By Kim Constantinesco
The healing power of sports often flies under the radar.
We all fight wars inside of our own heads, but for those living with mental illness, their battles can be debilitating.
Erin Herle knows the pain. The 27-year-old freelance journalist from Chatsworth, Calif. has generalized anxiety disorder, a condition characterized by excessive worry and anxiety, even when there’s no apparent reason for concern.
She was first diagnosed in 2008. A year later, she found jiu-jitsu, a form of martial arts where the focus is on grappling, or combat on the ground. Today, she’s a rising brown belt, and she credits the sport for injecting her with a consistent dose of confidence.
“It’s knowing what your body is capable of,” Herle said. “When you’re able to physically overpower someone else and you can make them submit to your will, it’s super empowering, especially for a female. It’s basically having control over yourself and having this self awareness that’s really huge.”
Unfortunately, as Herle was hitting the mat and lassoing her own anxiety, her father’s longtime suffering with mental illness came to an end. He shot himself in the family’s garage.
Rather than lose herself in the tragedy, Herle rallied. Just two months after her father died, she started #SubmitTheStigma to raise awareness for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders within the jiu-jitsu community. The goal is to shed the shame and make mental health just as much a priority as physical health.
In With The ‘Out’ Crowd
Herle was never an athlete before she found jiu-jitsu. She tried out for cheerleadering during her senior year of high school, but failed to make the team.
“We had this week long tryout where we had to run a mile every day and do group exercises,” she said. “I had trouble carrying my backpack and walking around school. My legs would actually give out because I never did anything physical. I thought people who exercised were people who just enjoyed it. I thought that eating healthy was a choice that only ‘healthy-minded people’ made. I didn’t know it was for everybody.”
She was a longtime girl scout, and a self-described “reject” as a teen. She was into the music scene. She didn’t play anything, but attended hardcore shows on a regular basis because she felt like she fit in with the crowd.
“In that environment, there’s a lot of people who are deemed ‘weirdos’. That’s what I identified with — kind of being rebellious against society and knowing I was more emotional than people; a little more sensitive, and that’s how I could relate to these people.”
She also experienced a lot of anxiety in social settings. If she was introduced to a new group of friends and felt like they didn’t automatically accept her, she assumed the entire world was against her.
“I grew up online, where you have to really show who you are,” Herle said. “My mom used to get mad at me because that’s not how you build relationships. You build them face-to-face, where people can see your intent and your facial expressions. She always thought a lot of my issues came from that; a lot of miscommunication.”
Finding The Mat
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one-in-five Americans experience mental illness in a given year, and 16 million people in the U.S. live with major depression.
In addition to anxiety, Herle was experiencing severe lows and suicidal thoughts. She was too afraid to see a therapist at the time. So in 2008, she found a paid anxiety study online. She was screened and given either a new drug or a placebo.
“I liked it because I could tell people I was doing it for money,” Herle said. “It was somehow okay. I was screened and they accepted me. I still don’t know if they gave me the placebo or the real medication. But, that’s when I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.”
She began seeing a therapist, but still didn’t want to take medication. At the same time, she met a guy at a concert who was planning on attending a jiu-jitsu tournament that weekend. She tagged along.
“I saw women competing. I had always been a tomboy and liked to roughhouse with my guy friends, so I knew that I could fall into the sport pretty easily,” Herle said. “I knew rolling around with dudes on a mat, I couldn’t be judged because everyone is in weird positions trying to choke each other. I was looking for something that was my thing.”
She competed in her first tournament three months after she started training, and her network of support grew thanks to supportive coaches and training partners.
It was a slow transformation, but Herle finally started calling herself “an athlete.” She prided herself on training, recovering properly, and working hard. And, her symptoms were more manageable to boot.
Herle’s world, although busy, was full of good things. In addition to training, she began working for Gracie Magazine, graduated from college, and moved to Montclair, NJ with a boyfriend.”
Life was moving along comfortably until until one fateful phone call in the middle of the night. It was July 2015 and Herle was startled awake. It was her aunt delivering the gruesome news that her father had just killed himself.
Herle’s father had been afflicted with mental illness for much of his life. He struggled to even leave the house. In fact, after he broke his leg, he didn’t want to return to the doctor’s office to have the cast removed, so he sat in a bathtub and had Herle help him saw it off with a steak knife.
“He was really rather multidimensional,” she said. “He was smart, talented and loving, but he had a lot of issues.”
Herle had seen a major decline in his ability to function over the years, but she never thought it would end that way. In fact, her father got a haircut, lost weight, and seemed to be more productive right before it actually happened.
“The only reason for all of that was he gave himself a death date,” Herle said. “Right before people take their own lives, they try to make things right.”
Herle flew back to California after receiving the news. She went through a phase where she couldn’t sleep by herself, so she slept in her mom’s room for two weeks.
In that time, she read a book called, Fatherless Daughters: Turning the Pain of Loss into the Power of Forgiveness.
“It’s about how most women will make big changes in their lives after their fathers pass away. My big change was going on anti-depressants,” Herle said. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I told my psychologist, ‘Look, I’ve got suicide in my family. That makes me more susceptible to suicidal thoughts.’ I wasn’t suicidal, but I definitely wasn’t functioning. If I don’t want to get up in the morning, that’s a key sign of depression. Anti-depressants were the only thing that brought me out of it.”
Two months after her father died, Herle created #SubmitTheStigma. She had been waiting for an opportunity to help others who were in similar shoes. So, she recruited her mom and her sister to help get the awareness campaign off the ground.
“As an athlete, it’s normal to take care of yourself,” Herle said. “You go to the chiropractor, you go to an orthopedic surgeon if something happens to your bones or your joints, you take supplements, you work out, but no one really pays attention to the mind. Making sure you don’t have negative self talk is so huge in sports.”
She wanted #SubmitTheStigma to promote connecting with others and developing a bond. Thus, the hashtag is every bit part of it.
“Mental illness is so common. Pretty much everyone is affected by it,” Herle said. “You feel really isolated and alone when you’re struggling with a mental illness, so just knowing that someone else is going through the same thing and that you’re cared for is key.
#SubmitTheStigma put on a couple of seminars this fall for the jiu-jitsu community featuring a representative from the National Alliance on Mental Illness who spoke about mental illness and the organization. All proceeds went to NAMI, which provides support for individuals, families, and/or friends who are living with someone who has a mental illness.
As for Herle, she recently took a mental health first aid course from MentalHealthFirstAid.org, to get certified to help someone who is in a mental health crisis.
“In the future, I’d like to become an instructor for mental health first aid,” Herle said. “I’d like to hold classes that pertain to jiu-jitsu instructors and academy owners. That way they can tell when someone needs help and they can handle a crisis. It would be similar to getting CPR certified.”
Ultimately, though, Herle’s message for those in need of help is to go the professional route.
“You may reach out to someone close to you, and that’s a good start, but they likely won’t know exactly what to do to help you. Start with your primary care doctor and go from there.”
Naming ‘it’ is the first step to taming ‘it.’ And, when it comes to mental health, putting a name to symptoms is often the scariest part.
So, #SubmitTheStigma. Get it to tap out and vow never to return.