Why I’m taking a break from martial arts

Note: I’ve been training at a martial arts dojo several times a week for the last six years. After seven months or so of remote learning via video feed, I realized that I was getting very tense and resistant to attending training. After thinking about it for a couple of months, I decided to take a break to evaluate where I am in my relationship to the dojo. One of the other students was very concerned about me, worried that I had been offended or distressed by something that had happened. Since he has given me a lot of support over the years, I wanted to reassure him. The letter I sent him is below, modified to remove or obscure personal details. I am sharing it because it evolved into something of a snapshot of how my Borderline Personality Disorder affects me, and I thought that others with BPD might find it interesting.

B, thanks for calling the other day. I’m entirely capable of putting off something I’d like to do for weeks, months, or years, but your call has motivated me to actually sit down and write to you as I intended.

There’s a lot I could write about in this letter; keeping it brief will be hard, but I’ll try. I have a therapy blog where I’ve been writing off and on for two years, which is why I know I have a lot I might say.

Anyway, two years ago, in September, I started therapy.

After a few months of therapy, my therapist told me that she felt that my symptoms fit a particular diagnosis, and she asked me if I wanted to know what it was. I said yes, but only if it wasn’t just a label to put on me; if the diagnosis would help me get better, if there was a path to recovery that the Dx would help with, then I did want to know. She told me that I fit the criteria for a Borderline Personality Disorder Dx. There are a lot of descriptions of BPD online if you’re curious about it and want to read more about it. In particular, I have what’s sometimes called ‘quiet BPD,’ which is when you ‘act out’ less than a person might be expected to with the classic description of BPD. The distress tends to implode rather than explode, I guess you could say.

As an aside: There are people who believe that there is no such thing as personality disorders, in a medical sense. There are frequent arguments and conversations on social media about this, and it boils down to people believing that we have ‘medicalized’ normal human behavior, and that the symptoms of personality disorders don’t rise to the level of being classed as an illness. This argument can get somewhat grimly comic at times, when you see people arguing against BPD as an illness when nearly everyone acknowledges that you’re more likely to commit suicide if you have BPD than any other diagnosis

That conversation doesn’t concern me much. I don’t care if BPD is a ‘real medical diagnosis’ or not. What I’m interested in is if there’s a way to improve my behavior & quality of life, and I believe that there are really good methods & therapies available now, after advances in treatment over the last 30 years. In the 1970s & 1980s BPD had a reputation as being ‘untreatable,’ but that’s not true any longer.

As I started reading about BPD after getting my diagnosis in late 2018, one of the things I noticed was that a lot of therapists and researchers say that childhood trauma is at the base of most of the symptoms that people with this diagnosis experience, and I told my therapist that I couldn’t think of any single event that might have caused this sort of trauma.

She pointed out that on top of my older brother drowning when I was four, I was constantly and relentlessly bullied from grade three onward, and both of my parents were emotionally damaged from their own life traumas and had no idea how to support me. My younger brother and I were largely ignored throughout our teen years. For instance, no one noticed that I was being persistently bullied, and no one noticed that my brother was binge drinking every weekend for years. My therapist pointed out that there doesn’t need to be a dramatic single event for trauma to qualify as an underlying cause; long term stressors like this also are considered to be the source of trauma.

To focus on what led up to my decision to take a break from training at the dojo, I need to tell you a little about how BPD expresses itself for me.

One of my main symptoms is having an insecure or unstable sense of who I am. I crave acceptance, and tend to take on the goals & ‘personality’ of whichever group takes me in. This can be really bad if I end up with groups like the cult-like people I was with in the 1980s, or good if there are solid people with good ethics (like at the dojo). It’s very hard for me to say ‘this is what I believe, these are my goals, these are my values,’ because I just adopt those of the group I’m with. I was so desperate to be accepted by anyone when I was young that I was willing to basically throw myself into the mindset of whomever was willing to accept me.

Another aspect of my life is that I make abrupt choices based on a kind of ‘pressure’ that builds up inside me. The abrupt decisions can be really extreme. For instance, in the early 1990s I cut off all contact with dozens of friends I’d known for a decade, and never talked to any of them for more than 25 years. In literature about BPD, you’ll find this labeled as ‘splitting’ behavior (at least, that’s how I understand splitting). Part of this manifests as a need to be ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ on any activity. When I start a hobby I tend to dive in & read about it, think about it constantly, buy tons of gear & supplies, etc. Then, after months or a few years, I take up some other interest and entirely stop thinking about the first activity. I’ve been through so many hobbies this way. It’s nearly impossible for me to do anything casually. This ‘entirely on’ or ‘entirely off’ aspect I call the Big Switch. It’s only been since I’ve gotten into therapy that I realized that a lot of this behavior is tied to desperate attempts to avoid uncertainty. At a deep level I believe that if I can just do something perfectly, I can ‘fix my life.’ There’s a lot to unpack here. It rests on an assumption that my life is broken, for one thing.

One of the pressures that has been building up recently is that after a lifetime of really poor spending habits, over the last two years I’ve been keeping a detailed budget and spending only what I can afford. It has helped me understand how I was able to get more than $30,000 in debt in the last 20 years, and I’ve made real progress in clearing out the debt, but I still spend nearly every dime I make each month, between living expenses and debt payments. When I was at the dojo 4 days a week, I calculated that training was costing me about $4 an hour, a very reasonable amount, but the $100 per month is still a substantial part of my budget.

As COVID-19 wore on, and the number of training hours I put in went down (and the ‘cost per hour’ went up), my inner ‘cost accountant’ started asking if I could really afford to continue training. So there was a source of pressure on the cost side.
Next, I’ve had a return of tendonitis in both of my elbows. This is important because training from home, the only thing I’ve really been able to do at anything close to my normal intensity is my weapons practice. But for the last two months the pain during weapons practice has been getting worse and worse.

At the same time, I’ve started realizing that the main ‘thing’ I was getting out of my training was a sense of belonging, and going to the dojo was one of my only social connections; along with time at the dojo itself, which I really treasured, the social aspect seems to be one of my main drivers. I hadn’t realized that until it was taken away by the pandemic.

Without that, I realized that the training itself is not all that interesting to me. It’s very abstract, and without the in-person reinforcement of being with Sensei, you, or the other students to keep me focused, I quickly lost interest. I have caught myself leaving class early, being distracted by other things during class, etc. My gradual loss of interest bumped up against the awareness that I can only barely afford the dues, and I started feeling that internal pressure building up in October & November to quit training.

When I realized that I was thinking about leaving the dojo, I brought all of this up in therapy because I was worried that I might be on the edge of one of these ‘splitting’ events where I make an extreme change in my life, and I didn’t want to do that. It’s a classic situation for me to flip the Big Switch & stop thinking about martial arts & desperately take up something else.

In talking through it with me, my therapist asked me if I felt that the art is a core part of what I want in my life, and I couldn’t answer her. Because of my tendency to adopt the outlook & goals of those I’m associating with, I can’t tell if the art is actually important to me or if I’ve just gone along with that as a baseline assumption in order to retain membership in the dojo.

I believe that in order to find out what I want to do with the next few years, I need some distance from the dojo. If I find that I do want to continue, I assume that I can reduce my spending on other ‘discretionary’ items like what I spend on books & streaming services to find the money in my budget for training dues and related expenses such as travel to seminars.

So that’s where I am at the moment. After six years of focusing a lot of my life around going to class, supporting the dojo, and going to 2-3 seminars a year, I realized that I have no idea if this is something I actually want to do, and need time away to figure that out.
Taking this time is not emotionally easy. The people at the dojo are my main social connection!

Given that at most points in my life, I would have just quit for good, cutting off all contact with everyone involved with the dojo, this attempt at giving myself time to think and figure this out seems like one of the more reasoned and careful decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t know if that’s true, of course. I might be fooling myself, which I’m really skilled at. But I’m meeting weekly for therapy, my therapist understands all of the elements that I’m dealing with, and I hope that with her support I’ll make a solid decision that I can feel confident about for a long while.

As you can imagine, I don’t bring up my BPD diagnosis with many people. I never know how they’ll react, and some friends I’ve told have acted as if I’ve admitted to some sort of terrible sin.

Personality disorders in general and BPD in particular tend to bring up dismissive reactions in people who don’t know much about them. People assume you’re ‘weak’ or just need to get over it. A classic reaction happened one day last winter. I was talking with E during warm-up before class about how I’d realized that I had internalized my father’s constant mocking me for getting out of breath while working around the yard. As a kid, I’d learned to suppress my breath so he wouldn’t get on me about it, and I suspect that the way I suppress my breath now when I’m upset is related to that.

L overheard this conversation and butted in with the stellar advice “your dad is dead, he can’t bother you now, so just put what he said out of your mind.”

Boy, I wish I’d thought of that on my own, L.

People sometimes assume that you’re using the diagnosis as an excuse, as if I’m saying ‘I can get away with being a horrible person because it’s just an illness that I don’t have any control over.’

Nothing could be further from the truth. I take responsibility for all of the harm I’ve done to people over the years, intentionally and unintentionally. I’m also trying to forgive the people who tormented me for so long, and forgive myself for adopting what my therapist might call ‘unsustainable coping strategies.’

This letter is just a taste of how complex my inner life has been over the last three years, but I think I’ve hit the main themes that led to the decision to take some time away from the mat.

I hope that this letter has reassured you that there’s nothing that you or Sensei did or failed to do that pushed me away in any sense. I just need time. As you probably know, nothing in therapy is a silver bullet that stops all of the bad things in my BPD symptoms. As with training on the mat, the best I can do is keep practicing, keep learning, and keep learning from my mistakes.

On the mat

5 thoughts on “Why I’m taking a break from martial arts

  1. Once again, a stellar sharing. Thank you so much. Your writings always help me to reflect on some of the changes that I’ve gone through or am going through; You often put words to feelings that I have had where I did not have the words
    The therapeutic process can be so fascinating. You really give the reader a sense of what it is all about. Anyone who has ever wondered health therapy might help them should read your work

    1. That’s great. Writing is so cathartic but it also helps other people. I am free today if you would like to talk. you have my contact information!

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