we are.”
It turns out that ringworm was the wake-up call that I needed to stop overtraining. That call could have been much worse and permanent in nature, but it wasn’t.
Looking back on the experience, I understand now that my body was sending me increasingly urgent signals to back down. I had ignored the warning signs of horrendous neck pain, spiking bouts of acne, and constant insomnia. Today, I religiously attend sports rehab once a week to help my muscles recover. I drink protein shakes, lift weights, stretch/foam roll, and use my massage gun purchased with FSA funds. I don’t train 5-7 days a week and delude myself into thinking that “going light” is a form of recovery. As a result, I’ve been much happier (and healthier) on the mats.
Fainting on the Internet
Back when I was still making sad attempts to get better at wrestling, I made it a point to try to get takedowns in tournaments as a mark of progress.
Going into this competition, I had felt guillotine chokes for three months straight and didn’t really think they were that big of a threat. Sure, I tapped to them, and my neck was sore, but I sincerely thought that guillotine chokes were not capable of making someone unconscious.
Until I was that someone.
The video starts off with me trying to shoot a single leg, but realistically is more like one of those penguins that you see slide along the ice in a hilarious way, headfirst into dicey waters. The guillotine choke is tight — very tight — but I clearly didn’t think it was that tight until I woke up with the ref telling me that I went lights out.
I didn’t think much of it; it was my first match at blue belt, after all, until I few days later I stumbled upon the video from my opponent that day. I watched, with horror, as I went limp and then convulsed on the mat, as a little girl innocently asked, “Daddy, is she okay?”
The comments were even worse.
After a great deal of self-growth, I was able to look at the situation differently. I had, after all, made a simple and honest mistake by shooting a horrible wrestling takedown, and then underestimating a very powerful submission. However, that did not mean anything about me as a person, or most importantly, my capacity to learn from that mistake.
Mental health is one of those weird things that people talk a lot about online, but then when it comes down to it, not many people talk about it face-to-face.
When I was diagnosed with depression, it had come after nearly two years of fighting off that possibility. I would lie on the questionnaires that tried to gauge depressive symptoms until one day I just realized that I would be lying on almost all of the questions. It was a sympathetic nurse who suggested that I try to take medication for my depression to see if it would help.
Depression is a deeply personal experience, and so, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to relate immediately to my story, or vice versa. My depression had a way of making good things bad and bad things worse. The (my?) depression manifests the most when I feel overwhelmed. Those days I don’t even want to get out of bed and my brain can’t move quickly at all. Instead of trying to use the mats as a space to get rid of that overwhelm, I flipped the question and asked myself, “What if you could show up to the mats every day, already happy and excited to train?”
Ironically, managing my depression has happened off the mats, and not on them. I discovered that my jiu jitsu problems were instead life problems manifesting themselves through jiu jitsu, because that’s where I endured the most amount of stress that I couldn’t solve through avoidance. To actually make progress in jiu jitsu, I needed to invest in myself first, instead of investing in mat time.
Standing Up for My Values
On a jiu jitsu school excursion up to Maine, we had just finished a luxurious boat trip, courtesy of the coach’s family. Since the restaurant we were going to was wildly popular, the plan was to have the coach wait in line as the rest of us got changed.
This would have not been a problem if our group size was small. Instead, an uproar erupted when nearly 20 people inserted themselves in the line where the coach was waiting. I had arrived later and was waiting in a further part of the line.
Now my entire group of teammates and their families were urging me to join them.
I said no - not once, not twice, but THREE times. My teammates made faces and complained that my food would come too late, and they would have to wait on me (which made no sense because I could have gotten the food to-go if we had been in that big of a rush, which we weren’t).
This was a small moment of defiance for standing up for my values, but it clearly made an impression on others. The crowd of people waiting behind me nodded with approval, and one lady said, “Good for you for sticking to your guns.” Later, even the coach would remark to me that in Maine, she saw something come out of me that she hadn’t seen before: assertiveness and leadership.
A lobster shack story is not exactly what most people would summon when they are faced with a tough decision, but that’s what I thought about when I had to make a decision to leave a gym. The leadership had acted poorly in dealing with a serious matter, and I could tell the training environment wasn’t good for me anyways. There were many more reasons for me to try to stay and pretend that things would be OK, but in the end, I decided that I had to leave, not to make a statement, but to just heal and honor my jiu jitsu experience — one lived accordingly to my values.
The essay title is from my latest earworm, Hard Times by Paramore.
gonna make you wonder why you even try
(Hard times) gonna take you down and laugh when you cry
(These lives) and I still don't know how I even survive…