Many women go through tough times at one time or another in their life where they lose their identity – bad break-ups, abusive relationships, violence, and so on. I, on the other hand, never had an identity to begin with.
That’s because I learned from an early age that I wasn’t good enough . . . for anything.
I came from a culture where females were supposed to be weak and submissive. Not only that, but appearances counted for everything, so discrimination based on superficialities such as looks was typical. Being short and a little overweight, I grew up believing that I wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough, and that I would never amount to much. My four siblings, who were all quite a bit older than me, were more dismissive of me than supportive.
There were times that I was so depressed that when I was in Grade 3, I actually considered taking my own life with a kitchen knife. Fortunately I decided against it because I knew it would make my mother too sad. Even to this day when I feel down I think about that moment and it seems like it was just yesterday.
My mother was the one supportive person in my life but she worried about me a lot too. She knew that I would always have to struggle for opportunities in my career, relationships, and life in general because of the discrimination against me.
She was pretty much the only person I could talk to. Because my self-esteem was so low I didn’t really have any friends and I was very much a loner. I spent most of my time just reading and thinking, trying to improve and encourage myself.
When I was 26 I was forced into an arranged marriage. My family had to pay a large dowry to my husband’s family because he was studying to be a doctor and therefore considered to be quite a catch. I, on the other hand, was short and so not considered to be of a high standard as far as wives went.
I fell pregnant shortly after the wedding. My prize of a husband wanted me to abort the pregnancy however my family and I didn’t. He ran away days later to Tokyo to continue studying medicine and to be with his girlfriend, which he secretly had since before we even met. My family insisted that I was obligated to go to be with him, believing he would one day see sense and come back to me. I went to Tokyo and waited for five and a half years, but that never happened.
My family decided that my daughter would be better off being raised by my oldest sister than by me. As a child of a single, divorced mother, the shame and discrimination she would have had to live with would have severely limited her opportunities and made her life miserable. So I reluctantly complied.
Choosing to give up on my unfaithful husband ever coming back and starting a life of my own in Tokyo sadly made me the bad guy in the eyes of my older siblings. By then both my parents had passed away and it was virtually impossible for me to go back home to visit my family and daughter without being berated for being such a shameful person and a failure.
The saddest part for me was that throughout all of this, my daughter was raised believing that I had abandoned her and didn’t care. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Her well-off, long-distance father, on the other hand, was able to buy his way into her and my family’s hearts as the noble victim in the whole affair. So despite originally wanting an abortion and despite being totally absent from my daughter’s life, he came up smelling like roses.
I know, you can’t make this stuff up.
I had no alternative but to get on with my life, trying to leave the painful past behind but never feeling entirely free of it. After several years of working hard in Tokyo, for much of the time working three jobs at once, I just felt like I needed to leave and make a brand new start somewhere else where I could be accepted for who I was.
I knew in my heart that I was more than a just a pitiful, repressed woman. I had dreams of one day being someone, and of showing everyone I had grown up next to that they were all wrong.
When I moved to Australia I had no friends or family to talk to and no real direction. I still had no self-esteem and little knowledge of the English language. I was really starting from zero once again. But I slowly learned the language, slowly made friends, and despite all the challenges, slowly started building my new life.
After taking some time deciding what direction I wanted my life to take, I started my own tutoring business. At first it was just me, teaching Japanese language to school students. I travelled to each of my students’ homes around Sydney on public transport. Then I learned how to drive and got a patient friend to teach me how to get to their homes by car.
After a few years I leased my first office and hired more tutors to teach other subjects, and just a few years later my school expanded to two locations. Building my business gave me a lot of self-pride. I finally started to feel good about life, and I certainly welcomed the distance between me and the toxicity of my family situation.
Exercise became one of my major loves, and getting myself into better shape really did volumes to improve my emotional well-being and my self-esteem. It would be years however before I discovered how much I loved hard-core training, when I was introduced by a friend to a martial arts gym.
Training for strength and conditioning alongside fighters really changed my life. Naturally it made me physically and mentally much stronger, but it also taught me how much I enjoyed hard work and pushing my limits. I thrived on it. A friend once told me that I trained as though I had something to prove to myself. Maybe he was right.
For all the good it brought me however, I realise now that I never truly felt like I belonged there in the fight gym. When I eventually discovered bodybuilding contests a few years later and started training for Figure competitions in late 2011, I instantly knew with every fibre of my being that I had found what I was looking for. I had found my home.
Training as a Figure athlete brought out in me a level of desire, motivation and mental strength that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. When I thought about the weak, repressed person I had started out my life as and then saw myself training as an elite athlete, I was amazed at the change I’d gone through.
More importantly, I found it hard to believe that I had the strength inside me to achieve something that very few other people could. I had become strong, powerful, independent and self-confident. Fitness truly became my vehicle for growth in every aspect of my life.
I would tell people that I was born to be a Figure athlete, and that I would be one until the day I died. But of course, as is often the way, life had other plans.
In 2017, after five and a half years as a Figure athlete, I was struck down with depression and anxiety. After a lifetime of fighting my way to my position at the top of the world, its dark cloud came out of the blue and took the wind out of my sails.
When I first escaped my past, my dream was simply to prove my critics wrong. But fitness taught me that really, my decision was deeper than that. I simply didn’t want to surrender like a sheep, but to be a fighter. It taught me that I was up to any challenge anyone could throw at me. That I could do anything I set my mind to, no matter how tough it would be.
This challenge however, was to become the biggest of my life. For over a year I fought to maintain my fitness lifestyle through the depression. But it became a battle of attrition. A losing one. As each month went by I was able to do less and less, until I finally threw it in altogether. I couldn’t do it anymore.
Each day became a fight just to make it to the next. I couldn’t have survived without the help of my best friend, Fabian, who took care of me throughout most of my depression. I kept teaching because we knew that once I’d given that up, my life would be pretty much over. My psychiatrist said he couldn’t believe I was still working. All purpose and all hope was gone in my life, but I went on only because I had no other alternative. That is, until one day, when I found one.
In December 2019, after over two-and-a-half years of unrelenting, unremitting deep depression, I tried to end my life. I woke up in hospital the next day, horrified and confused, very much the worse for wear, but still very much alive.
Although I had no idea at the time, that day was miraculously to become the first day of my wonderful new life. Because after a week in hospital recovering from my attempt I transferred to a private psychiatric hospital and was blessed to be allocated a fantastic doctor who, after about two months of treatment, managed to kick my depression’s butt. It “switched off” completely one day, literally overnight.
I’ve emerged from my depression a much different person. In a good way. I have a much deeper appreciation for life and everything it brings. I’m a much happier and more balanced person.
I’ve learned first hand how life can very often drag you into dark, scary places and call upon you you to fight for your life. Figuratively and literally. I’ve also learned that when it does, we all have the strength within us to answer that call. We just need to believe.
This is the message that I want to pass on to all women through my Stronger. Braver. FIGHTER. brand.
No matter where you come from, what you’ve been though, or what you believe about yourself right now, you have that strength inside you to be a fighter and to become whoever you want to be. Every woman does. And the more life has beaten you, hurt you and held you down, the more you’ve been poisoned by others, the greater that strength has grown, waiting to be unleashed.
A friend that I made in hospital once asked me whether, if I had the choice, I would choose the challenging life that I’ve had or an easier, pain-free one. Without hesitation, I told her that I don’t want an easy life.
I’m thankful for all the battles I have had to fight. From my difficult childhood, to my marriage and family situation, to starting a new life and my own business in a foreign country, to becoming a competition Figure athlete, to living with and overcoming crippling depression and anxiety. These challenges are what have made me so strong today.
I’m no longer a victim in my life, but a fighter. So many times as a child I would lay down and cry because my life seemed so hopeless. Now when I feel weak and I see myself crying, I stand right up and fight because I don’t want that to be me anymore. There are too many things I have to do.
I don’t want to see any other women give up on life, give up on their dreams, and lay down and cry either. I want you to stand up and fight life’s battles alongside me, each and every day.
– Gloria Kaneko