Words: Daan Westra Pictures: Philipp Schmidt
Depression: A mental illness that is not easily discussed, nor understood. For nine years Guido Lux suffered from chronic depression, called dysthymia. Although it is characterised by less severe depression symptoms, they typically last a lot longer, which is the reason it’s considered to be just as much of a handicap as a ‘normal’ depression. Having gone through hours of therapy the deeply rooted problem seemed hard to solve, until he found Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and life started looking up again. Jiu Jitsu Style sits down with Guido as he tries to explain his condition and the role of BJJ in his recovery.
JJS: Guido, thanks for taking the time to talk to us! We understand BJJ has done a lot for you in the past year. Could you explain how you got started in our sport and how it has helped you on your way to recovery?
Guido: My depression had me stuck with a negative self-image. I was about 15 kilograms overweight; in really bad shape and had a constant feeling of inferiority. It made me really anxious about going to class. Add to that the usual hurdles of BJJ such as slow initial progress, everybody being in great shape, and the whole class being more technically skilled and you can imagine it was a tough start. Because of my depression, I constantly told myself I couldn’t do it, never would be able to and that it wasn’t worth my while. Especially since I was literally seeing stars during warm-up sometimes. Worst of all, I blamed it on myself. Therapy gradually taught me to stop that. Everybody has to start somewhere, there’s no use in being ashamed, let alone blaming myself. I learned to be proud of myself for wanting to battle the depression and my physical condition; in short, myself. Without combining BJJ with intensive therapy though, I’d probably still be depressed. Jiu Jitsu is not a miracle pill. In fact, if it was it probably wouldn’t work.
JJS: With all these ‘regular’ obstacles for starting BJJ, plus your personal issues, how did you approach training when you were just getting to know the sport?
Guido: The first step to was to inform my professor about my condition. He was really understanding and supportive. It calmed me that he knew why it seemed like I didn’t want to train, when actually I did. And that he was aware that I just couldn’t push myself as far as others. This alleviated a lot of the pressure I put on myself. I didn’t care that much about taking multiple breaks during training anymore. I knew that if I just showed up every class, the breaks would become less frequent. Slowly but surely I also started to feel the effect of BJJ on my mental state. Before, somewhere deep inside I knew there was no reason to be ashamed, but now I actually started to feel it too. The support and understanding I got from my professor and training partners made me feel accepted again, without trying to be someone else. I opened up; I could be me again, be proud of who I was without feeling inferior.
JJS: It seems like the initial effects of just starting to train BJJ were great. What was the biggest eye-opener for you?
Guido: It dawned on me when I saw a purple belt, who I looked up to, tap in class. I realised that nobody is Superman. No matter how good you are, nobody is invincible. So there’s no use in comparing your skills to someone else’s. It felt like a huge step, since my depression had me in a constant state of inferiority. I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you keep improving. I started to set small goals, not only for my BJJ game but also for my depression. Like trying to survive the warm-up or just talking to someone I hadn’t talked to before. They were little things, but they gave me an enormous feeling of progression.
Mind-set is everything. By adjusting my thought patterns to my situation, I made things a whole lot easier on myself. I learned to appreciate and enjoy the little victories. I finally understood that we are all on our own path; we all have our own talents and weaknesses. Beating my depression became my main goal, not beating everybody in class. Because beating your own fears and weaknesses is the most important and the hardest victory you can achieve.
JJS: You have been training for a while now, and passed that first ‘awkward’ phase of taking up Jiu Jitsu. How did you proceed?
Guido: The final step to recovery just happened naturally. It was to keep on training. I was almost fully recovered and BJJ gave me so much joy that the anxiety disappeared. Instead, there was a yearning to train, to get to the mat. My therapist called it “a rarely seen snowball effect”. On my bad days, when I used to want to stay home, I wanted nothing more than to train. Going to class had become a habit, maybe even a mild addiction. I felt stronger, more confident and healthier after training, and I wanted to enjoy that feeling as often as possible!
JJS: The burning question: Are you completely recovered now and was it due to Jiu Jitsu?
Guido: At this point I am fully recovered and feeling stronger than ever! I lost 20 kilograms and I am in the best shape of my life. Hearing people’s reactions after they haven’t seen me for a while fuels my positivity. They ask: “How in heaven’s name did you do that!?” and I’ll reply: “I’ve fallen in love with a beautiful sport, one where people treat each other in a great way. The perfect place to train your body and mind.” People say they understand, but their puzzled looks say otherwise. I forgive them, because I never imagined BJJ becoming this important to me either. The sport taught me to stay cool in situations that seem desperate at first glance and that slow progress is progress nonetheless. It made me realise that everyone has room for improvement, always. Most importantly jiu jitsu gave me back the joy of living. In part because of how much I enjoy practising the art, but even more so, because it’s such an important tool for me to get (and stay) healthy. Meeting some awesome people on the mats, some of whom have become real friends, was a big plus as well!
JJS: You recently started competing. How did it go and what role did your (former) condition play in signing up to compete?
Guido: Just being able to compete is the clearest sign of recovery. A year ago, my self-doubt and lack of confidence would never have let me get close to focussing on something so mentally stressing. However, I learned to relax and face the challenge. Signing up for my first tournament was still a huge step for me though, because I didn’t feel completely ready. But then again, who does for their first tournament!? I started viewing competition as a learning opportunity. I lost my first match by one advantage, but it went a lot better than expected, plus it was such a rush. I was insanely proud of myself for stepping out there and I felt stronger than I ever felt before! With some more mat hours under my belt, I felt more confident going into my second tournament which gave me less pre-tournament jitters. I managed to win 4 matches that day and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of my first ever medal in jiu jitsu!
All in all, having to recover from such a life-changing condition made me mentally strong. Not a lot of things compare to staring your own fears right in the face and fighting them. People say you can’t teach heart. Maybe not to someone else, but I am convinced that through certain experiences in life you can teach it to yourself…
From the therapy room to the mats, what BJJ taught me:
· Decreasing anxiety. Informing my professor decreased the initial anxiety I had when going to class. I started to see that in the beginning everyone struggles with BJJ. I became proud of myself for sticking with it, despite my physical and mental condition.
· Adjusting my unhealthily critical self-image. BJJ teaches you to deal with losing. You get mauled when you first start. It taught me that it is ok to ‘fail’, as long as you learn from it, which helped me a lot in adjusting the opinion I had about myself. Nobody’s perfect and nobody will ever be perfect!
· Listening to myself. The most important thing in life is chasing your own happiness. Other people’s opinions are irrelevant to a certain extent; you are the only person who needs to be happy with your choices. BJJ became my anti-depressant making me confident enough to listen to myself.
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