Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kicking Fear's Ass

In 2008, I gave up fear for Lent.  It changed my life forever.

Fear was paralyzing me.  I was afraid to make a decision, afraid of change, afraid of hurting people.  You name it, I was afraid of it.  I was miserable in many areas, and the one common factor blocking me from growth was fear.  So, I decided to put my fear in God’s hands and let Him hold it, allowing me to focus on the problem, not the emotion.  I trusted He’d be there and would only give me what I could handle.  It wasn’t about a religious belief, it was about finding a way, any way, to let fear go because it was not serving me, it was stopping me… it was killing me and killing my spirit.

Let me step back to the weeks leading up to Lent.  I had been training in tae kwon do for seven years.  Nine months before my black belt test, I tore my ACL in half, sparring.  I had only been back to three classes after my injury and nine-month absence when my Master declared I was to test with the other candidates in three week’s time.  I couldn’t believe his request.  Just moments before, he was fighting me, and I was crying during the fight because I was so scared of getting hurt. This injury had stolen my otherwise inspired mojo.  How could I possibly test?  I’d have to train intensely, but more importantly, I had to face my fear of fighting… and failing.  I had never been more terrified in my adult life.

I spent days searching deep in my soul to find the strength to do this.  I had two choices: cower in fear or face it.  I needed desperately to feel some sense of control.  So, for the next three weeks, I trained hard.  It became a full-time job.  My whole body ached.  I could barely get out of bed in the morning.  I got massages, put Chinese oils on my tired muscles, prayed for strength, meditated, listened to my friends words of encouragement, and let them feed me with power. 

One day, I was beating “Bob” in the basement, our heavy bag shaped like the head and trunk of man, absent appendages.  Exhausted, overwhelmed, and fighting my fear of failure, I hit him over and over… then burst into tears.  Instinctively, I wrapped my arms around “Bob” as if the armless man would hold me in return.  I held tight, releasing sobbing fear-filled tears onto his shoulder until I suddenly realized, he could not embrace me back… he could not give me the reassuring hugs I needed.  I was truly on my own.  Lightbulb.  The only person who could give me the strength I needed was me.  My mojo was being summoned. 

Even with a small bright light of hope, there was much work to do to make up for nine lost months.  I knew all the moves of the forms, I now needed to feel them, listen to my body as I blocked and punched and let the forms move through me.  I was merely a vessel for its beauty.  Fear had no room on this vessel.

I ran daily for the stamina to endure the aerobic aspect of the test, knee throbbing.  While running, I’d think about what the forms and karate meant to me.  I realized how symbolic this art form is to what I am trying to accomplish in my life, mostly finding strength, both physical and emotional.  A form is a perfect example:  It’s a fine balance of strength and grace.  With each step and movement, you show power, but at the same time, the fluidity of a dancer.  It’s the balance of male and female.  Strength and beauty.  My life goal.  When done correctly, forms are almost hypnotic to watch.  I strive to do a form the way my Master does.  When I watch him, I literally stop, my mouth drops a bit, and all I can think is, “Wow! I want that.  I want that kind of strength and grace.”

Each day, I felt a little stronger.  Each day I learned new things.  Each day I rediscovered my inner strength, until one day, I was able to wake up feeling this goal might actually be possible. 

The day before the test, I knew there was nothing further I could do to increase my odds.  Time was up.  There was no point in being afraid.  I either knew it, or I didn’t.  I had to now stop thinking, stop cramming, and just trust my body to perform.  I started to feel some of the stress leaving my shoulders, but my back still ached.  I went about my day as normally as I could, even getting a mammogram I had been putting off for six months.  Just a routine day. 

The next morning, I was making our bed, joking with my husband that either one, two or no black belts would be sleeping in it that night.  He held me, kissed my forehead and said he didn’t care.  He was proud of us for getting this far. 

The phone interrupted the moment.  It was the mammogram center.  They needed more images of my left breast to investigate a “suspicious spot.”  My husband immediately panicked.  I breathed.  I passed my fear to God and breathed.  My husband stared at me in disbelief as I spoke calmly to the woman delivering the news.  Her voice was eerily spooked… even confused.  She too was alarmed by my soft tone.  I admit, I had a moment of panic, but I was able to instantly push it out of my mind, chanting silently, “I am not afraid. I am not afraid.”  I know this sounds strange, but I truly wasn’t worried, even if it did turn out to be cancer.  I knew I could handle whatever it was.  There wasn’t an ounce of fear in me.  I was strong… at least at that moment.  That was enough to hold on to.

God was simply testing me again.  I wasn’t going to let fear rule me.  I gave it up.

So I danced all morning, literally.  I put on old disco music – Michael Jackson, Chaka Kahn, Marvin Gaye, and just danced and danced.  I was calm, smiling, and even giddy.

As my husband and I drove to the test that night, I was still rocking out in the car to Mustang Sally while he intensely focused.  We both decided that no matter what happened, we wanted to enjoy the test.  We wanted to be able to look back on the night and remember how much fun it was and not focus on the stress.

We entered Master Grant’s basement dojo smiling and ready, shaking all the black belts hands.  I stretched, put my knee brace on and then sat for a quick prayer.  As I blessed myself, I could feel tears start to well inside me.  I looked down at my injured knee, hoping it would survive the night.  I touched my left breast, hoping it would survive too.  Taking the deepest breath I could, I quickly asked God for strength and courage and sat up before allowing the tears and fear to take over. 

As we lined up for the test, my husband and I were in the front row.  The small basement was already hot with 15 black belts who were judging us, not to mention the wood stove blaring in the back.  We went through all the kicking and blocking drills one could imagine and even some I had never heard of.  Sweat poured down my back and my knee throbbed.  Condensation dripped down the windows from the heat… and it was March.

One candidate grew pale and faint. She left the dojo to get air.  The Master turned to me and growled, “Get her back in here.” I opened the door and firmly stated, “Don’t you give up!  I am not leaving you behind.”  She rejoined us, weak.

Forms went on, alternating between the six men and women candidates.  I didn’t watch anyone else… well, I did peek at my husband, but I stayed in my zone.  Closed my eyes when I was off the floor.  Stayed focused solely on what I needed to do next.  I gave every command every ounce of energy I had.  I did my forms heading straight toward the five Masters and throwing kicks and yelling out loud, with all the passion that was in me.  I never felt weak.  I never allowed myself to think about what was still ahead of me.  I forged on one form at a time, giving each move intense power.  Dead on.  Every punch, every kick was directed at fear.

My biggest fear of the test was fighting and fully tearing the half an ACL I had left.  There were two Masters I was most afraid of: Master Baccognia, a 6ft 8in 6th degree whose reach and speed were that of a cheetah, and Master Kazinski, a 5th degree, strong-as-hell, built-like-a-brick-house prison guard.  Guess who I had to fight?  Yep.  Both of them.  I thought the mammogram scare was enough, but God had other plans.  He wasn’t done testing me that day.  Master Kazinski’s gaze pierced through me, but I looked him in the eye with my best Dirty Harry glare and went at it.  It was intense, he didn’t hold back, kicking, hitting, slamming, but as I went, I was determined to block as much as I could, and get off something… and I did.  I landed a powerful kick, dead on target.  Later, he told me he threw a punch to my head he was convinced would nail me and somehow I avoided the hit.  He wanted to know how.  I didn’t remember it.  Someone else said, “She ducked.”  Guess my body did know what to do. 

Then I fought Master Baccognia, who nailed me multiple times in the head.  Let me say, my 5ft 3in frame is no match for that guy.  I might as well have been a Lollipop kid. Instead of quitting, I dodged, took the punches, and even got some good moves in.  Two days later, my cheekbones still hurt from the blows.

The very last task of the 2½-hour test was board breaking.  My only option was to use my bad leg for the sidekick.  I lined up, took a slow, deep breath, stared those boards down like they were my enemy and went for it.  I busted through all four in the first shot. 

The test was over.  A rush came over me.  Even if I hadn’t passed the Master’s test, I had passed my own test of inner strength.  But yes, I was promoted.  After the new black belts changed, I was the first one back in the dojo and literally skipped in.  As he watched my smiling, skipping, giddiness, Master Baccognia turned to my direct Master, Master Jones, and said, “I don’t remember that move, did you teach her that?”  Everyone laughed. 

When pictures were done, the Masters approached with congratulations, saying my injury never showed.  One even confessed he literally gasped watching me do forms and thought, “COOL!”  To me, that meant more than the belt itself.

What an incredible feeling.  The best thing I can compare it to is childbirth.  Pride.  Joy.  Excitement.  Anxiety.  Amazement my body could actually do it.  I birthed a new woman that night: A f’ing black belt goddess!  She would never have been born if I had not faced my fears.

One week later, I went for my repeat mammogram.  I noticed the pink robe tied in exactly the manner my karate uniform did.  I smiled, went into the room and told the technician, “Show me this spot and let’s kick its ass.”  I was not afraid.  She was floored how composed I was.  I explained fear had kept me from making important decisions in my life, and I could no longer afford to cower to it… especially if I had cancer.  Her eyes welled with tears.  Apparently, she was having a terrifying day of her own. 

As I left, this scared, shaking technician hugged me, thanking me for teaching her she alone had the power over her own destiny and emotions.  I’ll never forget that day.  She said, “I will have hope to survive today and hope that tomorrow will be better.”

Hope kicks fears ass.

I am now a second-degree black belt who is both cancer and fear free.

Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.  – George S. Patton

note: the Masters are in the back row, standing. Master J, Master C, Master G, Master K, Master M, and Master B.