As the minutes flicked by, with me standing dumbly on the center mat, I had no idea how I was going to get through the custom fight — let alone what sort of fight I’d ask for.
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I stood in the middle of the room — in what the instructors dubbed “the pirate ship” for its proximity to raucous banging and grunts from other rooms — with my hands hanging, loose and confused, at my sides. We, the students at the three-day self-defense intensive, had a brief break before the day’s culminating “custom fight,” and the structure of our custom fights would be partially self-determined; we were permitted to chose between a fight that mimicked a future fear, a past event, or a critical voice.
But I’d begun to dissociate early in the day, when the banging seemed louder than usual, and raised my already-heightened startle response until I was flinching every few minutes. And the drills that day, which largely focused on attempted rape scenarios (shorthand: “reversals”), ratcheted up the feeling of not being in my body until I was depleted mentally, physically, and spiritually. As the minutes flicked by, with me standing dumbly on the center mat, I had no idea how I was going to get through the custom fight — let alone what sort of fight I’d ask for.
The three-day self-defense intensive I took, called IMPACT Bay Area, is different from most self-defense training. Its four tenets are full-force self-defense, using heavily padded “mock attackers”; the use of realistic scenarios, or fights; the acknowledgment that training should, and can, be molded to the individual student according to her physical ability; finally, what the website calls “the extremely emotional nature of confronting the fear of violence.” I’d heard of, and considered, taking IMPACT in 2008, but it wasn’t until a friend from my writing group took the class that I considered taking it again in 2013, and then actually signed up in 2014.
I’d been discussing the possibility of having PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) with my doctor in the weeks leading up to IMPACT. My nights had become increasingly difficult. I was startling every twenty seconds at everything: certain words that came up in my thoughts, faraway sounds, C shifting in the bed next to me. I wore earplugs due to hypersensitivity. I had nightmares too awful to recount to anyone. It seemed ridiculous to me that I could develop PTSD so long after the original traumas — but then again, 2013 did seem to be, in some ways, one long trauma after the other.
And so I was frozen in the martial arts studio, with our break dwindling and the custom fight approaching. I could have chosen to sit the fight out. I could have chosen any number of custom fights. But self-kindness, in that moment, required a certain firmness; I knew that the only way I’d be able to have this experience again would be to retake the class, and I couldn’t see myself doing that without a struggle.
I ended up telling the instructors to reenact an abbreviated version of when I was raped fourteen years ago.
There’s not much that I can say about the actual fight, because I hardly remember it. I remember the beginning of it — walking away from the padded mock assailant, being grabbed from behind. But the actual fighting is a blur. I finished it feeling empty, with a vague feeling that it was a poorly done and muddled fight.
The other women finished their custom fights. Many of them reported feeling that a weight had come off their hearts. I said in our final circle of the day that I was disappointed in myself for having no such revelation. I had no such revelation, I assumed, because I was so removed from my body that there’d been no way to move through the traumatic memory.
But then one of the instructors said something that stayed with me. She said, to some effect or other, that I may not have been mentally present, but that my body knew how to fight.
The self-kindness that I gave myself that afternoon, and in the weeks after, was to remember this. My body knows how to fight. Even without me in it, my body knows how to fight.
There are times when you will disappoint yourself in some way or another. Your project didn’t come off as planned. Your course launch resulted in a handful of sign-ups. The book that you promised yourself you’d finish by March is languishing on your desktop, the file waiting to be opened.
And yet there will be something that you might not see straightaway, which is the magic that occurred around the edges of your disappointment.
To pause, and to seek that magic, is one sort of self-kindness. This is not a silver-lining scenario, in which you seek the positive consequence of something negative; but rather, it’s seeing the whole view of the thing, which is the true view, and acknowledges the complete nature of the universe, and of your life.