When Did the Sound of my Spirit Change?
In Tae Kwon Do we have a word, kihap, that signifies a specific kind of sound performed by martial arts practitioners. Kihap is a combination of two words: spirit/yell. Martial artists are frequently taught to perform a kihap at the apex of a striking technique for functional reasons connected to breath control and muscle tension/relaxation as these factors correlate to efficiency of the strike. Martial artists punch and kick targets, training dummies, and each other, all while making a variety of intimidating yells and screams. These kihaps are said not to originate in the throat or the voice, but from the gut the spirit. The spirit yell is a reflection then, of your spiritual self. So when a longtime friend and fellow Tae Kwon Do practitioner saw me spar recently and asked, “when did your kihap change?” all I could think was, “I’ll talk to you in a minute BECAUSE I’m a little busy right now trying not to get kicked in the face!!!”
But, I never got to answer my friend after the match because the answer is a bit complex. I’ll try to explain it here.
I want to write about what happened to me.
I want to write about what happened to me but, the truth is, it’s hard to explain. Some days it’s the only thing of any importance that ever happened in my life. Some days, I forget it ever happened at all. It’s kind of like how you don’t see your nose all the time, but it never stops being a part of your face—a part of your body.
This time last year, I had an argument with my parents. I was angrier than usual. My emotions were harder to control than I remember. For years, resentment had been boiling up to the surface in our relationship. But that’s a different story for a different day.
Last year this time, I had an unusually emotional response to an argument with my parents. When I noticed I was yelling at the top of my lungs, I realized something was different—more intense. This wasn’t just anger, I was no longer in control. I was having a panic attack.
Last year this time, I did what I always do in states of emotional volatility—I ran. I wanted to run so hard that my heart pumped all the nervous blood through my body and my rage poured out with my sweat. Since I began training in martial arts at 14, regimented physical exercise has been routinely and intentionally tied to emotional discipline and self-control. When I ran to the end of the road, I started practicing my poomsae. Forms are, for me, a moving meditation, and I was using them to dispel my violent, chaotic energy.
I was using them to heal myself.
The original impetus for Rhetorical Roundhouse was actually the Poomsae Poetry project
Last year this time I did what I always do in a panic attack—I focused my body and mind with Tae Kwon Do poomsae. It was late—maybe 10 at night—but my parents home is in a quiet rural neighborhood close to the edge of a dead-end road. I should have been alone at the end of that road, across the street from the home I grew up in. I should have been able to run and thrash in the darkness, able to process my own grief through the only language I knew how to communicate it—physical exercise. I should have been able to lose myself in the rhythmic wisdom of J. Cole's newest album, to be alone with my own thoughts and needs. But I couldn’t—because I wasn’t alone.
Last year this time I was held at gunpoint by a concerned neighbor.
Last year this time my life was threatened because I was “acting crazy.”
Last year could have easily been my last year.
When he pointed the flashlight at me, all I could see was light. With my headphones in, I remember walking toward that light. I waved my hand and tried to smile. The Bluetooth headphones I wear when I exercise require you to hold down a button for four seconds to turn them off. So, for four seconds, I was holding that button, walking toward this light. The first sound I hear when my music shuts off is a voice.
“Don’t take another fucking step!”
And what I remember is thinking nothing.
I heard my voice speaking. It was eerily calm. Zen-like. It was the opposite of how I was yelling and screaming at my parents. My voice, my body, knew something my brain did not.
My voice said things like “My name is Spencer Bennington. My parents are Mike and Susie and they live just two doors down. I grew up in the house over there.”
My voice said “I’m a teacher. I have a niece and nephew. I was just blowing off some steam.”
I saw my hands had taken their place in front of my chest, shaking, nearly shoulder high, palms out. My hands, my body, knew something my brain did not.
What I remember is that moment when I stopped speaking.
There was a moment where I could only see the light.
A decision was being made.
Then the light pointed away and I saw a man. He put a flashlight in his front pocket and a handgun in his back.
That’s when my brain caught on.
That’s when I realized that my body was saving my life. That’s when I realized that my life was even on the line to begin with.
The weirdest thing? After the man put his gun away, he extended his hand for me to shake.
The weirdest thing? My legs walked toward him. My hand reached out and shook his. My face formed a smile.
The weirdest thing? Even after my brain realized what this man had done, I still didn’t feel in control. When I remember it now, I felt like I was on auto-pilot. The kind of practiced amiability one learns to schmooze with polite company at a stuffy party—that’s what my body was using to help me escape this lethal situation.
“My ex-wife had the shotgun trained on you” he said as we shook hands. “Said she wanted to loose the Pitbull on you when she called me, but I said, naw, I’ll come check it out.”
I can’t remember if I said anything at all. I don’t remember walking back to the house. I don’t remember going to bed.
But it’s a year later and I remember—rather I feel—the fear and anxiety from that night like it was last night. My heart is racing as I try to proofread this through teary eyes.
For many months I felt physical pain.
At times, my chronic lower back pain was so bad that I couldn’t pee standing up. I thought this was due to overuse injuries and too much Tae Kwon Do, but I know now, thanks to therapy, that I was experiencing a symptom of post-traumatic stress.
It’s common for patients with preexisting chronic physical pain to have symptoms exacerbated under conditions of stress and anxiety. People with some forms of PTSD experience sensations of psychosomatic pain caused by extreme muscle tension due to acute mental stressors. In my case, it could have been a combination. But all I knew was that martial arts was the last thing I felt like doing.
Even when I’d been injured previously with a broken foot, ankle issues, or back issues, I still found ways to practice Tae Kwon Do. But, this pain was so intense that it sapped any desire I had to teach, train, or even leave the bed. I forced myself to stretch, massage, soak, and do anything else I could to heal what I thought was a purely physical injury. After a while, the pain lessened, and I decided it was time to exercise again.
For months, I felt that same urge to run, to thrash, to exhaust myself for some relief from the pain of having too much energy. But what I noticed is, sometimes, after a really good workout, I’d sit in my car and break down in tears. I noticed that physical exhaustion triggered a panic response in me, that I was having some kind of emotional reaction to physical exertion.
For months, I didn’t realize that I had very specific triggers. But when I did my poomsae for the first time since I was threatened, it all came back to me. I realized that the music I was listening to, the activity I was doing, the ideas I was processing, they all now found themselves tangled up in a gnarled mass of fear, anxiety, panic, and confusion in my mind.
For months I couldn’t practice my poomsae. My most consistent form of meditative therapy.
Every time I tried, it felt like I had a gun pointed at me.
I still struggle to do them. They don’t bring me peace any more. They don’t transport my mind to a safe place.
They take me to a place of fear.
I want to write about what happened to me but, the truth is, it’s hard to explain, and it’s going to take me a few tries.
The truth is, I’m not ok, and I haven’t been for over a year now. But I’m working on getting better. And I’m ready to write about it.
The truth is, I think writing about my trauma is the only way to take back my story, to prevent it from simply being something awful that happened to me. I seek to rewrite the grammar of the narrative in such a way that does not allow my trauma to objectify me, directly or indirectly.
In this past year, I went from teaching martial arts 4-5 times a week to teaching only one private student once a week. On average I’ve slept about 6 hours a night with frequent interruptions. I’ve spent a lot of money out-of-pocket on various therapies and medications to relieve anxiety, induce sleep, relieve pain, etc. But, most importantly to me, I lost something priceless–the joy I used to feel practicing Tae Kwon Do.
I believe this joy still exists within me, waiting to be rediscovered at another point in my life. So, for now, I am happy to simply regain my voice, to be able to think and speak about this trauma without dissolving into a puddle of fearful anxiety, to reclaim some of my former power.
So, the answer I couldn’t give my friend is this: the sound of my spirit changed when my spirit changed. I hope that, on my road to Tae Kwon Do mastery, I can find what I need to change it back, perhaps reinvigorating it to be even stronger than before.
Only time will tell.