Moving to Edinburgh was one of the hardest moves I’ve ever had to make.
I’ve lived in Nice, Montréal and Indonesia, but this experience was something different…
PART I: Foundations – Managing Your Mental Health
I was in a really vulnerable state when I moved here which I will not go into, but what I will say is that I needed the love and affection that only family or close friends could bring, and that’s not something that you can typically get from people you’ve just met for the first time.
I wasn’t the bubbly, outgoing and comedic Carmela I normally am (**if you’re reading this and we met at the beginning of the year and you’re thinking, ‘But Carmela, you weren’t like this at all!!!’, I promise you, I’m naturally way, way more bubbly than that and feelings/personal tribulations are quite easy to hide). I was a darker, more numb version of myself that was struggling to balance personal recovery and a transition to a whole new country, a new lifestyle (work life versus student life) and a new industry (politics to the marine world) all at the same time. I felt — quite literally — like a fish out of water, fighting against myself and this new environment for a gasp of fresh air.
But in these moments when you’re presented with unideal situations, you have a choice: to continue with the way things are, or to make a change (and work for something better). I chose the latter.
– – –
It was in October when I started looking up ways to drop out of my program while recuperating the most amount of money that I could given that I actually left my program. School was kicking my — and I wasn’t in the best mental state to handle the transition neither from a mental, social nor personal point of view.
I wanted to go home. I felt like I had hit rock bottom. I needed someone to talk to; I needed help… so I looked for it.
I knew at this point that if I wanted to succeed and reclaim my personal determination, I needed professional help because (a) what I needed to talk about and discuss required more than just superficial conversation and I needed the help of a professional who was trained to deal with my issues and was there for solely this purpose; (b) I was looking up ways to give up and walk away from a program that I had worked so hard to get into and a purpose that meant so much to me; and (c) I did not want to give up.
I knew in the back of mind that I did not come this far to only come this far (and neither have you). I knew that if I could just rewire my brain and overcome this personal hurdle that I could potentially and successfully reclaim my life and cross the finish line at the end of August (when the final component of my program would be due [the dissertation]).
I therefore pursued what I thought would be the best solution: professional therapy/counselling.
I applied for and chose to go to one-on-one counselling sessions which the University of Edinburgh offers for free to students at this link: https://www.ed.ac.uk/student-counselling/services. Post-graduate studies are not an easy feat; they are even harder when you’re going through personal situations — but you don’t have to go through them alone. There are people that will listen, that are wiling to help, and who want you to succeed — find these people. Be that professionals, family, or friends. Find people that build you up and genuinely want to and can help you to get back on your feet.
I recognized early on that the ‘aura’ that I was living in was preventing me from performing at my best and building the relationships that I used to make with such ease — relationships that I knew I needed if I was going to make it through this year. I knew that this needed to change, and that I didn’t want to do this alone, so counselling was where I decided to go.
Mental health is an absolutely fundamental foundation and I cannot stress how crucial it is to successful performance, and like any ‘illness’ that you may have, sometimes getting the professional opinion and/or help of a doctor is all you may need. I don’t think that this is anything to be ashamed of, and I think it’s truly beneficial to ask for help.
In sum: I started going to counselling.
I was (thankfully) prioritized. I started counselling sessions less than a week after I had gone in for an initial appointment. This gave me a safe space, and it felt good to honestly and openly speak to someone who was impartial to my situation and who was there to listen. My counsellor then provided me with strategies to help make my situation better.
Before I go on, I also want to stress that a therapist or counsellor will not fix everything. A therapist or counsellor is there to provide you with tools that they know of that can potentially help you to get to where you want to be, but it comes down to you to implement those strategies and do everything in your power to pull yourself to your feet as well. There has to be a genuine desire and effort from your side to want to get better.
With that being said, know that the kinder, more loving, supportive and encouraging you are to yourself, the faster you will recover. Give yourself mercy. Never underestimate the power of positive and loving thinking — especially with regards to yourself.
PART II: Physical Health – My Kickboxing Community
In addition to my personal matters, I was also the only person of colour in my program aside from one woman from Brazil. Naturally, I felt a certain level of exclusion — and this is no one’s fault. This is neither my program mates’ faults who never intentionally nor tried to leave me out, nor is it the fault of the university — it’s just the luck of the draw: who applied and who got in.
But for the first time in my life, I was a minority.
Where I grew up, multiculturalism was a norm. Everyone came from somewhere: my best friend’s mom immigrated to Canada from the Philippines and her dad was an immigrant from Scotland; my other friend’s mom immigrated from Jamaica and his father from Germany; another friend immigrated directly from India — she wasn’t even born in Canada. This was the community that I grew up with and came to know and love, so being the only non-caucasian person in my program or most of the time was really… different.
But growing up an athlete, I knew that sports always made me feel better, and that when it came to sports, it never mattered who you were or where you came from; what mattered was how you performed on the court, on the field, or in this case, in the ring. Sports were a safe space, and what began as a really random and sporadic choice became easily the best decision that I made all year long:
I joined the Kickboxing Club.
I needed stress relief and what better way to relieve stress than to punch and kick pads for two hours straight twice a week? The Kickboxing Club became my escape. I could be having the worst day, but in my mind, all I would tell myself is, “Push to Monday — kickboxing. Push to Wednesday — kickboxing.” All I thought about all those Monday and Wednesday nights was hit the target. Hit the target harder, better, faster, stronger.
Every week, I became a stronger version of myself. I trained consistently and purposefully. I fell in love with the rhythm and flow that came with every punch, kick and combination. I didn’t even consider dropping out anymore because I had kickboxing to look forward to.
The physical progress that I made in the gym then translated into other areas of my life. I started doing better in school, and the people that I trained with began appearing in the library, in the halls, and in my classes (shout out to you, Michaela). We started going out together. We started grabbing breakfast together. These people became my community: friends that I could train with, friends that I could rant with, friends that I could pig out with on allllll the food (yeah, that’s you, Niki). My teammates became the people I could count on, and they stood by me — both literally and figuratively in my corner.
PART III: Victory – Winning National Championships
When I began this training, I never had any inclination to fight. It was never my intention to actually compete. But my teammates believed in me (yes, that’s you, Oskar) until I finally believed in myself.
After persistent encouragement from our Team Captain, I fought my first fight in November. I kept telling him that I wasn’t good enough, that I was a rookie and I had no idea what I was doing but he told me to just try. So I did.
Thanks for believing in me, Oskar.
This win gave me the confidence and motivation to keep kickboxing and to keep up with school.
Now fast-forward to nationals — circa March.
I lost my first fight. I broke my opponents nose in the first round (I swear, it was not intentional; I just had a really, really good shot) so I eased up for the rest of the round while she fought even harder. I fought at that same level for the second and third round. That was a mistake. I lost.
I was pretty disappointed, but — somehow — by the luck of the draw or whatever you want to call it, the organizers screwed up and called me in for a second fight. I got a second chance.
I had already taken all my equipment off and I had to scramble to get everything on again — I didn’t even wrap my hands — but when I got to the fight, I treated it like it was my first. I got in there, and I gave it my all. Each round, I fought with neither a loss nor a win in my head. All I thought about was hitting the target.
The organizers then had to figure themselves out. They called for a rematch with my first opponent and the winner was to be placed in the finals.
Again, this time, I treated every single round like it was our first. No previous wins. No losses. No previous broken noses. Just straight fighting then and now.
“Fight. Stay present.”
Mentality is everything.
I was now in the finals — but before I walked away, I didn’t want my opponents to feel like they were walking away with a loss. I wanted kickboxing to be for them what it was for me: something positive, something encouraging where you’re motivated to keep going and have something to aspire to.
So I went up to my second opponent first. She was sitting in a chair with her family standing behind her. I crouched down so that she was looking down on me and I was looking up at her and I said, “You did amazing out there. You fought so, so fiercely. I can’t wait to see where you end up next year.” That put a massive smile across her face and we fist-bumped.
I then went up to my first opponent too. I broke through her teammates and I said to her, “Hey! You fought so well out there. You absolutely killed it. Next year — that trophy’s yours.” And I meant it. We shook hands and looked at each other with mutual respect — no hostility nor negativity — just appreciation and the satisfaction of a fight well-fought.
Then before I entered my final fight, those two opponents found me, individually, to come up to to me and say, “Hey, Carmela! Good luck. I hope you smash it.” Both my opponents — who had just lost to me that day — came up to me to wish me good luck.
That meant a lot to me. That was everything to me and their words filled me with absolute gratitude and pride.
Real sportsmanship — that’s how we get better.
We get better by encouraging each other. We get further by respecting each other; valuing each other; appreciating one other. We get better when we rise and pull everyone else with us because it’s not about beating one another. It’s not about the competition. It’s about continually seeking to be your best self — to win against the worst version of you — and then encouraging everyone else to do the same.
Winning those fights and approaching my opponents and then having those opponents come back and approach me reminded me of that exact lesson.
“Le bonheur est souvent la seule chose que l’on puisse donner sans l’avoir et c’est en le donnant que l’on l’acquiert.” / “Happiness is oftentimes the only thing that we can give without having it, and it is in giving it that we receive it.”
Give. Give with everything you have, and when you have nothing left to give, give some more, for it is in giving that we receive, and it is this level of generosity, honour and selflessness that will make this world a better place.
This was me before my final fight (thanks for capturing this, Niki!). I did nothing but meditate. All I kept saying was, “Fight. When you get into that ring, do exactly what you came here to do: fight. Do exactly what you’ve been trained to do: fight. When your body starts giving up on you and you feel the fatigue take over: fight. Hit your target.”
It was no longer about winning or losing or walking away with the ‘Championship Title’; it was about putting up my best fight and walking away proud that I had tried my best.
PS: I won.
Kickboxing and therapy taught me some of the most valuable lessons I learned walking away from this year:
Fight for your happiness. Fight for your joy. Fight for your victories. Fight even after your losses. Treat every round as if it were your first. No losses. No wins. Fight your best fight, every fight, and do your best.
- Stay present.
Don’t let the past dictate your future. Don’t even let the present. You dictate your future. You choose. Focus on and find the positives, right here, right now.
- Stay humble.
We rise together. We rise as a team.
- Hit your targets.
There’s something to be said about having goals and having things to look forward to. There’s also something to be said about working for those goals and putting in the work to make your dreams a reality. Work for it.
- Focus only on what you want.
If I focused on how I lost to my first opponent, I wouldn’t be focusing on how to beat my first opponent. If I focused on my fatigue or the ache in my legs, I wouldn’t be focusing on how to channel my remaining energy to push my legs to kick once more. Where you put your mind to and what you focus on can completely change your perspective and your performance. Feed yourself good thoughts. Use words of encouragement. Focus on the things you want.
– – –
There were a lot of lessons learned this year, but I think one of the most important ones was this:
When I first came here, I had nothing. I was empty. I was at a complete loss. I was a broken vessel. But I sought out three essential things:
PART I: Reinstalling a positive mindset
PART II: Finding the right team of people
PART III: Having the will, determination and putting in the effort to become better
The championship consolidated for me what I think I was struggling with all year: it confirmed for me that I could — I could start with absolutely nothing but still end up with something — if I worked hard enough and had the right team supporting me. I could drop out, give up, or I could talk to somebody and strategize ways to make things better.
Moving to Edinburgh was one of my hardest transitions. I was a wreck, but I didn’t want to continue being a wreck. I wanted to succeed, so I asked myself, “Carmela, what can you change? What are you going to do about this?”
In everything you do, in whatever situation you are in, don’t just stop at the negatives; ask yourself, “How can I create a solution? What am I going to do about it?” There are a plethora of problems in this world —more problems than we can count or acknowledge — but if we only focus on the problems and stop there, we will inevitably never arrive at any solutions because we haven’t looked for any.
I challenge you today, tomorrow, and the rest of your days, to look for the positives. I challenge you to seek ways to make things better. When you are faced with adversity, take a moment and ask yourself, “How will I make this better and what will I do today that will create the future that I want tomorrow?”
If you can’t find the positives or if the solutions don’t exist, why not try to create them?
We all have every power to change something, but know that change begins with you.
Where in your life do you want to make a change?
All it takes is one step. It doesn’t have to be big. For me, that step was sending my first email to the counselling department to set up my first appointment.
What’s your step? Will you make it today? Will you choose the positive? Will you make a change?
I know life is never always sunshine and lollipops, but the sun rises again with each and every morning. Each and every day is a new opportunity to make things better. Make those days count. Start again. Find your sun, and never, never lose sight of it.
I’m sending you love. I’m sending you power. I’m sending you discipline.
– – –
To my beloved Kickboxing Team,
Thank you for doing more for me than you even know. Thank you for lifting me, for pushing me to my boundaries and for encouraging me to write new ones. Thank you for being the best thing to have happened to me since moving to Edinburgh. You are the best team of people that I could have ever joined, and I thank God that I chose you. That championship was for you. To me, you were home. Thank you for accepting me — fears, failures, and victories. Je vous aime.