It’s funny the direction life takes us, isn’t it? When you grow up surrounded by nothing but negativity, it’s hard to be anything but that because it’s all you’ve ever known. I’m 32 years old and a white belt in the martial art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. If you were to ask me “Where did you think you’d be by now?” I never in a million years would have expected my response to be anything close to this because growing up no-one taught me the skills to make it through life and I was taught that I was too stupid to do anything on my own.
Growing up in rural Nova Scotia (and I mean rural; 400 people in my Village), my life was empty. I had no friends (even the nerds picked on me) and all I grew up hearing was how awful the world is and that I’d never amount to anything at all. I was bullied from Kindergarten straight through to High School graduation. Not just by my peers, but by teachers, family (immediate and extended), and members of my community. It’s as though I was walking around with a red target dot that I couldn’t see, but everyone else could. I was suicidal, angry, empty, depressed, and alone. At 20 years old, I let anorexia take over me. Standing 5 feet 7 inches and weighing 90 pounds. I wanted to die.
In my later 20’s, I was on the mend from the anorexia, but I started drinking. A lot. At first it was to try and have fun and fit in. That seemed to be what everyone was doing. I’ve always been a follower; doing what I could to appear “cool” and accepted. I constantly looked on the outside to fit in. I hated myself; everything about me both externally and internally. I knew that no matter how hard I tried I was always going to be on the outside looking in at everyone who seemed to be living perfect, popular, trendy, happy lives
I didn’t realize how out of control my drinking was getting. I started using it as a crutch to numb the pain; I didn’t want to feel anymore. I put myself in the hospital one summer night in 2009and had my stomach pumped. When I woke up, the doctors were quite surprised, “We didn’t think you were going to pull through”. I was out the next night with beer and shots of whatever I wanted. I didn’t care. I didn’t think I had a problem. Like the anorexia, my mind set was “I’m fine. It’s everyone else who has the issue”.
For years I bounced around from job to job, town to town with no direction, guidance, or confidence. I had no stability in life. Then, one dreary day in April of 2014, I walked into Primal MMA to meet the one person who would change everything. I had moved to Toronto Ontario six months prior and was still depressed, angry, hating everything about myself, and drinking. I was poor, living in my brothers’ basement while taking care of my niece and nephew. I hated my life, but pretended it was great because it’s what everyone wanted to hear.
I decided I wanted to take private self defense lessons. My reasons were simple: To better myself as a person. Martial Arts is a lot about awareness and respect; for the self and for the world around us. I was looking to discipline myself, to go deeper and more inward. Aside from the anorexia and alcohol, I also battle depression, anxiety plus I have a lot of deep seeded anger that I’ve learned to harness through yoga, but I needed another outlet. Group classes terrified me and I was willing to use my line of credit with my bank for the lessons. Deep down, I knew I needed to do this and I took a leap of faith knowing I was spending money I didn’t have on what most other people would consider a “whimsical notion”.
I was communicating with Primals’ head MMA coach, Egor Radzik, through e-mail after seeing fliers for the gym all over the Leslieville area of Toronto. I eventually listened to that niggling sensation in the back of my mind saying “You should go.”
In our first few lessons we started with basic self defense moves, fitness and eventually worked in a little bit of boxing. During one of those lessons we were alone in the dojo going through a series of jabs and crosses when I heard the big door open and someone walk in. I froze. I couldn’t breathe. Poor Egor had no idea what was wrong, “Why did you stop?!”
“I can’t… there’s someone else here… I can’t do this.” I barely got the words out I was so scared.
I have this fear of people seeing me trying something new for the first time. It’s a scar that runs deep from being bullied. Even private lessons when we were alone were hard to do because even though it was just myself and Egor, the room was full of ghosts from my past. All the kids in school who bullied me, laughed and pointed when I tried something new, said something stupid (or anything at all for that matter). I couldn’t shake the thoughts that were telling me over and over again “You’re such a loser. Why are you even trying?”
He urged me to try his group boxing class which went okay except I noticed a lot of the jits guys coming in a bit early to get ready. During classes I tried to place myself so that no-one could see me very well but I could keep an eye on everyone else. A couple of them said “hi” to me as I left the mats. I put my head down, looked away, mumbled something that sounded like “hi” back and bolted for the change room thinking, “please just leave me alone”.
When I started doing jits, it was even worse for a long time. I would leave class half way through and be in the change roomcrying and shaking from the panic attacks. I found myself in the pub way too much because drinking was the only way I could deal with the anxiety. I continued to push myself to go to class mainly for Egor. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I continued to drink a lot. I convinced myself I didn’t belong and would never belong.
I can’t say how, when or even why it happened, but things started (very slowly) to turn around. After one of my frequent mad dash out of class habits, I didn’t go back to jits for three months. At that point, I began working at Primal in exchange for membership and private lessons. Thomas, the owner, (who has equally been very supportive and understanding) set me up with two hours a night cleaning. I would clean the mats after the guys were done, feeling upset and depressed because I wasn’t training. They would all ask me when I was coming back to train and why I wasn’t training now. I wanted to be there, but I was too scared to go. I desperately wanted to belong, but the negative voices were telling me that everyone hated me and no-one cared about me so why bother? I was just making a fool of myself. Akira, one of our original members, said to me one night “Heather, I’m really upset… no wait, not upset… I’m really disappointed that you aren’t training”. He wasn’t mean about it; just matter of fact. I thought to myself, “He’s just saying that because he thinks it’s what I want to hear. He doesn’t reallymean it.” His comment stuck with me though. I was mad at myself. I was giving up, I was letting everyone from my past win. I couldn’t deal with it anymore.
I went back to class. I didn’t realize it, but I had been emotionally frozen and numb for a long, long time. Eventually I started to thaw out and all kinds of feelings both positive and negative came rushing at me. It was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to deal with it, but I fought through it. I fought the ghosts, the voices, the jealousy, the panic. I still drank, but change doesn’t happen overnight. I had to take it one step at a time. If drinking was helping me get to class and deal with the anxiety, then I would allow myself to drink. I tried forcing myself to quit, but it never worked. It has to be a natural process. Then one day, I realized it had been almost a month since I found myself hiding out in the pub. The urge and necessity to drink was almost all gone.
Even the voices of anorexia have quieted down. I still have my bad days, but the good ones are now more abundant then the bad. I can’t believe how strong I’m getting; physically, mentally and emotionally. I also am seeing a huge change in how I handle the negative, self-destructive
On December 5th I take my biggest leap of faith. I’m competing at the Ontario Jiu Jitsu Provincials in Peterborough Ontario. It’s taking a lot of emotional, mental and physical work, but I am slowly learning to no longer define myself by the stories of my past. Each day that I am in Jiu Jitsu I leave with a little bit more strength. It has opened up my world and allowed me to grow and grow-up. It’s held up a mirror to me, forced me to look and re-examine my life. My flight or fight instinct has always been “Flight” but, through Egor’s
The best things in life don’t happen overnight. It takes time, dedication, patience, courage. You have to keep pushing through the pain and desperation and know that the hard work pays off even though it’s scary as Hell. You’ll find your community, your friends, your Self. Stand and fight. If you’re standing alone that’s okay. Keep standing. Sooner or later the good people will come to you. Just don’t ever give up.
Jiu Jitsu forced me to see my ego and is slowly helping me to let it go. It’s given me hope for my future. Now when I wake up in the morning, instead of thinking of all the reasons why I should just go toss myself in front of a subway car, I look forward to what the day will bring and I work my hardest, try my best and give thanks to everyone who is supporting me. My teammates have become family; too many to list of course, but honourable mention to those from Day 1: Chirag, Akira, Jim, Leo, Mark, Simon, Colin, Osbert, Liam, and to everyone who is there with me on the mats offering me their patience, wisdom, stubbornness and encouragement.
I am learning to no longer define myself by who I was and who I was told I would (or wouldn’t) be. I could have left a long time ago, but that niggling little voice that first told me to go to Primal, kept telling me “Stay. Wait. You’ll see; good things will happen. You just need patience.”
I’d been living at the bottom of a dark, cold well for a long time, but Egor tossed me a rope. Instead of pulling me up he simply told me, “Start climbing”. We only need one person to believe in us and if it means waiting 32 years to find that one person I’ll take it because it beats knowing I probably would have ended up in far worse places.