No one likes to admit that they have been struggling, especially mentally. There is a pervasive taboo in our society when it comes to mental illness. People who suffer with mental illness are said to “lose their minds” and in doing so become something less than human.
Even if that’s not the extreme for some, even saying you are depressed is often seen as being mentally weak. I have heard people tell those who are feeling depressed to “just toughen up, and get over it”.
My Personal Struggles
I have been quite open about my struggles with injuries over the past three years. I was diagnosed with cervical degenerative disc disease. This is undoubtedly connected to the hard sparring and training my body endured over a twenty year period.
In 2017 I lost six months of time on the mat, after two bulged disks, a pinched nerve, and almost the complete loss of my ability to use my right arm.
It’s now 2019, and I am still recovering. I am almost back to normal, but not quit. Just ask my chiropractor, my sports massage therapist and physiotherapist who would attest to this. Their monthly invoices is a testament to myself getting better, but not quit enough.
The bottom line, all the treatment in the world, is never going to get rid of my neck problems. All I can do at this point is manage the pain, be smart about my training, and be very, very picky about who I do any kind of rolling or sparring with.
But there’s something in addition to this, that I haven’t talked about, not publicly….It’s hard even to admit, and find it easier to write about.
While I have been struggling with pain for more than three years (actually it’s more like five), there’s something I haven’t really publicly talked about.
Over the past four or so years, I put a lot of other things I was struggling with down to the fact that I was in pain all of the time.
Things like difficulty thinking at times, feeling depressed, apathy, short-term memory loss, emotional instability, irritability, getting angry over trivial things, sometimes not being able to get the words out of my mouth because I couldn’t find the words I was looking for, physical weakness and some vision and focusing problems. I am certain my neck issues contributed to this, but all of those symptoms didn’t make any sense. I was meditating each day, practicing mindfulness, but it wasn’t really helping as much as I would like (I will say this, without those practices, things may have turned out a whole lot worse).
I started to notice that each time I sparred more than once in a week, even lightly, the symptoms were worse, and more pronounced. When I stopped sparring they didn’t go away completely, but they lessened considerably.
I then saw more and more combat sports athletes over the past few years coming forward and saying they were struggling with many of the same symptoms I was. I also knew of three combat sports coaches who have committed suicide in the past few years (one of them I knew personally). These deaths maybe unrelated to the symptoms I described earlier, but maybe not!
In the last twelve months, I have done less sparring than I have ever had done in my entire career as a martial artist. If you took all the time I have sparred in the past twelve months, it wouldn’t amount to what I would have typically done in a normal week of training. In the past five months, I have sparred even less.
Along with seeking help and medication, I am for the first time in a long time feeling more here, more mentally healthy. Here as in feeling a lot more emotionally stable and less anxious all of the time. I am now able to talk clearly (most days) without having to rummage around my brain looking for the right words. I am a whole lot less short tempered, and crucially I feel inspired again.
Here’s the thing…
I hid all of this really, really well over the past few years from most people, except at home (some people reading this will be very surprised by my admission here, or maybe not). My family knew something was wrong all along. It was cause for a very uneasy home life.
Mental Struggles is Often a Very Lonely Road
I hinted to a few close ‘friends’ that something was up, but most didn’t support me. That’s the part I find the most discouraging. Some people who called themselves my ‘friend’ seemed to be in my corner as long as they got what they want out of our relationship. Yet as soon as I wasn’t doing to great — they were off to the next big thing.
The sad part here is that, the more well known you are, especially in the world of martial arts, where you are expected to be the Alpha – the type of person who always has their shit together — no one want’s to know or hear that you may be having a rough time.
The funny thing was that most people who knew me for over a decade, seeing changes in me — didn’t even bother to ask if I was doing okay. Was something up? Could they help? It only took them feeling different about our relationship, to abandon it.
I can absolutely see the relevance, and truth in the statement, where people note: that you can have tons of people around you and still feel utterly alone.
This is also what I meant in the opening statement of this article, that there’s a taboo in our society when it comes to people struggling mentally, until of course it strikes them.
This is made even worse, in our over saturated Hyper-Pollyanna culture, where being seeing to be in a bad mood, feeling low, is somehow the ultimate failing. The message is: if you are struggling, just shut up and put a smile on your face.
Over Twenty Years of All Out War
From the age of sixteen when I began boxing I went to war. For the next two decades I would spar all out, most of the time. Just like Wanderlie Silva notes, I, like everyone else in the fight game thought thats what was needed to become tough for the fight.
I also spent several years of my life fighting outside the doors of night clubs as the head doorman. During that period I had repeated exposure to potential traumatic brain injury.
I have been concussed more times than I care to remember. Actually, I can’t remember how many times (research now shows that blows to the head that don’t cause concussions can still cause brain injuries). It was only in the past ten years, and specifically the past five, that I began to seriously overhaul how I taught, and ensured that people didn’t spar the way I had done. But, unknowingly the damage at least to myself had already been done. I recognise that now, more so than any other time than in the past couple of years.
Many of the symptoms I described above that I had been encountering for the past few years, are very much the same symptoms diagnosed in people who had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). I say had, because it only came to light that their behavioral/personality changes during their final years was likely caused by having CTE after they had passed on. Currently, the only way to definitively diagnose the disease is by looking at the brain tissue after a person has died. Although a team at Boston University recently found a possible way to diagnose the disease while someone is alive by testing their spinal fluid.
What’s my advise?
Its not worth it!
Not for the glory. The money (which doesn’t happen for most fighters). To appease your fragile ego, or what ever else you trying to fight to overcome.
Look we didn’t know back then what the repercussions of getting concussed and repeated trauma to the brain would end up doing.
But we do now!
Here’s the other thing, for all of last year I was on a razors edge. The fog in my brain was unbearable. I can only equate it to drowning. Each time I came up for air, I was pulled down again.
I realised that it wasn’t possibly anymore simply to say it’s because of my neck.
So I went and sought help.
It’s very difficult to write all of this. I have had some tough times in my life, mentally and emotionally. I always found the strength to pull myself out of any situation I found myself in. But when your brain is failing you, all the willpower in the world doesn’t make a difference.
I am glad I know what is going on now, so I can do something about it.
That makes it even more tough.
If I knew then, what I know now, I could quit easily spar multiple times a week, play the game I love and be okay. But, if I like it or not, that’s no longer on the cards for me. I am still sparring (but rolling more) but far less than I could before. I could spar more, I have even tried, but the aftermath is simply not worth it to myself or my families health.
As a coach, I owe it to my students to ensure they don’t suffer the consequences I have. The only way forward in ensuring the success of this advice, is to be open, to be honest, and to talk about it. Something us men have a real hard time doing.