Ann Eve is currently working with two of her favourite things: food and people helping each other out. Communicating the good work that food charities do. She also enjoys mags, laughing too loudly, kitchen dancing, greyhounds and her two lovely kids. www.annmeve.com
A mixed ability martial arts class in Kent was not where I expected to experience a mental health epiphany.
I’d started going to martial arts to get fit, get strong and learn how to hit things.
I can barely tell my left from my right. I have no co-ordination. I don’t like touching people.
First lesson: stare an unfamiliar man in the eye whilst running my hand along his sweaty inner arm, from wrist to bicep, then mock hitting him in the temple. I would cringe, flail, apologise, get it wrong, pretend laugh at myself, make a joke. “It’s okay, you’re learning”, I heard again, and again, and again. I loved learning how to hit, kick, defend myself. I loved the beauty of the practice sequences and the crack when you accurately landed a punch in a mitt.
Our teacher, John, isn’t quite sure of my name (I go with a friend. We look and sound similar). When he’s tired, he expostulates. I want to hit things. In this hierarchical system, I have to listen actively and with intention. I sigh about that.
Back in February 2015, I left a comfy job of 11 years. The field was academic psychology. We’d tease each other with mock diagnoses of addiction to hot sauce or booze, of obsessive desk-tidying or propensity to collect small change. Gallows humour to help us deal with some of the sad, sad stories we’d read every day.
I’d read a lot of psychological questionnaires, designed to probe people to (unwittingly) divulge symptoms of depression, psychosis, addiction, anxiety. Definitions of anxiety would come just that little too close for comfort. My inability to stop worrying was only because of our awful, angry, noisy downstairs neighbours; becoming easily irritable – well, two small children. Feeling nervous for more than two weeks? Money. Inability to sit still? Just a fidget, always a fidget! And who’d blame me for being irritable and anxious at home? Our building of twenty-eight flats managed one double murder, one unfortunately successful suicide and an electrical fire by our front door that left us without electricity and water for five days.
One year later, 25 miles and a world away from that fucking building, and then away from academia and my colleagues, my friends. My desk was now the kitchen table and my only colleague a retired greyhound called Robbie. I had the job I’d longed for, events and PR for a company that I’d admired for years. Working in food, being around the kids more, no commuting! No more office politics and sad stories! Now in a house! No drunk and incoherent neighbours! No crime scene tape!
Despite being away from all this, I still couldn’t relax. Every infraction would be given a catastrophic end point; leaving out the milk meant wasting money and environmental disaster; my kids back chatting me meant they’d walk all over us in the future. I’d shriek and shout, boiling into rages, swearing and slamming doors.
John the Martial Arts instructor is flexing his considerable bicep. “This is not strength, this is tension”. Releasing the crunch in his arm, he swings his body back over his left hip, leaning his weight back. His eyes seem to shut, but they are focussed on the boxing mitt ahead. His left arm now sailing through the air, feet, legs, hips, core, chest, neck, head, all spiralling towards the mitt. As his gloved hand meets the crash pad, the black belt holding it is spun 180 degrees to his left. “That is strength. To be strong you need to be calm, be in control, and flexible. Tension is not strength”.
Working in psychology didn’t help me to see what was plainly in front of me. Putting myself in the position of novice & least able was what I needed. Add to the mix a husband who supports me and is my champion.
Familiarity with the science of anxiety and mental health issues was the foundation. We’ve all got out issues. John’s martial arts advice was my epiphany. Now I meditate, I’ve tried to get to what I wasn’t dealing with (work! money! ambition!), I make exercise as important as feeding my family or changing the sheets.
Now when we practice hooks my arm curves through the air, my gaze is on the pad and my body is learning to turn with my arm to increase power. This term I’m learning to coil it back, hold it, then release and let my arm move with its own momentum. If you set it up right, the punch will land.
I’ve learnt how to land a sound right hook. I like to hit things and hear the crack of my fist.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Schitt’s Creek, Transparent, Parks & Recreation. Wish I could get ‘Atlanta’
‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower. Domestic violence in mid-century Sydney.
‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin. A collection of short stories, writing about motherhood, caring, alcoholism. Sparse and provoking.
‘A Book for Her’ by Bridget Christie. Saw Bridget at ‘End of the Road’ – funny, perceptive and smart.
Listening to: Courtney Barnett. 6 Music. 90s R&B.
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Polly Robinson @FoodSafari