The Ways We Protect Ourselves: Making Myself Unsafe to Feel Safe [I did it. I tried Krav Maga.]

by Charlotte on December 4, 2012 · 44 comments

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:)

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Terri December 4, 2012 at 2:16 am

Congratulations on doing the class ! I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my face in complete awe of your courage. You are an inspiration and I’m so glad it’s helped you.

As ever, you’re my hero :)

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Thank you Terri! This means so much to me:)

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Elana December 4, 2012 at 5:29 am

Honey, no one here should be at all disappointed (and CERTAINLY not disgusted) in you. Being brave and getting stronger is about doing what you need to do. I’m inspired. Go you!

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Thank you Elana!

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Renee December 4, 2012 at 6:26 am

Well done Charlotte!

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm
Naomi/Dragonmamma December 4, 2012 at 6:41 am

“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”
****
I worry that there’s still a big part of you that feels it is not nice to hurt someone, even if that someone is trying to kill you. Of course it’s not nice, but you need to internalize the idea that it’s OK, it’s beyond OK, it’s GOOD. It is most certainly not disgusting to kill someone if necessary in order to defend yourself.

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Good point. And you’re right. I still do feel uncomfortable with the idea of hurting anyone, no matter the instigation. But now that I’m a mom I don’t have that luxury anymore. My kids only have one mom:)

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Emily December 4, 2012 at 7:28 am

Charlotte, any one who is disgusted with you can see their way OFF your blog, as far as I’m concerned! It is great that the experience was ultimately an empowering one. All that matters is how YOU feel about it. None of us get to claim your experience. It is yours alone. I’m so glad you shared it with us. I really want to try krav maga, to see if it would help me with trauma the way it did you. I would love to be able to feel less afraid and less vulnerable. I wonder if knowing I can protect myself from nearly any attack by a person would serve that end.

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:25 pm

First, I’m so sorry that you’ve had a similar trauma. It’s a nightmare. Second, I think krav can be really helpful (obv) but if it can help you really depends on where you are in your healing. The entire class is super triggering. But if you’re prepared for that (go with a friend – it really helps!) and are ready to basically do ERP (exposure response prevention) therapy then give it a go. And then make sure to let me know how it goes for you! It’s intense…

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Also, I think the instructor makes a HUGE difference. Make sure you chat with him/her before trying a class to make sure you’re comfortable with them and their training philosophy. You don’t have to tell them your whole backstory – I didn’t (although I don’t hide it either) – but a little meet and greet can’t hurt:)

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Cbuffy December 4, 2012 at 8:05 am

HOLY COW! You took down several big men in this post. But the biggest of all was the bigger than life memory of the man who took you down. And you OWNED it. How freeing! I’m so impressed with you. I’m so proud of you. I’m so amazed at you. You’re right – if you had time to think about it, you would have backed out. But you didn’t have a chance to think. It just happened. And you OWNED it. I love that you aren’t fixed, but you ARE less broken.

YOU ROCK!

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:29 pm

This: “But the biggest of all was the bigger than life memory of the man who took you down. And you OWNED it.” Thank you SO much. You put it in a way I hadn’t thought of and I love it:)

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JavaChick December 4, 2012 at 8:18 am

Not disappointed or disgusted at all – I kind of wish I had the nerve to do it myself, but I am way too timid. Of course you don’t ever want to fight, or to hurt anyone. I wouldn’t ever want to hurt anyone either. At the same time, the rational part of my brain knows that being able to defend one’s self is a good thing.

Your comment about your friend Dan (“Dan is probably the only person that I know who I honestly believe could kill me in a heartbeat and yet wouldn’t”) made me think of the fact that my husband is ex-military. He was in the infantry, he learned how to fight and kill – that’s what the teach in the military. Yet I never think of that; it was before I knew him and my husband does not seem at all threatening. Still, that knowledge is there. Rusty, I’m sure, but would that ever completely go away?

Just because you learn how to fight (or defend yourself) doesn’t mean you want to have to do it. If you can feel safer, it’s a good thing.

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:30 pm

“Just because you learn how to fight (or defend yourself) doesn’t mean you want to have to do it.” YES. Totally agree. And I’m glad to hear your husband is one of the good ones;)

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Happier Heather December 4, 2012 at 9:20 am

Bravo, Charlotte, for facing your fear! I think it’s awesome that you went for it. Congrats!

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Thanks Heather!

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Alyssa (azusmom) December 4, 2012 at 9:35 am

Wow! You are AMAZING!!!!!!
I have to say this, too: the people I know who are TRULY tough, who could easily kill someone, are also some of the calmest and kindest people I know. Many of them study martial arts and/or combat. Often it’s the wannabees who are combative and full of bluster.
I’m so amazed by you!!!!!!

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:36 pm

True. It does seem that the more they brag about it, the less good they are at it. Although I think those people scare me the worst. No self-restraint and just enough knowledge to be dangerous. And thank you Alyssa – I know you’ve done Krav in the past and that actually was a big comfort to me in deciding to give it a shot. It would have been better if I could have done it WITH you but I took courage from you anyhow;)

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Kim December 4, 2012 at 9:42 am

Wow!! I admire your courage. I don’t think I could even step into the class – just reading your post caused me a little stress! Way to face a fear head-on and totally kick it!!!

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Thanks Kim! I’m sorry reading this freaked you out a little bit but I totally get it. I’ve been there. And don’t count yourself out – for years I wasn’t ready for something like this but… then I was. And you’ll know it if it works for you:)

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Nicky December 4, 2012 at 10:21 am

You’re so brave. I often wonder if I should do something like this–I’ve participated in a lot of different sports, but never self-defense. Having had an abusive husband (now ex) has left me unwilling to enter into any sort of relationship–maybe something like this would impart more confidence. I’ve also had two friends murdered by their partners (husband and boyfriend), both choked to death. I was always taught to be nice to others, even those who hurt me. I think it’s better to be strong (not that “nice” and “strong” are mutually exclusive).

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Oh Nicky – I’m so sorry to hear about your abusive ex and your friends. What a heartbreak on every level! Like I said to a previous commenter, I think krav can be really helpful (obv) but if it can help you really depends on where you are in your healing. The entire class is super triggering. But if you’re prepared for that (go with a friend – it really helps!) and are ready to basically do ERP (exposure response prevention) therapy then give it a go. Also, I think the instructor makes a HUGE difference. Make sure you chat with him/her before trying a class to make sure you’re comfortable with them and their training philosophy. You don’t have to tell them your whole backstory – I didn’t (although I don’t hide it either) – but a little meet and greet can’t hurt:) And then make sure to let me know how it goes for you! It’s intense…

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Alice December 4, 2012 at 10:40 am

My sister does krav maga, she invited me to come with her, but I don’t have time right now. Maybe in the spring I’ll have to check it out. Way to go Char!

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Thanks Al! You of all people understand where all of this is coming from so I really appreciate your support:) If you try it out, let me know what you think!

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cursingmama December 4, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Congratulations!
I’d love to try krav maga but I’m guessing it isn’t something I’ll find offered at my local YMCA. It would be a great thing to learn with my teenage daughter.

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Charlotte December 4, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I think this would be a fab class to take with a teen daughter! And yeah, you’ll probably have to look around for a class. But if you try it, let me know what you think!

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puja December 4, 2012 at 3:13 pm

charlotte, i was one of the people thinking you shouldnt take this class and i have to say that your post not only changed my mind but moved and touched me deeply! it inspires me to think about adding some sort of self defence class to my kickboxing.
even in kickboxing i have experienced this free strong feeling that comes with beeing able to fight and suddenly not being the weak, overweight middleaged woman anymore.
thank you for being so open and honest in your posts!
puja

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quix December 4, 2012 at 6:46 pm

I don’t know what else I can say but give you a huge e-hug, say you rock, and tell you this post gave me the tingles.

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Matt December 4, 2012 at 10:02 pm

I’m starting to believe that the best way to feel safe is to tackle our fears.

That an a cuddly Bengal Tiger house cat can help too.

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Bek @ Crave December 4, 2012 at 11:56 pm

I’m proud of you for doing it and glad that you have taken a lot of positivity from it!

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Nate December 5, 2012 at 1:03 am

I haven’t got anything to say to this so how about a high five instead? Come on now, don’t leave me hangin’.

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Redhead December 5, 2012 at 7:52 am

A-to quote Olivia in Law & Order SVU- you survived. That means you did the right thing. Being naive doesn’t give people license to hurt you.
And B-who’s disgusted? I’m proud of you for standing up to one of your biggest fears and loosening its grip on you. Being able to do that makes you strong, more so than anything you bench press in a gym.

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Sylvie @ StruggleswithaFatA December 5, 2012 at 11:09 am

I could never be disappointed or disgusted with you! It breaks my heart that you would feel like anyone could.

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Catherine December 11, 2012 at 10:28 pm

A beautiful story, masterfully written, and incredibly moving.

My heart is overjoyed for your reclaiming of self – that you have rebuilt what was stolen from you. My heart continues to weep for all of the women trapped by predators – the real and the ghosts.

We need more Dans and Danas to help us find our lost selves. Thank you for sharing your story.

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Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Thank you – so beautifully put – this means a lot to me!

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Rebecca December 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm

GIRL.

I am so proud of you!!!
Who could be disgusted by a person facing their fears,
and then kicking them in the face?

I’ve been aching to try Krav Maga, and I just might have to now.

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Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Thanks Beck:)) And if you do give it a try – please let me know what you think!

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