I’ve had some pretty bad days fencing. I remember one tournament really sucking. I’d just been on a hot streak, and really felt like I had something to prove. I got myself up at five in the morning to get ready, and drove two hours south to a tiny town in Washington state to compete. It was a busy tournament, maybe fifty fighters. I could beat the easy people, the up and comers, and was about even with the good fighters. I felt like I was ready to take on the top dogs, and wanted to bring them my best game.
I was doing okay. I was fighting Jherek Swanger, who is an awesome and really enjoyable fighter, as well as an excellent translator of period fencing materials. I don’t really remember what I did, but I know I screwed up, and screwed up at high velocity. I’d been ramping my game up, and Jherek was showing me why he was one of the top dogs. I remember the brief, terrible feeling of “oops, I missed closing that line…” and then…bang. Things went sideways for a moment. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just suffered my first real concussion.
Jherek, my fencing partner, and girlfriend at the time all tried to get me to go and seek medical attention, but I was a tough ass. I wasn’t going to let a little bang to the head stop me…even if I was getting a grinder of a headache. I figured I could get one more fight in, and there was one more top dog fighter I wanted to show myself off too… Burt Sanford, another super-fun, elegant and extraordinarily talented fencer. I had to get some passes in with him. Most especially since he was a good critic of my fencing. I wanted to show him how I’d improved. Yeah…
I had borrowed a leather gorget from a friend, seeking armour that fit better and was more comfortable to wear. Unfortunately, this hardened leather gorget had developed a rise at the front. I have no idea how I was fighting but I’m sure I was trying real hard. One of the worst possible coincidences happened, and I once again threw myself onto someone’s sword at high velocity. This time the sword went under the rise in the gorget, and I took a sturdy thrust to my unprotected throat.
At that point the few brain cells left in my head clicked, and I realized I was done for the day. The next few days’ agony taught me to respect injuries, and not to tough them out. Liquids only til I could swallow something larger than a rice grain without agony, coupled with nausea and a non-stop killer headache? That’s a life lesson, right there. That wasn’t the worst day, though.
The worst day was at a regular thursday practice, and an evening of sparring with my fencing partner. We had a regular habit of leapfrogging each other in skill, and we worked it well. We’d encourage and push each other, and when the other got better, we both felt a sense of accomplishment. But on this night, I couldn’t land a single shot on her.
She was hitting me repeatedly, and when I’d analyze what she was doing and change my approach, she’d still hit me. I changed my speed, my stance, my strategy. I spent time trying to do just the same thing so I could observe what was happening, but nothing was working. She was pasting me over and over…and the anger started to grow. I was pissed…at her, at myself.
A deep and painful feeling of frustration…shame…set in. I got so angry. I started to hate everything. There was no pleasure in the fencing, just anger, hate and desperation. I pushed harder and harder, and got hit more and more. I felt utterly and completely helpless, and completely humiliated by it. And I was desperate to do anything to make that feeling stop. It was pure fencing hell.
It snuck up on me slowly, but it was pretty firmly in me when I realized how I was feeling. I stopped, muttered something, threw my mask off and walked over to a side room and just knelt down. Just focused on my breathing and nothing else, until I felt better. It’s been over a decade I think, but I can still recall that darkness. I’ve watched others come face to face with it from time to time.
Eventually I started to feel better, and walked back into practice. I tried to pretend everything was normal, and avoided the questioning glances of the other fighters in the room. I waited for my fencing partner to finish bouting, and apologized. I told her I had to work through some things and needed a moment, but I was okay now. We started to bout again…and I felt the edge of blackness start to creep up when she landed the first touch again. I immediately wanted to try and fight past the feeling, to prove I was better than that emotion…but it was no good. And I did the right thing, and called the bout off. It wasn’t my night, and it wasn’t going to be. I packed up my gear, changed, and spent the rest of the practice watching everyone else fight.
On the way home my partner grilled me thoroughly about what was going on with me. I did have a ton of bad things going on in my life, and she let me vent…for about two minutes. Then she suddenly pulled the car over to the side of the road, and dragged me out of the car, and over to a nearby river bank. I was pretty pissed off at this point, but she gave me a blunt look, and reminded me that she was dying of cancer. None of my problems were going to kill me, so I’d better goddamn well listen to her, and do what she told me to do.
And then she put a rock in my hand, and told me to throw it into the river. I grudgingly did so. And she put another into my hand, and another. About the fifth rock I started to feel less like a bitter whinypants, and she told me to wrap up my feelings in the rocks and throw them away. We spent another five minutes throwing rocks, and I started to feel better. I don’t remember when I started to laugh, but I eventually did. Throwing rocks into the Fraser river in the middle of the night, laughing like idiots.
I’ve been through a lot of bad times, but I think that night was the worst I’ve ever felt. I know I will never feel that bad again. I always have the memory of throwing rocks to chase the dark feelings away, and it still makes me smile.