I’m a student. I spend my days listening, thinking, learning, absorbing. At school, I’m quiet. I’m reflective. I’m reserved. I slowly and methodically think through everything. My only priority during the school day is to fill my brain with as much knowledge and insight as I possibly can. And that’s what I do. I quietly sit and listen. All day long.
But that isn’t sustainable. I’m not a naturally quiet person. I’m not reserved. I can only absorb so much. After classes finish for the day, I need to make noise. I need to act. I need to not think. Fortunately, I have an effective outlet for that.
I’m a fighter. I train Muay Thai and mixed martial arts (mma). When I’m training, there is no room for reflection. No time to think. I have to take action. React. When I’m doing it right, I forget what day it is. I forget if I have an exam coming up. I forget everything. I don’t think. It’s an amazing feeling. It balances me. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to sit and absorb all day.
Of course, fighting has its dangers. My worst fear is that I end up getting hit in the head and can’t think clearly, or can’t learn or have trouble remembering things I’ve learned. It’s a scary prospect. I do everything I can to avoid this. I’ve already passed up two excellent opportunities to compete because it was too close to finals. Competing almost guarantees that I’ll get hit in the head really hard.
Even more importantly, I try to make sure I train with people I trust. But this has been a little difficult because I’ve fairly recently moved to Portland and started training at a new gym. I stay away from the people at the gym who I think might be extra aggressive or angry or have something to prove, but really, I’m baselessly judging and guessing.
Mostly, I just cross my fingers and hope the person I’m about to spar with doesn’t want to knock my head off. After a few months of training at the new gym, I felt like I had enough respect to start relaxing a little bit with my choice in sparring partners.
One evening, during my winter school term, things were particularly stressful for me and I needed to train. I went to the gym during a time I’m not normally there. It was a totally different group of people training. There was one guy I recognized. I paired up with him. He was a little bigger than me and looked to be a little less experienced, but he seemed nice enough.
After about 30 minutes of practicing techniques back and forth, the coach told us to do some live rounds. One person starts out on his back and the other one lightly simulates punches from on top while the bottom guy tries to reverse the position.
Light, simulated punches. An important stipulation because we were wearing mma gloves. They are not very padded and getting hit with them feels like getting hit with rocks. It hurts.
I started out in the bottom position. It only took a few seconds into the first round for me to realize that he was trying to hit me much harder than I am comfortable with. At first, I tried to tie up his arms and hold onto him, but he was stronger than me. He kept getting his arms free and throwing big punches that were coming really close to hitting me.
I flipped him over to his back and decided to hold him down for the rest of the round, then either switch partners or go home. I was successfully holding him down for a while, but towards the last minute of the round, I noticed he was getting really angry. Great. Trying to hold down a cranky dude who outweighs me by 20 pounds was not how I wanted to spend my evening.
I made a mistake in my position and he flipped me over. Not good. The instant I landed on my back, he threw a big hay-maker right hand at me while I tried to flip him back over. As I was flipping him, his right hand hit me square on the ear and very briefly knocked me out. It was like a long blink. It took me a second or two to regain my composure, but I realized I was on top of him, so I held him there.
When the bell rang at the end of the round, he said, “Get off of me!” He stood up and started pacing back and forth while I knelt on the mat wondering how much of my very expensive education just got knocked out of my head.
A sudden and vivid memory overwhelmed my thoughts.
“Little boy! Come here!” some lady in a car angrily said. She had dark, curly hair and olive skin. We were in the neighborhood I grew up in. It was summer. Afternoon. Not a cloud in the sky. There was a soft, warm breeze. I could feel the sun on my face and a little bit of sweat beneath my backwards baby-blue Yankees hat. I was 13 years old, slowly riding my bike around a cul-de-sac, wearing shorts, waiting for Eric to meet up with me.
I rode my bike nervously towards her car. She was parked on the side of the street, her arm dangling outside of the rolled-down driver’s side window. “Yeah?” I said.
“Little boy, did you just stick your middle finger up at me?” she furiously asked, her dangling arm now pointing at me. She was staring right into my eyes with a mean look on her face.
“What? No.” I was confused and scared, but I couldn’t look away from her. Why would she think I stuck my middle finger up at her? Am I in trouble? I didn’t do anything. Where’s Eric? This sucks. Please don’t yell at me. Just let me go home.
“Hey, I’m really sorry about that.” I was snapped back to reality. Back on my knees at the gym. The guy that hit me was standing over me. I looked up at him.
“Sorry, what did you say?” I asked. My ear was ringing.
“I’m really sorry. I got so frustrated. I lost control. That was terrible and I wish I didn’t hit you like that. I’m sorry. Are you ok?” He was completely sincere. I saw in his face that he truly felt awful.
“No worries. It happens. I’m fine,” I said as I stood up. But I wasn’t sure I was ok. I was done training for the night.
On my bike ride home, my head started pounding and my thinking was a little cloudy. That random memory replayed over and over in my head. I kept seeing the angry woman’s scowling face while she was saying, “Little boy!” I haven’t thought about that moment for 15 years and suddenly it was all I could think about. And it was more than a memory. I felt it. Guilt. Fear. Helplessness. Confusion. I wanted to know what it meant.
When I got home, I decided that it didn’t mean anything. I had a concussion. I pulled out all of my class notes from the week before and started reading through them. Everything looked familiar. I knew when my next exams were. I knew what classes I had the next day. I checked my vision. I could see. I could touch my nose with my eyes closed.
Ok. I was fine. I definitely had a concussion, but it was mild. At its worst, it might be a little difficult to concentrate for a few days. I had over a week before my next exam, though, so I wasn’t worried. I decided to take some time off from training to make sure I didn’t get hit again and go easy on the studying for a couple days. No problem. I showered and went to sleep.
The next morning, my headache was gone but something was different. I saw the weather on the morning news while I was eating breakfast and thought, “Another cold, rainy day in stupid Portland. I hate it here.” It felt weird to think that. I don’t usually have those types of thoughts.
On my walk to school, I was questioning why I was even going to class. I could just stay home and read this stuff on my own and not have to deal with all this crap.
What? I loved school yesterday. I’ve never not wanted to go to class before.
I got to class a few minutes early and the professor was talking to me. He’s brilliant and I always look forward to his insights. But not this time. I just wanted him to shut up. I was thinking, “Why are you still talking to me?”
My brain officially raised a red flag. I wasn’t scared or concerned. I wasn’t questioning what happened to my attitude. It was simply that the things I was thinking and saying and feeling were different than they were the day before. My brain recognized that I was acting differently than yesterday and thought people might notice.
I forced myself to fill my head with positive thoughts. “Happy. I’m happy. I love school. I’m excited to be here. It’s great to talk to my professor. He’s so insightful. I love school. I’m happy. Things are great. I’m excited. I can’t wait to talk to my classmates. Everything is great.”
It worked. I was able to have pleasant conversations. I was able to enjoy class. But the instant I became distracted and stopped forcing myself to have positive thoughts, it all went away.
When I stopped paying attention, my thoughts went to a dark place. It was like trying to consciously take deep breaths. It’s easy, but the second you stop thinking about taking deep breaths, you go back to your default breathing, whatever that might be. And it appeared my new default brain setting was misery and anger.
I struggled, but I kept up with my happiness mantras. It became easier and easier. The negative thoughts began to fade away over the next 5 days. A week later, my usual Buddy-the-Elf attitude was completely restored.
The scariest part of my 5 days of depression was the fact that it wasn’t scary. I was generally ok with it. I worked so hard on my happiness mantras only because I didn’t want it to appear that I’d changed. When I was stuck in the cycle of negative thoughts, I only dug myself out of it because I didn’t want to rock the boat. The happiness mantras felt good and helped tremendously, but I didn’t miss them when I wasn’t doing them. I had to constantly force it.
Throughout those 5 days, I always had a sense that I knew I could be happy if I wanted to be, but I didn’t see the point. I didn’t care. I didn’t need to be happy. It felt as if being happy was to ignore the fact that this is an ugly world. Being happy was pretending that life is not miserable. Being happy was a lie. I suddenly understand why saying, “Just be happy!” to someone is completely meaningless.
It wasn’t until I looked back on my experience that I realized how frightening it really was. The definition of who I am, my attitude, my personality, is not permanent. It can change. I can change. And I don’t think I’m completely in control of it. Scary.
I regularly have people trying to punch me in my head so I often think about the consequences of getting hit. It never occurred to me that someone could knock the happiness out of me. But I still fight. It’s dangerous, I know. The benefits outweigh the risks for me. Although, I’ll probably do a better job of covering my head from now on.