Those of us who train BJJ know just how incredible it feels to hit the mats and roll after a hard day at work, school, or home. Many of us compare it to therapy, and rightfully so: A couple hours of jiu jitsu not only releases endorphins, but also helps us focus on something other than the crap that’s been plaguing our minds throughout the day. But for some of us, the peace that can be found on the mat is harder to reach than we would have hoped.
A whopping 14.8 million adults in the U.S. — that’s almost 7 percent of the population— struggle with depression on a day-to-day basis. It’s an illness that shows itself in a wide variety of ways, and most of them are almost impossible to see if you’re not the one living with it. It goes beyond just feeling a bit “down;” depression manifests for many people as physical symptoms (such as persistent headaches or chest pain) and mental symptoms (such as constant exhaustion or the inability to focus). And despite what all the memes you see on Facebook say, jiu jitsu can’t fix them all.
Just getting out of bed can feel like a workout when you have depression, but going to the gym to train and roll is a whole ‘nother beast. How are you going to make it out to your car when you feel like you have a hundred-pound weight sitting on top of your chest? Where are you going to get the energy to roll if you feel like you could fall asleep standing up? And how are you ever going to get better when you have that little evil creature sitting on your shoulder telling you how you will always suck at this sport, that you’re the embarrassment of the whole team, that you’re a burden on everyone you roll with? Getting these feelings every once in awhile is normal. But when you have them every time you go train, it wears on you no matter how tough you are.
It’s easy to tell someone struggling with this to “suck it up,” especially in a sport in which dealing with pain and frustration is all part of the game. But when someone with depression takes to the mats, they’re not just fighting their opponent. They’re fighting every negative thought, every heavy feeling, every physical and mental ache that is constantly trying to beat them down. Their illness can hinder their training just as much as a physical injury, but unlike a swollen joint or broken nose, depression usually can’t be seen or felt by anyone except the person who has it. It isn’t about sucking it up or waiting it out— it’s about beating the ever-loving crap out of something that’s trying to tear you down while you’re already rolling with an actual person.
For those of us with depression, jiu jitsu isn’t just therapy; it’s a trophy. It’s the medal we hang around our necks every time we step off the mat after a hard training session, the evidence that we not only made it out of bed that day, but also kicked some serious butt. Every time we get tapped and get right back up to keep rolling is symbolic for all the times that evil creature told us that we should just give up, but we showed up to class anyway. Every submission we nail, every technique we learn, every time we get our butts handed to us is proof that even though this mental illness might not be going anywhere, neither are we.
If you’re a jiu jiteiro with depression, keep visiting your actual licensed therapist. Maintain the diet and lifestyle that helps you feel better. And if you’ve been prescribed medication because it’s the only thing that enables you to function, don’t stop taking it. But every time you’re able to shrimp out from under the weight of your symptoms and take another step in your BJJ journey, don’t forget to thank your therapists who wear gis and rashguards, too.