Wrestling with Depression
“Mr. W, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I’m in my thirties, Eeshan. I am already grown up,” I replied.
“Well, what did you want to be when you were a kid?”
“Truthfully, I wanted to be a professional athlete, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I’m 31 and weigh 375 pounds,” I chuckled. “So that’s probably not happening anymore.”
Nine-year-old Eeshan frowned pensively, then, immediately, his face lit up. “Why don’t you become a sumo wrestler?!”
“Maybe I should,” I said, smiling as class ended for the day. “Have a good day, Eeshan!”
“You too, Mr. W.”
The students left and I worked at my desk, grading papers and planning lessons for the following week. Eeshan appeared in my mind, and I smiled.
Sumo wrestling, huh?
I was, once upon a time, an athlete. I played basketball and baseball my whole life. I used to break dance and do martial arts. Then, depression came around. Perhaps it was always there, and life just chipped away at the shield I had used to keep it at bay. Regardless, I was clinically depressed and on the highest legal dose of my SSRI medication. I tried to avoid taking medication as long as I could. Even I was guilty of thinking negatively about those who took pills to cope with life. I reached a breaking point. My mind was spinning out of control, and I was nauseous with anxiety.
In less than three years, I went from 200 pounds to 375 pounds. We all have vices and coping mechanisms; I don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or do drugs, but I sure did eat. I became a food addict. I don’t know for sure if it was a side-effect of my medication, or just the way my mind felt like handling the situation. I do know it had nothing to do with hunger, but access to immediate pleasure, and the comatose feeling that resulted from eating to capacity with every meal. It was just an escape. Now, my entire upper body was covered in stretch marks, every physical activity was laborious, and I had developed sleep apnea. I had to take pills to cope with being awake, and connect a machine to my face to allow me to sleep. I was wondering how long it would be until I decided to kill myself. Maybe I would eat myself to death.
“Everyone always talks about mind over matter, Mike. But maybe what you need is matter over mind,” my professor said to me after I confided in her about my mental illness.
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I tried my best to live that mantra. For the most part, people thought I was a jovial, put-together individual. But as the years went by, I was rotting on the inside. I had destroyed my appearance, my athleticism, and my life was a painful grind. I felt so weak, physically and mentally. I was embarrassed, even fearful about what I had become. I began ordering my medication illegally overseas because I was afraid that my employer would somehow find out I was taking antidepressants and wouldn’t allow me to teach. I now know that was unnecessary and dangerous, but the stigma of having a mental illness can create a negative feedback loop that spirals down into uncontrollable fear. The private school I was hired at made it very clear that they were an “at will” employer, meaning “an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish “just cause” for termination), and without warning.” Based on reading that statement, I decided it was worth the risk to order my medication abroad to avoid any potential issues with my employer.
Why don’t you become a sumo wrestler!
In jest, my student had accidentally changed the trajectory of my life. I realized I should stop trying to get back to how I used to be mentally, since I was just frustrating myself. I decided I wasn’t going to wait until I lost 175 pounds to be satisfied with my body again. I would accept my current situation, and try to thrive within the functioning mind-body status that I had. I opened Google and typed “USA sumo wrestling” to see if it even existed. What did I know?
As it turns out, it was an actual thing. In fact, sumo wrestling is a sport at the World Games, a quadrennial multisport event partnered with the Olympics. Every four years, the top wrestlers from each region of world come together for an ultimate tournament. I was shocked. There was still a chance to do something athletically with my life. There was only one little problem; I had no idea how to sumo wrestle.
There are not many places to train sumo wrestling in the United States. Los Angeles has the only true institute with former professionals. I decided to approach it a different way, which was to teach myself. In my youth, the way I learned how to break dance was to watch videos and just try it, so that is what I decided to do. After a few months on YouTube and training with a few of my much smaller friends, I booked a flight to Atlanta for the 2015 Georgia Open.
I looked at the other competitors, and they all seemed enormous. I was terrified for my first match. My opponent said he had been training for years with the event organizer, who himself had spent many years training in Japan. As we stepped onto the dohyo, I was sure I would get crushed. We crouched low for our pre-match stare down. Face to face and with a confident grin, my opponent said, “This is going to be fun.” I was terrified. I thought I was going to get tossed off the stage in front of the entire Japanfest audience. I looked at the giant crowd and thought to myself, Thanks a lot, Eeshan!
“HAKIYOI!” The referee commenced the match and we collided into each other. I reached my left hand under his right arm and grabbed his belt. I turned outward and threw him to the ground. The crowd roared and I felt a rush I hadn’t experienced in over a decade. It’s an indescribable feeling when angst turns to triumph while performing in front of others. My opponent stood up and shook my hand. “You are good,” he said.
I continued to train and learn, making my way to the 2016 U.S. National Championships in New Jersey. I was having a pretty good run. I had not lost to a single American in competition, only falling to champions from other countries who had travelled to the United States to compete. This tournament would decide who qualifies for the World Games the following year. I continued my streak all the way to the gold medal match. I would face off against the previous year’s champion, Roy Sims. He was former college football lineman and MMA fighter. He was four inches taller than me and actually made me look small, but that didn’t matter to me. I was going to win.
We had different styles during our stare down. I looked at him with all the anger and frustration from dealing with depression and anxiety, ready to release it in one throw. He on the other hand was very calm and stoic, like a man waiting in line at the grocery store. We also had different sumo styles. I typically grabbed the belt and went for throws, and he used his football skills and length to shove and push people out of the ring. The tournament was double elimination, so we would have to face each other at least twice.
Our first match, he dominated me. I charged him like a bull, and he simply redirected me and I rolled to the floor. He defeated me so easily that it was embarrassing. There was no way I was going to beat this guy. He was taller, stronger, and actually already achieved success as an athlete. I made a fist in anger, and I felt a sharp pain. I looked at my left hand, my dominant hand, and my ring finger was broken. Our second match was a foregone conclusion.
We faced off again. Roy crouched calmly. I tried to look intense, but I had already given up in my mind. I was thinking about how I would congratulate him, shaking his hand with my broken finger, for winning a gold medal two years in a row.
“HAKIYOI!” We collided. Roy shoved me in the face to keep me at a distance, but I took it and powered through it. With my left hand, I reached under his right arm and grabbed his belt. He pressed me back with all his might. Just like my first ever sumo match, I turned outward and threw him to the ground. I finally brought the big man down. The crowd was cheering! Then I heard, “And still champion!” They were cheering for Roy. He had pushed me back too far, so I stepped out of the circle first before the throw. I had lost. I sat there on my knees for a moment and thought, It’s okay.
I lost to a better man, and I was proud of myself for making it this far. Silver was nothing to be ashamed about. I had turned my situation into something positive. My size was no longer an embarrassment, but a badge of honor to call myself a sumo wrestler. And I wasn’t done. The World Games takes the top two wrestlers from each country, so I was going to get to represent my country on the world stage.
On July 19, I arrived in Wroclaw, Poland, host city for the 2017 World Games. I walked out in front of an entire stadium full of people during the opening ceremony. I felt like crying, but I held it inside. Perhaps I wasn’t the best wrestler in the world, but I proved that I could make something of myself athletically. I panned the crowd as the sun went down and witnessed the flashbulbs flicker across the sea of people. I always imagined this sight when I was a kid, and it was surreal to finally achieve it. I was here.
The next morning, I looked at the match list. I would face the Egyptian champion, who was a tank. He outweighed me by 100 pounds, and he was ten years younger than me. I thought, Well, at least I can say I competed at the World Games. This was a big event, so it would be televised and receive news coverage.
They called my name, and the crowd erupted. I am of mixed ethnicity, but I have a Polish surname. I could feel the crowd was behind me. A surge of energy and strength entered my body. I looked across at my opponent, and realized he is just another person, and I can beat him. His strategy was to use his weight to charge forward, and I decided I would beat him at his own game. I would smash into him with all my might and see who was truly stronger.
It was him.
We collided and I bounced off him like he was a wall, almost falling to the ground. He also lost his balance due to how easily he shoved me out of the way. I moved towards him and grabbed his belt, trapping one of his arms. He was so strong! He was walking me back out of the circle. I fought the best I could, shifting my weight and stance back and forth, trying to redirect him. It was no use. I was sliding backwards. My left foot reached the boundary rope and stopped his momentum. He freed his trapped arm and struck me in the neck, which I used as an opportunity to spin him around. I put my palm on his face, and shoved him out of the ring and onto the floor. I stood there, exhaling adrenaline. I had won.
This was my sole victory at the World Games, but I had very spirited matches and earned the respect of the crowd. This would also be my last sumo tournament, as life took me in another direction. I made it to the world stage and showed I belonged, which opened other opportunities. I appeared on the news a few times, in a Toyota Japan commercial, an independent film in the United States called Sushi Tushi, and even got to be a minor character for an Indian film titled Majha Agadbam. After all this, I decided to go back to my old life, but I was forever changed. I cut my hair off and returned to teaching, but this time in Shanghai, China, where I currently teach.
Some people think everything happens for a reason, that I needed this depression and weight gain to kick-start this amazing adventure. I, for one, don’t believe that at all. I personally think that it is an unhealthy version of positive thinking. Not everyone makes it out of true despondence, and I find it disrespectful for those who have not.
I have a very different outlook on positive thinking. The idea that “everything will be okay” is not true, at least not in the way people mean it. I still struggle. I still take my medication. I still battle my weight. I could not be the husband that I needed to be emotionally, which led to divorce. Mental health coverage in China is lacking, so my medication is very expensive. Everything is not okay. Instead, I accept that life will have lots of ups and downs. I have depression, and it will never fully go away. But I learned that I don’t need to be embarrassed about anything, and there are others out there who actually understand the pain that I am going through. I choose to believe that I am capable and strong enough to deal with my mental health challenges, manage them, and live a fulfilling life.
Having both physical and creative outlets are fantastic ways harness the darkness of my mind into fulfilling activities. The one thing that depression has done for me is created an unusual sense of bravery. When you are at the bottom, and there is nowhere to go but up, you have nothing to lose. That can be a double-edged sword but, if approached correctly; you might go down some very interesting paths that you might otherwise have been too afraid to explore. I decided to be open to strange ideas, new opportunities, and to live as much as I can. I will never be “normal” again, whatever that means. But within the cards that I was dealt, I can move forward and do amazing things.
Thank you, Eeshan.