Channeling l’Appel du Vide with BJJ, One Day at a Time

Back in the early 90s, Brazilian jiu jitsu athletes all over the world had to depend on VHS tapes or magazines to learn new techniques. They relied on trial and error and the odd trip to established academies to develop their games. Things are much different in 2016. With a click of the mouse, we can not only find any technique we are interested in, we can also talk to other athletes all over the world.

I study BJJ online a lot and I’ve been fortunate to hear some incredible stories about how the sport has changed lives. One of my favorites is that of my friend, Zack Lee (we’ve kept his real name confidential).

​Zack was an opiate addict beginning at the age of 19. For seven years, he battled his addiction until, with the help of his family, he entered rehab at the age of 26. Post-recovery, Lee participated in CrossFit, working hard to make those gains. He was a fan of the Barbell Shrugged podcast and one day, Jon North was a guest. They talked about how much they loved the Joe Rogan Experience and from there, Zack found himself falling down the BJJ rabbit hole: “I was like fuck it, I’ll give it a go.”

This is Zack’s story.

Sally: What led to your addiction to drugs?
Zack: This is a tough one to pinpoint, I think it was an amalgamation of a few things. I think I naturally have an addictive personality, I have to stay vigilant constantly. One of the main contributors to my addiction was depression and social anxiety. Some people can have fun with certain drugs, using them here and there recreationally, but I am NOT one of those people. I started to self-medicate with opiates until it got to a point where I would need them to even function.

Sally: What were you addicted to?
Zack: I started smoking weed occasionally when I was 12, but it never turned into a serious compulsion. Weed just wasn’t my thing. Next came alcohol. I would drink with friends on weekends and at parties – I think my first time getting drunk was around age 14. There were times of excess with drinking, but they weren’t that common.
Then I found opiates. Acquaintances started experimenting with prescription pain killers, but I was pretty adamant in not doing them. I had heard the stories of the damage they caused and knew of their close relation to the big H word, so that was enough to scare me off… for a while. Curiosity got the best of me. I think my first experience with opiates was with vicodins or percocets, I don’t quite remember. My first few sessions I didn’t even like the feeling and I got sick to my stomach from them. Something kept pulling me back to them. After a few times of discomfort the experiences began to get enjoyable.Sally:  What was a day in your life like as an addict?
Zack: A typical day for me as an addict was pretty erratic. When you get to the point of chronic addiction, drugs are the first thing on your mind in the morning even before you open your eyes. Also, you get to a point where the price of your usage outweighs the amount of money you have. I was lucky enough to have decent-paying jobs for most of my time as an addict, but the money you make always ends up being not enough. This is when you have to come up with alternative ways of making money to supplement your habit – dealing, pawning stuff, random side jobs for dealers. I am really lucky to have a clean record after all of that – I’ve never been arrested.

​Sally: What is a day in your life like now?
Zack: A day in my life is pretty normal. I wake up early and go to work like a normal, contributing member of society now. Ha. I try to make it to BJJ every day except Sundays which is my rest day. I’ve also started doing Muay Thai which I’ve been doing Monday through Friday. Weekends are usually the only time that I have any sort of downtime. I like it that way though, I think it’s important to keep busy. That whole devil and idle hands thing, you know?Sally: How did you recover from addiction?
Zack: I was lucky enough to have a means of getting into a great drug treatment center. I was penniless and miserable at the time, so my parents stepped up and got me into a facility. Words can’t express how much gratitude I have for them for being there for me every step of the way. I am still in recovery now as far as I’m concerned, you have to keep working on yourself in order not to take steps backwards.

Sally: How did you rebuild your life?
Zack: ​I’m still in the process of rebuilding, haha. I just try to adhere to the old adage of “one day at at time”. I just try to do my best at my career and with my relationships with people now; I try to put in the work now instead of looking for the quickest reward. I think that was one of the best lessons I’ve learned coming out on the other side of the whole addiction thing. Fast and easy is often times not the best way to happiness, you end up paying for it in the end. I’m also still rebuilding my credit and financial side of things, but as long as I stay the course I know it won’t be hard to iron things out.

Sally: Has BJJ played a role in keeping you on track? If so, how?
Zack: BJJ has played a huge role in my sobriety and my mental health in general. I was really into CrossFit for a while and it will always be dear to me. When I got into BJJ, though, nothing compared. It keeps me centered and present like nothing else I have ever done. It gives me a great outlet to clear my mind and blow off steam. Someone asked me the other day why I like fighting and it was hard to explain on the spot. It’s such a personal and intense thing I feel. I also love the community and respect aspects of it. I am lucky to have awesome training partners and friends at that can physically destroy me in sparring and then hang out afterwards.

Sally: What are your goals in BJJ?
Zack: My goals in BJJ are pretty basic for now, I just want to continue to get better every day. I think as long as I can continue to do that and stay healthy, everything will work itself out. Oh, some gold medals would be nice, too.

Sally: Do you enjoy competition? What was it like competing in your first tournament?
Zack: I love competition. I am a pretty competitive person by nature and I’ve played some form of sport since I was about 5. I was actually less nervous than I anticipated going into my first tournament. It was an awesome experience and it helps having great teammates there to support you.

Unfortunately, Zack experienced a setback last year; he fell back into addiction for ten months before he could pull himself back out. After a month of rehab, he is four months clean again and participates regularly in group therapy. He’s also back on the mats and working harder than ever.

On his return to BJJ, he said, “It feels great to be back, I missed BJJ and muay Thai a lot even when I was out there running and gunning; I never stopped thinking about it. The coaches have been supportive even though most of them didn’t know the exact reason I was absent. They all welcomed me back warmly. All of my old training partners, too, which makes me super grateful and reminds me of how great the BJJ community is. My goal is to have my body weight in medals haha!”

Thank you so much to Zack for sharing his story. I have been inspired by him since I heard about it and I hope it will inspire others to take those first steps towards improving their own lives.

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