Tonight I played the choking game. No, not the one we played in middle school where you and your friends cut off each other’s air supply because fainting is funny. (Note to any middle schoolers, or people who just act like middle schoolers: Fainting is neither fun nor funny and that game can kill you.) The game I played tonight still involved being choked by your friends (or people you hoped to impress enough with your stupid bravery/brave stupidity to be your friends?) but the end goal was deadly serious. The goal this time was to get away, get out, get home. The goal is to live where others might die.
And so tonight I stood in a room – a room that smelled like sweat and fear and bravado and feet - with my eyes closed and waited for someone to put their hands around my neck. It’s a singular kind of vulnerability, that. Asking someone to do something to you that no one should ever have done to them. And the worst part was that I didn’t know if I was more worried that someone would choke me and I’d have a panic attack or that no one would choke me and I’d be standing alone, like the cheese in the Farmer in the Dell, except sadder because now I’m a grownup and I know too well the intricacies of being alone in a crowd.
My eyes were closed and I waited for someone to open them.
Stop. Rewind. How did I get to this definition-of-insane place?
Someone did. “Stop worrying about if you got it right! Krav Maga isn’t about being perfect! It’s about going home.” As Michael Rozin – ex-IDF, Mossad, security expert and also my Krav instructor complete with authentic Israeli accent – tried to free me from the tyranny and comfort of learning self-defense like I would a Fox Trot, step by step, I had to admire his raw practicality. Krav Maga isn’t a sport. It’s not competitive. You don’t win medals or belts. As far as I know there aren’t any cage matches with bright lights, loud crowds and ring girls. Instead, Krav is about what happens when no one is looking. The things that go down in dark corners, unlit streets, back rooms, parked cars; things that we don’t even talk about, much less cheer about. All Krav is is self-defense. It’s dirty, it’s fast, it’s beyond rules. And it is, as reputed, very very brutal.
Yep. I tried Krav Maga. After writing my post about my ambivalence about it and reading all your smart, thoughtful and kind comments, I was dead set against it. Until my friend Dan, the one who invited me to try it, talked me into it. I went into the conversation to convince him why it was a bad idea. He ended up convincing me that not only was it a good idea but I needed it. To understand how I went from there to here in the span of a short conversation you need to understand two things: 1. Dan is probably the only person that I know who I honestly believe could kill me in a heartbeat and yet wouldn’t, even if I cracked him over the head with a baseball bat (not that I go around doing that to people). How can someone be so lethal and safe at the same time? In my world, people that are lethal feel inherently unsafe, even if they’re perfectly kind law-abiding citizens. I didn’t understand it but I did want to know how he got it. 2. He said the magic words to me: “Just try it. You can always quit if you don’t like it.” When he put it like that, all my sturm and drang seemed downright silly. I’m me! I live to try new stuff! And I don’t have to stay if I don’t want to!
But when I agreed to try it, it wasn’t just as some random fitness experiment like Circus Class or Underwater Kettlebells (both super fun, by the way). It wasn’t even about a workout for me. It was life or death. See, we’re all born invincible but then something happens – and it happens to all of us eventually – that shatters that illusion. For me that awakening came courtesy of an ex-boyfriend who sexually assaulted me and then tortured me in ways that went beyond physical. It was a very rude awakening. Once I’d been unsafe, I have had a hard time ever since feeling truly safe. Part of that, I think, is due to my overly sensitive nature but part of it is how much I still blame myself for being not-safe in the first place. I was my own worst enemy. Through stupidity and naiveté, I nearly killed myself, by the hand of another. (Suicide by proxy?)
The first Krav class did not go well. During the warm-up I tripped over a woman sitting behind me and knocked the wind out of her. As she lay gasping like a fish, I tried unsuccessfully not to cry. I’m not even safe to be around others, much less myself! But the thing about Krav is that it doesn’t feel safe at all. To teach you to defend yourself, you need to be attacked. And not just in a pretend way. I found that out the hard way when we got to the choking portion of the class – and there is a choking section of every class.
“Come on. Push harder. Choke me like you mean it. Really do it!” Dan’s voice was quiet and he was smiling. Who does that? “You’re never going to be able to learn how to defend against being choked unless you know what it really feels like.”
The thing is, I know what it’s like to be choked. I know what it’s like to be choked until you pass out and then wake up to find that that isn’t even the worst thing that’s happening to you. It’s a horrible, soul-crushing feeling. But what I didn’t know was what it is like to choke someone else.
As I wrapped my hands around his sweat-slick neck, felt his Adam’s apple rise and fall under my palm, felt his blood pulsing just under my fingertips, as I took a deep breath and squeezed, hard, I was unprepared for the rush of emotion. Red hot anger. Cool detachment. And lots of fear. It’s a horrible, soul-crushing feeling holding someone else’s life in your hands – and then tightening them around it.
“What if I hurt you?” I gasped as his face purpled.
He ripped my hands off, just like we’d been taught (the thumbs are the weakest link!). “I won’t let you.” Then he grabbed me behind the neck and threw me on the mats. His voice was quiet and he was still smiling. If they’re good, you’ll never know a person practiced in the art (science?) of Krav because the first rule is to be confident, not brash.
Then it was my turn.
“That wouldn’t have helped me,” I declared. Whether I was being defiant or just stalling, I’m not sure. “I’ve never had anyone come at me from standing like that and just try to choke me.” As both Dan and the instructor stared at me I mumbled, turning a lovely shade of red, “Um, I was flat on my back.”
“Oh, you want to learn the floor choke?” Michael said. “I’ll teach you!”
If I’d had time to think about it, I never would have done it. I couldn’t have. Having someone even pretend to grab my throat sends me into an apoplexy of terror. But there was no time. There was only the mat against my back and his hands around my sweat-slick neck, my pulse under his fingertips, my breath. And then, for the first time since the assault, I was choked again. Could.Not.Breathe. As I struggled to simultaneously not cry and find air, I also wrestled with that old nightmare. Could I have changed things that night? What if…?
“Do it!” Michael’s voice broke the noise in my head. “Just like I showed you!” And I did. I pulled his hands off and threw him off me. “Do it again.” I did. And then again and again and again. Through the repetition you’re training your instincts and you want to train yourself to act instead of freeze. It works.
The first time you’re strangled, it’s terrifying. By the 10th time, it’s merely a dull ache. And by the 20th time, it’s nothing at all. Nothing.
Did my instructor know my past when he tackled my problem (both figuratively and literally)? I don’t know. When you live your life like I do – an open book in every sense – you’re never quite sure what people know about you. If I’d known this skill would it have changed the outcome that night? In all honesty, probably not. But either way I’m grateful. As I’ve gone back week after week, I’ve gotten a little better and felt a little safer in my own skin.
I feel more than a little weird telling you about this. I imagine some of you are disappointed in me. Perhaps even a little disgusted. To be honest I am a little disgusted too: There is no beauty, no nuance,no mercy in stomping on someone’s head. But yet that feeling of being in my most vulnerable position – and then throwing my instructor off of me – I can’t even explain it. It was transformative. In that moment I lost some of my anger against the girl who let herself be hurt – see, she isn’t weak! – and I lost a lot of the fear that I’ve carried since, that fear of knowing that if it happened once, it can happen again. I’m not totally fixed but I’m a lot less broken now. Most of the time fitness is about conditioning the body. But in it’s most glorious moments it also conditions the mind.
Irony: I had to make myself unsafe to feel safe again.
Have you ever had to do something that felt horribly unsafe to you? How did you handle it? What did you learn about yourself?
And! If you want to see me actually knock a grown man on his butt here’s that video you never asked for of Jen Sinkler – fitness editrix of Experience Life – and I taking down pro MMA fighters in the gym! Seriously, we had ALL THE FUN making this:)