My name is Rinna Pera, and I’m a fighter. I grew up with a supportive family and strong support system. But even though I was always surrounded by people who love me, I always felt a sense of loneliness, or in reality that I actually didn’t belong anywhere. I have struggled with anxiety and depression from a very young age, but like many other people who grew up in an Asian American household, I didn’t know how to handle it or address it. This led to constant insecurity, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and accepting of toxic relationships that followed me into adulthood.
I found Muay Thai in my early 20’s. Being in the gym was the first time I felt really empowered and strong, where I was able to walk around and be myself without judgment being passed at me. The community built around the sport was unique in the fact that we were always constantly challenging each other to be better and do better, be that in the gym or in life. The idea of having grit, a growth mindset, and the perspective of always being open to being a student was instilled in my everyday values. My coaches at the time, Dave Engel and Joe Chernay, pushed me to compete in my first bout in 2018. I had always identified as the awkward and uncoordinated girl that wanted to stay in the shadows, but Dave and Joe made sure I recognized I was better than that and more than the mediocrity I was settling for in life at the time.
Everyday I wake up. Everyday I wake up.
For a period of time, the worst part of the day was waking up, because it meant that I was still here. Some days felt like I couldn’t breathe, other days all I wanted was to stop breathing entirely. Days felt like I was constantly spiraling, like I was stuck in the corner of a ring and I couldn’t pivot out, but I had to bite down on my mouth piece and just take the hits. I knew my therapist, friends, and family were trying to figure out what was the best way to get through, but I couldn’t hear anyone.
I felt like I was alone, and that I needed to isolate myself before it was acceptable to be around people. No matter what anyone said, I couldn’t feel anything anymore. I have a very clear memory of my brother sitting me down at his dinner table and asking me to “please come back”. I knew what he was talking about, I knew who he was asking me to be, and the only thought running through my head was “I don’t want to fucking be here”, I didn’t want to be anywhere, I wanted to stop existing. I thought that the world wouldn’t accept me if I had fallen back into mediocrity, if I had admitted that I wanted to give up. Everything I did, everywhere I went, it didn’t matter.
I knew I didn’t want to die, but I knew I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I had continuously told myself I wasn’t suicidal, rather, the thought of not wanting to be alive wasn’t real unless I had said it out loud. This led to me calling the suicide hotline multiple times, and sitting with an operator in silence. I carried sleeping pills with me in my bag in case I ever just said “fuck it”. I drove by cliffs at night seeing if there was somewhere I could disappear to. I thought I couldn’t talk to my friends out of embarrassment, these were the friends who love and care deeply about me, but I felt like I was letting everyone down if I admitted how crippling my anxiety and depression were. It felt like the entire weight of the world was on my shoulders, and I was just waiting for the moment to shatter.
I would sit at my desk juggling homework and emails from my job with my eyes swollen from exhaustion. I would read books with tears running down my face trying to still articulate the text while simultaneously reminding myself to breathe. Everytime I felt like breaking, I had the thoughts of knowing that I could not give up and I had to keep going. I spent my class breaks in the bathroom crying so my colleagues wouldn’t see me. I deleted all my social media, I cut contact with most people from home, I couldn’t admit to anyone how much I was struggling, and I felt like I was an absolute disappointment because I did not want to keep going. I wanted to disappear, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror because I would just call myself pathetic over and over again. If I wasn’t crippled from the depression, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep because as soon as my head hit the pillow, my mind would start racing with all the tasks I needed to do, and how even if I complete all those tasks, I still had to wake up and do it again. There was always something, there was always something I could do better, or something I should be doing. “How long can you hold on, is any of this actually worth it? Are you even going to be happy when all of this is over? You’re just going to fuck up the next thing. Would anyone be proud of you if they saw you right now?”, this is a glimpse of the thoughts I was fighting. I started writing post-it notes to myself to combat all my negative self-talk. I was fighting myself, and this round felt like it would never end.
The only place that felt like home, the only place where I left safe at the time was in the gym. There were days where I would sit in my car before training sobbing, there were days where I would finish training and cry on the mats to my teammates. I felt lost but when I was with Muay Thai, I knew I was in the right place. Muay Thai was always there for me, good days and bad days, and I always felt better after hitting something, depression never won inside the gym. My coaches didn’t know what was really going on, in my personal life, or what to say, but they knew how to be there for me through days and nights of training, drilling, and pad work. I had felt so lost and displaced, my depression was screaming at me constantly, and I remember during certain sessions the only thought going through my head was “if you keep moving your depression won’t catch you”. Sometimes your friends from the gym just know you, and those days they ask you to get a snack after training is their way of telling you that your presence and your life is worth spending time with (especially when they’re cutting weight, and offer to buy you fries while they get a salad, special shout out to Selina Flores).
Healing is not linear, like footwork, it’s lateral. No one is ever necessarily healed from depression. Healing and growth is a constant fight, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’re going to eventually get hit with something. But we cannot let the blows from life knock us out of the fight entirely. We are defined by how we rise when we get knocked down, and how much heart we show when we make a comeback. I’ve debated heavily on sharing my story publicly, but when I saw FightStory I felt deeply connected to Angela and Victoria Lee’s vision and purpose of the organization. Ultimately the decision to share my story came from the realization that I wish there was something like this when I couldn’t see the light.
At times I still find myself embarrassed about the depression, and find it difficult to address mental illnesses, but the embarrassment is subjective. Shame is something that society has taught us, and something we all must unlearn and destigmatize when it comes to things like mental health. I am not a psychologist, again I went to business school. However, the more I talk about it with people, the more I recognize the normality and need to bring attention to the depths that depression can take a person. It’s important to speak on our experiences and normalize struggles with mental health regardless of anyone’s background or upbringing. The hardest part of depression is talking about it, and trusting the people you choose to surround yourself with. But understand that the people you choose, will always choose to have you here, even if they don’t know what to say. A new day always begins at midnight, and when it’s dark, it’s the people who care about you who are the ones who will sit with you until we see the light of the new day together.
Following my diagnosis of severe anxiety and MDD, I finished my grad program, and have gotten back into fighting. I currently train out of Pacific Roots Muay Thai in San Diego, and recently competed at the US Muay Thai Open in December. While I never see myself as ever becoming a professional fighter, I’m always going to identify as a fighter rather than a person with depression.
Everyday I wake up and I’m grateful for Muay Thai and the extended family I chose from the community for keeping me motivated during that time and through all phases of my life. Muay Thai has changed my life, then saved it. Since those dark times, I’ve been in therapy consistently, use medication (yes, sometimes they work), and am trying to open up about my experiences with my loved ones. Sometimes I feel the depressive episodes coming back, but I’m stronger than my mental illnesses. Asking for help, talking about your struggles, doesn’t make a person weak, rather it makes them stronger, because it’s harder to address issues than it is to ignore them. My name is Rinna Pera, and even though you’ll never see my name on a pro card, I know I’m a fighter.