Finding My Violence
After years of abuse and trauma, I didn't want to be terrified anymore. So, I decided to start training martial arts.
As the car slowed to a stop at the traffic light in front of my house, I saw from my front porch that this driver was not my rapist either, like the hundreds I had confirmed before him. I settled back into the couch to wait for the sound of the next car driving down the hill. Chain-smoking cigarettes and trying to convince myself I could survive a trip to the grocery store, I missed the sound of an approaching car until it was in front of my home – a sight so startling I dropped my cigarette on my arm, which made me jump and kick the table, sending cans and bottles crashing to the ground. “FUCK!” I scream-cried into the street, “I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS!”
So, I started training martial arts.
At first, I took weekly classes at a gym that blended stand-up striking from Muay Thai and Kung Fu with grappling rooted in Brazilian jiu jitsu.
During my first class, the teacher explained that each class ends in sparring. “I’ll go with you first,” he told me, “just nice, easy, and light.” We tapped gloves. I charged him, furious, arms swinging. He circled to the side and casually floated a punch out, not really trying to hit me. “Relax,” he suggested. Fuck this man for telling me to relax! I thought, and went racing forward again. He floated out another punch, “Relax.” I was seething. I didn’t come here to relax. I came here to fight, and I wouldn’t be told by some bro I hardly knew that I should relax. I charged him again. “Relax,” he invited. I was using all my strength and all my fury, but I couldn’t get anywhere close to him. I wanted to bash his face in. I moved toward him and swung another huge punch. This time he didn’t float his punch out; he hit me in the face. Later he would argue that it wasn’t a very hard strike, but it caught my chin, knocked my head back, made me chip my tooth a little bit. “Relax,” he instructed. I remember thinking, “Oh. That’s what you mean.”
After a few months of those weekly classes, I was sparring a dude much bigger and more skilled than I. I was on my back floundering, tired and mostly just waiting for class to end. A voice instructed, “Keep going.” I turned to find the speaker: another coach had come over to watch me train. “Keep going!” he repeated. I tried to wriggle free from my training partner but didn’t know how to move. I squirmed cluelessly for the rest of the round. Afterward, that coach came up to me and said, “Hey, you should train jiu jitsu.”
For the next several months I spent between two and four hours a day, four days a week with that man. He was a vocally misogynistic ex-cop who shared disgusting tales from when he worked as a corrections officer. He was a fucking nightmare, and he was the best Brazilian jiu jitsu coach I’ve ever had.
Like many men in my training, he would couple long hours of generous, personalized instruction for me with class-wide tips that began: “When you’re rolling with women or other people who aren’t very good...” Another high-level dude I used to train with, who often went out of his way to help me when I was preparing for a competition, once heard me complimenting a woman on her pink manicure. “I swear,” he hollered at me, “sometimes it almost seems like you’re a girl!”
Recently when I was looking for a new place to train, I was talking to the professor after class, asking whether there were any women who trained there. “Oh yeah,” he assured me, “We’ve got a really great girl here. She’s a purple belt, and she’s strong like a man!” I am regularly reminded by men who generously invest their time and energy in my development as a fighter that due to my physical strength, tenacity, and the bold and proud way I carry myself on the mat, I am not my whole self. In order for them to see me as the athlete I demonstrate myself to be, they have to lose sight of me as a woman. Their ability to perceive me as the full human I am stops where they witness my fiercest power and potential.
Though this misogyny is at times enraging, I have learned since that first teacher’s tooth-chipping punch to my face that allowing my emotions to control me on the mat will only make my time there more miserable. The last three years have taught me how, instead, to let my rage seethe inside, a slow burn, one I can control and summon when I need it. The first time I tapped out a cop, I began our sparring match with an unparalleled calm of body and mind, accompanied by a raging fire in my heart. As efficiently as I could, but without rushing or being foolish, I mounted her. Joy rose from my chest up my throat as I fished for her arm, but I reminded myself that I did not yet have what I wanted. Keeping my pressure heavy, I secured a finishing grip on her arm and submitted her with an americana, a shoulder lock, and she tapped to indicate her submission, her hand patting my arm. I kept my grip. With my head out of her sight, I consciously allowed the joy to explode from my chest and up to my face. My lips spread wide into an open-mouth smile. I cranked further on her shoulder. “Tap!” she shouted. I released her and asked, friendly and glowing, “Did you tap before that? I didn’t feel it!”
As I learned to check my emotions at the door of the gym, I also learned that outside the gym, even when I spiral into deep fits of anxiety or swing wildly and rapidly between mania and depression, I finally have a tool that will mute these extremes. I’ve spent countless afternoons sobbing in bed, certain that I cannot escape despair, unwilling to accept that I have ever known another state of being. But committed to my evening training schedule, I crawl out of bed, grab my training gear, and head to the gym. There have been days when I showed up hours early for a three-hour training night because I was afraid of what choices I might make if I allowed myself to continue spiraling. Before class, in an empty gym, I hit bags. If I can find a tether, I am often able to pull myself out of despair. MMA is the tether I can count on seven days a week.
Training has equipped me with a sense of control when I otherwise feel powerless. Throughout the first two and a half decades of my life, when scary things happened, I shut my eyes tight and repeated silently, Keep it together. Keep it together. Keep it together. I, like many girls, was taught from a young age not to escalate situations of violence against me, but to be quiet and still, to wait for the people doing violence to me to leave on their own terms.
When I was mugged six years ago, I couldn’t hear the dude telling me to give him my purse. As soon as I saw the foot-long blade he wielded in front of my face, I stood paralyzed. Frustrated by my unintentional noncompliance, he brought the blade down towards me. My friend jumped between us, bumping me out of the way and reminding me I am a human body. “Run!” he told me, and I did as I was told, leaving him there to fight, weaponless and alone.
The first time I faced riot cops, my body buzzed between dissociation and presence with the crowd kicking tear gas canisters back at the cops. I teetered on the edge, consciously trying to call myself into my body. To do something with my body. To do something. To respond to what was hurting me. That night was the first time I ever saw someone throw a rock at a cop. I froze in awe and jealousy. I wanted so much to be brave, too, but was immobilized by fear.
When I decided to start training, I was deciding not to shut my eyes in terror anymore. I was committing to practicing not just surviving the violence I experience in this world, but physically fighting back against it. In my attempts at healing from sexual and emotional violence, I have concluded that at the end of the day – though I am blessed and mystified at my good fortune of my friendships – I am my last line of defense. I train because I want to be able to immobilize anybody who tries to hurt me or the people I care about.
I first felt my training bloom into power outside the gym at a dance party during Pride. I was dancing with my femme squad when some dude carelessly elbowed one of us in the face. She barked at him to watch it, and we all kept dancing. He rammed into her again, using fat slurs about how much space she took up. This time everybody in our crew started screaming at him, but he just kept dancing with nothing to lose. I remember feeling like I was wading through molasses as I made my way over to him in my barely-there leopard print spandex dress. I put my hand on his opposite shoulder and slid my ulna across his throat as I pressed him against the wall. “You need to go,” I told him. He had been looking down on all the femmes on the dance floor, but I met his gaze at his height before he looked down at my cleavage right under his nose, and then my biceps. I tightened the pressure of my arm against his throat, then felt his body soften between me and the wall. “You need to go now,” I repeated. “Okay, I will, just let go.” I threatened the choke a little tighter before releasing him, following close on his heels as he left the bar.
Describing the event later, a friend gleefully declared, “Emily found her violence!” I felt so embodied in the memory of the bar being described in those words. The violence was mine, and I’d found it. And it was the most capable and in control of my life that I’d felt in years.
While friends and comrades support this type of empowerment I find in MMA, sometimes people who have never trained tell me that cage-fighting is nothing like being in the streets, nothing like facing police, nothing like fighting multiple armed opponents. It’s true that when training MMA, I’m not training against militarized formations of dozens or hundreds of opponents at once. It’s true that I don’t train against opponents with weapons. But it’s also true that, while increasing my physical strength, cardiovascular endurance, and fighting skills in hand-to-hand combat (all fairly useful components of any fighting scenario), training also weaponizes me in less visible, but perhaps even more valuable ways than these.
After my first cage fight, a friend told me she admired my bravery. The six weeks of fight camp and three years of training leading up to it were packed with some of the most physically, emotionally, and spiritually grueling experiences of my life, but I never considered myself brave for the cage fight. I spend most of my time on and off the mat deeply anxious, worrying about “what if?” – as I walk alone, as I stand in the streets against police, as I spar with 200 pound men who could drop (and many times have dropped) me with one blow. What if I get hurt? And then I remember that I certainly will. Pain is guaranteed on the mat, so I needn’t worry about whether or not it will come. Misery is my certain and everyday reality in a place controlled by police, so when I confront a line of riot cops, what do I really have to lose? Practicing being brave increases my capacity for bravery. Training conditions me to never give up, even when I am certain that my opponents have better training, weapons, and power.
Because of training I now feel more capable navigating not only dangerous scenarios, but pain itself. When I first started MMA classes, I would notice my vision go fuzzy during training on the first and second days of my period. As my vision continued to fade into a bright white glimmer, I would tell my coach I wasn’t feeling well and sit out the rest of class, rubbing my cramping abdomen. A few months ago, my period and that glimmering visual fade started at the beginning of a Muay Thai sparring class. Unable to see, much less defend, the shots that rained down on me – punches to the face, knees, kicks that sent me flying through the air and onto my ass – I remember saying to myself as I looked at the clock between each round, “Right now, you are training to deal with the pain. That can be enough for tonight.” When the class finally ended, I tapped gloves with my team and went to the bathroom. Sitting on the floor with my head between my knees, I tried to will my vision to return. The fan was so loud I felt it swallowing me. Realizing I was hallucinating, I struggled to my feet and silently exited the gym. My carpool buddy helped me into the car, and as soon as we parked outside his house, I opened the door and puked four times.
I am not suggesting it’s a good idea to consistently push my body to the point of vomiting. Months earlier, it was foolish of me to keep sparring till the end of the Muay Thai round in which I broke my arm. But there is something that tastes like freedom in discovering new, higher levels of pain and finding the strength to remain, to engage, to fight. Now if I find myself in a fight where I lose my vision or have my bones snapped in half, I know that it may still be possible for me to keep fighting until I get to a place – or a world – that is safer.
Perhaps the greatest gift that MMA has given me thus far is my body back to me. By practicing decision-making for and in my body on the mat, I continue to increase the amount of time between dissociative episodes off the mat. Once married to an anti-body narrative that elevated a conceptualization of my body as only a site of pain, fatigue, and trauma, I now refuse to allow what is unpleasant about my corporeal reality to define my relationship with my body. Certainly there is power in naming suffering, and certainly my body absorbs and internalizes the physiological, spiritual, and emotional devastation caused by living in a shit world. In my shoulders I store depression that I work to keep at bay but cannot seem to erase. My body aches in ways that have nothing to do with the injuries I acquire in training. Many of us endure visible and invisible physical wounds in this ableist, capitalist society, and training is the vehicle by which I process and expel much of this misery. The celebration of my body is a catalyst for revolution. Healing is hard, balance is forever elusive, and we are all so full of possibilities.