By: Heidi MacDonald
Mary’s Note: Heidi was a participant in 2018’s “Writing Your Warrior Story”. I was inspired to host the class because sometimes it’s so difficult to capture the transformative aspects of martial arts. I’d love to say Heidi has a unique story but sadly martial arts is plagued by sexual assault issues. Like yoga, we have a transformative path with teachers who rise to guru-like status and then we have the added complication of rank which codifies power structures. Heidi’s growth and ability to share her story with grace and realism floors me. More than once, I lost my breath with the vivid reality of her details. I am publishing this story and her name with her permission–another act of bravery and, in my opinion, an act of claiming herself, her past, and her path.
TRIGGER WARNING: sexual violence, rape, physical violence, emotional violence
Here’s her story:
I initially signed up for this writing course with the objective to finalize an old letter saved on my laptop: an open letter to my rapist, much like the Stanford rape victim, and other Victim Impact Statements I’ve come across. Somewhere inside my mind, I was hoping that it’s final draft could give me an emotional purge and final closure. I’ve been fumbling around for a long time, searching for a way to release and let it go.
It’s not that simple, though. It never is.
The overall objective of this course however, is to write my story, my truth, where I can honestly envision myself as a warrior. To recall how and why that I chose to become this specific identity. I look back at those first steps I took, some which were big – and others that were much smaller. My falls and fumbles on the martial arts path, however….those were my biggest and most painful lessons. Perhaps my most valuable ones.
What it means to be a warrior, is a weighted thought. Much like those heavy plates of armor that the warriors of old would place upon their limbs, prior to marching into battle.
How do I learn to see myself as a hero, even in the moments when I feel broke, and bent against the wind?
The past few months, I found myself setting aside the draft of my letter, my unsaid hurt, and instead began digging into my memories of “before.” My brain has been frozen in neutral on the night of the assault itself. That in, and of itself, felt toxic – and not helping me see the way forward.
I found myself wanting to remember something vastly different.
My life in martial arts is divided into two parts now – before I was raped, and after. My memories are like 2 continents, divided down the middle by a ragged, forbidden line of the darkest mountains.
Life “Before”, was not perfect. But I felt strong, and mostly in control of my life. I can almost see our training space in a hazy memory of late afternoon sun streaming through the windows of the former church. This space, this school was a haven, and it echoes with laughter in my memories. Here, there are friends that I cared for, that I trusted and respected.
The Dark In-Between, is a violent memory. It is like a car crash that lives on repeatedly in my mind. The sound of a door locking, the smell of the floor, my hair being grabbed. Curling up on the floor of the shower after, trying to wash him off me. Counting the black and white tiles until the water ran cold. In the darkest corner of myself, time will never pass. This will always be there.
Life “After”, is much more uncertain, and it is jarring. How I sense, how I process, how I see my friends is far, far different from “before”, and it is agonizingly. It is frustrating to try to be normal again, and I am constantly stumbling. I don’t know the rules on how to survive after rape. I don’t think anyone does. And it is even harder when I blame myself for not protecting myself.
I feel weak. I don’t feel like I have the strength of a warrior.
I look back at myself in the “Before” time. How fiery, and even a little arrogant.
When I thought long and hard about what specific thing, or moment set me down the warrior path, a memory came to me with a startling clarity.
I had just started taking self defense classes, and I was invited to watch demos of the adult beginner’s class one night.
I was sitting on the bench, waiting to enter the main training hall before it started. A few minutes earlier, I had been introduced to Sensei Brett Varnum, a man easily twice my size,
with a hearty laugh and easy smile. I found out much later that his father, a local optometrist, had fitted my father with his first pair of eyeglasses at age three.
This is life in a small town. Somehow, everyone is indirectly connected by invisible bands that will stretch its way across time.
Moments after meeting him, a young girl, perhaps 11 years old, but much smaller in size than her age, came bounding into the hall hollering out Brett’s name, and I watched him easily scoop her up with one arm, all laughter and a hug. Her mother, a lanky, tough-talking woman with a wide smile, came bearing what I would come to recognize as her signature cup of coffee, trailed after her daughter.
I discovered later that this young girl was Amanda Libby, and she started training in this very space, when she was 5 years old. She was one of Mr. Varnum’s students, and already well on her way to her goal of black belt.
Why does this memory stick with me?
Well, there was the confidence that this small young girl exuded like sun rays, the complete trust that she had in her teacher who scooped her up as though she was weightless, and the people she surrounded herself with in training.
She was joyous, she was strong. She knew no limits.
I saw the kindness and encouragement that her teacher possessed in his speech. He was honestly, truly proud of her, and wanted to see her grow. He gave this to everyone who walked through his doors, if you were willing to learn.
And there is the memory of her mother close by, always supporting her continuous practice. Even when she stumbled and cried out loud. I saw her mother wipe her tears, and nudge her back to the mat.
Don’t quit. Keep going.
Watching this scene, sitting on that bench, something in me felt..Interrupted. This was not an experience I’ve ever had for myself, this level of support.
My mother was not a parent in a normal sense of the word. She was a stranger whose rage and alcoholism ruled everything it touched. She was not an affectionate person, nor one to attend school events. Other parents came, but not her.
I was 21 at this moment in time, and the training hall was my first exposure to a possibility that human beings can be positive. Witnessing this, was what made me commit to training.
It takes a great deal of trust to train, both mentally and physically. Your mind must be open. You have to trust that your partner. You must be willing to step out of your comfort level, absorb constructive criticism, push yourself to grow. I dove in. And I loved it, even when it was frustrating.
I thought and believed that I was training with the most warriors – people who not just read the Code of Mindful Conduct on the walls, but truly lived it.
And it is here – my confidence in identifying those with integrity – that I find myself struggling in the “After”.
I trusted my friends. And I trusted the person I loved.
I trusted, and cared for the wrong people.
Whatever confidence or instincts that I thought I had, I watched that all dissolve, swirl away down the drain the night I tried to wash the feel of him off me. For the longest time, I blamed myself. I didn’t blame him, even though it was his crime. But no – I blamed myself. And whatever foolish faith or blind naivete I had that everyone in my ninjutsu community is “safe” – all of that was undone the night I was raped. And I found myself alone, and ashamed.
Trust. Shame. Fear. My conscious mind continually circles back to these three words, and I am not altogether certain if this is good for me. There is a fine line between having meaningful thought to seek clarity…. and simply wallowing in painful memories.
And then there are the labels. The designations given to you, unwanted, impersonal. Degrading.
The label of “victim”, is one I despise. To be a victim means to be weak, to not have control of my life and what’s happening to me. And yet, I cannot deny that in the space of minutes, I was not in control of what was happening. The person I loved morphed into a predator, and it left me immobile.
This happened in the one place most special to me.
The label of “survivor”, is one that I am not entirely comfortable with.
I survived something, yes. But I am deathly afraid of staying permanently in “survivor mode”, when it feels like there’s much more waiting for me beyond that.
No one wants to be the sum of labels that people impose upon you, or that you inflict upon yourself. I am wholly aware of all the “names” freely given by those who don’t live in my skin. Well, I am more than those words.
I know all the rumors, all the whispers when you think I don’t hear.
When I hear it, I just wish I was deaf again, just to crawl back into my silent box.
But I can’t. I have to keep going.
I would give up every goddamn thing I have in this world for an exorcism of him, what he’s done.
But I can’t. I still have to keep going.
There are too many labels and I have to accept them, however unfairly. Because I know they simply don’t tell the whole story.
Those words and titles, whether right or wrong, misleading or not, they do not matter. I cannot change other people’s perceptions, or what is said when people think I don’t hear, or comprehend.
What does matter, is how I see myself. I know that I am more than victim or survivor. I am more than those careless words that people like to casually throw around.
So, how do I see myself?
Where is the warrior?
I have a recurring nightmare, of myself handing a mirror to someone I trust. That person spontaneously decides to smash it to the floor into a thousand pieces.
Silently, I watch him stomp around furiously in the glass, grinding it beneath his heels. Only when he’s satiated by the chaos, does he finally stride away into the darkness.
I am left trying to fix the mess he left behind. I am on my knees on the floor, trying to piece it all back together again. My hands are cut, and there are pieces missing. Some pieces were just ground into dust in his fury. I can’t even see myself in this mirror anymore.
In the “After”, you are rebuilding a new identity for yourself. After destruction and the most painful decimation possible, you have no choice. You cannot lay down to die. You fervently hope that there is an answer waiting for you beyond the next day, or the next week. Forget plans for the next month. I want to see the sunrise, maybe a damn answer for why. And I want my fears to melt away.
Several years ago, I went sky diving. I jumped out of that plane with not a single care in the world, and my heart never sped up, or do a rapid patter in my chest. There was nothing but calm, a release in being unbound to this world. Just a falling through the air beneath a yellow sun. No fear.
But now, I’ll find myself in hotel rooms at martial arts seminars, balled up in a chair. And I am fucking terrified. Tremors go through my spine and limbs, my hands shaking. In my mind, I can see him on that night, hear him locking the door, and he’s walking toward me with the rope in his hands. There is a sick nausea rising in my throat. I know what’s coming. I’ve lived it a million times over in my head, in my dreams. I have to force myself to breathe. I have to push myself out of the chair, force myself to walk toward the door.
I have to train, even though he may be in the room. Along with everyone else who lies and covers for him. My body wants nothing better than to simply run away. Literally run. And I’ve done that. Go running deep on nowhere back roads until my feet bled. Or drive for hours until my gas tank runs almost dry.
The easiest thing would be to not train, to give it all up. To follow my most basic instinct, and keep running for the rest of my life. But I can’t. If I want this badly enough, then I have to stay. And I have to push through this wall of fear. I have to work through what happened to me.
When I walk into the room, I have to remind myself that not everyone is a predator, or an accomplice in covering up my assault. Yes, there are still good people, and they are also found in that room. Those people remind me that integrity is not extinct. I’ve seen it. And that helps me stand my ground. It is what makes me reluctantly tie on my belt, even when I remember the bad night, and those first days that followed.
So…perhaps my spark is still underneath my dented armor, stuffed behind layers of self doubt.. My warrior flame did not get obliterated. I have to dig down deep into the void, and pull it into the light. And I stand still. It is no longer time for me to run away.
This thought did not occur to me until very recently, but perhaps fighting through fear is the biggest lesson to learn. Fighting in spite of fear…maybe that IS a characteristic of a warrior. It’s a matter of fighting, even when you think your heart is going to give out from white hot terror.
I’ve been so focused on my own failure of not preventing the assault itself…and not giving myself honest credit for my survival.
I want a different life beyond “survivor”. I want “warrior”. And it is closer than I once believed.
I am stronger than I’ve given myself credit for. I am much more than words and labels.
In my mind’s eye, I see a lone warrior who marches onward despite everything. Even when the warrior falls to the knees, gets cut…The warrior gets up, bandages the wound, and keeps going. One foot in front of the other. Fear is a shadow, but the mind and body still fights.
Perhaps someday I’ll be fearless again.