In 2003 I was diagnosed as suffering from depression. I tackled my recovery from this in the usual way I tackle difficult tasks – by making a list of things to do.
As I compiled my list, very little of it was appealing. I knew, though, that it was all essential. One thing that did hold some appeal, however, was exercise.
The benefits of exercise in managing depression are well documented. It increases energy levels, self-esteem, gives you a sense of control over your life, a distraction from your thoughts, improves your health and body, which can lift your mood, helps you sleep better and, probably most importantly, provides an outlet for stress and frustration.
The gym held no appeal; running neither. I’d tried them in the past and found them, you know, really fucking boring. Instead, this was the perfect opportunity for me to act on a desire to explore martial arts. It seemed the best option to me – not only would I get exercise, I would learn something. It was intricate, disciplined, and looked really fucking cool.
My interest wasn’t new – I’d tried tae kwon do at university. I’d gone along for one session and was pushed so hard physically throughout that I tasted blood in the back of my throat for the last half an hour. I didn’t go back. To me, that experience confirmed a long-held belief - pummelled into me at school - that I wasn’t cut out for sport. I wasn’t someone who could push himself physically; I was too weak, too uncoordinated.
I still felt that when I signed up for my first session with KB Kickboxing. But I’d picked the school carefully. The last thing I needed, given my fragile state of mind, was another batch of macho fuckheads highlighting my limitations, failing to encourage me beyond them. Doing something like kickboxing was wildly out of my comfort zone and, if I was to make it work, I needed to be in the right environment.
There was something in the rhetoric on the KB website that reached out to me, made me smile even. They took on all comers; I was guaranteed the always calming presence of women; it was even, astonishingly, gay friendly. It seemed too good to be true. But it wasn’t.
Nor was it an easy ride. Sure, the school takes on all sexes, all abilities, all weights, all comers. But it pushes you hard. It forces you to face your limitations, reach beyond them, and achieve more than you thought you could. And then achieve some more.
I started at the school intending just to get some exercise. The belts system held no appeal. But before I knew it I was doing my first grading. It was one thing being in class, doing techniques, knowing if you make a mistake it doesn’t matter so much, get it right next time. In the grading hall there is pressure. You are being watched, assessed, judged. And the result of that judgement is whether or not you win the prize, whether you pass the exam, whether you raise the trophy above your head.
So you’re there in this strange, intimidating gym hall; Kelly Bunyan, the lead instructor at KB, has changed from encouraging and fun to no-nonsense and fearsome; the air is thick with tension and nerves; the smooth, plasticky floor rips your feet to shreds as you move around.
And then in my head I have an unstoppable, unrelenting voice telling me after every mistake I make – and even when I’m getting it right – that I’ve failed, or that other people do that technique better than that. It tells me I’m going to be the first member of the school to fail at getting a blue belt. It points out the door over there and wonders if maybe I should just walk out, never come back. I’d never have to see any of these people again. I fought that voice. I fought it hard with every punch and kick I could muster. When the voice was wondering how I was going to make it through an hour – a whole hour! – of physical activity like this, I just carried on, trying to focus on what I was doing; trying to get it right.
I got that blue belt. Then I got a green one; then an orange and a purple. Kickboxing changed me. It took the strength in me and capitalised on it, forcing the retreat of the black cloud that had been threatening to engulf me.
The introduction of kung fu added another element of appeal to the school. Intricate and beautiful, it complements the direct and snappy moves of kickboxing. It provides as many mental challenges as physical. It’s sensual. It’s powerful. It’s a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to do. It teaches you how to protect yourself. It empowers you. I felt honoured and thrilled to take it up, and still do.
I took a break from KB and went hotfooting it around the world. In Thailand I tried Thai boxing, something that five years previously I would never have been able – mentally and as such physically - to attempt. In those Bangkok gyms I came face-to-face with the very machismo that had sent me scuttling off at school, that left me the last person picked for the team. I faced it and showed it what I was capable of, and what I was capable of learning. Very few things in my life have been as satisfying as impressing seasoned Thai boxers with my kicks, making them want to show me more.
I tried kickboxing in Sydney. They told me to slow down, ease up. I was used to a faster pace than they could provide. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get the cardio I had become accustomed to. It was disappointing, and made me realise how good I’d had it in London.
When I returned to the UK, I didn’t even think twice about returning to KB. I’d missed the challenges it gave me. I’d missed the endorphin rush I’d got so used to. I’d missed the people. I’d missed the distraction it provided. I’d missed doing hook kicks.
It’s not been an easy return. I had to undergo a major operation just a couple of months after re-joining the school, and I was unable to attend for two and a half months while I underwent further treatment. This physical hurdle was far easier to deal with personally than the head stuff, yet I received far more support from those around me. Ironic. But I accepted the support and focused on getting through it so I could get back to training.
Because that was the frustrating thing – I’d had a taste of what I’d been missing then had to stop it. I realised that KB had made me someone who was used to doing physical activity – the polar opposite of my younger self – and now that I couldn’t, it made me frustrated. Angry, even. But I used that to focus my recovery, get better as soon as I could, move on from it and get back to normality.
Even when I returned, it was difficult. My recovery took longer than expected and I was easily fatigued. Plus I had to rebuild my core strength, almost from scratch. But I got there, slowly.
2011 was going to be my brown belt year. Come December I thought I would join the ranks of Kelly’s continually swelling higher grades. That was my aim. But life, as they say with some understatement, got in the way. For a while I let outside pressures and events get on top of me. I was too fatigued to fight – literally and metaphorically. I’d lost sight of what a useful tool kickboxing was in coping with the slings and arrows.
Then I remembered. The last months of the year saw me reconnecting with an element of my life I’d put to the side for too long – and the rewards have been huge. The sudden arrival of a kung fu grading focused me. It gave me something to strive for, something to think about other than the daily grind. I worked hard at it; studied the syllabus; provided entertainment for people in Hyde Park as we practiced our techniques in the summer sun. Getting my blue sash reminded me of the joy of that achievement, and the genuine and warranted pride you can feel in yourself.
I’ve entered 2012 with a renewed sense of focus. I’ve got my mojo back (I won’t rhyme it with dojo). Kickboxing is still wildly out of my comfort zone. I still have that insistent voice that tells me I’m not cut out for this. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It doesn’t mean I can’t push myself physically, get stronger, and become more co-ordinated. I’ve got too many things I want (need) to achieve to worry about that. There’s an orange sash to work for, a brown belt, burning feet to ignore, points to score, and lovely, lovely people to kick in the head.
And that’s the final, brilliant thing about this kickboxing school – the people it draws to it. I’ve never met such a diverse, caring, funny, sensitive, powerful, knowing, emotional (in a good way), supportive and hard to hit bunch of people in my life. My experience of sports halls, football fields, and the like has always been a lonely one – until I came to KB. You’re not on your own in this school. We may not know each other very well – the odd chat during stretch, drinks every few months – but it’s hard to think of any of my closest friends with whom I’ve been on such an epic and fulfilling journey. It’s pure comradeship and I feel lucky to be part of it.