I couldn’t sleep, it felt like my whole body was burning. Except this wasn’t me at the lowest point of my PhD. I was in early Spring 2018, long after the emotional immediacy of grad school had blurred into a memory chained to someplace else. I was in Atlanta, lying in a bed where I could no longer hear Amtrak trains hurtle by in the darkness. Why was my skin on fire?
The answer was perhaps more wrenching second time around. In grad school I’d become so stressed that my immune system lost control, causing hives to erupt over my body. This time I’d come home from my first jiu-jitsu class where I was introduced to the new martial art and practiced some throws, joint locks and grapples.
My skin was burning because it had forgotten what it felt like to be touched.
I asked this question before my PhD, during, and in its fading days. Could I recover from this? I’d seen too many broken and bitter grad students – even among those who made it to the end. I’d reconfigured my life so all my energy and hours went into the lab, I didn’t know if I’d remember how to twist it back.
That’s the question I came to Atlanta with: Was the PhD a blip in my trajectory, or was it the new direction? Could I re-access the person I was before – diverse hobbies, useful volunteer roles, high physical fitness – the person I saw as productive and happy? Would I know how to have an existence that didn’t orbit my research?
My burning skin answered my question.
You can starve yourself of something for years at a time, until you lose the memory of it.
But your body can always remember.
I’m not one for excessively sentimentality – that’s still too American for me. But martial arts – here, in this city – is important to me in general and specific ways.
It’s important to be physically active. It’s important to have hobbies. It’s important to try new things. It’s important to get out of the house and meet people.
Courtesy of TMAC (Apologies. I don’t have any footage of me kicking ass. If/when I do, I’ll share it.)
Martial arts is a great sink for my energy and focus. I’m not a natural fighter, same way I wasn’t a natural dancer. So I train, practice, adapt and try again. I hold a million technical reminders in my head with every pattern: hands here, weight here, feet here, knees here, fingers here, elbows here, neck here, left leg here. Everything must be accounted for. I know I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll always be making progress. That’s the balm to research uncertainty right there!
Traditional Far Eastern martial arts like karate & jiu-jitsu do have strong honour codes, dojo etiquette, and emphasis on obedience/self-discipline. Sure, yeah. By the time we get to adulthood most of us have already wrapped ourselves in too many honour codes, veering into self-denial instead of self-discipline. Martial arts is also the space where you can be playful and have fun. We spent one karate class wrestling each other off a large mat. Know when I last did anything like that? When I was 8 and trying to wrestle my brother off his bed. I’d spent the intervening years pretending like I was too old for those dumb games…when of course I wasn’t. Why would I deliberately choke off my sense of play, when it’s so fundamental to what we are as humans, as animals?
Let me put my own basic needs first. It’s never too late.