A while back, I wrote an article about jiu-jitsu and depression and was stunned by how many of you guys reached out to me to share your own stories about how you’ve dealt with this mental illness while training. Pretty much all of the messages I received made me tear up because I’m a huge baby, but one of them left me stumped. The reader wanted to know how I motivated myself to train when I was feeling like I’d been cuddling with the Grim Reaper all day and wanted nothing more than to stay home drowning in my own apathy.
The first thought that came to my head was, “Hell if I know.” Most of the time when my depression is smothering my brain, I don’t really “motivate” myself to go to the gym; I just kind of end up there. I survive class despite not being able to concentrate on the technique, often throwing in a lot of apologies to my drilling partners when they have to remind me of what to do with my arms and legs five times in a row because my memory is shot. On those days, even when there’s a tiny voice squeaking, “You did it!” once I make it through and head home, I don’t feel like jiu-jitsu really did anything to help me feel emotionally or mentally healthier. Rather than swimming or even treading water in class, I feel like I’m paddling furiously just to get a single gulp of air that will keep me alive for just a few seconds longer.
Still, I wanted to give this reader a solid answer, so I told him I’d get back to him once I figured it out. I’m no life coach or therapist, and I have still missed class more than a few times thanks to my depression tapping me out, but after paying more attention to myself on the days when my depression is particularly crippling, I feel comfortable enough to tell you guys what personally helps me to not give up when the absolute last thing I want to do is go to jiu-jitsu.
One of the most important things I do is to separate my depression from my “real” mind. It’s kind of like figuring out whether that noise you hear is your ears ringing or the electric hum of an old TV. Once you can identify it as something that isn’t you, it’s easier to remember that you love jiu-jitsu, and you’d regret it if you stayed home. This takes a lot of practice, so don’t worry if you have a hard time figuring out what part of your lack of enthusiasm is due to your mental illness and which part isn’t.
After I figure out that my depression is what’s trying to keep me away from what I love, I get a bit annoyed with it. I visualize it as a black creature clinging to my leg and refusing to be shaken off. Its only goal is to keep me from moving, kind of like that 250-lb guy in BJJ class who just lies down on you in side control. You know who I’m talking about – he doesn’t actually go for anything, he just likes to squish you so you don’t submit him or make him move more than he absolutely has to.
I feel the same way with that black creature clinging to my leg as I do when That Guy passes my guard: annoyed and uncomfortable, but not defeated. Now, I can see it for what it is, and I know I can keep breathing and fighting rather than giving up. So I drag it with me the whole way to the gym, accepting that it might hinder my performance in class that day, but refusing to let it keep me home.
If that’s a lot of symbolism and not enough practicality for you, I get it. Some days, even when I can pinpoint my depression, I still want to give in to it. I use every excuse in the book: I could be getting work done instead, my knee is bugging me, it’ll take me too long to get ready, etc.
In these cases, I plan ahead to remove every possible excuse before I get convinced to just stay home. I get my gi and water bottle ready the night before while I’m already on my feet, not because I have my life together, but because I know that I won’t want to do it the next day. If I’m sore or have a minor injury, I take some ibuprofen a couple of hours before I train so I won’t be hurting when it’s time to leave. If I have work I need to do, I’ll have an iced coffee waiting for me in the fridge when I get home so I know I can stay awake long enough to get it done after jiu-jitsu.
For me, the key is to take advantage of the times when I’m functioning so I can take care of myself when I’m not functioning. It’s kind of like when you’re drunk and find pizza that your sober self left in the fridge, only you’re less excited about the fact that it’s pizza and more relieved about the fact that today isn’t the day you’ll starve to death. If my only excuse to not go to jiu-jitsu is “I really, really, really don’t wanna,” it becomes that much more feasible to take that first step out the door.
If you feel like it would help, ask your doctor about getting on medication. This is ultimately what saved me from quitting jiu-jitsu entirely about a year and a half ago, so before you dismiss it as being “drugged” or put on “happy pills,” hear me out. Antidepressants do not give you an artificial feeling of being happy. It’s not a “high,” and it takes about three weeks for them to even start having an effect. Instead, they balance out your serotonin levels, which are probably pretty low if you live with depression.
The result is that you feel a bit more normal. Imagine a black belt with a smelly gi sitting on your face while he tries to land a kimura – the medication isn’t going to remove the guy from your face, but it’s going to wash his gi and turn him into a blue belt so you can breathe and have a chance of escaping the submission. You’re still going to have bad days, but if you’re on medication that works for you, they will be less intense and far less frequent. If your depression is ruining your life and sucking the enjoyment out of everything you once loved, at least ask your doctor what they think you should do.
When all else fails, I use my depression against itself. My personal Black Thing makes me feel like I’m a worthless human being over every minor thing I do wrong, so I let my guilt push me to the gym. I think about how my drilling partner might be the odd person out if I don’t show up or how disappointed in me my professor will be if he finds out I stayed home for no “good” reason. Is this healthy? Eh, I’m guessing it’s not. But if it’s the only thing that gets me rolling, it ultimately benefits my mind and body.
Once I’m there, I’m content with myself if I just make it through class. I know that my best jiu-jitsu days are not going to be the ones in which I feel like a zombie. I accept that I’m going to get tapped out a lot and that the technique is going to seem like it’s being explained in a fictional language that no one actually speaks. I know that I’ll probably forget all the steps before I even walk out the door that night and that everything is going to hurt twice as much as normal. On those days, I have to allow myself to be content that my greatest victory was just showing up, even if I hated every second that I was there.
Guys,I know how f—ing hard it is to get to the gym when you’re in the depths of depression. It’s easy to say “just show up” when you’re able to drag yourself out of bed or when your thoughts resemble something other than a thick fog, but when something as simple as taking a shower feels like the hardest thing you’ve ever done, getting through a jiu-jitsu class seems next to impossible.
Every person’s Black Thing behaves differently, and as such, what works for me might work for you, or it might not. This is just how I get mine under control when it refuses to let go of my dang leg. If you have something else that works for you, please share it in the comment section so other jiujiteiros dealing with depression can find their way of overcoming it long enough to get to class.