"I believe that I don’t deserve to win. I’ve discovered many people with drug, alcohol, and mental health problems who think similarly."
Traditionally, all my life, I’ve been a loser in all the ways you could be a loser, but mostly socially, financially, and professionally. I’m deeply connected to its comforts; this constant state of loser-dom has allowed me to hide at the bottom or dive into it headfirst in dramatic fashion
I played sports all throughout my kid years–baseball, basketball, football, mostly–and showed some flashes of ability but would always collapse when there was real competition or stakes. When faced with the prospect of winning or losing, it’s much easier for me to commit to losing than try to win because the idea of forestalling the inevitable is almost more painful than practicing one of the most essential Four Agreements to “always try my best.”
As I mentioned in a previous essay, I took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu late last summer on the encouragement of a grappling trainer I met through this newsletter named Michael Weetman. I’d always been curious about trying the sport but was content to watch UFC fights from the comfort of my couch and then step into a real-live gym to try a class.
Eventually, I worked up the nerve to do it. But after a few classes, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t fun getting suffocated and hyper-extended and humiliated. I knew how weak-willed and anxious I was–I certainly didn’t need to pay for the added privilege of having strangers strangle me because of it.
BJJ also exposed this other defect that exists in me, something I like to call the “prodigy complex,” wherein I only like to try new things that I could potentially be preternaturally gifted at. My fantasy is that I’ll discover a skillset that will completely alter my life’s path.
I hate to admit I’d indulged in this when I began BJJ. Think about that level of delusion: That my real-deal Brazilian professor with a coral belt who’s competed at the highest levels of the sport would pull me aside on the first day of class — 49-year-old me clad in my cheap nylon running shorts and stretched-out white t-shirt with baby footprints on it my kids gave me as a Father’s Day present, no less — to tell me he “saw something in me” and that he’d be willing to train me for free for the rest of my life to help unlock my unlimited potential. I’ll relieve you of the suspense and reveal no such thing occurred.
But the beauty of the sport is that constant failure is one of its most important tools. Enduring the mental toil of consistently losing–and a high potential for injury–tends to rewire the brains of its practitioners into calmer, more resilient humans. And if you learn to be humble in both victory and defeat, the miracle will happen. Sound familiar? It’s the ideal sport for people in recovery.
I decided that even if I wasn’t any good at it, I needed to stick to it because it would complement my program. So I went two to three times a week, took several private lessons, and committed myself to show up to become something different than the person I was when I walked in there. But I knew I had my limits.
In April, a classmate named Joe wanted to sign up for a BJJ tournament. He had been training only a little longer than I had, but he wanted to test himself and level up. He’s an extraordinarily kind and generous training partner, and I like rolling with him. I was genuinely inspired by his plan but also a little skeptical. But something moved me to commit. “Well, I’ll do it with you then,” I said. He smacked my leg and thanked me.
True to my word, I went home that night and registered for the Jiu-Jitsu World League Tournament in Anaheim on August 19. When I picked the weight class, I chose middle, which required its participants to be no more than 182 pounds and between 46 and 50 years old.
I was 189 when I signed up, which is heavy for me. But in sobriety, food–particularly food loaded with processed sugar–has become one of my new vices. Whenever I can’t sleep, I graze late at night for cookies, candy, or whatever I can get my hands on when I want to escape from my bad feelings.
Even though I signed up for it, I doubted I would follow through. The thought of competing in a BJJ tournament at my age and with my non-prodigious skillset in a colossal gymnasium full of strangers was utterly terrifying. But I know that if I do flake out on this, I’d have to quit the gym altogether because I’d be too ashamed to go back in there ever again. So, instead of plotting out my training plan for the tournament, I thought about what excuse I could use to get out of it.
By June, I’d begun to actively tell people that I’d signed up for a BJJ tournament, allowing myself to marinate in the mini ego boost that occurred when people responded with either shock or genuine admiration for what seemed like an incredibly ambitious goal. Before anyone got too emotionally invested in my plan, I’d quickly hedge and say that I had no chance of winning and my main goal was not to end up paralyzed. I said this to keep expectations low for people but primarily for myself because, as we’ve already established, I don’t know how to win.
In a recent New Yorker article, Jay Caspian Kang wrote about his own losing problem through the lens of his mid-life tennis obsession. He always collapses, even when he’s up in sets or competing against lesser players.
“I try to play tennis every day, but I almost never win, nor do I ever really believe that I will. What meaning can be drawn from this seemingly innate difference in temperament? And what does all my losing say about me?”
He cites several books about tennis, plus the numerous philosophies about winners and losers and how they’re wired differently. Unsurprisingly, fear is a significant factor for both types of people. But the winners use fear catalytically and with great success more often than not. The losers–well, the losers let their own self-doubts bury them.
I, of course, am crippled by self-doubt, but there’s this other component to my losing that is even more destructive: I believe that I don’t deserve to win. I’ve discovered many people with drug, alcohol, and mental health problems who think similarly. And I bet you most of the time, this is because, at a very young age, they were abused or abandoned so cruelly that it’s created this permanent crack in a psyche that can only be repaired through years and years of individualized and group therapy. But who wants to admit that shit out loud? Who wants to solve the mystery of the scream behind the scream?
Six weeks from the tournament, Joe herniated a disc and pulled out of the competition. He wasn’t the only person from our gym to do so, and what was initially supposed to be five of us showing up turned out to be just two.
After that, my anxiety about the tournament spiked from manageable to entirely off the charts. Every single week closer it got to August 19, it felt like my stomach would drop another foot. But I continued the heavy training and added in yoga as well. I purchased a scale to monitor my weight, and two weeks before the tournament, I was hovering around 181. Still, on the day of the competition, you must wear your pajama gi fighting uniform to weigh in, which adds another two pounds. So, I went on a keto diet in addition to all the training.
I stepped on the scale on August 15, which read 176.5 pounds. I was acing all the physical preparation I needed. However, my brain was still telling me every day to give up. I went to bed each night, hoping that the next day something would happen that would force me to miss the event–Covid would be ideal. Or maybe a car accident.
The Friday before the tournament, I listened to a podcast called “My White Belt,” geared explicitly to BJJ beginners. I’ve listened to it a couple of times throughout my training. I zeroed in on an episode from a few months back where a 48-year-old white belt called in to get the host’s opinion about entering a BJJ tournament. The caller said he was considering it but admitted he was scared to death. The advice laid out to him was simple: 85% of people who practice BJJ never enter a tournament, so it’s not required to enjoy the full benefits of the sport.
But then the host added that if fear was the reason not to do it, he needs to think of this as a real opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up. Like a mantra, he recited this Joseph Campbell quote several times: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”
It was corny as hell, but it totally worked on me.
I checked the tournament website to see if there was a time for my match yet. 2:00 p.m. Saturday. There were four men in my bracket. We would each compete in two 5:00-minute matches to determine which three of us would get medals.
Right before the match, you and your coach (in this case, my professor, Mauricio, from the gym) wait in what’s called “the bullpen” until your name is called. About 20 different matches are going on at once, and it’s a very noisy and stressful environment.
Even down there, only minutes away from competing, I still harbored a fantasy of a power outage canceling the entire tournament. Mauricio rubbed my shoulders the whole time and tried to speak words of encouragement to me to calm me down, his thick Brazilian accent giving the moment more cinematic gravitas. “Ah, Ay-G. What do you think of your jiu-jitsu journey so far? ’Tis nice, ah?”
Then my name was called. A woman tied another colored belt around my waist, leading me to the mat. I shook hands with the ref. My opponent was smaller than me, but he was all business, and I was completely intimidated by him. I wondered what he must have seen when he looked at me.
I looked up at the lights again and said a prayer, but they did not explode.
I completely blacked out. I forgot every single jiu-jitsu move, and within 30 seconds, I was on the ground, and my opponent was all over me like a goddamn badger. I tried to flip him off me to the left, then to the right, but he dug his knee into my belly and stopped me from moving right away. I began to panic as I saw the ref’s hand giving him point after point. Eventually, I got flipped over facedown on the mat. I felt my nose begin to pop as he applied more and more pressure. I heard nothing but the sound of my panicked breaths, and then I felt four of his fingers underneath my neck press deeply into my jugular. My eyes got heavy, and I tapped my hand on the mat right before things got more terrible.
Even before the submission, I was down 9-0. I stood there as the ref raised the other man’s hand, and I saw the joyful expression on his face. I was genuinely happy for him. I could tell he wanted to win. The whole thing took about 90 seconds.
As I returned to the bullpen to wait for my next match, Mauricio rubbed my shoulders, and I asked him if we should change the game plan for the next fight. “Ah, Ay-G. Don’t do what you did last time, and you be okay.”
There were about ten minutes between the next match, where I’d face off against the loser from the other bracket for third place. I was content just to let this dude run over me, too. I reminded myself I wasn’t here to win–it was just for the experience. I’d done enough.
My name was called again, and I returned to the mat. I shook the ref’s hand then I shook my opponent’s hand. This guy was also angry-looking. He had fierce black eyes, and his long hair was tied back in a giant bushy ponytail. What on earth was I doing here?
He grabbed my collar immediately and tried pulling me to the ground, but he slipped and fell right on his back. “Oh shit!” he yelled on the way down. And at that moment, I woke up.
I pounced on him, swept his legs out of the way, and passed his guard. I was on top of him now, but he shoved me off, wrapped his legs around my ribs, and began to squeeeeeeeeze. But I didn’t budge. Then he tried to choke me with my own collar, and I felt the tightness on my neck and struggled to work my way out of it. “Don’t let him choke you, Ay-G. No choke! No choke! Move…Move! Elbow down! Move dee leg!”
I looked up at the clock–there was 1:53 left. I had three points, and he had zero. Oh, man.
He used his legs to squeeeeeeze me again. I felt his energy wasting away. Then he returned to the choke again, and it was becoming clear that my only option was to let him continue to attack and run out the clock. There was less than a minute left, but I began to fade.
I ran through a decade’s worth of memories of that life that had launched me to this moment.
“Cocaine…Chinese Fantastico…Gawker…Hulk Hogan…Rehab…”
35 seconds left!
“Florida…A Rice Cooker…200 million dollars…Esquire…”
15 seconds left!
“Julieanne…Ozzy…The House on Belden Drive…Ivey…Levon…Nesta…The Pandemic…”
8 seconds left!
“The Small Bow…Michael Weetman…My Friend Jim……Levon’s Brain…”
5 seconds left!
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES????
All Illustrations by Edith Zimmerman. See more of Edith’s work at Drawing Links.
This is The Small Bow newsletter. It is mostly written and edited by A.J. Daulerio. And Edith Zimmerman always illustrates it. With your support, we hope to have more contributors very soon.
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The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center. — Joseph Campbell