Fighting Back: What Krav Maga Changed about My Recovery from Depression
When you sign up for Krav Maga—or any form of martial arts, for that matter—you have to be ready to get hit in the face. If you’re anything like me, this will happen far more often than your pride or your migraine condition would like to allow. In training exercises, when everything is done at a slower pace, you may dodge or counter nearly every carefully placed punch by your patient partner. But when you spar a real opponent, you’re never going to truly learn how to fight back until you become tired of getting hit one too many times.
This is true of Krav as it is true of life. For me, this moment happened in early 2017, when a major depressive episode hit me like a blow to the gut. Hardships in my personal life, including challenges in my family and an unexpected breakup, sent years of underlying depression and anxiety devastating my entire body, leaving me limp, unmotivated, and paralyzed by a future I hadn’t prepared for. Sure, I was twenty-three, with a great job, a beautiful apartment, and family and friends who loved me; I’m white, straight, cisgender. “You have your whole life ahead of you,” everyone kept telling me. “Sure,” I kept wanting to say. “Tell that to my depression.”
Further building the illusion that my life was fantastic in the eyes of the “oh, you’re still depressed?” kinds of critics, I was an extremely high-functioning depressive. Outwardly, my life didn’t seem to change from what had been, until that point, my normal. I never stopped functioning, living my life as I had done every day before. Now it just had this “oh, fuck” factor. By this I mean that I pushed myself to keep doing all of my daily tasks. I would go to work depressed (cry silently at my desk), sleep depressed (wake up feeling raw), shower depressed (feel like my whole body was sinking to the floor), drive depressed (cry in the car to and from work), and socialize depressed (apologize after bursting into tears following a perfectly nice outing with perfectly nice people). But working out depressed? I soon discovered that this was something else entirely. It wasn’t debilitating. It was liberating.
For about a year prior to my major depressive episode, I’d been training in a beginner’s level, all women’s self-defense class. I originally chose to do this to build my self-confidence, to make me feel more comfortable living alone, and also because I’d been a victim of stalking in a previous workplace. After realizing my episode, I spent a few more months in the women’s class before deciding to sign up for additional fitness classes such as kickboxing, boxing, and warrior class (essentially a boot camp–type class that pushes your body to its absolute limits but has great results over time). I quickly tapped into a resource I couldn’t find anywhere else. The strength training, conditioning, and practice allowed me to concentrate on a part of me I’d never (as a nonathletic, certified nerd and English major) considered much before. By punching a cage bag (a heavy punching bag used for boxing) with all of the power left in my body, I became closer with my physical self—I felt a separation from the chaos in my mind, or, as I like to call it, I began practicing an aggressive meditation.
I easily prefer this over traditional meditation, which always feels like an invitation for dwelling on obsessive thoughts. I spend the entire time thinking about what I need to do later, how I could have said something differently that day, or how anxious I am for something going on the next day. Aggressive meditation has allowed me to leave the rest of my day at the door, clearing my head as long as I’m moving, punching, and challenging my body to see how far I can go and how much stronger I can be. It’s heartening when I leave class and realize I just spent thirty minutes, an hour, or even two hours not thinking about what was hurting me emotionally that day. Nothing else, other than a dreamless sleep, could fully do that on my worst days.
Not long after starting new fitness classes, I decided, after much encouragement from coaches and fellow classmates, to advance to the Krav Maga belt program to further develop my self-defense training. If you’re unfamiliar, Krav Maga is the official self-defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces (originally developed for the IDF) and US law enforcement agencies. The fighting style combines aspects of boxing, kickboxing, MMA, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate, and various other forms of martial arts. It is a no nonsense, pure survival kind of defense intended to be accessible for all people of all ages and body types.
Personally, I think that learning how to defend yourself from the most violent, brutal attacks is one of the best groin kicks to the patriarchy there is. It returns to you ownership of your body—a sense of ownership that as a woman, as a person with mental-health issues, or as both, you often can lose. Depression and anxiety loosen feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, shame, and embarrassment for the person you think you are. Depression can separate you from who you truly believe you are, making you feel lethargic and unable to carry out your usual tasks. It takes away your power to choose, your power to know what you want and carry that out. Further, as a woman you are constantly threatened into feeling like you don’t quite own your own body, like you need to get out of the way, take up less space, but also like you’re up for examination at any time. Someone can come up to you and ask, “have you lost weight?” as if your rating in some imaginary system just went up. Or you can get the dreaded body scan accompanied by a disgusted expression, as if the person shamelessly staring at you has just smelled something terrible and they are offended by your mere physical presence. Men feel free to shout at you on the street and comment on your body as if it’s a product brought out for their review.
It’s refreshing and perhaps cleansing to connect with your physical self, particularly when you’re going through a dark time. When I’m in Krav, I’m not thinking about anything but the technique, the strikes, and working on all of the little details that make a big difference in keeping myself unharmed while doing the maximum amount of damage to my attacker. There’s no time for daydreaming in drills when you’re pounding strikes on the pad, maybe getting pushed around on different sides to keep you grounded and focused, and getting safely, spontaneously drilled on defenses by other classmates. All you can do is focus on the sequence of moves and strikes, getting control of your attacker, and getting out of the situation.
In my past, I have been stalked, sexually coerced, emotionally abused, and sexually harassed. My training in Krav Maga physically manifests this truth: nobody will touch me without my consent, nobody will hurt me, nobody will rape me, and nobody will make me feel unsafe in my workplace or anywhere else. Knowing how to defend myself gives me that power back. It gives me my body back. Krav does all of this for me by strengthening my body and mind to perform in high-pressure situations which no longer baffle me, despite my chronic anxiety and depression-induced insecurities. Now, I can’t go so far as to say that it cures my depression; for me, my treatment is a combined effort of therapy, Krav Maga, medication, a healthy sleep schedule, and support from my family, boyfriend, friends, and coworkers. No one tool is in itself a panacea, but each component is vital to my well-being and success as a person. Krav Maga has aided my recovery and continues to supplement my well-being on a level I can’t find anywhere else. The confidence I have built on the mat is unparalleled to anything I’ve experienced before, and the community brings pure, unprejudiced support that doesn’t judge me for who I was before I walked in the door.
This is what has worked for me. I’d like to be clear that I have no intention of suggesting that Krav or any other form of exercise is a replacement for medication, nor, alternatively, do I wish to impose any kind of pro-medication agenda. I use exercise to supplement my psychiatric treatment that I sought out by my own free will. I find it works well for my happiness and well-being. I do not support coercive psychiatric treatment, and I also do not support anti-medication “propaganda” (if you will), such as memes that suggest a run in the woods is a “real” antidepressant. I think those types of messages are toxic and hurtful to those who actively need to treat themselves with medication in order to feel healthy and whole every day. I believe that the right path to better mental health is always each individual’s choice, it is their human right, to choose what happens to their body now and in the future. Again, this is what works for me—these are the tools that help me be my best self. What works for you can and will be different.
When it comes to recovering from mental-health issues, everybody says that “one day, the sun comes out,” but it’s never like that. And nobody who is a responsible adult believes someone or something is going to make everything better; this happens over time, with sacrifice, adaptation, hard work, and help; whatever “help” means to you, if you choose to seek it, and if it is of any value to you. My depression did not immediately improve after starting the belt program, in fact, it endured for almost the rest of the year until I progressed into what I guess you could call a “remission.” Again, though, it didn’t start with one great, perfect day. Remission, in this respect, is cumulative.
I sought medical assistance from my general practitioner on a desperate day in March 2017, who prescribed me an antidepressant. This began to take effect in a few months and seemed to be helping for a little while. But recovery comes with a lot of a false starts. I could highlight the good months and bad months on my calendar; improvement was not at all linear. Eventually I didn’t feel like I was getting where I needed to be. I was still having frequent anxiety, and my medication at the time only treated depression. In May 2017, called to make an appointment with a psychiatrist whom my therapist had recommended, and the office was booked until August. A month before my appointment, the office contacted me to cancel the appointment. I contacted the office to reschedule, only to be put off another month, into September. This appointment was canceled a month later. By September, after having waited since May for an appointment—and even though I had made progress on my own through exercise, counseling, and family support—I still was on the floor, in tears, wanting to know why the system hated me. Looking back, I wonder, what if I had been suicidal (I wasn’t at that point), and they had just tossed me aside? The office manager had zero sympathy for my case, which I pleaded vehemently. I ended up seeking out another psychiatrist, who kept her appointments and has been lovely—and not coercive—when it comes to trying new medications or increasing my doses. But this, I know, is rare.
Needless to say, since meeting my psychiatrist, my outlook and self-awareness have turned around. My anxiety has been less frequent and my depression no longer feels like a full-time or even a part-time job. I know it’s there, but it’s under control, and I’m optimistic. For most of my adolescent life, I was extremely opposed to psychiatric medication after watching the impacts it would have on friends and family members. Before trying the medication route, I went to a naturopathic doctor, who essentially told me to give up eating everything I love and take supplements I couldn’t afford. This, long story short, only made me more miserable. Medication was not the one key thing that “saved” me, but it did turn out to be a missing piece in my quest to bring myself back to life. Krav, family, friends, work, sleep, and medication are all important components to my happiness; medication just turned out to be one I hadn’t yet figured out.
Presented this way, in black and white, it could appear as if my road to remission and eventual recovery is neat and tidy—as if I have all of the answers and now live a life free from any mental or emotional struggles. This is not the case. Through trial and error, I eventually collected the tools and strategies I need to get through my mental and emotional challenges every day, and that is working for me. That said, I know it’s not so simple for everyone struggling with some form of mental illness. I am a white, straight, cisgender woman who is still on my parents’ health insurance (though I pay all of my own medical expenses). My counselor is a woman and my psychiatrist is a woman; these facts definitely play a role in with how seriously I am taken when discussing my mental health. I don’t think everyone should seek help in all of the same ways that I have, because we all have different challenge and conditions, and we all have different privileges (or lack thereof). There is always someone who has it worse than you do, but that basic fact never means that your struggles less important or less real. I am infinitely grateful for all of the help that has been provided to me and all of the love and support that has surrounded me for the last year and a half. But my progress doesn’t belong to the mental-health system, or Prozac—it belongs to me. It is something I earned, both on and off the mat. Krav is one of the most important aspects of my life now. It has helped me seek my own validation, rather than from those around me, and also how to fight back, not just physically, but mentally. I am stronger for what I have been through, and I have the tools to face personal setbacks, should they happen again. And if they do, next time, I’ll have my fists raised, ready to strike.
I’d like to express my gratitude to all of the loving and supportive people in my life who have helped me through my darkest times, without whom I don’t know where I’d be. I’m also extremely thankful for MITA and all of the support and friendship Jess has brought to me and the rest of the group. Finding MITA was exactly what I needed to channel my own personal turmoil to productivity (when I wasn’t punching my frustrations into a punching bag). I’ve learned a great deal about the mental health system and been able to share some experiences of my own. There is a lot of work to be done.
I have some personal goals I’d like to list here that I think impact issues of mental health and gender, too. First, I would like to speak more carefully in everyday conversation, taking common phrases that are actually insensitive or hurtful out of my vocabulary, such as “crazy,” “insane,” etc. Similarly, I would like to destigmatize mental health, mental illness, cognitive differences, etc. by facilitating more respectful conversations about these topics and how they relate to all women and how we are perceived by society and the mental health system. I wish to resist gaslighting and other forms of psychological manipulation as they continue to affect all women (and many men, too)—at home, in the workplace, in relationships—and society as a whole.
Largely, I would like to fight for bodily autonomy in healthcare. Improving conditions, reestablishing individual patient rights in many cases, and increasing resources are obviously major starting points for progress in improving what we currently have as a standard for treatment. I want to raise that standard. My experiences with anxiety and depression have brought me to this personal call to action and hopefully they’ll provide further insight as I carry out my goals.
Hanna Etu is a long-time lover of literature, writing, international travel, and all things nerd. She graduated from Canisius College with a triple major in English, Creative Writing, and German and now works as an editorial assistant at Prometheus Books, where her true passion for books can thrive. When she’s not reading, babysitting authors, or playing Star Wars: The Old Republic with her boyfriend, she’s training in Krav Maga at Spar Self Defense. Hanna has struggled with anxiety for almost her entire life and was diagnosed with a major depressive episode when she was twenty-three (though she was likely suffering from depression for a long time before that). To put it quite lightly, mental health has produced major challenges in Hanna’s family life for nearly ten years. This has driven Hanna’s support for better treatment of people with mental illness, equality for women and minorities in the healthcare system and society in general, both of which she’s been able to channel through her involvement in Madwomen in the Attic. Hanna takes care of herself through counseling, the love of those close to her, Krav, cat snuggles, medication, and the power of words.