No Damsel in Distress

“Look at me,” Sam said as he rested his hands on my shoulders, gently forcing me to make eye contact. “Stop worrying about it. You’re being way too self-conscious.” he repeated.  I shook my head in reply.

“It’s not really about how I feel,” I reminded him as I looked in the mirror for the tenth time. “It’s about other people’s reactions. I shouldn’t have to explain myself to people I don’t know. it’s infuriating.”

He just smiled and glanced at the clock. “What time are you supposed to be there?” he asked.

“Dammit,” I sighed as I grabbed my purse. “I’m going to be late.”

This was not the first time I would be arriving to work with some kind of visible injury. I have managed to hurt myself in a myriad of ways throughout my life and often come to work with bumps or bruises. On some days, my fingers were splinted. On others, I favored one leg as I walked. Normally, my impairments were small enough to go unnoticed to all but my closest friends, but today was different.  Today I had a black eye. Not a color-on-your-cheek-maybe-you-look-a-little-tired-people-might-not-notice-shiner. An honest to God, Mike Tyson style black eye. I had to work a full shift at the pharmacy with this masterpiece on display for all my coworkers and customers to see. Eight hours may not seem like much time, but when you’re scrutinized by everyone you meet and questioned by anyone who sees you, eight hours can be an eternity.

The familiar drive to work soon set my mind drifting, and I began to think about the workday ahead of me. I wondered if the doctor I called the previous day had gotten back to us about the dosage change on the prescription for Mrs. Ruiz. I considered the conversation I would have to struggle through with her son if that call had been ignored. By the time I walked through the front entrance of the store, I had completely forgotten about my eye. That was, of course, until the front end manager saw my face as I passed by.

“Morning Kim,” I said as I came through the door. I felt a pinch in my cheek the moment I smiled. The swelling had not died down enough to allow that movement without a bit of pain, and I winced before I could stop myself. As I expected, it took a moment for the change in my appearance to register. Both Kim and her customer gave me a theatrical double take, followed immediately by an awkward silence as they tried to continue whatever casual conversation had been taking place before my shocking entrance had interrupted them. Yep, it was going to be a long day.

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This all began as the natural progression of my training in martial arts and the next step towards my goal of becoming an instructor. Many schools delegate some of the training of newer students to people who have already attained a higher belt level or to those who have been training for a long time. In my case, I happened to be one of only two women actively participating in full-contact sparring at my gym, so when new students entered our program, I was often used as an example of how techniques can be executed effectively regardless of a person’s size.

I enjoyed helping others learn, and the satisfaction I got from taking down opponents twice my size always provided a nice boost to my confidence. However, as I worked with more and more people, I began to notice a recurring problem, and eventually I approached one of our senior instructors. It seemed to me that even experienced fighters could freeze up or panic if they were surprised or put in an unfamiliar situation. If people can’t keep their composure in the controlled environment of a training session, there is little hope they will successfully defend themselves on the street. You can always make the argument that the natural fight or flight mechanism we all possess will take over in an emergency, but who would be willing to bet his or her life on that assumption?

Courses designed for self-defense have been available in dojos across the nation for years, and I can’t take credit for introducing the concept at our school. We had several classes that catered to individuals wanting to take an active role in protecting themselves, but everything was very formulaic. For instance, if your attacker grabs you from behind, do this. When a stranger pulls on your wrist, do this. All these scenarios played out slowly and predictably to ensure every student felt comfortable during training. I agree that it’s important to allow people to feel safe when they’re learning a new skill, and it takes time and repetition for complicated techniques to sink in. The problem comes when you find that real assailants don’t wait patiently for you to complete a defensive procedure, and they certainly don’t offer friendly encouragements and the opportunity for a do-over if you get it wrong. We needed to create a program that forced participants to recognize the ugly truth behind these staged situations and hopefully give them the tools to survive.

While a small percentage of people naturally react to threatening confrontations with immediate physical violence, an even smaller portion of that number is female. For most people, it takes years of consistent conditioning to get to a point where they can strike another person, even when provoked with the notion of losing their life. It’s difficult to discuss the circumstances under which you might feel justified in harming, disfiguring, or even killing a fellow human being. As a young women who, at the time, was living alone in a low income / high crime area, I felt it was important to address these issues and accept a small amount of discomfort at the gym rather than be caught unprepared in a dark parking lot after work.

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