Don’t Panic, a nonfiction story released in dedication to Matthew Larson

Monday, July 01, 2019

Don’t Panic, a nonfiction story released in dedication to Matthew Larson, born 12/14/83, died 7/16/18.

November 11, 2018 • Five Grappling Jiu-Jitsu tournament

“Mike Reyes, Mike Reyes to mat 4,” sounds over the loudspeaker, echoing off the high school gymnasium hardwood floors and concrete walls. “Why did I sign up for this?” I think to myself as a spike of adrenalin runs down my spine, gripping my gut, speeding my breath, tingling the tips of my fingers. Again “Mike Reyes, Mike Reyes to mat 4… last call.” I turn to my coach and give a short nod with a straight face as I step towards the mats like I’ve been here before, as if it’s just another tournament. Only I knew this isn’t just another tournament. That for me, this would mark a milestone in my mental health. A 9+ year culmination of self-improvement…

See, about 10 years ago I began to suffer from a very common, but widely stigmatized issue referred to as a panic/anxiety disorder.

Sat Night, 2009 • Long Beach, California

It’s around 2 a.m., my girlfriend was out of town. I had a cup of coffee in my hand to soothe a sore throat, a movie on, and a cigarette was sounding pretty good. The couch was comfy, worn in and inviting. I had been suffering from another dry cough no doubt from years of smoking; this had become a regular
occurrence. “Shit,” I thought as I coughed hard a few times, a hoarse bark from deep in my lungs, as I’m trying to clear my chest… “fuck this sucks” “it’s so hard to breathe” runs through my mind as my head spins from the hacking. Extremely light headed, mouth dry. I felt my heart beating harder, faster. Chest
was heavy, throat tightening up, hands and fingers suddenly tingly. “What the hell is going on?” I asked myself. I’m scared… this is unfamiliar… Panic starts to set in - “it’s my heart” thinking to myself “I’m having a heart attack.” Eyes wide, I stand up trying to fill my lungs… It’s not helping…. My chest is so tight now, shortened weathered breaths, hands completely numb, the room is unstable, my eyes are open, I can see but the room no longer makes sense, jumbled. Heart thrashing… so fast… too fast... Struggling to breathe, pale-faced, gripping my chest. I fumble out my front door into the cool night air desperately searching for someone to help me. Sweating profusely now, completely soaked, pale, wave after wave of nausea hitting, tearing through me, ears ringing, heart thumping, grasping and clawing for every breath now… Leaning against the railing I struggled to see as the outside world turned, twisted upside down and unstable. “This is it” my mind quiets for just a moment, as if to state a fact like bold letters across my mind - “I am going to die.” Twisting through jumbled thoughts of who would find my body, if I would be missed, how I was in no way ready to be done with this life. I stumbled back inside the apartment with no clear thoughts on
what to do next. Still gasping to breath. I collapsed into the couch as the room began to close in on me, darkening around the edges. Screaming in my mind to “CALM DOWN… Breathe” There is nothing to be done. Reaching for a sip of water was the last thing I remember.

I woke up shortly after, my shirt soaked in the water that I apparently dumped on myself when I passed out. I had suffered from my first panic attack. It was the single most terrifying experience of my life. During this traumatic event, I was completely convinced that at the age of 26 I was going to die. I had
faced my own mortality. The year to follow would quickly become unbearable. Soon the panic attacks became more frequent, each one lasting up to and over an hour in length. No escape, even sleep allowed no peace. I began to suffer from insomnia, waking up during panic attacks more than a few times. I dreaded the night as it seems to last forever with nothing but my anxiety to distract me. Completely mentally and physically exhausted I did my best to hide my affliction from friends and family. I felt like a weak person, I was extremely embarrassed. Convinced that I should be able to control it, but I never came anywhere close.
My body and mind had completely turned on itself. I stayed home as much as possible, became very depressed and disappointed in myself, I felt helpless and constantly nauseous. Losing weight from not eating as the attacks progressed to multiple times a day… I became a complete mess….

2010 • Long Beach California 

After an excruciating year, I finally decided to ask for professional help. I made an appointment to see a doctor. When meeting the specialist, I completely broke down into a crying mess of emotion. I had buried myself so deep into a dark pit that I had lost hope of getting back to normal. I remember asking the doctor while hyperventilating through a face full of tears, “is this my life now?” Fully convinced it was.

Fortunately, that was the first day on my road to recovering from a traumatizing chapter in my life. I quit smoking and drinking sodas, and began to look for ways to workout that kept me interested. Luckily after a few attempts, I found a medication that helped, along with a healthier diet and Muay Thai I was not only physically getting healthier, but the camaraderie and satisfaction that came with training helped keep my mind healthy. Over the next few years, every day continued to be a battle, but it was one that I was winning.

Eventually, with the lifestyle change, I was able to lower my medication dose dramatically and maintain a higher quality of life. I still have tough moments, but I couldn’t tell you when my last panic attack was. Now I have an amazing wife, a beautiful daughter, I train Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai regularly and couldn’t
be happier.

November 11, 2018 • Five Grappling Jiu-Jitsu tournament

I’m anxious as s***, literally might s*** myself… “Ugh this rash guard is so tight, I can’t breathe in this thing, why is this so f***ing tight?” Legs feel like lead, mind spinning, “what am I doing here? Why did I sign up for this?” Standing in front of the mats now, the referee hands me a red plastic strip, I’m confused
for a second looking at the ref as she points to my ankle.

“S***.. ok I need to put this on.” I’m red apparently.

Mouth is dry, tastes like s***, can’t catch my breath, face is hot. The referee motions for us to enter the mat. I step forward and feel the smooth vinyl give under my feet, finally some sense of normality I’ve been here before. I stiffly walk over to the center of the mat, shake the referee’s hand, shake my opponents’ hand.

“OK… here we go… you know what to do, … wait…. do I know what to do?”

“Beeeeeeeeeep” the timer blares across the room! We slap, bump again as we engage in a shorthand fight. My opponent sits to his butt and scoots towards me. I grab his ankles and toss them over his head as he rolls away from me. I dive for the back, he spins to recover guard, giving me the mount. He reaches up with his left arm to frame; instinctively I dive on the head and arm choke and lock it in. After a short fight I hear my coach yell “Head to the mat!” so I drive my weight forward and my head to the mat, the choke gets tighter and I feel a tap… It's over I won.

I went on to win my second match by RNC. The final match didn’t go so well, I got caught with an Ezekiel choke and lost. I took second place in my division but overall, I had accomplished what I set out to do. I prove to myself that I was in control of my mental health again. For that, I couldn’t be happier.


Mental health issues still seem to be an extremely taboo topic amongst men. We hate to admit we are struggling when it comes to anything, but mental health seems to be one of the hardest to admit to our peers. If you realize that someone you know is struggling, the best thing you can do for them is to listen without judgment. Do your best to refrain from easy fix suggestions and remind them there is no shame in seeing a trained professional to help with these matters. Realize that it can be crushing when you reach out to friends or family and they tell you “it’s all in your head” and “you're fine.“

I want you to know that it’s not all in their head, It’s not their fault, they are not weak, remind them they are strong and you’re available to listen anytime. In some cases, our peer’s compassion and understanding can be what’s most needed.

My Hope

I never got to share this personal story with my good friend Matt and I will never know if it would have made a difference. My hope in sharing this now, is to help anyone who may read this to realize you are not alone, things can get better. You can take control of your situation. Please never ever give up, someone out there loves and needs you. No matter how bad everything seems, how unstable and hopeless you may feel, please reach out again and again. Be clear about what you’re going through. Because there is help. Although there may not be a quick fix, rest assured that small steps now, can lead to big changes in the future.

This personal story is released in dedication to Matthew Larson 12/14/83 - 07/16/18.

Author Michael J. Reyes trains at 10th Planet Phoenix. Follow him on Instagram.