Former WWE Superstar tells her story of surviving mental illness

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Editor’s note: The phone number originally provided for NAMI is incorrect. Please call 732-940-0991 with any questions for the organization. Nerdy. Scrawny. Weak. Impulsive. Ugly. Dirty. Poor. Trashy. Crazy. AJ Mendez Brooks has had all these words shouted at her and even spray painted on her property. “I have been pushed into these hurtful

Jennifer Amato, Managing Editor
Editor’s note: The phone number originally provided for NAMI is incorrect. Please call 732-940-0991 with any questions for the organization.
Nerdy. Scrawny. Weak. Impulsive. Ugly. Dirty. Poor. Trashy. Crazy.
AJ Mendez Brooks has had all these words shouted at her and even spray painted on her property.
“I have been pushed into these hurtful, close-minded boxes even before grammar school,” she said.
So, why did the former WWE pro wrestler decide to use a “verbal wound,” as she calls it, in the title of her New York Times best-selling book?
Because the personality formerly known as AJ Lee wants to prove to everyone that crazy is in fact her superpower.
After more than a decade in professional wrestling, the three-time championship retired to focus on herself, publishing her autobiography “Crazy is My Superpower.” She said it was a far cry from the times of being turned into an action figure, wearing an inflatable Sumo suit and beating up people for a living.
Yet as a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) ambassador, Mendez focused on how a life of mental illness and poverty turned into something positive, while speaking during the NAMI conference on Dec. 2 at the Ramada Plaza Conference Center in Monroe.
Mendez said she and her family were “Jersey gypsies,” moving frequently to avoid paying rent. She said her parents, Robert and Janet, had to decide each month if she, her brother Robbie and her sister Erica were going to have a home, food or clothes.
She said her father was a self-taught mechanic, while her mother was a home health aide – sometimes bringing her children along so they could steal snacks from a patient’s house.
Living check to check, the family would squat in empty apartments or basements, or even squeeze into their car to sleep – with her father parking their baby blue Monte Carlo on different streets so that neighbors wouldn’t notice. Occasionally they would live in a 300-square-foot motel room, with her, her mother and her sister sharing a full-size mattress.
She said she was “mortified” when a girl in her third-grade gym class yelled in front of everyone,” Do you just really like that shirt, because you wear it every day?” recalling how they had few clothes, the same outfits which she would wear for most of her pre-teen and teenage years.
To try to cope with her situation, Mendez said she began to “pretend” – pretend she “didn’t give a crap” or pretend she was strong.
“The answer was clear: I’d have to be a superhero,” she said.
She said she took a spiral notebook meant for schoolwork and instead drew and scribbled, eventually finishing her own comic book starring herself: she was able to see the world, be adventurous and have lots of friends, things that weren’t true in her real life. She said this gave her “peace of mind” and the ability to “escape.”
However, one day she woke up in the middle of the night and went to the bathroom, furiously washing her hands for 10 minutes. She started to hyperventilate once she got back in bed.
“I was terrified. I was shaking. I was sweating. I was uncontrollably sobbing,” she recalled.
This was her first panic attack – though her mother told her to just “stop acting crazy.” So, Mendez said she pretended again, this time that she was OK.
“I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t strong enough to be sane,” she said.
It wasn’t until later on that Mendez said she realized her mother was trying to hide her own depression, and that her daughter’s panic attack meant that “her darkness was spreading.”
Eventually, the family started doing better, and was able to live in an apartment while also having food on the table. However, Mendez said the depression “covered my skin like vines.” She said she would feel heavy and foggy, or have bouts of paranoia.
She turned to video games to feel focused, useful, weightless and happy. She said she could lose herself in a story and see herself through a hero’s eyes. She said the characters were able to fight off darkness, which was important because “in my world, I was crazy.”
At age 17, Mendez decided to apply to film school and was accepted to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University for film and TV writing.
“It would be a way for me to write my own happy ending,” she said.
Yet she said that every story has “tragic twists,” which continued for her six months into her first year of college when her mother was institutionalized. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is a combination of manic and depressive states, or extreme highs and lows.
Mendez said she tried to “stay inside the safe, warm world of make believe,” but she would cry every day and was afraid to see anyone. Then, because of mounting tuition costs, she had to drop out of school – propelling her back into the darkness.
Just a short time later at age 19, Mendez said she overdosed while trying to commit suicide. She was diagnosed at that time with bipolar disorder as well.
“Hitting rock bottom is what truly set me free,” she said. “I was ‘real’ and I could fight it.”
Through therapy and treatment, she said she finally felt peace.
This led her to become her own real-life superhero: putting on Spandex short shorts and fighting bad guys. Her access to “a billion emotions” helped her channel her energy and aggression during wrestling shows. She said she was able to have control in the ring.
But she was told she was “too average” and not sexy enough to perform in the ring – though she said the fans related to her cheap, ordinary clothes, loud mouth and stubborn attitude.
So, she said her answer was to “let her freak flag fly.”
She helped people believe in the possible – succeeding because of, not in spite of, what people considered to be her flaws. She said her “bipolar secret identity” was made into action figures and video games.
“What were once my worst traits were now an interesting part of my alter ego,” she said.
She decided to retire more than two years ago in order to “stop hiding.” Writing her book allowed her to “expose my blood and bones and write about my life with bipolar disorder.”
She said she had allowed her lifelong illness to be her fatal flaw, but decided to “stop the pity party.” She developed a “superhuman ability of empathy,” her anger turned into righteous indignation and she reminded herself to be invincible.
“What was once my shameful secret had become my secret weapon,” she said. “I could walk through fire if it means making my dreams come true.”
She is now spending her time shining a light on mental illness “to let people know that I am bipolar and I am proud.” She wants those suffering to know they are not broken, and can become their own hero.
“Embrace your crazy,” she said.
Besides featuring Mendez’s story, the conference hosted speakers offering information on the newly developed First Episode Psychosis Treatment Centers and on therapeutic interventions for those affected by mental illness.
There was also a tribute to Sylvia Axelrod, NAMI-NJ executive director.
For more information on NAMI, visit www.naminj.org or contact Aruna Rao at 732-940-0991.
Mendez’s book, “Crazy is My Superpower,” is available through Barnes & Noble.
Contact Jennifer Amato at [email protected].