Jiu Jiu’s note: This week I have a guest writer, Sarah from RollingTrainWreck, who has been doing jiu jitsu for just over a year. In addition to dealing with gender issues, she also has had to work through PTSD and being a closeted lesbian on the mats. I am so inspired by stories of persevering through difficulties. If you’d like to tell your story anonymously (or not), please read the offer I posted earlier and contact me! [edited to add: this was initially published anonymously, but Sarah came forward on her blog and I made sure it was okay to update with her info]

If I were to describe how my my first nine or ten months in judo and jiujitsu felt – I’d have to say “alone.” My school is very small. Besides myself, there three other women who occasionally come. At least two-thirds of the time, I’m the only woman there – but for my first six months, there were no other women.

I remember the first time I realized there were others experiencing what I was; I was browsing the internet with some sort of ‘screw it’ query.  I was at a quitting point, having World!Rage because I was tired of sucking, and feeling like I’d always suck – so I searched. Something like “I keep getting my ass kicked in jiujitsu” – expecting to come across at least mildly amusing YahooAnswers. That isn’t what I found. I browsed onto a BJJ blog – yours, I think – and it was like finding a pot of gold.

I barely put my computer down for days, soaking up the connection to Those Who Understood.

What it is like to be the smallest and weakest, with no way to make up the gap. To always be partnered by the instructor (or with AnyOtherWomen, regardless their comparative size) because no one wants to go with the girl. How batteringly terrible it feels to never get things to work, to get your ass kicked week after week, because guys can muscle you like you’re nothing, and knowing it’d take years before your technique will make a difference against it. Knowing you’ve got years and years of pummeling ahead of you. The times that makes you grit your teeth with determination, and the times that makes you want to quit.

How it feels to fight to be accepted by the guys, and to still feel like you’re on the outside looking in.

The guys who won’t train with you because you’re too easy for them. Guys who won’t train with you because you’re a woman. Guys who won’t meet your eyes. Guys who treat you like you’re a flower. Guys who treat you you like a threat to destroy. Guys who are afraid to touch you. Guys who are afraid to lose to you. Guys whose wives are threatened by you. Guys who think you’re hitting on them. Guys who hit on you.

I could ask questions; What is it like for others to be the only girl among men? How do you handle sexual innuendo – if I laugh, I might look bash or unfeminine, but if I don’t laugh, it’ll make others uncomfortable!  Will my teamates care that I’m a lesbian – will that make it easier (they won’t think I’m hitting on them), or will it make it harder (I don’t know how they stand on homosexuality)? How do I handle it when I accidentally knee my partner in the balls? Does anyone else have PTSD – how do you handle it when you panic because you’re being pinned by a guy? Will I EVER get this to work?

All of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t alone. It opened my eyes and made BJJ so much better. I felt like I was part of a huge community of people just as crazy-obsessed as I, but even more, I found a place where my struggles were normal.

What you said is true – being a girl in jiujitsu is HARD. Our individual struggles are unique, but they’ve got a pretty common thread across this crazy sport. I don’t doubt that BJJ is hard for anyone, but I know that many things I experience are largely related to my gender.

I remember going home after every class and crying myself to sleep, having horrible fits of nightmares because grappling triggered my PTSD like nothing else. No one understood that, for me, judo/jiujitsu wasn’t about fun – it was about making myself do something that left me blind-terrified, but fighting through it. My therapist, my family – thought I was nuts. But it worked – the longer I kept going, the less frequently I went home and sobbed. The quicker I was able to pull myself into reality, and the shorter length of time I remained frozen. It was remarkable.

And somehow, so gradually I didn’t even realize – it became fun. I stopped being afraid and started getting invested in getting better. I stopped trying not to drown, and started fighting back. I wasn’t going because it scared me anymore, I was going because I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be.

I wouldn’t ever be able to mention to my teammates that I’m fighting to recover from PTSD, but with the anonymity of the internet, I can say it: it is fucking terrifying, as a woman, to find yourself pinned by a man twice your size. I imagine that even if I’d never been victimized, I’d find that terrifying. Isn’t it what women are trained to feel? And then in BJJ, we ASK our partners to mount us and pin us and submit us – and it is terrifying. It makes our instincts scream.

I didn’t know others experienced that. I thought BJJ was hard for me because, well – I’m me. It completely changed my BJJ journey, when I found other women to connect to. Maybe it has something to do with being a woman – what do I know? – but I need to be able to share my struggles and successes with others who get it. Because even though this is stupidly body&brain-breakingly difficult, I absolutely love it, with every cell in my body, and I want to keep fighting through.