Just over two years ago, April Mendez Brooks wrestled her final match for the WWE the night after WrestleMania 31. She did a lot of things during her time with the WWE, including three championship runs and dozens of memorable moments in and out of the ring.
Brooks' character, often portrayed as crazy and a bit unhinged at times, became an instant hit, but what fans and viewers all over the world never really got to learn was the real elements of her life that she integrated into her character. Her struggles with mental illness eventually brought Brooks to a place where she embraced it as a pivotal element to who she was as a person and an asset in everything that she does.
Her book, "Crazy Is My Superpower," hit bookshelves and online retailers Tuesday afternoon. It covers everything that made Brooks what she is today, from her family dealing with poverty, mental illness and drug addiction during her childhood, to her struggles and ultimate triumph in wrestling, to her first kiss with husband Phil "CM Punk" Brooks, after which AJ pushed him through a table.
ESPN.com sat down with Brooks a few days before the release of her book.
ESPN.com: I think the natural place to start is what was your inspiration for writing this book? Was there a moment, or a person, or a specific event that helped you make up your mind?
AJ Mendez Brooks: Yeah. I think as a child my sister and I had an ongoing joke to get us through the hard times, and that was, "One day this will make for a really great chapter in your book." We went through a lot, and a lot of it is in the book (a lot of it isn't, and that'll be for the next chapter). It was just a way to get ourselves out of whatever situation we were in by trying to channel it into something positive, "One day this'll be worth it."
It was this promise I had to my sister for so long, and [after] reaching the end of my wrestling career, I felt like that was the time for me to [make it happen]. ... There are a lot of people paying attention with social media and everything these days, so I think it's important to say something worthwhile.
Was it something where you really had to think back on your life, or rather something like a running list of "OK, these are the moments in my life that are going into the book"?
AJ: Definitely. It was a chore to edit down what was going to fit into this in the moment. If I die tomorrow, what would I want the world to know about everything I experienced? What could I put on the page to help people? It was kind of cherry-picking what I thought would be the most valuable lessons, essentially, for young people who were struggling and feel different and feel like they don't belong.
The funny thing is that everyone feels that way, and in that way we all belong together, you know? We all have that shared experience, and it was important for me to kind of show that can apply to just feeling like an outsider, that can go into having health issues or mental health issues, or problems at work or problems with friends. It goes into so many different areas of your life and journey through the many different struggles that we go through in life from childhood to adulthood.
Toward the end of the book, I think in the afterword, you describe how emotional an experience it was to revisit some of these moments and experiences in your life. Can you talk to me a little bit about how difficult a process this was for you just to finish up this book?
AJ: Oh gosh, yeah. It, honesty, it was therapy in many ways, because there's a lot of memories I hadn't revisited in a long time. I wrote the skeleton of the book and I thought, "OK, these are all the things I'm gonna grow the courage to write about," and then I would sit at the computer, and it would be the time to write that chapter, and I would almost chicken out because it was so hard to put myself in that space.
There were a lot of chapters that I just heavily sobbed while writing and would have to step away from the computer for a few days. I joke that it took a lot of years off my life just kind of letting all of these stories out and putting them into the world. That way they were no longer just these things that were my secrets or my crosses to bear. They were now hopefully going to help even just one person [know] that they're not alone, that there is someone who is also experiencing these things.
"I had to think bigger picture and who I could help with these stories. Yeah, it was a little traumatic, but worth it. I would do it again. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, and I would gladly do it again."
Obviously a lot of your audience for this book is going to be people who followed you from your wrestling career. I'm curious, has it been interesting to see how many people have continued to support you despite you no longer being an active wrestler, just through social media and other ways?
AJ: Yeah, it's really interesting because I feel like, before I made it to the television program, when I was just in training and developmental, there's always been this core group of people who just connect with me and have championed my ascent through wrestling. Then they stuck around, and that's really cool.
I think that was a motivating factor to say, "OK, these people have stuck with me through everything. Let me share more of who I am," because I have kind of been a closed book most of the time, so this was my love letter to those that stuck around.
When you talk about wrestling and the "women's revolution," does it bring you any joy or satisfaction that things that you may have said or may have done made it so that either women currently in wrestling or future women in wrestling might be better off?
AJ: I think I have, and I think that it's all you can ever ask for. I have a lot of friends that wrestle, and to see them happy means a lot to me; to feel like maybe I had even the smallest fraction of a part of that makes me incredibly proud. All you ever want to do is leave something better than how you found it.
Does it feel, in any way, a little bittersweet, like, "Man, I wish that would have been sort of the way things were when I was there?"
AJ: I don't think so. I think everything happened ... I was very lucky with my career. I got to have the title a lot and be a prominent figure and always have a storyline. I felt appreciated, and I felt used a lot in a really positive way. I know that that wasn't the case for everyone that was on the roster at the time, so I think it would be ungrateful for me to in any way feel like I didn't have a perfect career.
To me, it was picture-perfect, and I wrote in my book that I felt like it was wrapped up in a tidy bow. I think this is everyone else's time now. It's the evolution, and these girls are wonderful. I hope that they're happy and getting paid equally as the guys are and getting the screen time as much as the guys are. I hope that the next generation is happy.
There's a cool section of your book I want to get into, where you talk about the significance of Madison Square Garden for somebody who spent so much time in New Jersey and New York in that early part of your life. Can you talk a little bit about some of your memories, and going from being a fan and falling in love with wrestling, and then being there as part of the wrestling world?
AJ: My first wrestling show ever was at Madison Square Garden, and even accomplishing that, just going there, was such a huge deal for me because it seemed so out of reach, expensive and just impossible [when I was a kid]. There was always this kind of mystique around MSG. Then to go back ... I can't remember the first thing I did there, but I've had a few [moments ] ... I got [to] perform there a couple times, and once was inside of the cage in the main event with the guys. It was a house show, and it was just such a cool, full-circle moment.
Before they did the renovation I actually got to sit in the seat that me and my father sat in, like these nosebleed seats. We could barely see any of the matches. I just sat there, and it was like, "Oh, I got myself here." It took a long time, but I figured out a way to do it. I think that one of the coolest full-circle moments for me was seeing my first show, WrestleMania 20, and telling my dad that, "One day I'm going to be in that ring. I promise."
"Ten years later at Wrestlemania 30, I was the champion."
It's always going to hold that kind of special place in my heart, New York, and I think that it's really cool that I'm going to be in New York for the first week of my book's birthday, my book's pub day. I'm very lucky with these full-circle moments.
So what has your life been like since you finished this book?
AJ: I've been doing a lot of writing, and I'm working on a few different projects that I guess that I can't really talk about yet that are writing-based. It's an escape for me, and to take that to a professional level is exciting, and that is very much the next chapter of my life. So it's been a lot of writing, and for someone who didn't get to finish school, certainly sitting at a desk a lot is interesting.
I think it's important to talk about one of the core issues that the book is built around: your struggles with mental illness, the way that it altered your life and the way that you took it and made it so that you could make it a positive. Is there a specific kind of person that you're trying to reach out to with this book?
AJ: I see it in two ways. I think that more often than not, when mental health is discussed, or when a celebrity reveals that they're struggling with something, it's after something bad has happened. It has a negative connotation. For me, just for the mental health community, I think it's important for somebody to just look at it from a positive light. It's not just this dark thing that is a flaw. I think so much of my personality, things that I like the most about myself, through writing the book and through planning the book, I credited [being able to do it] to struggling with bipolar disorder and kind of having no filter and this impulsive behavior.
It's been this thing that got me everywhere in life, and looking back and realizing that kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. It really formulated how I wanted to tell my story. I've just never been inhibited or fearful of trying to get something that would seem so out of reach, like, "Let me go be a professional wrestler," when I'm two pounds and I'm not athletic at all. Let me go do that. Let me go write a book with one of the biggest publishing companies in the world. So I've always just done things and been brave because of being bipolar. I credit it for that.
So I do want to reach out to the mental health community, anyone suffering, and let them know that there is so much that is possible, and that it can be such a blessing. The title of the book is "Crazy Is My Superpower," and I think the other message that I want to put out there is that crazy can be anything. You can replace that with anything that you are struggling with in your life or anything that people want to make you feel is a flaw? You can just take whatever label people want to use pejoratively against you and use it as something that can empower you and you can be proud of. I think the message of my book is just that. You can come from the poorest, weakest background and you can make something of your life. You really just have to have the guts to try.