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How This Brutal Martial Art Saved Me From Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In the summer of 2015, I was utterly, completely heartbroken. I was so deeply sad that I wasn’t even angry. That was a first for me. Anger, I know. Anger has gotten me through some of the most devastating times in my life. Anger has fired me up and kept me alive — literally. I know how to deal with anger. I know how not to let it swallow me whole. But this all-consuming, bone-deep sadness was something else.

It was so overwhelming at times that I hardly felt anything at all. But even in those moments when nothing made sense and my emotions had no name, there was a small voice in one corner of my mind telling me I was losing my focus. And that was something I was not willing to lose. I knew my balance would be slow to come back but would eventually return; it always has. My focus was another matter. I knew, if lost it, I could very well end up drifting aimlessly in limbo for months on end. It had happened before, and I wasn’t about to let it happen again.

I know only of one way to get my focus back, and that is by rekindling communication with my body. I was too upset for yoga, not to mention in no mood for what meditation does to me. Have you ever tried meditating with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD)? Your brain has a f***ing field day with that, let me tell you… at least, mine does. I wanted something that would give me back my focus by giving strength and efficiency to my body. Something that would focus on the body only. So I turned to Krav Maga.

For the uninitiated, Krav Maga is a “self-defense system originally developed by the Israeli Army.” (Thank you, Wikipedia!) It’s a combination of techniques borrowed from different martial arts, combined with elements from some of the most brutal street fighting. The rules of Krav Maga are simple—there are no rules, except to survive by any means necessary.

There was something about the unembellished brutality of it all that called to me. It now occurs to me as I write this post that what attracted me to this practice is that it puts you first. The most important thing in Krav Maga is you. It’s your safety, your survival, and that’s something I constantly need the reminder about — that I matter. My survival is crucial. I can’t just drift away.

A friend’s boyfriend just so happens to be a Krav Maga instructor, and he just so happens to give one-to-one lessons. So I reached out to him. Two years later, my heart is still a little cracked, but I’ve got my focus back. I still lose it from time to time, but it only takes throwing a few punches in the early hours of the morning for me to get it back. I got the results I was hoping for.

What I wasn’t expecting was for Krav Maga to reveal itself a powerful ally in dealing with my C-PTSD. I’ve been dealing with C-PTSD for a very long time now. It’s a constant, unwelcome companion, but the intensity of it comes in waves; sometimes the symptoms are fierce, other times they’re more manageable. And sometimes it almost feels like they’re gone.

I’ve always dealt with it on my own, until the one I thought might be the love of my life came along, and after a long process tore down my walls and managed to get me to lean on him when things got bad. In the summer of 2015, he took it all away, and I found myself falling flat on my face.

I had gotten used to having the kind of support system I had never allowed myself to have before, and now I had to relearn how to deal with C-PTSD on my own again. I had to relearn how not to lose myself when no one was there as I woke up in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my face and the smell of blood in my nose. It was a lot harder than I had expected. I still feel like I don’t know how to breathe. I don’t think I’ve drawn a proper breath in over 12 years. I don’t think I would even know how.

I was not expecting Krav Maga to come to my rescue by not only helping me relearn old tricks, but also by giving me new tools. I can’t tell you what it is exactly about this discipline that pulls me back from the edge. All I know is that at first, when my instructor’s hands went around my throat in a chokehold, I would be flung straight into the claws of a panic attack. Now… well, not so much. Don’t get me wrong, the panic is still there every time we simulate a sexual assault during training. It’s still a tiny, deadly ball in the pit of my stomach, but it’s rare that it climbs all the way up to my throat and chokes me. It’s rare that I can’t fight my way through it — literally.

My body must have been taking all the lessons to heart, because generally (barring times of acute C-PTSD phases), my panic attacks are less frequent and more manageable. Generally, I can wake up from a nightmare and not spend the rest of the night wide awake. Generally, I can have a flashback and not throw up from the shock of it. Not all the time, but enough that it counts. Enough that I feel like myself again. Enough that I know I am not my C-PTSD.

I wasn’t expecting it to happen, but as it turns out, Krav Maga saved my life in more ways than one. Maybe it can save yours, too. Maybe it can give you the tools to fight your way through it — literally.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Getty Images photo via Mongkolchon Akesin