It started with running away.
At nineteen I was sexually assaulted by a boy whom I was dating, hereafter referred to as Very Bad Boyfriend. The physical toll it took on me was rather minor (I had a worse recovery from my appendix surgery and don’t even get me started about child birth). But after the dust settled, I realized that the mental toll was immense. I was depressed, withdrawn and suffered from frequent nightmares mixed with bouts of pull-that-crazy-woman-off-the-
But it had. I was forced to admit this when I discovered through a newspaper article that, five years later, VBB had done it again. And again. I called the police department that same day and made a report. By the time I hung up the phone I was shaking so badly that I threw up. This will be so healing for you, everyone told me. You’ll get to face him and show him what he really did to you. You can finally get really angry and justice will be served. In the end, after nine months of court battles, the only part of that that came true was the getting really angry part. He went to prison for three months and jail for nine but, strangely, it didn’t feel just to me. I still felt hurt. If anything, I felt more hurt by him. Dredging up all the old memories and then listening to what he did to the other girls only made me wallow in my pain and the guilt I felt for not reporting him sooner.
In an ironic twist, the day after he was sentenced, my third baby was born. And the next day I started running. Never having been a runner before, at first it was just running away. I couldn’t feel the emotional pain when I was in physical pain so as soon as I finished my 5 am nursing, I’d be out the door and into the dark. But my legs couldn’t carry me fast enough or far enough to escape my thoughts, or the ten pounds of post-partum weight than I had decided to focus all my misguided anger on. Running was a good release but I was still scared.
I thought perhaps muscles would make me feel less vulnerable so I took up weight lifting. My first gym was one of those really sweaty, kinda dirty, 80’s-metal-pumping gyms. It was fun to see muscles where literally none had existed before (How does one function without a tricep? To this day I don’t know how I was able to drive or lift my children or brush my teeth without that telltale little cut across my arm), but I was still riddled with insecurity, scared of my own shadow and plagued with nightmares.
When my husband decided to go to night school I was worried. “Why don’t you go to the Y,” he suggested. “Maybe try kickboxing? They have a class the night I’m in school.” “I don’t have any gloves,” I protested weakly. “You better start punching some bricks to toughen up then,” he grinned.
The Power of A Good Teacher
It was the head strike that sold me. “Imagine you are actually grabbing someone’s head and pulling it into your knee,” the instructor yelled. That I could do. I had crash landed in Turbo Jennie‘s TurboKick class. A petite blond with biceps that could crack a walnut, she projected a no-nonsense, slightly dangerous air. When she punched I could see people going down. By the next class I was looking around the room for a real specimen to try it on, preferably someone I wasn’t related to but I wasn’t going to be picky.
One day after class I decided to ask her. “Have you ever, you know, punched someone? For real?”
“Like in a bar fight?” Her eyes lit up as she considered it and frat boys everywhere got a simultaneous, inexplicable shiver. Then she waved it off, “Nah. But I was a competitive boxer in college.” That explained a lot. She wouldn’t punch your lights out and send you home with your pride in a take-out box but, by golly, she could. No one would dare mess with Jennie.
And that’s what I was lacking. All these years I had made it about him, about my attacker. When the truth was, the problem was with me. I felt weak. Scared. Ever-vulnerable. I was living in a world that felt unsafe to me and I didn’t know how to deal.
I know I’m not alone. A 2007 University of Minnesota study reported that almost a quarter of female college students had been sexually assaulted. Take four of your best girl friends and then ask them. Their answers might surprise you. My point is the world is a beautiful, exciting and fun place but a safe place? Not so much.
During the court case VBB said that he had picked his victims because he knew we weren’t the type to fight back. And here’s my dirty little secret: I didn’t fight back. I just cried. Sure he had the element of surprise, not to mention six inches and 60 pounds on me, and I’ve had enough therapy by now to be able to say that it wasn’t all my fault – a typical reaction of victims trying to control the uncontrollable – but what I did, or didn’t do rather, definitely affected the outcome. From the moment we went out together, VBB was in control. I let him set the boundaries, the mood, the location and almost every other aspect of the date. So by the time the battle came, I was exhausted, isolated and so far outside of normal that I lost the fight before it began.
I am not that girl anymore. Besides flat abs and arms that no longer wave like they’re sending a sailor off to sea, Jennie helped me regain confidence in myself, whether I was doing a roundhouse (and picturing my attacker’s head) or doing a body roll and realizing that it’s okay to be sexy again. I don’t have any delusions that the kind of cardio kickboxing I do will actually save me from a determined attack – I’m pretty sure no one has ever been TurboKicked to death – but I like to think it makes me less of an easy mark. I stand taller, walk faster and meet people’s eyes when I pass them on the street. If it looks like I’m sizing you up, it’s because I am.
A few weeks ago I noticed a teenage girl watching me in the mirror during kick boxing. I could tell she was trying not to be obvious but she was watching me. And laughing. During a break I approached her. “Hey, are you enjoying the class?” I asked, trying not to feel like the last kid picked in gym class. Grinning, she answered, “It’s great. I’m sorry to keep laughing but you just have this totally intense expression on your face. It’s like you think you’re really killing someone.”
That’s because I am, sister. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a brick wall to punch.
Turbo Jennie has been nominated for the YMCA Minneapolis/St. Paul Instructor of the Year. I can think of no one who deserves it more. The ability of one teacher, who truly cares, to affect his or her students’ lives is profound. For any of you locals who are interested, here is Paul’s, Sarah’s and my letter of recommendation that we submitted to the committee. Good Luck Jennie!!!