What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? Did you accidentally conjure up a mental image of it in the nanoseconds of time it took you to finish reading that sentence? Do you still dream about it and if so, are you just thankful that you get to sleep?
I wrote a recap of my 2016, saying that for a variety of circumstances, it was one of the hardest years of my life. And while I have been more open to talking about it to friends and close family, I haven’t been able to bring myself to put fingers to keyboard on it for the blog. Humour me for now while I be vague on the cause for a terri-bad year yet enlightening on what kick-started the healing process.
At my lowest point in the last 12 months, I found myself standing out on my apartment balcony at midnight, the highest floor in my building, staring down at the ground beneath me for at least half an hour. Not thinking anything, not feeling anything. Just paralysed and looking. Eventually, I managed to back away, turn on some music (Final Fantasy on repeat because video games are my other solace) and talk to a family member on Facebook messenger. I get heart palpitations every time I think of that night.
Despite what you might think, this was me already coping rather well. Having high-functioning depression meant that unless you looked closely, I was giving a very convincing performance of a normal person. I had an exciting new job and was making steady gains. I was spending more time with my friends. Most importantly, I was being kinder to myself. But I needed something more, something to shake up my routine and act as a tangible turning point in my life. On my way to work one day, I Googled ‘martial arts’ and the first hit was a Muay Thai gym. A gym that is now my second home.
My first lesson was a trial in the hot middle of summer. I don’t remember a lot of it now, except the yelling, the scent of the strangers around me and nearly fainting as we ended the class on 100 pyramid kicks. I couldn’t finish the kicks but I also couldn’t wait to go back for more.
For the first few months, I was still a member of Fitness First and moonlighted at both gyms. It didn’t take long before I traded out the elliptical for more Muay Thai classes, initially to justify the weekly membership and eventually because I needed my fix to function for that day. I’m not an angry person but Muay Thai made me realise that I had unresolved frustrations that weighed the world on my shoulders. I’m not a sad person but Muay Thai made me feel the grief I still had in my heart over what happened to me. The pure concentration that’s involved in those sixty to seventy-five minutes could also make me forget who I was and my identity because only the training itself mattered. I began to feel nothing again, but this time it was lightness.
Physically there were a lot of positive changes as well. I went from not being able to skip for 30 seconds to skipping becoming my favourite cardio to zone out on. I fight in southpaw but slowly learnt how to mirror the orthodox combinations so my trainers weren’t constantly repeating themselves just for me. I love push kicking almost as much as I love being push kicked. Not too much where it utterly winds me but just enough to feel a sharp unintentional exhale. My legs are bigger and my chopstick arms are slightly more toned. I feel comfortable wearing crop tops. Becoming mentally stronger is important but feeling physically stronger can make you seem taller, stand straighter and hold your head up higher. This is especially helpful when you’re short, Asian and sub-48 kilograms.
In one of our group chats, someone did a poll on our favourite work-out and I couldn’t decide between Thai pads and sparring. I enjoy holding pads and the satisfying ‘crack-of-the-whip’ sound it makes when my partner lands the perfect kick. For a protagonist-inclined person, Muay Thai has made me love playing a supporting role. When we swap places, the best part is completing the round, not for accomplishment’s sake but for the very last part where I put my gloves together and thank someone who took time out of their day to make me stronger. Sparring on the other hand, is like a class on steroids. It takes you to another world where your vision acquires blinkers and there is only you and your opponent. A training mate and I discussed and agreed that sparring requires an unexpectedly high amount of intelligence and concentration. I can only imagine how much more heightened that sensation would be in a real fight.
I train very early in the morning, almost every day. I get told often that I’m weird for being chatty and cheerful when it’s four degrees outside and the sun is a long way away from rising. I’m just truly happy to be there. Another training mate recently paraphrased a quote to me about how it is only the broken who pick up martial arts. And truth be told, everyone at the gym is weird. I’m sure many have their own demons to fight. But I like them a lot and feel a fierce loyalty to many.
This story doesn’t end with me leaving the life I know to become a professional fighter. Perhaps the most amusing part of this story is that I’m actually still rubbish at Muay Thai. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll ever be able to properly left kick and ‘step into it’. My jump knees are too low and I missed way too many elbows in today’s session. There are great people at the gym who I can only aspire to hold pads for them one day. But accepting your weaknesses has got to be one of the most liberating feelings I’ve ever experienced and has only opened me to wanting to improve.
Perhaps exercise was always the answer and it could have been Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, salsa or ping pong that could have given me the same relief. But if the above hasn’t already convinced you then believe me when I say there’s just a certain something about Muay Thai just feels right for me. I don’t know if I’ll do it forever or if I will be at this gym forever. But as beating depression has proven, nothing is forever and even if it went away, I know that Muay Thai came into my life at the right moment to save me.
If you’re feeling depressed or currently in a difficult situation in life, know that I have first-hand experience to prove that it does get better. If you’re worried about me, I’m okay. And if you’re someone from the gym reading this, I’ll see you tomorrow morning.
Lifeline is a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, please consider calling 13 11 14 or visiting www.lifeline.org.au for additional support information.