In the past few years, three people in my industry of martial arts (one of them I knew personally) have taken their own lives. If you listened to my friend talking on YouTube, you would say ‘this guy has it together.’ Clearly, he was hiding a dark truth. I start this article with this in mind, as I try to come to terms with my own inner struggles over the past several years.
6 Years of Anguish
I don’t think there was one definitive moment, but if I had to choose one event that stood out in particular as a catalyst for my road into mental despair — it was several years back when a group of my trainers almost in synchrony up and left over night. These were people I had invested a considerable amount of my personal time in too, they were more than trainers and students, well at least they were to me. What made this experience even harder is that they all claimed to be my friends. But in the aftermath that followed, and the rumors that ensued, from calling me a cult leader to you name it — let’s just say it hurt me to my core and I felt betrayed.
Over the coming years betrayal would reappear once more with someone I really trusted. Added to this I increasingly had health problems, and was finally diagnosed with cervical degenerative disc disease. The Neurosurgeon’s advice was, “Find another career”. Then, I suffered two bulged disks in my neck after a routine roll on the mat, with the added complication of cervical radiculopathy. I lost over 75% of the use of my right arm. I was literally confined to my bed for months: I didn’t train, I didn’t coach, and it just took forever to heal. I am still struggling with it 3-years later (I now have a persistent tremor in my right hand that doesn’t want to go away). Along with all of this, I was increasingly suffering sever headaches. Before I knew it, I was hooked on over the counter pain medication just to get through the day.
Through all of this however, I did my job. I did what others expected of me. I got on planes, traveled all over the world, put a smile on my face, and coached. For the most part, no one thought there was anything wrong with me. There were of course a couple of people close enough to me that knew I was struggling mentally. One of those ‘friends’ ultimately used my despair against me, when he decided to exit a ten year relationship we had, both as his coach, and supposed friend via a single goodbye email.
The truth is, people like me live in a precarious position. Because of my standing in the martial arts community I am elevated to a position of hero worship (this has always bothered me). I am seen as someone who must have conquered the frailties of my mind, body and spirit. No one wants to know that I am struggling. Maybe because if they did, they might ask themselves ‘what hope do they have’. So it ends up being that I have no one to talk to, at least not honestly about how I am feeling. Everyone of course talks to me, sharing their problems and asking me for advice — but as they say being at the top so to speak, ensures that it’s a lonely existence.
I Didn’t Want to Admit It
Years went by and I knew I was struggling mentally, emotionally and physically. But I didn’t want to admit it to myself, let alone my students. I thought I was just stressed out, or being mentally weak. “People like me shouldn’t be struggling the way I was” I kept telling myself. I was ashamed too that I couldn’t get a handle on my mental anguish. Then 12-months ago I couldn’t handle it anymore and I sought help. Several doctors later, and several changes to my medication, and I was finally diagnosed with severe clinical depression (and in addition to that sparring when I was depressed seemed to make things a whole lot worse).
Even as I write this, I feel ashamed that I was depressed for years, and simply couldn’t see that I was. The only way to explain those moments to others when you are so completely out of character is that — it’s like knowing a car wreck is about to happen, but no amount of putting your foot on the break helps. I would get on my case after over reacting to something that in reality wasn’t a big deal, but to no avail, in that moment I felt like I was being taken over by someone else. I was simply a passenger, an observer to the unfolding crash happening right before my eyes.
I had no motivation, I would do nothing for days, and found myself stuck in a mental vortex of negativity that was strangling me. I felt dead to everything, except anger — that at least seemed to be the only time I felt alive. Even doing what I loved, training martial arts, made me feel ill. You know how everyone says they feel energized etc, after exercise, well I just felt sick. I would train, spar, roll, and then come hope depleted, finding myself in bed for days. At seminars, I would do my job, and then find excuses to not go out afterwards. What was I doing? I went back to the hotel, pulled the covers over my head, and only got back up again when there was no choice but to!
Now that I have sought the right medication and therapy, I am for the first time in a long time feeling somewhat normal. The old ‘me’ is back and I see things so much more clearer now.
Am I cured? No!
In fact, I have likely suffered from depression my who life. As a kid, growing up as I did, without a Father, an abusive alcoholic Mother, and in neighborhood fraught with gangs and bullies — I felt disconnected from my body for most of my childhood, and suffered from deep bouts of anxiety. There are still things about my childhood that I find far to traumatic to even talk about.
Major depressive disorder is common and a serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. It’s real. Anyone can suffer from it, even the people you least expect, like me.
I used to just think people who said they were ‘depressed’ were just not strong enough mentally. But as my psychiatrist reminds me often, “When you are in a major depressive episode, no amount of telling yourself to come out of it is going to help”.
The only thing that did help, at least for me, was the right medication, along with my practice in mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
So Where To Now?
It was extremely difficult for me to write this. To come clean, and tell everyone.
Even though I have been so much better over the last 12-months sadly it was a little bit to late. My marriage has ended, and I now find myself having to restart my life at 46. I have to find myself again. I don’t have anywhere permanent to live at present, so I am basically a Nomad.
My ensuing divorce has meant that I have had to leave my two sons in South Africa, while I travel abroad in order to continue to provide for them as I have always done. It breaks my heart. But divorces are very costly.
This blog then, is part of my healing journey.
But I thought long and hard, and rather than keep quiet about it, I am talking openly about my depression in hopes it will help others.
Plus, I have a lot of people around the world who do care about me, and who know about my current personal situation, but naturally keep asking, “How are things going?”
It’s tough having to tell people how you feel, and keep repeating the same story. Sometimes it just feels like you are whining or looking for sympathy. I am not doing or asking either.
So I thought a blog would be the best way to answer all of my friends at the same time 🙂