Taekwondo Never Leaves You

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Note: I originally started writing this post on April 9, 2017 and then forgot about it. Now seems like a good time to bring this back. This is a bit of a love letter and a call back to a post I wrote last year when I was in a very different state of mind: Taekwondo Is Always There.

Two years ago I attended the United States Taekwondo Grandmasters Society banquet in Dallas, Texas. The annual event attracted seasoned and honored grandmasters from all over the country, including my grandmaster from my former dojang.

One of the guest speakers was Olympian Jackie Galloway. She talked about how tradition was inextricably intertwined with a martial art that continues to evolve. People change too, but as Jackie said in her heartfelt speech, “Taekwondo never leaves you.”

I left taekwondo when I was twelve. I left it again for a few months in late 2018. Both times I felt lost. With delight I later discovered–twice–that taekwondo had never left me.

The first time I left taekwondo was due to a number of changes my family was going through. Life happened, as it is wont to do. Frankly I hated sparring so much by that point I was a little relieved to quit. As I got into junior high and high school and extra curricular activities it faded to the background as something I’d done as a kid. As an adult I’d remember it occasionally and fondly as the one sport I was good at performing (well…except sparring).

And then it came crashing back into my life when I absolutely NEEDED it. I had tried many other things to ease years of emotional pain and dumb choices. Some remedies worked to a degree, but I still reached a breaking point. I KNEW without external prompting that I had to get back to taekwondo. It was there waiting for me all those years later.

After making the the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking decision to leave my dojang as an adult I wondered if taekwondo would slip quietly into the background and become something I used to do but wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore.

Taekwondo was still there waiting patiently for me when I started classes at a new dojang in December 2018. It was there when I volunteered to referee sparring matches at a black belt test. It was there when I kicked a focus pad again. It was there when I tied on a chest protector and slipped on my fighting gloves for the first time in months (I’m better at sparring now and actually like it…most of the time). It was there when my new master welcomed me to her school with open arms. Taekwondo was there when I realized (with relief) how happy I was again.

I have felt so much more light-hearted and easy-going these past two months than the entirety of 2018 that I wondered with a bit of disappointment that I had an unhealthy addiction to taekwondo, like a dependency on a drug or alcohol. The past few years of training have not been all sunshine and flowers, even when things were awesome at my old dojang. I have had some dark times, and I know that at some points I used taekwondo classes as a band-aid for more deeply lying issues. Was this new happy, productive me the real me or was this just my addicted brain on taekwondo?

I talked to a friend about it, and he told me not to worry too much about it. He didn’t think I was relying on taekwondo to make me happy. His philosophy was that people needed some sense of belonging, whatever that looks like. As introverted and as guarded of my time as I am it does feel good to have a sense of purpose and connection. I think I was missing that more than I realize.

Even though I’m a planner I know life can still have unexpected twists and turns. I may have to leave taekwondo again at some point.

The nice thing is, I know now that it will never leave me.

 

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Guest Writer: The Benefits Taiji Has on Mental Health

While taekwondo poomsae (forms) can be a rewarding form of moving mediation, there are many other ways to improve one’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being from martial arts. Guest writer Adam Durnham shares the benefits of taiji (tai chi) in this post. If you would like to be a guest blogger for Little Black Belt, please read the contributing guidelines here

Tai-Chi

Also known as tai chi, taiji is a low-impact body-mind exercise or martial art that originated in China. In Asia, people have practiced it for many centuries and it helps improve health and fitness 

Taiji has gained popularity in the West and people use it to enhance their overall psychological well-being and mood. Many scientific studies have researched taiji as well as breathing control and physical exercises related to taiji known as qigong. Many of these studies claim that taiji may enhance the mental health of individuals.

“This combination of self-awareness with self-correction of the posture and movement of the body, the flow of breath, and mindfulness, are thought to comprise a state that activates the natural self-regulatory (self-healing) capacity,” according to some researchers.

The low-impact martial art is associated with reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. When individuals are unable to cope with life’s challenges, they may indulge in behaviors like abusing drugs and alcohol. They may also experience stress, anxiety, and depression. To help improve mental health and reduce the chances of abusing alcohol or drugs, individuals may want to practice taiji. Let’s examine how this martial art may help the body deal with mental tension.

Managing Stress

One reason to practice taiji is to reduce stress. People may experience stress due to many reasons. If you have a chronic disease, you probably deal with a lot of stress. You may also experience stress when you face life challenges relating to your finances, work, family, and relationships.

Conventional Chinese medicine teaches that illness occurs because of an imbalance between opposing life forces, yang and yin. Taiji helps reestablish balance and create harmony between the mind and body. It also helps connect a person with the outside world. Practicing taiji can help reduce stress and improve your mental health.

To practice taiji, people perform a series of body movements in a slow but focused manner. Deep breathing accompanies the movements. The practice encourages flowing from posture to posture without pausing, ensuring that an individual’s body remains in constant motion. The meditative movement is a noncompetitive, self-paced system that consists of physical exercise and stretching.

Improving Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQoL)

When people are ill, their quality of life diminishes. Health-related quality of life (HRQoL)offers a comprehensive measure of well-being. It reflects people’s perceptions of their health and their satisfaction with life over a certain period of time.

People who suffer from mental health conditions may report poor HRQoL. When you compare individuals with common medical conditions to people with mental health conditions, you may find that there is a significant difference in their level of HRQoL impairments. People with mental health conditions may have relatively larger HRQoL impairments compared to those with common medical disorders. Taiji can help improve the health-related quality of life and may be an important exercise for the treatment of mental disorders.

Help with Anxiety, Mood, and Depression

A Japanese trial conducted in 2010 evaluated elderly people who had cerebral vascular disorder. The trial studied different approaches to deal with the participants’ anxiety. The participants practiced taiji or participated in standard rehabilitation in various group sessions at least one time a week for twelve weeks. The participants who practiced taiji experienced improvement in symptoms related to anxiety, insomnia, depression, and sleep quality.

Help with Substance Abuse

For people who are receiving treatment for addiction, practicing taiji may help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms when they stop using substances. Withdrawal symptoms are one of the greatest challenges addicts face when recovering from addiction. The symptoms can be so severe that people are unable to cope with them. They may return to using drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain of withdrawal.

Practicing taiji helps to lower relapse rates and reduces cravings. Individuals who have been treated for addiction may still experience the urge to use drugs or consume alcohol. Relapses occur when people who have received treatment return to using drugs and alcohol. Taiji may help reduce cravings, help people complete their treatment programs, and stay sober after their treatment.

Suffering from drug and alcohol abuse could create poor mental well-being. People may be unable to control negative feelings and emotions or even make sound decisions. Taiji exercises may help instill confidence, energy, and stamina to deal with life challenges. They may help reduce stress, depression, or anxiety.

If you are an addict, you may want to seek treatment at an addiction rehab and begin your journey to recovery. A rehab center will provide various treatment programs and techniques, which may include the use of mind-body practices such as taiji and yoga to help with treatment and recovery.

Author Bio: Adam Durnham is a freelance blogger and martial arts lover that primarily writes about mental health, wellness, martial arts, and how they all pertain to everyday life. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan with his dog Beignet. You can find a lot of his work at the Willow Springs Recovery Blog

Falling Out of Love Can Be a Slow, Sickening Process

forever over.jpgThe first time I entered the UT Southwestern medical school library for a class in my library science graduate program, I KNEW IN MY BONES that I wanted to be there. I wanted to work in a medical library, and I was on FIRE.

And I did. After an internship at that very library and a year-long stint at an oil company I landed a job in the medical library of one of the largest hospitals in my metropolitan area. It was my dream job…until it wasn’t. After several years I realized that I had to leave. There were a number of reasons beyond my desire to leave that job, and out of respect for the company I’ll keep those reasons private. As much as I KNEW I wanted to work at UT Southwestern I KNEW IN MY BONES that I had to quit this hospital library job.

It was a heartbreaking realization and a yearlong process to find another job. I told no one other than my parents of my deep dissatisfaction and desire to get out. It was difficult to suffer in silence and alternate between the nervousness of changing to a new environment and the dread of staying where I didn’t want to be any longer than I had to. I didn’t love or even like my job, or the library profession itself, any more. I wasn’t progressing, and I knew I would stagnate and regress if I stayed there. But what would I do if I left that job? I got a master’s degree in that field so I could land a job like that. As much as I want to eschew profession as part of one’s identity, that job was a part of who I was.

Luckily I landed a job within the same healthcare company in the training and development department. It wasn’t easy at first. There was a learning curve and poor management (those people are no longer with the company). I wondered more than once if I’d made the wrong decision. I had zero experience in org/leadership development, but I worked hard to learn and carve a space of my own in that department.

Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I don’t regret it at all. I’ve grown up in that job emotionally and professionally. I developed new talents and skills and have flourished. I’ve had more opportunities and more exposure in the organization, and it has proven to be MUCH more lucrative than staying in the library world. (Hint to companies–pay your young librarians more. Maybe they’ll stay longer.)

I tell this story to make my point that falling out of love is sometimes a slow process with aching, ever-growing clarity. I didn’t hate my old career or anyone involved. No one did anything wrong to me. It just wasn’t a fit anymore for who I was at that time or who I knew I had the potential to be.

And that’s how I feel about my taekwondo school. I’m not in love anymore. I continue to go to class out of some lingering, dwindling sense of loyalty, identity, familiarity, and fear of political repercussions if I quit in a public way. I’m afraid to leave because of possible repercussions, but I am not growing. I’m bored. I don’t like the new location. My potential is stunted. I don’t see a “lucrative” future in terms of training and opportunities. There are other reasons for my dissatisfaction, but like my old job, I want to keep those reasons private out of respect for and privacy of the other people involved.

One could argue do we have to be “in love” with everything? No, of course not. A job is a job. We don’t have to all “follow our passions.” I like my job, but my main passion is paying off my mortgage. I don’t have to love taekwondo; it could just be an activity I do once in a while…but that’s not my history with it. I fell hard and fast. I was in deep.

I know this drastic change in my relationship to taekwondo has affected my mood and emotional waves this past year as I have withdrawn from my involvement in the school’s current version of itself. More often than not, I don’t look forward to going to class. I don’t care anymore. As a result (possibly), I get more stressed out and overwhelmed in general more quickly, and I’m on a shorter fuse. I let myself become more emotionally involved at work, which I detest because I’ve always enjoyed a relaxed sense of detachment from the more silly parts of the corporate world. I’ve lost a big part of my identity that has been such a positive force for the last several years.

I do have my moments of excitement and happiness. I enjoyed very much getting to lead a black belt test we held in April. I had a lot of fun with my fellow black belts and students this past week. Taking an old familiar taekwondo class and getting to wear my black belt and uniform is a lot different (and still more emotionally fulfilling) than the Body Combat class at the gym. Maybe I just need an extended break, like I took from work a few weeks ago…but I know that will just be a bandage over a larger, deeper problem.

But it’s just not the same. What we had for the last several years (our camaraderie, our shared goals, our school) is gone, and part of my challenge this year has been accepting that loss and finding the positive in what exists now. But do I have to accept it? Did I have to just accept that library job (and salary) and say, “Okay, this is my career for the next 30 years”? I’d like to think that I’m still a black belt and retain all the mental, physical (although that’s dwindling because my training is minimal), and emotional prowess that comes with it, no matter where I go or what I do in life. I’ll always be a black belt. But I might be a black belt without a home.

The Best Birthday

Happy-Birthday-Cupcake

“Turn. Face Melanie,” my instructor said at the end of class. It was a Friday night and we had practiced my favorite techniques: hand strikes, forms, and breaking. What was coming next? Wait a minute, we’d already done the standard bow-to-the-black-belts part of our closing ritual: master, second degrees, first degrees. What’s going on? Is there something spe—oooohhh, right.

“Start singing,” he added, giving me a smirk as he strolled to the front of the room. The whole class sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I grinned and covered my face.

“Be sure to thank her and wish her a happy birthday,” my instructor continued when the students finished singing. “She helps out a lot getting you ready for tests and tournaments and teaching in class.” My grandmaster added his sentiments, reminding the class that I’d been an assistant instructor for two years and that I was always hanging around to help, making me, in his words, a “special” person. I couldn’t make a sound other than blush and do a little “Namaste” bow to him and my classmates.

Grandmaster and my instructor got to work setting up a table with drinks and cake (a cake! With my name written in blue icing–my favorite color! For my birthday!) and I smiled primly as my classmates shook my hand and wished me a happy birthday. I was truly touched and humbled.

Okay, let’s pause for a minute. A bunch of kids (and a few token adults) singing “Happy Birthday” and a cake doesn’t seem like that extraordinary of a birthday, but for me it meant a lot. No one had ever surprised me like that on my birthday, and the fact that I shared it with my taekwondo family made it especially meaningful.

My birthdays have been pretty quiet as of late. Even though I’m a grown-ass woman I’ve spent the last couple of birthdays either completely alone or with my parents. Now I know they’re reading this so disclaimer: I love my parents and very much enjoy spending time with them….but….They’re supposed hang out with me on occasion; that’s their thing since it’s kinda their fault I have a birthday and all.

Last year I spent my birthday out of town with the parents. It was fun but still a little lonely. The year before I was at home alone; I don’t remember if I even treated myself to fast food. The year before that when I was in a relationship I spent my birthday with a mean-spirited boyfriend who ruined the day with his constant negativity and criticism. Trust me, I was thrilled to spend this year’s birthday with other people’s kids and cake.

My little birthday celebration helped me get past a difficult place I’ve been in for a while with my practice. Over the past few months I’ve had a bit of an existential crisis around taekwondo. At first I wondered if I was using it as a vice like alcohol to avoid internal pain (I was). I wondered if I was using it to avoid maintaining real relationships (I was). I wondered if I even deserved to be there at all or if I was just a disappointment to everyone. Sometimes I even considered quitting.

But this seemingly small gesture of celebrating my birthday reminded me that I touched more lives than I gave myself credit for doing. It reminded me that I was loved and valued. It encouraged me to continue showing up for them, even on the days when I didn’t want to do it for myself. It was, in a sense, a rebirth of my commitment to my taekwondo family and my own practice. I felt reconnected to something I genuinely felt was slipping away.

And you guys, the cake was really good. Chocolate with whipped cream icing, mmmmm, who could walk away from that?

Even Black Belts Get Imposter Syndrome

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You know that time for a minute or so when I thought I didn’t deserve the big office that was offered to me when I relocated for my job? Yeah, I got over that fast, which you can read about in this post. Things at work could not be better. I am having a blast and sincerely love my job. I’m building lots of great relationships and am involved in some exciting projects. Even when I’m not sure what to do or feel like I didn’t give the best answer or flubbed up a presentation, I can still move forward with a smile, feeling confident and satisfied.

I don’t exactly feel that way in my personal life. I’m not isolated and broken hearted like I was two months ago, but in the dojang, for example, I still feel like I have some overinflated, false sense of authority and necessity. I feel like I’m a fraud and a joke who doesn’t deserve a black belt. I have had to miss several classes lately due to work obligations (thank you, awesome job!) and some personal things, but I also have a thought in the back of my mind that maybe I should stop going altogether. Maybe it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” I don’t get the regular camaraderie and fun and see my incremental progress, so I lose sight of why I kept going.

Here’s how I feel about myself as a black belt, whether this is accurate or not: Why am I entrusted with anything? I’m just a clumsy first degree who makes more mistakes than progress. I teach some things the wrong way, and there are certain movements my aging, aching body refuses to do even when I know damn well how to do them, and they’re easy for lower ranking students but not for me. I’m really not that great at it and I feel like I’m an embarrassment and disappointment to my instructors. Sometimes I don’t even know why I have a black belt other than being good at hitting stuff with my hands. I’m pretty good at forms too, so I guess that counts for something.

And now my instructors will probably be mad at me for writing that. I never said those thoughts were based in reality. They’re just feelings that bubble up sometimes. I really want to test for second degree later this fall, but at times I’m tempted to not go back at all. Why bother if I’m so awful at it?

Sounds like I have a good old fashioned case of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome, or Imposter Phenomenon, was first identified in the 1970s and is typically occurs among people who find it difficult to accept their successes and often question whether they will be found out as a fraud. In my case, I think I’m a crappy black belt, and I’m just making a fool of myself by continuing to show up at the dojang. It’s even more debilitating with my personal friendships and relationships and one of the reasons why I’ve lived a very isolated private life up to this point.

Imposter Syndrome is also typically seen among high achievers, so maybe I’m just a self-centered Alpha Female looking for reassurance. Maybe I’m just a big jerk.

I’ve never really had a real case of Imposter Syndrome in the workplace, which is stereotypically where it tends to manifest. I’ve had plenty of moments where I’ve panicked because I didn’t know what to do or didn’t feel like I was up for a big task, but I found ways around them and kept going. I never let work anxieties affect how I felt about myself, and as a result, my confidence has grown as I’ve matured professionally, which I think has at least partially contributed to my continued success.

On the surface I keep up a good front of being seemingly put together with advanced education, career success, owning a home, and the added bonus of being physically attractive, at least by societal standards. I didn’t do any of those things to impress anyone, though. I wanted to build my own life and figured early on that I wouldn’t have any support so I charged ahead solo. Things fell into place by happenstance and hard work. I liked school. I liked to work. I liked to exercise and pick out stylish outfits and make myself look nice. Good stuff just happened to ensure from that. That front has helped me hide my true feelings, but in a way, they’ve trapped me into that image as well. I look very good on paper, but now I can’t let down the facade.

I think the difference between my work life and personal life is that with work, as much as I care about the people there and as much as I love my job, there’s a healthy sense of detachment. I could drop the mic, walk away, never talk to any of them again, and never give a thought to that part of my life again and be totally fine. I’d still be me and feel just fine about myself. I’ve always felt that way when it comes to my jobs, and as a weird result, good fortune seems to follow. It’s effortless.

Here’s a good example of Imposter Syndrome creeping into my personal life: shortly before I went back to taekwondo I briefly dated a guy who seemed like a great catch. He was handsome, fit, charming, funny, and owned a business. He seemed to have it all together…on paper anyway. The sad thing was I could never relax and be myself around him. I always questioned how I looked or what I said. I wondered why a guy like him was with me. When was he going to become disappointed in me and ultimately reject me? Why did he even want to date me in the first place?

I didn’t think I was good enough for him, and that is still difficult to admit. It makes me sad that I thought so little of myself. I’m sure he saw a lot of good qualities in me, but I was too mired in self-doubt to see what he saw. I ended up blowing it by overreacting over something minor, and I sabotaged the relationship as quickly as it began. In retrospect it was what needed to happen, and I couldn’t care less about that guy now, but I do remember the lesson I learned. The best thing that came from that failed relationship is that it catapulted me into the best thing that’s ever happened to me even though I kind of have a love/hate relationship with taekwondo right now.

While professionally I’m open to opportunities and possibilities and actually think I deserve them or at least have earned them, I don’t allow myself to relax and enjoy the ones I experience personally. Deep down I’ve never felt like I was good enough. I knew I was capable of being loved, but in the back of my mind I didn’t think anyone would want to stick it out with me for the long haul, whether it was a friendship or a romantic relationship. Guess what happened? As a believer in the Law of Attraction, I set myself up for failure.

The people I care about probably don’t know that I struggle frequently with old harmful emotional habits such as defensiveness and fearing rejection (well, until now. Oops. Hi, y’all.)…or maybe I wear my heart on my sleeve and they’ve known all along. This is so frustrating–as much work as I’ve done on myself over the past seven years, I still catch myself wondering if their fondness for me is conditional and temporary. My mind latches onto every thing said or unsaid (it loves to dig it claws into the unsaid) and analyzes the crap out of them and keeps me up at night with its silly notions and heartache-inducing, trouble making nonsense. Those bad habits have caused me so many problems in the past that I inwardly work overtime to control them.

Just as I am tempted to shy away from taekwondo so I am not faced with my own failure (at least in my skewed perception), I am tempted to shy away from the very people I care about. Why bother? They’re going to find out that I’m not that great and come to the conclusion that I’m not worth hanging around, right?

I know I am a good person and worthy of love and friendship, but old deeply ingrained habits die hard. I don’t want to burden the people I care about with these thoughts and feelings mostly because they aren’t real. They are lies and fears cooked up by the parts of my mind that I haven’t yet gotten under control. They’re not even fully formulated thoughts. A lot of it is good old fashioned, reactionary anxious garbage that doesn’t need to be dragged out in front of company.

Disclaimer: I didn’t write this for sympathy or reassurance.

I know a lot of stuff that flows through my head is bullshit that makes my life unnecessarily difficult. I’m simply admitting what I’ve figured out.
Carry on…

When does self-consciousness morph into self-centeredness? Am I a decent person currently plagued by doubts but sincerely trying to overcome them or am I an egotistical maniac just dismayed that I’m not being adored and worshipped? Did my self-consciousness make me inadvertently shoot myself in the foot and sabotage those relationships I supposedly cared about?

Did I just out myself to the people I truly care about? What if they find out that I really don’t have it all together? What if they don’t care and still love me anyway, but I’m too blind and selfish to recognize it? If I really loved the people I claim to care about, I would trust them to love me back, and even if they didn’t, I’d still be okay with who I am.

My mentor has told me more than once that what other people think about me is none of my business. Whether they love me, hate me, or simply don’t care about me isn’t a reflection on who I am or the qualities I have. Easier said than done, but I try to keep that in mind. It seems to work in my professional life, and as a result of being detached, confident, and carefree, my work life has been on an upward slope since my early twenties. I’m reaping rewards without seemingly trying at all.

One of these days I’ll feel that way about my personal life too. I won’t question whether someone cares about me. I won’t doubt myself in the dojang. The scary truth that just occurred to me is that to be totally free and happy in my personal life I need to be able to drop the mic, walk away at any moment (from friends, taekwondo, whatever), and still feel whole and satisfied and confident in myself even if I lose what I think I love the most. Even if I’m found out.

But you know what? I’m awesome, no matter what anyone thinks or doesn’t think.

I’m ready to drop the mic.

 

Can I Live Without Taekwondo?

lonely beach

I haven’t been to taekwondo class in over a week. Not by choice–a sinus infection thanks to Texas allergies knocked me back pretty hard. I was thankfully able to attend a lovely banquet for the U.S. Taekwondo Grandmasters Society in Dallas last Saturday, but other than that my participation in the taekwondo world has been nil.

I haven’t done any forms at home, I haven’t mentally worked through my self defense techniques, I haven’t watched any training videos. My uniforms are all washed and neatly folded in a drawer, and my belt is coiled in my duffel bag, waiting for me. I didn’t do anything related to my practice. It seems like I can live without taekwondo. Or so I thought.

I talked to some of my classmates and instructors off and on for a few days, getting the gossip and funny stories about things that happened in class. By the end of the week communication dwindled to a trickle and finally to nothing. Having been burned several times in the past by giving my heart too freely, I’m pretty gun shy about pursuing communication with people who don’t appear to be very communicative. So I didn’t bother. I was too stubborn to reach out. Maybe I should have been the one to call, text, or even stop by, but I was too afraid of being rejected. Decades of hurt and mistrust overtook me and poisoned the relationships with people I love. Apparently they can live without me too.

Boredom set in, then an aching loneliness, then depression. I have cabin fever. Other than a ballet barre class yesterday I’ve been too tired and congested to exercise. I’ve hidden in my office during most of the workweek. I’ve been reading voraciously during all my time at home, taking full advantage of having a well-stocked library in my house. I’ve written in my journal a lot. I began mixing substances just to get the night over with, not really caring what effects they’d have on me.

To my horror I’m tempted to wrap my protective cocoon around me tighter and mutter, “Fuck all of you, I’m done,” when what I need the most is my familiar dojang and friends. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go back at all. I’m safe at home with my books and my mood-altering substances. I’ve whittled myself down to 110 pounds and feel especially elated every time I step on the scale. I could get used to this. I’ve sunken into isolation before, and I’m very good at staying there. Maybe the relationships I thought were solid are just as superficial as all my other ones. Hiding in plain sight is easier than it sounds. Taekwondo is just an addiction that’s been masking my other addictions.

I’ve made the cruel discovery that not even taekwondo, what I thought was my saving grace, can fulfill whatever it is my heart is looking for. I was just clinging to it, like I had to other things or people, to make myself “happy.” I have to generate that within myself.

I can live without taekwondo, and taekwondo can certainly live without me. How arrogant of me to think that I’m an essential part of the school, part of the gang, one of the boys. I’m only a first degree black belt, just a student who plays dress up as teacher once in a while.

But I don’t like how I feel without taekwondo. I still need it. I’m heartbroken without it, yet I don’t like that I feel so vulnerable to admit it. I see how rapidly I declined without it in only a week. I’m angry that it has such a hold on me that I fall apart without its constant presence in my life. Will the spell be broken once I’m back in class?

Black Belts Can’t Have Eating Disorders, Right? I Mean, That’s Just Silly…

black belt cinch.jpg

Maybe I can cinch this belt just a little bit tighter…

114.8

That was the number blinking up at me from my digital scale at 8:57 PM a week or so ago after three hours of taekwondo training. I smiled. It was exactly one pound less than it was at 5:21 AM that morning. Ahh. At least I had that.

Then I ate a small meal, sat on my bed and cried for a while, and took some medicine to help me sleep. That’s been happening more often lately. My weight had nothing to do with my mood (other than giving me a little boost), but I’ll get to that later.

So I guess I have to eat (ha ha, no pun intended) my words a bit. A few months ago I wrote this big manifesto about how I was finally over the disordered eating and body image problems that had plagued me since I was thirteen years old. I stopped restricting calories, ate whatever and whenever I felt like it, and got back into cooking traditional Italian dishes. I was really proud of myself.

Then some strange gastrointestinal problems hit me around Christmas and lasted up until…hmm…about this time last week. I had to follow a healthier, more whole foods diet and cut out junk food. I love junk food but eventually lost interest in it other than an occasional taste. Some days I simply couldn’t eat because I felt too sick. I lost seven pounds, and oh my God, you guys, it was like the hit of a drug. Seven pounds doesn’t sound like much, but I’m 5’3” and small to begin with, so it’s noticeable. I look leaner, and my clothes fit better. I’ve been this weight before, and I was fine. I LOVE being smaller. I LOVE the way my clothes fit. Those dropping numbers on the scale were emotional cocaine. I was triggered, y’all.

I can get addicted to things very easily, and weight loss is one of them. I like seeing the “trouble areas” get leaner. I like seeing the muscle tone peek out around my triceps and the ripples on my upper back. I like that I recently had to buy a smaller size pair of jeans than I’d been used to. I like that my tight lycra stretch pants I always wear to the gym are just a wee bit looser than usual.

It’s not like I don’t eat. Here’s a typical day for me: bowl of cereal with banana and raspberries and maybe half a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. Tortellini with vegetables for lunch and a spicy chickpea and tahini wrap for dinner. I just hate feeling full. I wonder if I should have had half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a whole sandwich after class tonight. Maybe I should just eat a protein bar after taekwondo practice, especially on my late nights. Or maybe…

Let’s get something straight. I don’t binge, and I don’t purge. You guys, I eat, I swear…but maybe, just maybe, I could get the number a little lower. Just for fun. Just to see if I could do it. Just to have a low baseline so I could put weight back on. That’s okay, right?

To me it’s not that big of a deal. I’m not “skinny.” I have curves and muscles. Skinny girls look like prepubescent boys. I’m fine. I’m still flabby in one area so I HAVE to sacrifice everything else to make that part thinner, right? I have it in my head that I’m deceptively thin: I look tiny and fit from the outside but up close it’s a different story. Who is going to be attracted to me if they find out my secret? Am I right? (Then again I’ve never had any complaints other than that one time you can read about here.)

And it’s not like I’ve ever had a full-blown eating disorder. Well, there was this one time in high school where I exercised excessively for one summer. I mean, it stopped my period for three months, and I barely slept, but I was fine. I scaled back once I got into my senior year of high school. I started eating more, but I just exercised a lot and never really “purged,” so that shouldn’t count, right? If I’m ever vomiting it’s either because I’m drunk, have food poisoning, or have a very rare stomach flu. I won’t throw up perfectly good food.

And I guess I’ve kinda had a mini version of anorexia over the years, like that one time I got down to 108 pounds right before I started taekwondo…but I mean, it didn’t cause any lasting damage, and I didn’t think I was THAT thin. I didn’t have heart palpitations or get that fine layer of hair all over my body. My face was haggard, my clothes were baggy, and coworkers asked me if I was sick (of course I lied and said I was fine)…but my stomach still wasn’t flat and I still had cellulite on my thighs, so it doesn’t count, right? You can’t be “skinny” with a tummy and cellulite. Why didn’t they see what I saw? AMIRIGHT?? I can’t even do anorexia properly. Food is just too good.

I don’t have an eating disorder; I have disordered eating (it’s different) and some lingering body image problems. That’s all. I mean, it’s just this one problem area I can’t get rid of, so it’s okay for me to continue losing weight, right?

Obviously I am in a state of denial.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know I’ve written about strength, confidence, and loving yourself. Was I bullshitting all of you to mask my own insecurities? No, not really. Whatever I’ve written has made perfect sense at the time. I believe all of that, but obviously I just can’t allow myself to truly feel that way.

I know damn well this current period of restricting really doesn’t have anything to do with controlling my weight. Clamping onto my recent weight loss that originally was unintentional and now intentionally trying to stay thinner is my way of coping, just like it always has been throughout my life. There is something deeper emotionally and mentally going on, and I’m using my body as a way to gain control of the situation.

I’ve identified what’s bothering me, but I won’t share that here. I won’t even share it with the people I’m closest to. I have to keep up my responsible, high-energy, high-achieving front because there is absolutely no one to pick up the slack if I fall down and have to give in to what’s troubling me for a while. There never has been, and I don’t trust anyone to fill that role. If you ask me if I’m fine, I’ll say “Yes,” so don’t bother.

I’m taking a huge risk by admitting this here. What will my coworkers think? What will the parents of the taekwondo students I teach think? What will the people closest to me think when they find out I’ve been keeping these feelings from them? I want somebody to tell me I’m okay, but I’m too afraid to ask and be vulnerable. This blog post may seem like a big ole cry for help, but I won’t accept it. I have to keep handling this alone.

This begs the question: Am I a person with an eating disorder who happens to do martial arts or am I a martial artist who happens to have an eating disorder?

I got curious about sports and body image/eating disorders. We typically associate those problems with body conscious activities like gymnastics, ballet, cheerleading, and sports with weight classes such as wrestling. Surely a martial artist, whose practice is based on the tenets of confidence and self-respect, wouldn’t be capable of succumbing to the tempting, lying, hate-spewing devil of food restriction and excessive exercise. Right?

Yeah, they do that too. Some of them anyway.

Dangerous practices of cutting weight are well-known in certain martial arts arenas, such as professional MMA fighters, so I didn’t want to focus on that. I’m more interested in the everyday martial artist, the people who have jobs, school, or family obligations, and practice martial arts as a very enjoyable past time.

The problem was I kept running into dead ends. I used to do medical research for a living, so trust me, I dug. Research was either tied to professional athletes, or the studies on perfectionism and athletes was more generic rather than focused on a specific sport.

So what does the lack of evidence mean? Am I the only martial artist who has body hangups? Where are the other stories of struggle? Am I a bad black belt because I’m insecure and don’t always appreciate my badass black belt body? Am I setting a bad example for other martial artists? Some days I don’t feel like I deserve my black belt, and not just because of my body hangups. This makes me question whether I can handle it or not. Should I even be testing for second dan this fall if I can’t get my shit together?

Okay you guys, don’t worry, I won’t REALLY starve myself, but if I didn’t have sports to keep me honest I might very well go over the deep end. Here are all the reasons why I’m fine, no really, I am:
(1) Food is hella delicious, and I like to cook
(2) I need fuel for swimming and taekwondo, which are two very demanding sports
(3) I need good cardiovascular health to hold up during cardio drills and sparring
(4) I don’t want to lose the badass muscle tone I’ve built up over the years doing taekwondo and leg-blasting physical therapy exercises
(5) I need strong bones to keep me intact when I slam into other people…or get slammed into the floor
(6) This anorexic bullshit is for white emo teenage girls, so that’s not really what I’m doing, amiright? I’m too old to have this problem.
(7) I’m too responsible to totally ruin my life, as tempting as that is sometimes.

Look, it’s not really about weight. Most days I’m good, feeling happy and upbeat and enjoying my work and personal life, but there’s an underlying darkness. I’m keeping myself extra busy so I don’t have to face the emptiness, loneliness, and restlessness I’ve been feeling for the past few months…. But on the plus side my weight was down to 114.2 the morning after my previously mentioned weigh-in. At least I have that.

The game continues. I’m fine, really. Besides, black belts are too strong for these types of problems…right?