On November 9, 2015, I stepped foot on the mats in my first ever jiu jitsu class. Why do I remember that date? I don’t have an eidetic memory or anything close to it (just ask my instructor how little I remember of what he’s taught me).
That date is burned in my memory because it was also the third anniversary of my brother’s death—which makes today 10 years since I got the call from my sister that would change my life forever.
It’s odd to think about life before Shaun’s death, and the relatively sheltered existence I’d lived before then. Don’t get me wrong—life wasn’t easy for my first 25 years. My childhood was far from idyllic, and it left me with scars I’ll probably be trying to heal from for the rest of my existence. Still, Shaun’s death marked the beginning of a decade that’s been rife with loss—dissolving a toxic relationship with my mother, years of chronic pain, my mentor Ken’s untimely passing, a miscarriage, and five failed rounds of IVF (ultimately leading to the realization that motherhood is likely not in my future). That list barely scratches the surface.
Through 7 out of these past 10 years, though, I’ve had one fairly constant coping strategy: martial arts.
One of the hallmarks of grief is this unbearable feeling that everything is out of your control. You can do all the “right” things, and still, people die. Jobs are lost. Relationships fail. Accidents happen. Depression takes over. If you’re a type-A control freak like I am, you’re cringing as you read this paragraph—because we “should” be able to check all the boxes and get what we want from life. If only it worked that way.
Martial arts isn’t just something I do for fun (though it is a lot of fun much of the time!). I do it because, when everything else feels like it’s falling apart, when my grief—over Shaun, over Ken, over my failed attempts at becoming a mother, over any of it—makes me feel like nothing is in my control, at least one thing is. I may go through weeks or months of plateaus in my training, where nothing is clicking, but I know that if I keep showing up, eventually, I’ll see progress. And what I’m working toward is building increasing bodily autonomy in the event that someone ever tries to take that from me. I’m building control over my personhood.
I walked into my first jiu jitsu class a year after I’d been cornered by a man in a Whole Foods parking lot, a situation from which I escaped physically unscathed but emotionally shaken. While it took me a year to finally take action, that experience was a painful spotlight on my inherent vulnerability, the complete lack of control I had over my body without the skills to protect it. While I didn’t know 7 years ago just how central martial arts would become to my life, I was certain I’d keep doing it until I’d built the confidence to walk down the street (or through a parking lot), knowing I could protect myself if ever I needed to.
There I was, a newbie white belt, so new that I didn’t even own a belt yet, sitting on the mats, utterly bewildered. I couldn’t understand anything. They say that learning jiu jitsu is like learning a new language, and I couldn’t understand a word. (It probably didn’t help that the instructor had a thick Brazilian accent). Still, I sat through the class, determined to accomplish what I’d set out to, despite the waves of grief that always seem to bubble up on the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
I was paired with a huge guy weighing close to 300 pounds, probably a hilarious sight next to my little 130-pound self. I’m pretty sure I laughed in his face when he told me what we’d be doing for this drill: I’d be lying on my back with him sitting on my stomach (a position I’d later learn was called mount), and I was expected to get all his heft off of me. How on earth?! But within minutes, he’d taught me how to position my body so leverage worked in my favor, and I was able to unseat him with an upa mount escape.
I was sold.
That moment of conquering the seeming impossible pulled me out of my grief, just for a moment, giving me a sense of control over my body I hadn’t felt in over a year.
And that’s a huge part of what’s kept me coming back to the mats these past 7 years through more losses than I ever bargained for. I can’t bring my brother or mentor back, magically give myself a better mother, or undo the failed IVF cycles that broke me physically and emotionally. I can’t erase my grief. But what I can do is continue to show up on the mats, giving myself agency over my body. When nothing else is in my control, this is.