I lived the first 24 years of my life as a victim of violence. I grew up in a violent home with a misogynist, racist, religious freak for a father until I was 17. As a homeless minor, I was promptly targeted by a thirty-two-year-old predator. This kid was lured with, not candy, but a room for rent. He got me into his house with a lie and violated me, keeping me trapped all night. Once released, the man stalked and forced into a relationship with him. Seven years later, with my abuser (then husband) in prison for his second conviction related to violence against me, I got free.
Well, kinda free. I’ve had a long eight years of PTSD and healing.
Last year, my therapist said I am the clinical definition of thriving, that I have not only done the hard, hard work of recovering from my traumatic experiences, but I have progressed my mental health beyond the point it had been when I first encountered my ex-husband. That’s a big endorsement, and I couldn’t believe it at first. I still have PTSD. I still have symptoms, but even though I even had some symptoms the day I drafted this, I know now that I’ll be OK.
My relationship with myself has changed. My relationship with others has changed. And now, with the better part of a decade away from my abuser, another relationship has changed: my relationship with violence.
After being assaulted by a bouncer last summer, I resolved to learn to defend myself. I had no idea of what that meant, but I was tired of not knowing what to do when things got physical. I was tired of leaving my safety up to chance. I made a series of largely uninformed decisions and stumbled into a new therapy, jiu-jitsu. Don’t worry if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I had no idea what it was either, but it has changed my life.
Click "Read More" below to read the story of how I fell in love with a martial art called jiu-jitsu.
Love Story: Martial Arts and Recovery from Abuse
Topic Warning: rape, violence
When I turned thirty, I decided I would learn self-defense that year. My birthday was at the beginning of summer, and I didn’t want to miss out on any nice weather, so I planned to start in the coming autumn.
Then I was raped later that summer. That sent me into an emotional tailspin centered around one thought, “but that part of my life was over.” With hard work, self-care, and my great therapist, I pulled myself back together bit by bit. I had been knocked so far back, it felt, that I had lost sight of the plans I had held for learning self-defense. I got a reminder during the celebration for my thirty-first birthday.
I was on a date in an otherwise empty bar. When I went to the restroom, the bouncer followed me into a section of the bar where nobody could see us. He accused me of having sneaked in underage and grabbed me. I got away from him without being physically hurt, but the date ended with me sobbing and shaking after the ordeal.
I didn’t know what to do for myself other than do what I could to reduce the amount of time I needed to get out of physical situations. I called a few gyms that came up in a “self-defense near me” search.
I decided to try out Art of War based on the phone conversation I had with the owner. I had told him I wasn’t looking for some made-for-women-how-to-use-your-rape-whistle class, I wanted “comprehensive, real training”. He said I had called the perfect place and encouraged me to give each of the classes a shot during my one-week trial.
I didn’t know what I was doing or what to expect.
My idea of “fighting” was centered around punching because my ex-husband had fancied himself a boxer. I didn’t feel a connection, though, between the boxing class and what I was looking for. I chalked that up to my inexperience and hoped a sense of connection would develop as I progressed.
The next class I tried was called jiu-jitsu. I thought it would be a slow, Tai-chi type of practice. I was not interested in that because I already had a strong yoga practice. Nevertheless, I took the gym owner’s advice and tried all they had to offer, arriving in yoga-gear.
A handful of guys started warming up with jogs around the mat fifteen minutes after I arrived.
I raised my hand as if hailing a taxi. “Um, excuse me, is this jiu-jitsu?”
The instructor’s look of shock as he asked, “you’re here for jiu-jitsu?” will probably never leave my mind.
“Yes, I am.” Oh crap, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be here.
“Well come on and join us then.”
I did. I wanted to run away, but figured I was already so embarrassed that it couldn’t get worse. Once warm ups ended, the instructor demonstrated a drill. With no point of reference, the lesson carried no meaning for me. I just knew this was NOT Tai-chi.
The instructor brought me a partner. He walked me through the steps with great care after my blank response to “get in his guard.”
He didn’t indicate any frustration, at least not any that came through my filter of self-consciousness. “First, kneel down facing him,” he said.
The stranger, on his back, wrapped his legs around my waist and crossed his ankles.
“Now put your hands in his armpits like this.”
I slid my fingers under and thumb over each shoulder as the instructor had gestured.
“Push back and lift your head. Now jump your legs back to get on your feet.”
Thank all that is good for yoga, I thought.
“Good. He has you still, so put your left palm on his knee. On the inside, there. With your other hand, reach across and press into his kidney. Keep your hands there, and stand up to rip his legs off of you.”
Rip his legs off of me? That sounded like something I’ve needed to do before.
The sensation that washed through my body can only be called “home”. I was home. The very first thing on my very first day is getting to rip his legs off of me? I live here now. This, this feels like real life.
The repetitive punching of beginner boxing hadn’t felt right to me because I’ve never had that kind of space in a fight. What I needed was to be able to rip parts of dudes off me. I left jiu-jitsu class feeling alive instead of afraid.
I nearly went to the next day’s jiu-jitsu class, but I kept with the gym owner’s advice. I tried Muy Thai that Monday, but no; jiu-jitsu had my heart already.
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Thank you for reading. I would love to hear about your early experiences with martial arts and how they fit into your recovery from abuse. Leave your story in the comments below!
Rebecca encourages survivors of domestic to speak about their experiences and to lean on each other for support.