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How pro wrestling helped improve my mental health

Pro Wrestling

How pro wrestling helped improve my mental health

A story of Thesz, throat-chops, and therapy.

I’ve been very open about my feelings that 2016 is probably the greatest year in modern wrestling. It’s an opinion I hold so strongly that I wrote my very first AIPT article about it. But alas, dear readers, I have to admit that I’ve been keeping something secret from you.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly wrestling podcast, PTW!

Yes, 2016 was the year where I discovered New Japan, PWG, Lucha Underground, and all of British wrestling. Sure, it was the year where Cody Rhodes began his worldwide tour of every wrestling promotion. It was the year of the Gift of Jericho, Dean Ambrose becoming WWE Champion, Shinsuke Nakamura’s NXT debut, the greatest Survivor Series match ever (you want to fight about it?), and wrestling generally being good to great across all brands.

But another big reason why 2016 is my favorite year in wrestling is because, in 2016, my love of professional wrestling was one of the only things I had going for me.

Story time. (With Adam Cole.) (BAY-BAY.)

In October 2015, I moved back to America from my high school in Japan just a few weeks into senior year. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it was definitely a huge blow to my momentum as a socialite. I fell off harder than Dolph Ziggler after 2014’s Survivor Series.

I was suddenly in a different country than all of my friends, and the 13-hour time difference made it impossible to keep a rhythm going. Of course, I was an idealistic 17-year-old, so I tried to brave through the limitations of time and space and keep those fires aflame. It obviously fell apart, and a pain that I should have dealt with and handled back in October instead festered inside of me and took [checks notes] three years to recover from.

Now, if it were 2021 Darius, I could say out loud and proud that I needed to see a therapist to help me reprocess my emotions. This was the first big thing that I couldn’t go to my family about since the move was rough on everyone, and not only did I want to refrain from piling more onto the family’s list of burdens, but I’d also been repeatedly telling myself that my problems weren’t a big deal. Every military brat moved at inopportune times, and other people were fighting for their lives on a daily basis. I told myself that no one needed to listen to whine and that I could handle it by myself — though, clearly, I was wrong on both accounts.

2015 Darius thought he was right to shut his trap, though, and I didn’t go to see a counselor until 2019 — and despite going to talk about much worse and more “current” stuff that was happening in college, we still came back around to the Japan move because it was a big deal.

During those four years, though, I wasn’t just suffering. I was sad and quiet about why, but I had a lot of huge moments of joy between that move and my eventual I-need-to-see-a-therapist breaking point. Many of those were personal joys of life, but I’m going to be real: most of the things keeping me going day-to-day were related to professional wrestling.

I’d become a wrestling fan right before I moved away from North Carolina in 2011, and while I was pretty into it, it wasn’t like I liked wrestling any more than I liked Dragon Ball Z and Marvel Zombies. I was a 12-year-old boy. Most things that I liked were akin to obsessions.

But Dragon Ball Z wrapped up before I was born (I can’t believe that’s true) and Marvel Zombies was more of an event than a regular series. Wrestling was on every week, and it came from all of these different companies with different styles, and you could GO TO IT. I couldn’t just go to the Cell Games — though that’s probably for the best. But I could go to the Royal Rumble and freak out when my then-favorite wrestler, Chris Jericho, returned pretty much just for me. Yeah. We’re tight like that.

Going to wrestling was less of a thing in Okinawa, but when I came back to North Carolina in 2016, the first genuinely good memory I made was two months later when my family went to go see a WWE Live Event in Fayetteville.

NXT Women’s Champion Bayley made a surprise “debut” to team with Becky Lynch against Sasha Banks and Naomi. Neville hit a Red Arrow basically in slow motion. Braun Strowman beat Damien Sandow while I was out buying a Dean Ambrose T-shirt and a Connor’s Cure bracelet. In the main event, Kevin Owens lost his Intercontinental Championship match to Dean Ambrose via DQ, but it was cool because Dean hit a Dirty Deeds afterwards.

I went home full of joy and soda, and I walked away with an ill-fitting Roman Reigns glove and a signed poster of Dean Ambrose that still sits on my wall today.

So, of course, I went all-in on wrestling, and wrestling went all-in on me.

Styles’ Rumble debut. Money in the Bank promo. WhatCulture Pro Wrestling. I’ve talked about all of this before, but what cannot be understated was just how much I needed wrestling at the time. It was normalcy that I otherwise rarely experienced.

I started to make friends again, but I wasn’t 100% sure that they liked me or that I even liked them. I had a girlfriend for once, but I felt like she was pitying me. I’d been pretty confident in my writing for years, but I finally started to wonder if that was any good — and it wasn’t, but I’d get better, and it wasn’t as awful as I feared.

Years later, my therapist told me that I have what the kids call, “anxiety.” I can’t let a good thing be good, and I have to inspect every tooth and tastebud in the gift horse’s mouth. Now it’s not just a passing teenage sadness. Now every smile I see is either sarcastic or a held-back sneer. Everyone who hears me speak is going to tell their whole family over dinner how much of a stuttering goofball I am. Applying for career jobs is just an invitation for people to reject me. I laugh off my minor mistakes in the moment, then spend two hours staring at the ceiling each night just thinking about them.

I overanalyze everything I look at, and I’m incapable of putting a thought behind me until I’ve discussed it at length.

You know what’s a perfect outlet for over-analyzation not just because it’s generally all in good fun but also because it makes me appreciate it a lot more?

Pro graps. Sports entertainment. Violent theater. “Redneck anime.” Professional wrestling.

I can sit back, watch an episode of AEW Dynamite, and go, “Hey, that was a good show. Darby Allin is really cool and Miro is really scary.” But then there’s the question of, “What’s next?” “What is AEW’s general plan for both men?” “Who are they going to sacrifice to Miro at the pay-per-view in three weeks?” “Are Darby and Sting just going to continue to wander around and be moody?”

Sure, it gets a little more negative as it goes along, but it doesn’t keep me from going back to it and enjoying it, and it’s those types of questions that keep wrestling on my mind throughout the week. There are wrestling programs on like a dozen channels, and they span multiple countries, all with their own bubbles and histories and strengths and weaknesses. I never run out of wrestling to consume, and it keeps me from thinking about a world in which wrestling goes under. The unshakeable beast that is the WWE makes pro wrestling one of the only things in my life where I think, “Well, this is in my life forever.”

Pro wrestling straight-up beats my anxiety. It’s crazy.

Of course, watching oily men do the angry tango can only do so much for my well being. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and a large part of that is destigmatizing therapy, which is why I want to hammer home how important therapy can be for you and has been for me. I thought I only had two or three “big problems,” but just speaking to a trained professional about my life in general, I’ve been able to open up about so much smaller stuff that has been chipping away at my spirit. There’s never been a superkick well-executed enough to outdo what my therapist has done for me, and that’s coming from a guy who loves a good superkick and also isn’t a “serious case” who’s been a threat to myself or anyone else. Therapy just works, champs.

But wrestling was there for me during a down period in my life, and it bridged the gap between me realizing that there was a problem and finally deciding to do something about a growing litany of woes.

Watching NXT kept me from realizing how truly sad and lonely my 18th birthday was (I was watching the WWE Network on my phone alone in a McDonald’s booth, y’all). Combined months inside WWE 2K16-19’s character creators gave me a world to immerse myself in when the real world (particularly news about other Black kids my age) sent me spiraling into my first panic attack. A Bullet Club shirt and a well-timed, “Too Sweet!” got me my first newspaper gig, which eventually brought me to AIPT, a community that made up the majority of my friend group during a global pandemic that really put a damper on my entry into the adult world.

Wrestling isn’t my whole life, but it is a big part of it, and it always happens to show up stronger than ever when everything else is at its worst. I’m grateful that a few superkick parties can at least keep me grounded in the months between therapy sessions.

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