Martial Arts and Disability: my situation

Despite barely doing anything physical today I am in a lot of pain and that’s even after taking my painkillers. So I decided to load up the Dragon speech recognition software and finally write an article about martial arts and disability, something I’ve been avoiding writing for a long time.

Firstly writing the following post proved quite difficult because I am apprehensive about referring to myself as disabled; I have repetitive strain injury in both arms, which I have had at a severe level since 1999. Although there are occasions when my wrists swell up so badly that other people notice, RSI is mostly a nonvisual disability. Therefore I appreciate why most people are normally confused when my medical situation becomes something I need to explain.

Secondly I consider the word disabled to be a very powerful and important one. I think it is fair to summarise that the average person considers a disability to be something massive and obvious, for example someone that has lost a limb. Without a medical breakthrough re-growing a limb is not going to happen, it is not a case of thinking positive or eating better. As with most things in life, the concept of disability includes a wide range of things from the obvious to see to nonvisual, but also the severity of conditions can vary greatly from minor to extreme. However, I have been told by doctors and physiotherapists that I have a condition that may never heal and that affects my day-to-day life, and since on really bad days I struggle to perform basic tasks whilst also being in constant pain it is a disability.

A summary of my background is that I started using computers extensively when I was six in 1982, and besides a lot of gaming I have also dabbled in programming. I started working in a call centre in 1996 doing a lot of data input. By 1998 I had started developing regular wrist pain, I was advised that it would go away, which it did, but it kept coming back. By the summer of 1999 I was signed off due to my wrist pain becoming so chronic. At the time I was a brown belt in Japanese Jujitsu, as well as practising other martial arts like Wado Ryu Karate and Nippon Kempo, so I had to stop training to allow myself time to heal. The trouble is I never really healed, instead the pain eventually diminished to a background level, but would spike up occasionally to a more severe level.

After a year’s break I was told to get back on with my life, so I returned to martial arts training but now I had to be careful. I had a whole list of worries about returning to training: I was still in pain, my skills had deteriorated, I was physically unfit and had gained weight, I had worries about my injuries getting worse. A major issue was the worry of embarrassment for me and my training partners in an awkward situation because with certain things I would need special considerations: no wrist locks, ever! Crucially my fear was proven true as I met people who thought I was pretending to have a disability to avoid committing to hard work.

Considering I had trained for years and put a lot of effort in, including even full contact fighting in armour, the idea that I was avoiding hard work was extremely disrespectful, never mind any suggestion that I was hiding behind a fake disability. I had learned to accept the fact that I was never going to be an exceptional martial artist, but I could still do things, and the whole point is you don’t give up.

Eventually I got my black belt in Japanese Jujitsu (JJ), but it doesn’t mean you are an expert just that you’ve learnt some things. I started assisting with teaching, and then running my own classes, it was often fun and I found I could learn by teaching. I returned to Karate, and also started training kung fu. The whole time I would have wrist problems, sometimes quite badly, but again I did my best to manage things and keep going. A few years later I got my 2nd dan in JJ.

Unfortunately whilst training in Kung Fu I got an injury with my left hip that has never gone away. Despite a lot of physio and seeing specialists, the psoas minor muscle won’t heal properly and it has left the area weak. When I relax it wants to move out of alignment and is painful, I have to sleep in a certain position to avoid this problem; my RSI already often affects my sleep.

White belt, the joy of starting something new

For years I wanted to train Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), so despite the same apprehensions mentioned above, about having to explain my situation to a whole new bunch of people, I started training in these styles. After training in Judo for a short while I also started BJJ. My first lesson of BJJ was great, and although I was familiar with many of the basic concepts of ground fighting I had not done that much practice of it; knowing about a thing does not make you good at it. I was really impressed with the teaching of someone who was to become an important part of my life, Mr Gary Savage of Sukata MMA.

Unfortunately I had to take a break from Judo and BJJ due to how bad my hip became, as well as my wrists, but after two years of physio and my wrists getting a lot better I was able to return to training. I was welcomed back by Gary, being back training again was awesome, even though I could barely do a single push-up or sit up, and despite the small amount of knowledge in my head my body just didn’t react well to get even what I did know to work. Within a few weeks I was training more than one session a week, and by then I could do nearly 10 push-ups without my wrists complaining.

By 2014 I am training 8 to 9 hours a week. I am a 4 tag blue belt, doing some assistant teaching and even running my own little throwing session. My fitness was starting to approach what it had been before developing my major injuries. Then at the end of November 2014 something tore in my right bicep whilst lifting some boxes, this led to a few months of recovery. In the mean-time I had started developing a problem with my right elbow, which the doctor said was ‘tennis elbow’, I was given some exercises to help, it took a long-time to heal, but was still extremely weak.

In February 2015 I was able to go back training, and I had even lost weight due to changing my eating regime, so I actually felt good when returning to training. A few weeks later I badly banged my left elbow at home on a door frame (!*&!), and after applying some witch hazel it swelled up quite badly! Throughout the first half of 2015 I have only done a bit of light training, and very little BJJ rolling, but I have assisted with teaching beginners because it is better to turn up and do something, than nothing.

Amazingly Mario ‘Sukata’ Neto moved to Blackpool and is the head coach of our club, which is now called ITC. His teaching and technical knowledge is amazing, but I have barely been able to train under him. Since he doesn’t know me, and hasn’t seen me train properly I worried about having to explain my situation to Mario. My paranoid inner monologue returned to yet again given me many reasons to quit, suggesting that by discussing things.

Thoughts that I would appear weak, cowardly, pathetic and called out as a liar, that if I trained I would get really bad injured, that I would piss off my training partners for not being a poor training partner. Also that training under someone of Mario’s ability would be a disservice to him because he should be teaching people who want to be champions. Years early I’d had the same paranoid thoughts when I first went to Gary, and had to fight those demons then, I could do so again. Like Gary, of course Mario understands hard work and what it means to have bad injuries, so unsurprisingly in reality he was understanding and helpful. With my injuries slowly getting better I was starting to get optimistic, that soon I could fight my way back to the previous October’s level of fitness and health.

Then in July my RSI escalated from minor to severe level, my doctor said it was likely so bad due to the injuries with my arms. Additionally my shoulders have also become really painful, but we think we have figured out how to fix this, I’ll explain that in another post.

So it’s now November and overall things are a tiny bit better. Following on from a previous post I made about long-term injuries, or disability, eventually you have to get back on with your life as best as you can. I kept Gary up to date, and then I went to the gym to chat in person. Gary suggested I again assist with beginners, to turn up and do what I can, that as normal I would have support. Although I am once again unable to do more than a press-up due to muscle weakness and pain, and again I have put weight on, plus there are new people at the club and thus likely a whole bunch of awkwardness, but it’s about not giving up. Like so many others I have found BJJ is overall full of welcoming practitioners, that I have my long-time great instructor Gary, and another great instructor in Mario that I’d like to get to know more. I have gotten back on the mats so many times after small and big problems, I can do so again.

Life is for living, as best as you can. You don’t tap out to life, because if you do, you are dead!

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Author: Batjutsu

Writer, role-player, games master, martial artist, programmer, disabled but not giving up.

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