By Chuck Carroll
AJ Mendez Brooks, known to her passionate fans as AJ Lee, is undeniably one of WWE’s most popular female wrestlers of all-time. Her strong and quirky personality resonated with an audience of millions as she skipped down the entrance ramp and into the ring where the undersized fighter dominated her larger opponents. Little did her vast legion of loyal fans realize that juxtaposition of her on-screen persona mirrored her real life struggle with Bipolar disorder; a mental illness that can make a person fall from the highest of emotional highs to an unbearable darkness in the blink of an eye. She did a masterful job of hiding her struggle as she catapulted to superstardom during an uncanny near six-year run in WWE that began by parlaying a $1,500 investment for a tryout to a contract with the company’s developmental territory.
Brooks is a three-time WWE Divas champion who unknowingly helped destroy “diva” moniker during her career and became an inspiration to millions of young girls along the way. However, her greatest accomplishments came years earlier when she survived an ultra-violent upbringing and matured far too soon to parent her family as its youngest member. As a young child she once threw her tiny body on top of her mother as her father held a television high above his head and threatened to send it crashing down on his wife. The vicious encounter was hardly a blip on her radar at the time as such violent outbursts had become her norm.
The years of emotional turmoil nearly cost Brooks her life after an attempt to mask pain with an overdose of painkillers and antidepressants. But she is a fighter and never one to back down from a challenge; even one from herself. Following her abrupt retirement from WWE in 2015 she embarked on a new conquest to chronicle her painful childhood to her improbable rise to fame in her new book, “Crazy Is My Superpower.”
You overcame a lot of obstacles just to get to WWE. And now we just finished WrestleMania season. I know you were a huge fan growing up. Walk me through your first WrestleMania as a performer and the feelings you had leading up to it. A lot of jitters I would imagine.
Oh yeah. The really interesting thing about WrestleMania is that it is such a spectacle that you can’t absorb it when it’s happening. It’s this blur of a memory also because it was 10 seconds long or something like that; I think I was a manager at that time. It was such a short match and there were so many people. The matches I probably remember the least were my four WrestleManias. They just go by in a panic. Everyone waits for that moment and then it just passes you by so fast. I was really lucky. I think one of the WrestleManias I was the only woman on the show in New Jersey and I’m from New Jersey so that was really special.
But do you miss it?
Oh, god the fear! I don’t miss the fear! There are some of my friends that are still there and I’m excited for them. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes, but I am excited for them. I hope they’re having a great time. I was very lucky with four solid WrestleMania moments.
There has been an increased emphasis put on women’s wrestling in recent years. It’s been called the “women’s revolution” with the “Divas” title having been stripped away. Although it officially happened after you left, it seems to me that you were a big part in getting female performers to where they are now. The women are basically on par with the guys now.
That makes my heart swell. That’s all I ever wanted for the industry while I was there and for all the wonderful women after I was gone. There are a lot of really great girls who are still there that I was really fortunate enough to work with or have their tryout matches. I just want the best for them and I’m so happy that they’re getting their time. That’s all that we could ever hope or fight for. I’m so proud of them. I hope they’re also getting paid as much as the guys since they’re seen as just as important. I hope that they’re also getting paid because that’s half the battle, honestly.
Wrestling’s old adage: never say never. I’m sure you are asked this all the time so let me be the one millionth and one person to ask you this. Will we ever see AJ Lee back in a wrestling ring?
I never would say that because I’ve personally said never to things before and done them. But I am so happy where I am right now and I feel like I had such a pitch perfect career that I would be nervous about tarnishing that. I feel like it’s kind of full-circle and perfect for exactly what I wanted. But who knows?
Your book isn’t a typical wrestling memoir. This to me is more of an autobiography with wrestling elements. You really laid your soul bare on these pages. Talk to me about the decision to put everything out there and how difficult it was for you throughout the process. Were there some feelings of shame or embarrassment? Maybe even some pride to be setting these emotions free and get them off your chest?
Oh gosh, yes. I always hear that everyone’s first book is the book they’ve been writing their entire life and that’s how it felt for me. Ever since I was really young was to take everything that I’ve been through and channel it in a positive way and pass my story along to help even just one person. I had that goal for a really long time. Normally, especially on social media, I’m an extremely private person. I don’t share a lot of myself but in this process I thought that if you do share the most vulnerable parts of you it needs to be for a purpose and it needs to be something that people can learn from and benefit from.
Otherwise, if you’re kind of hiding those pieces of yourself it feels a little selfish. I’m not going to be the selfie queen but I can tell people about the hardest days of my life and the biggest mistakes I’ve made. Hopefully that will help somebody. Yeah, it took some years off my life to get it all out there but I think it was really worth it and I can’t wait for people to read it.
One of the things that really stood out to me was one particular fight between your parents. You wrote that you heard a gurgling sound and then your mother scream that she was being choked. And here you are as this little girl and you bust through the door and thrown your tiny body on top of her as your father holds a TV over his head. He was ready to send it crashing down on your mother. The amount of bravery that must have taken is incredible. Were you even thinking at that point or were you just reacting?
I think so much of my childhood is just reacting to whatever situation you’re in; it was like this is what you need to do in the moment. You need to step up in every moment and just take care of yourself and everyone around you. My role in my family in my young age, probably way too young, was to kind of parent everybody even though I was the youngest in my family.
I want to go back and hug that little girl. It’s hard for me to re-read those chapters… I know that I’m not alone. I’m sure that a lot of kids have been in that type of situation. Getting that stuff out there was a way of letting go and healing and hopefully there’s somebody else that realizes you shouldn’t have to be that strong at that age. That was a tough one to write.
You wrote that after that traumatic incident your parents were cuddling later that evening and your father even commended you for standing up to him. That really struck a chord to me and stood out. Was that surprising to you the reaction that you got from him?
There’s so many things that as an adult I look back at memories and there were so many things that I thought were just normal. When people grow up in violent a household violence becomes normal to them. Screaming and yelling and breaking things was just all normal… I go through that in the book where I’m praised for being a part of this chaotic violent day so I become a chaotic violent child who hits everything and everyone. And then I end up in a career where I fight for a living.
It’s so interesting to me how you are so formed when you are young. I hope that there are parents that read the book that feel like they have to be careful with what they do, what they say, how they teach their kids what’s okay and what’s not, and what they praise and what they don’t. I thought it was normal for a very long time; probably until I started writing the book. Then it was like, ‘I think I should be a lot more damaged and strange than I am right now.’
One of the things I was thinking about while I was reading the book was about the documentary UFC did on your husband, CM Punk. He was training for his first fight and you were so reluctant to go and watch him training. Was some of that reluctance because of your experiences growing up and you didn’t want to be surrounded by violence anymore or was it more that you just didn’t want to see your husband get his face punched in or something like that?
(laughs) I think it’s a little bit of both and that’s super perceptive of you. I’ve gravitated toward action that is more of the superhero romanticized variety. Superheroes and comic books and pro wrestling where the fear is taken out of it because there’s a levity involved. With UFC it’s so real and so violent that it’s hard for me to even watch. The pay-per-views will be on in my house and I’ll pay for it and I’ll support it, but I can’t really sit down and watch it. It’s hard for me, especially with my husband. For someone who beat up people for a living I’m pretty queasy when it comes to violence for sure.
You wrote about a particular low point in your life when you overdosed on a cocktail of antidepressants and pain killers. The apathy you described in the book about not caring one way or the other whether you lived or died on that day, but you stopped short of calling it a suicide attempt. That must have been a terrifying revelation for you.
To be completely honest in the first draft of my book I didn’t have that in there. It was maybe the most formative moment of my entire life and I was so protective of it. I made a bunch of excuses as to why I wouldn’t share it but at the end of the day I was really just scared… I don’t want people think that I’m throwing it away and saying it’s not a suicide attempt. It’s important for people to understand that there are shades of gray when you are in depression and you don’t understand what’s happening. It’s not easy to pinpoint and say, ‘Oh, hi, I need help right now in this moment.’
These moments wash over you and you have no idea how you feel one way or the other until you’re out of it. I really wanted to capture how it can happen so fast that you might not even understand what you’re doing or be able to process it afterwards. I really wanted to show that there are so many shades of gray when it comes to depression and self-harm and suicide attempts.
It’s so important for people to be listening to people who are depressed and pay attention, and for hospitals and doctors to be on their toes and treat everything like it’s the worst case scenario. Sometimes there are people like me who would just say, ‘okay, I got away with that one.’ I just wished more people would have helped me. That’s my way of trying to help people who might not have that support system.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.