Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Saved my Life Too

Elisa A. Escalante/ LCSW/ 4-8-2021

“The way I see it, I am going to hate myself whether I sit on my ass helplessly for the rest of my life, or I fight and fail, fight and fail…. fight and fail again. If I’m going to hate myself, I better be the best fucking loser I’ve ever known. -EaE

I’ll start by saying I was that walking cliché’ of a veteran that felt a disconnect the moment I left active-duty service in the summer of 2014. I walked along Rockaway Beach in NYC completely lost, without a sense of purpose or identity. Pun intended on a walking cliché’, as I literally went on 2-3 hour walks to ‘find myself’ and get away from all people. It did not work. The first/ only thing I had to look forward to that summer was my first official Brazilian Jiu jitsu class. I had it in my mind that I was going to ‘get good’ fast, win medals, gain confidence and fill that void that could never be filled. Now, this is the part of the blog where all martial artists reading this start laughing at me, as they very well know that I was humbled to death; my dreams shattered into a million pieces. Martial arts does not lie, the mats do not lie. I am the first to admit, if you want to truly be humbled in a way that wakes you up to reality and makes you question your own existence, join a martial arts gym and put in the work. There is nothing like it, and it was the perfect sport for me to join after I left the military.

     What Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) Fosters: 

Camaraderie:  First and foremost, I started making friends again. I had a new group of comrades after leaving the military, and extra bonus if/ when I met veterans in the BJJ gym. There is a joke in the martial arts community that we are all pretty ‘weird’ people, especially given the fact that we choke each other, risk breaking limbs, hug all the time and punch each other in the face.  (if you are also into striking sports which I am 😊) I suffered heavily from social anxiety due to childhood traumas and isolation due to military traumas. To my surprise, meeting people in martial arts was easier than I had anticipated. No ‘small talk’, no BS, just get right to it and start attacking/ fighting, which ironically is a lot easier to me vs trying to ‘get to know someone’ with… small talk. Due to the fact that I worked in mental health for so long, I was used to one sided convos with me being the listener, I actually did not know how to talk about myself. I did know, however, how to fly at the blue/ purple belts and throw caution to the wind as they destroyed me. Many people downplay their white belt days, but I call it the “Fun belt”. It is the belt of experimentation and I absolutely loved getting beat up by my new martial arts friends. 

Discipline/Patience:   Despite how fun/ exciting our lives look on Instagram and Facebook, it is NOT all fun and games. It is not even 50% fun and games. Training in BJJ takes a ton of time, patience, money, sacrifice, ego checks and more. There will be self-hatred and anger, envy, jealousy, petty thoughts, frustration and “I fucking quit” moments. (Or is it just me?) I did bring my military discipline into the sport, which helped a lot, good lord I needed it! I suffered from poor self-esteem, so again, I needed all the discipline I could get to fight my way into progression. It is common knowledge in BJJ that the average person quits sometime after earning their blue belt. (Ranks: white/ blue/ purple/ brown/ black/ red (insanely rare)) I am still not shocked by this information, as I have coined blue belt the “I hate myself belt”. Every BJJ practitioner that is blue and above has laughed when I said this, nodded in agreement, and NEVER argued. My blue belt journey, full of quite a few competitions, polished me and taught me to recognize how little I knew, and how much more time I needed to put in. It was love/ hate and it turned into a true obsession. 

Knowledge:  We learn an incredible amount about ourselves when we are put to the test in any martial arts. We also learn a lot of technique, concepts, mechanics, kinetic knowledge, artistic expressions, hygiene practices, social skills, sportsmanship, lineages and more. BJJ is a very knowledge based martial arts, there is an infinite number of ways to make a person tap out, and an infinite number of ways to get to those submissions we use. Many chains, many attacks, many sequences, many ways your opponent may defend, many ways you may counter their defense etc. So, the next time you watch a grappling match, no they are not just hugging each other and hoping for the best result. Every single interaction you see likely has technique, thought, and muscle memory behind it. If the match seems boring, it is because they (the martial artists) both know what they are doing!!!! 

Humble Pie: There is absolutely no way anyone is going to make their way to the top in BJJ without their fair share of humble pies. If someone makes their way to the top always winning, I would question their school and their selection of training partners. One common line is that ‘you never want to be the best in your gym’ or ‘if you’re always winning, you are at the wrong school’. There is a strong chance, especially as a small dude or a female in general, that you will be smashed and destroyed for a good year or two before obvious progress is made. Why might people want to subject themselves to this? The easy answers: To learn true self-defense, to test what we are made of, as well as the maturity in knowing that if it is hard, it is worth it. The not as obvious answer(s)? Some of us are self-destructive and/ or self-polishing in nature. Also, some of us are adrenaline/ goal junkies that will stop at nothing to be better than what we were yesterday. Grappling is extremely challenging/ humbling. We “go live” (spar) at the end of almost every single training session, the risk to getting our ass beat is extremely high for many years. I quit at least four times, but then kept coming back, I had to really love the sport to stay in it.

Respect: We may not always like that training partner(s) that keep’s tapping us out, injuring us and/ or acting all cocky every time they enter the room, but we damn sure better respect them! In addition, the more time/ effort/ blood/ sweat/ tears we put into the sport, the more we learn to respect ourselves. The biggest thing I was forced to learn to respect was the fact that there is no rushing in BJJ, the process is long/ tedious, and we must train an insurmountable amount of hours if we want to be even kind of good. I also learned to respect the fact that if someone beat me up, they most likely deserved to, they most likely put in more blood, sweat and tears than I did. If someone beat me up, I had the utmost respect for their hard work toward that, also if I beat someone up, I respected them for taking that beating from me. I have been on the receiving end and I know what it takes to deal with win/ loss. 

Confidence: How funny that a sport that humbles us, will also give us incredible confidence… eventually. As stated above, white belt is the fun belt, blue belt is the I hate myself belt, and purple belt (which I earned in the summer of 2020) is what I call the “Belt of Serenity”. Why? I do not believe that I was a mature BJJ practitioner until around the time I earned my purple belt. (Six brutal years into the sport later) I noticed a dramatic difference in my overall thought process around that time. I was enriched with so much gratitude. Gratitude to be on the mat, happy about every training session, regardless of how it went. Confidence in myself as well as the nature of the beast that is the sport. Confident that I could conquer my training sessions, my goals, as well as my negative cognitions. As of current, I feel that I am in a place of serenity in the sport of BJJ, and it is not because I am always winning. (I am still getting beat up from time to time!) It is mainly because I am confident enough at this point that I will get through all my current/ future obstacles that the sport and life may bring my way.

Endorphins:  As an individual that suffers from Depression and Post traumatic stress disorder, these endorphins are like no other. When I say BJJ saved my life, this is what I truly mean. This sport has fed my soul as well as my emotional health and given me something I never knew I always needed. I have done quite a few physical activities/ sports in my life: Cross country, track & field, aerobics, dancing, cross fit, powerlifting, yoga etc. There is NO high like the high of martial arts, from my perspective. There is no energy like the energy in a gym full of people fighting their fights, drilling the drills, sweating it out, screaming, grunting, throwing each other, the war cries, the wins and the ‘failures’. Many other martial arts practitioners and I leave our training sessions high off of endorphins, lesson’s, dreams, stories to tell, food cravings to fulfill and more. There is a rather large community of BJJ practitioners that report partially using the sport to medicate their mental health conditions. I am an enormous advocate for BJJ serving to aid both physical and mental health. 

Tenacity/ Grit: When it came to confrontation, I had the heaviest freeze response imaginable. One of the common feedbacks I received was that I needed to learn to ‘be aggressive’. It gave me flashbacks to the military as my supervisors constantly got on my case to be louder and more aggressive. It was something I did not know how to bring forth and channel. Martial arts brought that right out of me. The reality is no one likes to get bested. The only time I found myself ever wanting to go at someone was after they hit me, submitted me, bullied me, mushed my face and so on. Tenacity and grit have nothing to do with how good we are, but everything to do with our capacity to NOT give up. I do not like to give up. Any martial artist you meet that has been doing it for years to decades does NOT like giving up. I can be punched in the face ten times, but I am going to land that one on you! (It all started with my older brother beating me up) I do not care if you submitted me 30 times already, I am going to get you, or at the very least, you are not going to get me this time, not again. Within large goals in BJJ, there are also mini goals. Sometimes the mini goal is to get beat up just a tad less that day. 😊

Enough said…. start training!

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

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