I’m not sure where my strength comes from. I’ve always felt like a frail person, especially inside. I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly hard, strong or courageous. Those features always belonged to a separate class, as best I could tell. The heroic few. The handsome, the well-formed and monied types, the kind that preyed on the weak and foreign, like me. I was always the new kid, the natural prey of the hero’s. Gollum in a world of Aragorn’s, Boromir’s, and Lothlórien’s. I lacked any kind of destiny except to be despised.

I could fill up a lot of pages with stories of the abuse I received, and the horrible places that made my mind go. Growing up was rough, suffice to say. People can tell you that adversity makes you strong, but those people have probably never had the joy of having a huge adult pick you up in a rage and violently shake you and throw you, hard enough that you barely remember stumbling home with your friends, and feeling the shame when the police talk to you and you can’t stop crying.

I never expected to grow up strong. I never felt like I had any right to it. As an adult, my first response to adversity has always been to cave in. If things come to a fight, I walk away. A great part of why my life collapsed over the last decade was that I always chose to walk away rather than fight, or even stand up for myself. There were more than a few people who despised me for that, and some who blamed me for all of their problems.

I have always known I could fight. When pushed to the limit, a hideous rage can boil out of me. The first fight I was in, I blacked out. I punched a kid hard enough to knock him through the air, and pounced on him…and came to my senses to look down into his terrified face. I was avoided at school for weeks after, and my route to school kept the daily reminder of what I had done until the snow melted. I remember looking at it with my brother, and wondering about the long space from the trail to the hole in the snow, with only footsteps coming back. I was willing to face shame rather than let that loose again.

Martial arts gave me a place to focus that rage…but most importantly it gave me a means to lock it up. I learned to handle myself without tapping into that deep place. I had to enough motivation to ensure that I became very, very good…but I still felt weak. I was a construct made up of things I was supposed to be, a tin man.

It wasn’t until later in life that I started to think that things could be different. I started to meet some special people…veterans, of just the right age and experience. The experience of being decisive in a no-win situation, the sort of place where you just endure and move and somehow come out of. I felt, in some odd way I can’t explain, less alone. That dark place inside me began to feel less like a separate entity, and more like a misunderstood part of me.

Working security in a rough place, I had to learn to routinely route gangs of teenage jackals with voice and force of will alone. I had excellent role models, fortunately. I learned to be decisive and depend on myself. I learned to shout down people larger and more dominant than myself, I learned to wrangle group fights into small pockets and then individuals, and send them home before they even knew what was happening to them. I learned to pick up the phone and call for help…while arguing, while chasing someone down or off, when being threatened with gunfire…once while giving first aid to savagely beaten old man, while staring down the prowling gang that had beaten him.

I’ve become strong. The dark place is still there, but it’s now a stony cliff, a solid rock that everything breaks on. Failure is a part of my life that I accept now. It holds no more fear for me. I know I can act, and I do. I have learned to do the small things in life without hesitation, and it makes the critical things so much easier. Training in martial arts didn’t fix me, but it did give me tools to fix myself. A scaffold of sorts, support when I needed it. In the best of the training, I found the seeds of growth that taught me real independence, steps to actual self-sufficiency, not just the thin veneer that we are taught to accept.