Anxiety runs like a poisoned river through my family's genes...
I’m already tired—bone-tired. No sleep from the night before. My husband will have to both drive and entertain our kid in the back seat while I doze. I am unsteady just getting in the van, and yet I’m supposed to compete today. I’d like to say that this is unusual for me, and it is, at least in part; I’m not usually competing in a tournament. But the sleeplessness before life’s milestones, both major and minor, has been a facet of my life since I was very young. Anxiety runs like a hot, poisoned river through my family’s genes, and I know I will be spending all of today managing it.
I wake when the van’s motion changes from the continuous hum of highway miles to the stop-and-start of surface traffic.
We’ve never been here before. We’re confused by the industrial park all around us as we follow the GPS. We pass a plumbing supply, and the headquarters of a maid service. We come around another bend in the loop road, and we see a steel building with a soaring roof peak, tall and wide enough to taxi a 747 through. Given the surroundings I’d have assumed it was a hangar for airplane assembly, but the doors in the short ends are only two people wide. A line of waiting people comes out the doors and snakes down the sidewalk, and I know we’re in the right place when I see bright white dobok pants showing under the winter coats.
We park, and I get out. I shiver as the cold air hits my skin through the dobok. It’s polyester-cotton, which makes it hot and sticky as hell in the summer, but in winter it provides next to no warmth at all—the worst of both worlds. We gather our backpacks, I tighten my belt, and we join the line. Everyone else looks just like us: coats, backpacks, white pants on the competitors. Some of the kids are wearing dojang sandals despite the cold. Their bare toes are scrunched up as if they could hide. I wonder how many of the backpacks around me are as heavy as mine is, with five one-by-ten-by-ten-inch pine boards. Thankfully the line seems to be moving fast, because after two hours on the road and that wash of cold air through my dobok, I really have to pee.
A sudden scream of crowd noise, loud as a jet engine, blasts out the doors. Beside me, our kid startles and shies backwards like a frightened colt. I take his hand. It’s equal parts hot with kid energy and frozen with the cold. “It’s okay, kiddo,” I say, even though my own heart is suddenly hammering in my chest. “That startled me, too. But it’s actually a lot louder out here than it is inside. The doors are funneling the sound.”
D is a solid, steadying presence close behind our kid and me. I feel the breadth and warmth of his chest even through my heavy coat as we shuffle forward in the line. He was the only reason R didn’t make it far when he shied: our kid skittered backwards a couple feet, bonked into his dad, and stopped as effectively as if he’d hit a wall. I look up at D and smile. He gives me a look that’s half amusement at our kid, a quarter shock at the sound, and another quarter grim acceptance of the fact that we’re going to be spending most of the day lost in that sea of noise.
Sound and heat blast over us as we clear the doors.
The building is a single, giant open space—very much like an airplane hangar, in fact, with steel roof trusses nearly as wide as our van soaring to a vee overhead. The space at ground level is packed with people as far as I can see...a couple thousand of them. There’s the stuff I expected to see, like snack bars and banks of restrooms along the walls to either side, exactly like the music and sports venues I’ve seen over the years. But there’s a great barrier reef of banquet tables just inside the entry, barring access to deeper into the building. Easily two dozen people are working those tables, checking competitors in against a thick list of entrants. They have to shout to each other over the noise behind them.
There are easily twenty temporary dojang floors set up. The distinctive red and blue mats have been jigsawed together into individual arenas of regulation size and format. The perimeters of each floor have been duct-taped to the concrete so they don’t shift. Every single arena is bordered with judges behind more banquet tables. Pairs of referees circle competitors as they spar. At other arenas there are judges but no referees, and each competitor is all by themselves in the center of the mat. The sodium lamps shine down on their doboks like spotlights. Many are doing forms, their kicks so crisp I should be hearing their doboks popping like sail fabric catching a breeze. Instead all I can hear is the screams and shouts of spectators, all of them louder than the arena judges as they give commands, louder even than the board-breakers at still other arenas, who shout to give themselves focus and strength and courage before they shatter boards with their feet or their hands or their elbows.
This looks like something out of a villain’s lair in a superhero movie. But it’s just a regional taekwondo tournament, a requirement for any student if they want to earn a black belt. It’s as common as daisies. But in my world—the carefully-curated world of the anxious introvert—this is a challenge. And for my special needs kid, who is even more anxious and introverted than I am, this is a nightmare. It just happens to be a nightmare laced with opportunities for novelty.
I watch kids R’s age sprint by, and they’re already wearing the same red belt I am. A pit of ice water opens up in my belly. Nearly everyone here is younger and faster than I am, and they’re my competition. I know I don’t have to medal in order to qualify for my black belt—just participating is enough. But I’m starting to sweat anyway, and it has very little to do with how hot it is in here. I peel my coat off, tie it around the straps of my backpack—there’s certainly no room inside my pack, because of the boards—and straighten my dobok and belt as best I can. I really don’t feel as if a woman my age and size belongs in a place as young and skinny as this...but if my belt and dobok say I do, then I have to match them with my attitude.
I finally find an open station at the barrier reef. The woman with the list looks at R as she asks for the competitor’s name and date of birth. When I answer, the woman looks a little surprised, but changes gears easily. I’m checked in, given my ring numbers and bracket times, and directed to the escort station—the venue is so packed that competitors aren’t allowed to circulate for twenty minutes before their competition. They have to gather at that area, check in again, and then be escorted to their arenas by bracket. We’ve got time before I have to separate from R and D, though, so we wade as best we can through the crowd. We’re in search of a safe place to park our bags and coats, so we can visit the facilities and get some food.
If, that is, I can eat. As nervous as I am, I might not be able to. We use the restrooms, and though R and D immediately gravitate to the food, I take a pass. I know from hard experience that competing on a full stomach is a bad idea. I’d rather be hungry than yarfy. I hold our gear as they eat, and wonder how they can stomach those nasty ten-dollar hot dogs as brunch.
We start toward the escort area, and we blunder into other families from our school. My master is at the center of the knot, every one of her students taller than she is. They’re leaning in to hear her instructions and advice as she points, but they don’t have to lean in too far: her voice snaps like a drill sergeant’s, clear even through the din. I realize that despite her size, this is her element. Her own master founded this tournament, and it’s overwhelmingly attended by sister schools founded by his other students. Nearly every dobok I see has some variation of our parent school’s name on it. It’s suddenly like being at an enormous family reunion, and I’m surrounded by a couple thousand cousins I haven’t met yet.
She sees me and her eyes light up. “Get in here!” she says, gesturing me into the knot.
My husband smoothly grabs my gear and takes our kid with his other hand. A quick nod and kiss and he plows into the crowd, looking for a place to set up shop. We know which ring I’ll be in, and when, so they’ll wait for me there. The boards I intend to break will be sitting safe with D until it’s time. I see him bending down to R’s ear to explain the plan. R waves at me excitedly with his free hand, and they’re gone.
I sketch a bow to my master as if I’m entering our dojang floor, even though her “floor” at the moment is just a gap in the crowd. She asks if I have my ring assignments and times. I tell her. She instantly points me toward another family, the Bostons, who will be competing at close rings at similar times. The dad, Craig, might be able to hold boards for me. I’m grateful. Finding board holders is sometimes profoundly difficult. I knew D could hold for me, but my planned breaks require two people, and I’d had no idea how I’d find the second big guy I’d need.
In ten seconds flat, my master has all her students set up and ready to go. She dismisses us all with a wave of her hand, and the families scatter.
I use my size to create a wake in the crowd. I feel massively overwhelmed, and I’ve only been here thirty minutes. My master’s been doing this for thirty years. I’m forcibly reminded, again, how much bigger she feels than me, even though I’m a head taller.
Just then, I feel a presence ease up to my elbow. I look down and it’s Ma’am. These awful sodium lights do her dark skin no favors, but even with the terrible lighting I can tell she’s got her game face on. It’s part measurement, part evaluation, part fierce exultation, and just the tiniest touch of what the actress Charlize Theron calls her “murder walk.” When Ma’am’s got her game face on, people get the hell out of her way. At the moment, I’m probably having an easier time in the crowd because she’s here, not the other way around.
“You heading over to watch the Boston kids at Ring 6, Ma’am?” I ask.
“Actually, it’s early enough to get a good seat at Ring 5 to watch you.”
I swallow hard. “Ma’am?” My voice narrowly misses squeaking.
“I’ve gotta take every chance I get to support my mamas,” she replies.
I smile broadly at her, but catching sight of Craig Boston in the crowd saves me from having to find something good to reply. I want to say, Please, Ma’am, go someplace else and reduce the anxiety load you’ve just put on me. I always fuck up when somebody important to me is watching. And reminding me that I represent all the mom-students at your dojang isn’t helping. But she waves, and splits off to the stands by Ring 5.
I use every iota of what I’ve learned about anxiety—where are you, what are you doing, who are you with—to focus on the things I can see, taste, touch, feel, and hear, rather than the terrors that are now running circles in my head, laughing like wolves.
I focus on the smells: plastic mats, old feet, the musty smell the mats get from long storage, the scalpel smell of disinfectant, the grease of the stadium-style chili dogs. Sweat. Lots and lots of sweat. Kid funk, man funk, woman funk. Somebody’s wearing Drakkar Noir. I thought that died in the 80s.
I taste the dryness of anxiety in my mouth, and work my jaw to get the saliva going again.
I feel my dobok sticking to me, head to toe, as I alternate between sweating from the heat and freezing in the blasts of cold air created when the vendors open their back door accesses to the outside. The cold currents are a welcome relief, and more than one person around me sighs in pleasure at the feeling.
The sighs aren’t the only sounds. I’m surrounded by the bellowing of the referees and judges at the rings around me. “Seijak!” starts a new round of shouts and screams as a sparring match begins. “Baro!” starts a round of applause from the spectators as someone finishes a form. The distinctive, crunching snap of a successful break draws my eyes to Ring 5, where the bracket before mine—Women, 20-29 according to the bracket sheets—is finishing their breaks.
Despite myself, even as I’m stalking Craig Boston through the crowd, I take a hard look at my competitors, Women, 30-39. I can tell who they are even though they’re strangers: they’re the red belts quietly practicing their kicks next to Ring 5. Every so often they check the clocks on their phones to see when they should leave for the escort area. I’m 36, and until today I’ve been consoling myself that I’m merely in the middle of my bracket. But seeing these women in person puts that polite lie to death. Every one of them is younger than me. Much younger. And thinner. And judging by the height of their practice kicks, they’re a whole lot better at taekwondo than I am, red belt or no.
A solitary woman with silver hair and a red belt crosses in front of me. I can tell she’s in that incredibly rare group, Women, 40+. But she’s all piano wire. She looks like she hauls sails by hand for fun. She certainly isn’t built like me, the fluffy cloud that passes overhead when she’s probably out on the Atlantic crewing a windjammer.
Focus. Where are you, what are you doing, who are you with.
I find Craig Boston. He’s a short, bald fireplug of a guy, with muscles on top of muscles poking out of a fire rescue t-shirt. “Hey, you’re Craig?”
“Yeah?” he shouts back at me as Ring 5 erupts into applause next to us. The three medalists are being announced.
“I need a holder. Would you be available?”
A look crosses his face. “I’ve gotta stay near Ring 5. My kid’s in the sparring bracket here, right after this next breaking round.”
“I’m in this next breaking round. Right here. In fact, I’ve gotta go to the escort station right about now. Would you mind holding for me?”
His face lights up. “Sure!”
It’s settled. That stressor, at least, has been handled.
I see motion among the stands, and I see that my competitors have all gotten their stuff and are heading to the check-in. They look deathly serious, and, if I’m being honest, really scary.
I see my master make her way into the emptying stands and take the best seat. She surveys the arena like its hers. And, in a way, it is—far more than mine.
I find D and R—they’re setting up practically next to Ma’am—and confirm that the boards are ready. I’m proud to see that R has commandeered our old video camera. That’s both brave and smart of him; last year he was too terrified of technology even to touch it. Who knows, I think. Next year he’ll probably be demanding a smartphone. I kiss my family again and rush to catch up to Women, 30-39.
They’re already at the station, receiving instructions from the escort coordinator. They all look at me like I’m Johnny-come-lately. Which I am.
To my surprise, there are only five of us breaking; the group I followed is also Women, 30-39 for forms. I sort myself with the breakers first, and discover I’ll be breaking last in the group...the position that’s often judged most harshly, simply because all the other breaks will look original, and the last position has the least possibility of doing something cool.
I think of my chosen breaks and cringe. They’re basic. Really basic. As in, “so basic they’re actually called ‘basic kicks.’” I’ve chosen a three-board ax followed by a 180 degree spin to deliver a two-board front piercing kick. I realize I’ll have to explain that to Craig Boston, too; his family is very new to the dojang, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him personally. So it’s likely he’ll have no idea that an “ax” means I’ll be swinging my heel up over my head and bringing it down...well, like an ax, chopping wood. I make the mental note to smooth that over when we get back to Ring 5.
I focus on that to get over my dread. I’m doing basic kicks in last position in the bracket. Forget medalling.
I follow my bracket back to Ring 5, and they walk as if they’re in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games—regal, slender, commanding. Despite being as tall as any of them, I feel small and frumpy by comparison.
Once we get to our arena, I skitter over to D and retrieve my boards. I check them one last time—all solid, all regulation size, one inch thick and ten-by-ten inches square. I see that D already has his shoes off, so he can go straight onto the mat when it’s time. I smile my thanks, ruffle R’s hair, and get back to the sideline just as the first woman is called.
I watch with despair as they outclass me at every step. Their bows are crisp as they’re each called to the mat. They sound rock solid as they announce their kicks to the judges. Even their holders are coordinated in dojang-specific t-shirts and pressed pants; they could be attending a company mixer in those khakis, were it not for the bare feet.
And their board breaks are even prettier. Gorgeous, technical breaks. Stuff that requires them to break a board with one foot, then pause and hold their balance with that foot remaining in mid-air, as they jump straight up with their standing foot and break a second board. Stuff that I couldn’t pull off even on my most-rested day, and I’m flying on two hours of sleep here.
Let’s face it, I’m a blunt instrument in comparison. There’s no way I’m medalling. I’ll just crush my breaks and let it stand. I’ll be proud of myself anyway. Just being here is a fucking accomplishment.
My name is called. I give Craig and D the eye, and they stride out onto the mats. Even in bare feet and street clothes, they look a lot more confident than I feel. I bow in, bow to the judges, and hand my husband the boards. And then I realize I haven’t warned Craig.
Shit. Too late now.
The judges ask for my kicks, and I announce them: three-board ax, 180, two-board front piercing. There’s a bit of confusion as two competitors I don’t know come onto the mats and offer to hold for my second break. I had one holder when I left the house this morning, and suddenly out of the blue I’ve got four. I spend an awkward minute arranging everyone—the ax boards are as high as my head, D holding at his shoulder height and Craig practically at his full reach. The two students I arrange behind me, boards held at belt-height. I feel every eye in that arena on me, the judges’ most of all.
And once everything is settled and the boards are firmly in the hands of the holders, for the first time, I think I might have chosen well after all: the entire panel of judges glances at each other. A few of them even sit a little straighter in their seats. The look on their faces is plain: this might be good.
I can’t imagine why. They’re basic kicks. But then I realize that every break before mine featured single boards. I’m the only wannabe power-breaker in Women, 30-39.
Well, let her rip.
I check my holders with a glance. I bow to the judges. I know from the moment I enter free fight stance that I have less than thirty seconds to complete the break.
I enter stance—fists up, knees bent, right leg back. Ring 6 erupts into sheer madness next to us as somebody pulls off a headshot while sparring. I flinch.
The clock is ticking. From the corner of my eye, I see the only black woman in the stands—my master—fidget, willing me to break.
Instead, I breathe. One breath in, out.
I’ve never done a three-board ax before. I don’t even know if I can do this.
A second breath in, out.
One of the judges flinches, as if his muscles could force me to move.
A third breath in, out.
Craig Boston glances at me as if to say, Dude, you’re running out of time.
I remember the one rule I’ve learned, through my years of battling anxiety: the only way out is through. I know I need to bring my leg up and throw it at the floor like a goddamned stone. I need to pretend those boards aren’t even there. I need to pretend that they can’t and won’t hurt me. I need to pretend that my kid, bravely holding the video camera all by himself in the stands, has a mom he can be proud of.
Fourth breath. Go.
I swing my right heel up above my head and down like vengeance. I crush three inches of pine like it’s an empty tissue box. Then I pivot smoothly through the 180 I'd planned and snap the other two boards cleanly with the ball of my left foot.
In the stands, my master pumps one fist like she’s breaking a board of her own up there.
I have only one thought in my head: Huh. I did that.
As I pick up the splinters and thank my holders and bow my way off the mat, I realize that my competitors—those regal, frightening Women, 30-39—are all staring at me with wide eyes. They’re visibly reassessing their own power...obviously thinking, A woman can do that? Maybe I can do that, too. They mob me after I get off the mat, congratulating me and telling me how excited they are to try those breaks when they get home. I realize I’ve just turned one tournament break into a small army of women completing huge tournament-breaks for years to come, because these women will take this story home to their own students. I’m taking a place among all these cousins. I’m linked into a lineage of courage I’m only just beginning to understand. And despite myself, I’ve added something to that lineage.
My master catches my eye, and she nods knowingly. She points back at the mats, as if to say, Get ready to head back out there. Those judges will be calling your name soon.
And they do.
About the author
I have MS, Hashimoto's, and a black belt in taekwondo. I'm also an ocular melanoma survivor. This explains why my writing might be kind of obsessed with apocalypse--societal, religious, and personal.