My depression last year started with a sense of being haunted, haunted by the abuse of my past. In January 2017, I was injured. The injury technically occurred while practicing martial arts, but my ribs had been weakened by past abuse.
Haunted by Past Abuse
I heard his threats echo over the distance I had gained from my time as his victim. “Even if you leave me and think you can have some other life, I’ll be there. Just when you feel nice and safe, I’ll come knocking at your back door.”
There I was, feeling like he still had a say in my life, seven years after the last time he had attacked me. The happiness and sense of self I had worked so hard to establish fell away.
Due to my new physical injuries, I dropped out of my university classes and stopped working. My ghost of marriage-past was soon joined by the ghost of childhood trauma. By the start of summer, I moved twice and had a couple stress-filled trips to CA. A family issue had gone to court, and I wanted to offer what support I could. There, I was all-too-reminded of my father’s belief that he owns me.
By late summer, I wasn’t taking care of myself financially. I struggled to get back into the workforce, and I wasn’t in school. Echoes from my past filled each moment of every day. “You’re worse than worthless. You’re a taker.”
By the time I got back to working, Henry wasn’t in running order. I walked or bussed over an hour each way for work shifts. Every part of my day took everything I had to keep myself from completely breaking down as well.
I felt hopeless.
The ghosts told me I would never truly be free from my abusers regardless of how much time had passed or how hard I worked to heal from abuse.
My new primary care physician quickly realized my depression was severe. She encouraged me to consider a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. I didn’t think anything would help, and I was accustomed to being told I was a statistical outlier in many situations. I feared the worst side effects with no relief from the depression. I rejected antidepressants for months.
Another Part of My Past
Catching up with an acquaintance, I cried when she asked about my plans to return to school. I didn’t know when, or even if, I would be able to go back. Later that day, I realized that if I was that upset about not doing something (i.e. finishing my degree), then I needed to find a way to do it. My first mantra I made for myself back when I started therapy through the California Victim’s Compensation Program called out over all the ghosts haunting me. “I am willing to change in ways I cannot foresee.” That mantra gave me courage to get my life back.
“I am willing to change in ways I cannot foresee.”
I made appointments with academic advisors at my school and with my primary care physician. I told my doctor I had reconsidered trying an antidepressant. I was scared, but I had to try whatever I could.
That was over three months ago. I have had some side effects that passed, but most important, the deep depression has lifted. Now, I’m wrapping up my first term back in school, and I’m determined to graduate in March 2019.
Depression Kept Me from Seeing Myself
Therapy has taught me my abuse was not normal. In my depression, I didn’t see myself as someone who could get relief in such a normal, expected way. I had lost my ability to see myself as a college graduate. For a lot of 2017, I didn’t see myself being able to truly move on from my past abuse. But my mantra reminded me that lack of vision didn’t have to stop me. I could change in ways I had never imagined before.
I want a lot from life, and I’m more than willing to put in the work. Along the way, it’s been a bumpy ride.
My article, A Life Equation, from May 2016 describes my long-held method of finding balance: I add to my schedule. I take on more responsibilities. I pressure myself for better performance. I’ve tried to do it all and at lightning speed. This drive to perform does not arise from impatience with the world around me. It comes from my self-judgement and self-doubt. (Read My Own Worst Critic here.)
In early 2017, I lost a lot of what I had come to love in my life and sank into a deep depression (more on that next week). I was injured and ended up dropping out of school (again) and leaving work. Those factors snowballed into a couple stressful and haphazard moves from the apartment I had loved living in for two years. I was without Henry , my beloved VW, for a few months because I couldn’t afford to repair him. The losses piled up.
As I got back on my feet six months later, I threw myself — albeit wobbly- legged — right back into my life of more, more, and more. I worked as much as I could, trained jiu-jitsu as much as I could, practiced yoga as much as I could, volunteered as much as I could, and re-enrolled in full-time classes.
I kept adding and adding, but never felt any relief or sense of peace. I only felt tired, inadequate, ineffective, and chronically behind schedule.
I’m finally learning to let go as a part of finding balance. An acquaintance in a networking group I’ve recently joined cited “knowing when to say no” as the key to his success. I’ve heard that saying before, but it was this last time that I really took it to heart.
It wasn’t how much I had been doing before my injury last year that helped me feel good. Yes, I had a lot going on, but the deciding factor had been the sense that I felt successful in my endeavors.
Despite my return to the activities I craved, and the fact that I find each of them worthy undertakings, I had spread myself too thin. Something had to give, and I decided that this time it wouldn’t be me.
Operation: Say No
I’ve started saying no to everything I can bring myself to let go. Though I love those relinquished projects and groups on their own merit, I had to ask myself what I love the most. The answers I found were: completing my degree, maintaining my health, teaching yoga, and writing.
I’ve said no to a few volunteer projects. I’ve said no to extra hours at work that would have left me stressed for time to complete writing or homework. I’ve said no to outings that would have been fun, but not as fun as my health- supporting activities like yoga and jiu-jitsu.
Most important, I said no to the breakneck speed I had thought I needed.
When Do You Say “No”?
This practice of saying “no” more often is only a few weeks old for me, but I’m optimistic.
Where have you learned to say “no”? I’d love to hear about the nerve-racking times you’ve reduced your commitment to others and ended up doing better.
Henry and I have been together more than twelve years. I often call him the love of my life. He has seen me through an abusive marriage, a long-term relationship, periods of homelessness, the loss of my dog — everything. He has seen my trials and tribulations and the countless times I’ve fallen short. I have relied on him, and he has not let me down.
Henry is my Volkswagen. He is a fully anthropomorphized 1969 Type 2, a hippie bus, with camper interior, a hard-top, and jalousie windows.
He has found his way into the hearts of And Be Happy readers. Chapter four, titled “Henry”, is the story of how we met. It chronicles my shift from wanting nothing to do with him to adopting him as a symbol of my ability to take care of myself. I lived most of my life without a sense of home, but in Henry, I can feel at home anywhere.
Everyone Loves Henry
As much as I love Henry, I had not anticipated the reception he has received from readers and new friends. I still get caught off-guard at the excitement they share when they meet him for the first time. Sometimes I will be flagged-down when new acquaintances recognize me at a traffic stop. We roll down our respective windows, and they yell across from their lane, “Is that Henry?” When I confirm that it is Henry, they invariably address him with something like, “Hi, Henry,” or, “It’s so nice to meet you, Henry.” Readers from out of my area have written asking if I still have Henry and rejoice when they hear that we are still going strong.
When I have a problem to solve, Henry usually has a part in its solution. A drive in Henry can cheer me up, take me to the ocean, get me away from a stressful situation, and hold all the supplies for the ridiculous number of things I want to accomplish on any given day. I have napped in him between double-shifts. I have had private space to meditate or even cry, and I have shown him off to fascinate my friends’ children.
He elicits smiles and waves from strangers passing by. He inspires story-sharing from passersby in parking lots or the gas station. He’s been with me since I was nineteen, and I can’t imagine my life without him. He keeps putting along, despite my low level of skill in maintaining him.
Henry Makes Everything Better
I recently had an all-too-real taste of what life would be like without Henry. I spent a few months without him in operable condition, and it was one of the biggest stresses in my already stressful summer. I felt so restrained. I couldn’t accept some of the work I wanted. I had to hike my groceries home on foot. I struggled to look at new places to live because public transportation took up so much time. Worst of all, I couldn’t freely visit my family down in California, and it was a summer full of family issues I wanted to be around for.
Now you’ve met Henry. I’ve referenced him in past posts, but he’s never gotten much of an introduction. Future posts will reference him and his influence in my life, and I didn’t want you to feel lost.
The viral hashtag #metoo has dominated social media feeds around the world. As I followed this story, I found myself feeling especially hopeless. The prevalence of sexual harassment and assault that women endure as a matter of course in patriarchy is no surprise to me.
I Can’t Stop It
I have received a triggering amount of sexual harassment myself in the last few weeks. It has come from passers-by on the street. It has come from co-workers. It has come from people who claim to be my friends.
My martial arts practice brings me some peace amid this common yet consuming struggle. The relationship I am developing with my own physicality gives me agency over my body. As a violence survivor with PTSD and as a woman in the USA, I need that.
Because I find my martial arts practice so empowering, I found myself especially upset after seeing #metoo posts from women who were sexually harassed or assaulted where they train martial arts. After a couple weeks of the hopeless feeling, I decided on a personal course of action.
What I Can Do
I’m compiling a comprehensive resource on where women can train in safety. I don’t want to give the airtime to the gyms and dojos that fail us as women. Rather, I want to give reliable information to all the women out there who deserve to find a better gym. The places that claim to teach self-defense yet allow or even encourage sexual harassment or sexual assault don’t deserve to have us there. They don’t deserve our money and they don’t deserve our representation for their teams.
Please use this Google Form to contribute information to the directory of inclusive training spaces. Please share the form with other women, so we can have as comprehensive of a list as possible.
Speaking out will not be all it takes to change the systems that normalize everyday abuse of women. Making this list available to everyone who needs it is just what I can do to help us in the right direction.
I had no idea what I was missing.
I never expected to see a lot of other women when I enrolled in my gym. From my start there, I was often the only woman during most jiu-jitsu classes. On what felt like special occasions, all three of us jiu-jitsu women at the gym went to the same class.
I participated in my first competition last month, and meeting the other five women in my bracket as a fellow competitor led to closer connections than when I had attended as a spectator. A few weeks later, I carpooled with a friend from a neighboring gym to a women’s only open mat (do what you want – not structured class) two hours away. We talked, drilled, and grappled together. I left with a lot of new friends. Seminars and competitions gave me a chance to meet more women in sport jiu-jitsu. Those events still left us ladies far outnumbered by the men.
This month, I had another opportunity. I attended a women’s only jiu-jitsu class. It’s offered for free about once a month in my area. Unlike the open mat, this was a structured class. We had an instructor, a woman instructor.
I didn’t know how alone I had been as a woman in jiu-jitsu until women surrounded me. The realization cut into my heart and ripped open decades of scar tissue. In my childhood, little girls could not grow up to be or do what they wanted. Obedient wife and all-giving mother was my given goal. If I had to work “outside the home”, I could be a school teacher (not a college professor, but a school teacher) or a nurse (not a doctor). Until that class, my aspiration to be more sat firmly on an underlying assumption: women in male-dominated arenas would be isolated from other women.Women like me were anomalies. We could do what we wished, but we would be on our own.
More Than Friends
I left the all-women’s class with more than friends. I left with a solid network of support. Now I interact daily with other women in grappling through online groups, direct correspondence, and gym meetups.
From my first class, jiu-jitsu felt like real life (click here for blog post on this). The community of women in jiu-jitsu, gave me a whole new world to live in.
Rebecca encourages survivors of domestic to speak about their experiences and to lean on each other for support.