I’m not a joiner. Even when I really want to do things, I find groups hard. There is always so much going on, so many variables, so many possible ambushes – small-talk, change, new social rules – that I feel overwhelmed before I begin. How I spend my cherished energy is important, it is a finite resource.
It’s one of the reasons most of my hobbies and skills are learned through YouTube; no interactions necessary, but that method is limiting and lonely. I have no one to correct my mistakes or show me new ways of doing things, I have to work a lot out alone.
Since my EDS hypermobility diagnosis, after the worst period of immobility I’ve had, three years ago, I have been wanting to get stronger. I have wanted to build muscle around my bandy ligaments, to stabilise my joints.
I have a three-pronged attack strategy for my physicality; stretch, build muscle, watch weight.
When my husband suggested Kung Fu last September, I was… terrified (for a moment there I was going to say sceptical, but terror is more accurate). The only martial arts I have ever done was Karate in a cold, Welsh village hall as a small child.
I remember liking the movements, but also the fresh horror of belt-testing, in a strange place, in a sea of white pyjamas. Thirty years have passed and that day is still seared into my emotions as a Flight day. There was no Fight to be had, I should have run.
My husband went to Kung Fu alone the first week. He was my scout, sent on ahead to report on how safe it was to proceed. The reports were good. A small class, all new to everyone, a nice Sifu (teacher).
He missed the other things, he’s not a perfect scout. He missed the constant scream of the Exit sign in the room, and how I would need to position myself far from it, to reduce the pain. He missed the horrendous fluorescent lights. Luckily I’m a pattern-seeker under stress, and the cobwebs and angles of the old room gave me somewhere to hide, but as a sensory bombardment, there would be attacks from every angle.
He was right about the nice feel to the group, the relaxed expectations of Sifu. I was worried about a lot that first week; my hips were still causing me pain, the stances were all wide, there was running to warm up (I didn’t share that my consultant had told me not to run, I didn’t want to single myself out and not do it on the first day). It was tough. It hurt.
But I came out glowing.
The next day was aches and pains, and I made plans about my limits. I decided I would run, but warily. I decided I would start with high stances, and take my time to get lower. I decided to push myself.
Part of this was a trust in the kindness of a teacher. I am a trusting sort, but going by what I’d seen so far, it was the right way to go.
There were things I liked and things I didn’t. I love the Forms we have to learn. They are flow and pattern and shapes. They make a whole out of the fragments of movement. They are soothing, like a river of breath flowing out to the sea.
I love the angles in the air, the geometry of the movement, the visuals of here to there, the connections. I always love connections.
The Forms have triangular names that my synaesthesia loves. Soon we shall begin to learn Lively Horse, which invariably triggers the Father Ted Eurovision song, My Lovely Horse, to play silently in my head every time I hear the name (Link Here). It’s a small cross to bear.
I didn’t and don’t like the sparring. It’s not the sparring, it’s the contact. As soon as someone else is involved I start masking and concentrating on peopling, and struggle to make my body move how I want it to.
A move that a second ago poured through my arms, becomes stilted and awkward and feels like another failed attempt at social communication. I have to be careful not to hurt the other person, as I spin all the plates above us both.
With the whine of the Lights, and the piercing brightness, and the touch of another’s flesh against my arm, I feel lost.
But I learn, and when I can, I partner with my husband, because then I can drop all pretence and be clear and let my face be blank. He is also very forgiving when I lose track and clock him, when I should have been moving slowly. He’s a very forgiving man.
Then came the bruising issues. Blocking became firmer, and with my EDS, I bruise easily and colourfully. When both forearms were black and purple and green from elbow to wrist, I began to think that this could be the end of my Kung Fu journey.
I don’t mind a bit of pain, but I didn’t want to be permanently purple, nor did I want to be singled out for special treatment. I decided to talk to Sifu about it, not sure what to expect. Expecting this to be an end to another thing that I enjoyed, but that was too much for either my body or my brain.
“Then we’ll change things,” he explained, “Kung Fu is about fitting the styles around you, it’s about finding your own path. Less Tiger, more Snake. That’s where we’ll go. Flowing around, rather than obstructing.” And with that, I wasn’t trapped.
It was all going well until my ridiculous ankle decided to injure itself, despite my very sensible and everso grown up actions: There was a beautiful sunset, and a flock of seagulls swooping in front of it, so of course I ran to get my camera, and whilst trying to turn it on, and still running, I slipped on a plastic battle axe (as you do), and went over on my ankle, hard. I saved the camera instead of myself. The camera is fine, and I’m mostly self-healing.
There was a pop, but I don’t like doctors or hospitals, so I treated it at home. Loose joints mean sprains are relatively regular, so I know the drill. There was ice and elevation and rest.
There was also terror of losing my newfound strength. My slow-build plan had been working so well. My joints were more stable than they had been in six years; I didn’t want to have to start again.
I couldn’t bear to have my routine changed, so I only missed one week of Kung Fu. This was probably a mistake (I am not a role model). I spent that first lesson back, on one leg; no running, high stance, but I did it. I carried on – and no this was not sensible, this was my mind having needs that my body couldn’t fulfil and pushing myself too far.
It’s been ten weeks, and it’s still not right, but I am. Today I have a headache, and a sore ankle. Last night the class had our first sash testing.
After the testing I lost thought and wanted nothing but to cry from the moment I threw my final leopard fist. Proper wracking sobs wanted to heave my body. I fought that too. I fought it hard. I kept it all in check, though it burned my brain to do it. I stole energy from today.
Sleep wouldn’t come, I was cold and wired and empty. I know it arrived eventually, because I remember the nightmares. I awoke early, full of righteous rage at an injustice that never happened. If I wasn’t going to deal with the extreme emotions head on, my brain was going to find a way to process them, whether I liked it or not. I did not like it.
Today I have my first sash. It is white and shiny and I already know that wearing it will irritate me, but it’s mine.
I’m not proud yet. I will be.
In the past I might have used my lack of happiness as a stick to beat myself with. ‘Why can’t you be pleased? Why are you focusing on the negatives? Why are you tired and stressed when everyone else is celebrating?’
It would be easy to reach out to that familiar way of thinking about myself, but it’s not true. I need time. I am not reacting to my achievement yet, I am reacting to overload. I am feeling an array of emotions that I felt I had to mask in public. I am not happy that I was unable to do my best, but need to accept that even if my ankle was perfect, I cannot escape the inevitable reactions I will have to changes in my routine.
I cannot escape how I work. I need to be a bit more Snake, and a bit less Tiger towards myself. More flowing around, less battering. I need to find my own ways to do things. My own ways to react and recover. I cannot force my skin not to bruise. I cannot force my mind not to ache. I cannot force myself to be someone I am not.
There was change to routine – even though it all took place in the same hall with the same people. There was perfectionism that knew it wouldn’t be perfect; that knew it couldn’t be even if it had that skill (which it doesn’t), not with this ankle. There was a buzzing in my head that wouldn’t shift, and frustration at stupid mistakes that I know not to make, being made because I couldn’t let the tension go.
The cloud in my head, the soreness, the aches, the burns, will all fade, and I will be glad. This wasn’t that terror-filled child lost in a sea of white, this was a family, all achieving something together.
Who knew that hitting each other for two hours every Tuesday night could build something? Perhaps it’s some kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Whatever it is, I am very glad I found it.
With its structure and its choice and its fitting around me, instead of trying to make me fit around it, I am very glad that I started this journey. I am learning new things, and that always makes me happy.
It’s no wonder that so many autistic people love martial arts. I will always struggle with the impossibility of perfectionism, but I will always, always love the form.
Now if I can just put my mask down in the pair work, that will be one less thing to carry. I could do with free hands, I could do with being able to focus on movement and not minds.
I’m working on it.