I'm claustrophobic. I first realized this in unforgettable fashion when I was about ten years old. My brothers and I had just watched a TV show about an escapologist. The modern-day Houdini had impressed us with his almost mystical skill in escaping from the tightest of bonds and most perilous of dangers. He could wiggle out of handcuffs, slip off cocoons of rope with ease, and defy the danger of sealed coffins. So naturally, boys being boys, we had to try our hand at escapology.
I obtained a cardboard box big enough to contain a ten year-old boy, and instructed my brothers to encase me in it as securely as possible. They obligingly enclosed me in the box, wrapped it securely in a blanket, and tied it firmly with rope like a gift wrapped for the Devil's pleasure. I had instructed them not to let me out for any reason. Being the wondrous genius of escapology that I was, I boasted that I wouldn't need their help to get free.
It was my screams of mortal terror that brought them running. But first, in the cramped and pitch darkness, I had tried to open the box. It was when I failed and realized I was well and truly entombed, that the nameless horror of phobia seized my soul. I saw the face of Death, and felt his hand. Cloying horror darkened my mind with uncontrollable madness, and I screamed for my dear life. Fortunately, my brothers disobeyed my previous injunction and quickly let me out. The shame I felt was nothing compared to the relief of being free of the nameless terror that is a phobic attack.
It would be almost thirty years later before I felt that terror again. It was just a few months ago during my first-ever grappling class, an experience I chronicled in a wildly popular fanpost. In that article, I described how I 'tapped preemptively' whenever an opponent pinned me down. I blamed it on gassing due to poor conditioning. This was only partly true. The real reason I tapped so quickly whenever someone got on top of me was that I was afraid.
For me, the most terrifying way to die would be being buried alive. I would prefer to be tortured to death in fresh air and daylight than to suffocate in a tomb. I know that long before my body gives out, I would have lost my sanity to the nameless terror of claustrophobia. That terror, that uncontrollable fear of losing control, of being suffocated, is what I felt the second an opponent pinned me down. Being the assidious researcher that I am, I Googled the phenomenon of claustrophobia in grappling, and found this excellent article.
That piece explores the phenomenon much better than I could, and it gave some comfort to know I wasn't alone. The question now was, what next? I watched a recent interview with Dolph Lundgren, who recounted that Judo was his first martial art. He says he quit it and took up Karate after "some fat guy pinned me down and tried to choke me out." This rang a bell in my head: Dolph Lungren too must be claustrophobic! Maybe I should do as he did, abandon grappling, and return to the safe, suffocation-free world of Karate striking?
Fortunately however, I'm of that obstinate disposition that hates to back down from a challenge, and so I kept up the grappling classes. However, I realized that I was facing an additional challenge in choosing to continue. In addition to dealing with learning a new skill, overcoming the physical demands of resuming regular training at almost forty, and keeping enthusiastic opponents from slamming, choking and joint-locking me, I would also have to fight an inner demon so fierce, it normally takes years of psychotherapy to vanquish.
I accepted the challenge. At home, I would do inverted yoga exercises that induced claustrophobia, and see how long I could bear the terror without standing up. When I was pinned down during rolling sessions on the mat, instead of trying to shrimp or bridge to escape, I would lie still and count in my head the number of seconds I could hold back my fear before tapping. Every additional second was a little victory, and while my opponent felt satisfied at having pinned me down, he had no idea that in my head, I was fighting a much tougher opponent than he could ever be.
Eventually, the fear began to fade. During rolling, I began to deliberately pull guard and tempt my opponent on top of me. The standard treatment for phobias is gradual desensitization: exposing the sufferer to the thing he fears, until the fear slowly subsides. Gradually, I actually began to enjoy grappling, and became a quick study at locking in submissions from the bottom. Sometimes, when pinned down, I would talk to myself in my head and say things like "This feels nice, I have no fear at all. I could stay here forever. It's just another person lying on top of me. I can breathe just fine. No biggie." The improvements have been dramatic.
I'm not naive enough to think I've cured myself of claustrophobia in a few short weeks. However, I have gone a long way in overcoming one particular manifestation of it- the fear of being pinned down during grappling. This inner journey has made me reflect on one of the most beautiful aspects of martial arts: what the Japanese call the 'do', each person's personal path to self-betterment. Every one of us has a unique challenge we are trying to overcome in our practice.
Last week, I rolled with a 69 year-old black belt. For him, his personal challenge is simply showing up for class and not succumbing to the ennui and infirmities of old age. One of my dojo friends is a morbidly-obese guy who can never keep up with the physical exercises in Ju-Jitsu class. Yet he shows up to every class, huffing and puffing and falling behind. His personal challenge is overcoming the glandular curse that has made him fat. He could avoid the embarrassment of being the fat guy in class, stay home, sit on the couch and grow even fatter. But he keeps showing up.
Just before my Judo class begins, there is another Judo class for blind children. I often sit and watch them. Their personal challenge is not succumbing to their disability. I see their simple delight when they can successfully do a breakfall after being thrown, or properly execute a foot-sweep. One of the older Judoka in my class has a wrecked knee from early in life and is borderline disabled, but he still shows up regularly, fighting his own inner, personal battle to remain active.
This is the real value in martial arts, far beyond merely learning to fight. Everybody is fighting something unique to their situation. Some people are gifted with natural flexibility, while others have to work for years to get it. Some people are scared of being punched in the face. Some have Anderson Silva-like talent, while others have to work twice as hard as everyone else to be half as good. Some are old, some are blind, some are lazy, some are short, some are obese, some are scared of sparring. And some have claustrophobia. But we all still show up. And whatever your unique challenge, I hope you do too.