(Photo Courtesy of Bob Ross)
“An EMS Worker’s Jiu Jitsu Journey”
by Bob Ross
Why oh why did I have to get bitten by the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu bug so hard? It’s not as if there’s nothing else to do. I love to fish for crying out loud and I do have friends outside of the gym. Sometimes they try to get me to try my hand at golf and sometimes that doesn’t sound so bad. I hear that’s good exercise too and I’m quite sure the scenery is nicer. But no I politely decline, extend another invitation to come check out a class and go collect my gi.
The question in my mind is why? I’m not a world class competitor and I never will be. Even considering the few local tournaments I’ve competed in, my record could only be considered perhaps average, at best. I’m no Gracie by any means. I’m a 37 year old respiratory therapist with stiff shoulders and a questionable right knee. There are times even now as a (I think) well accepted member of my team that I find myself wondering what the hell I’m doing there. Well I’m hoping to answer that question for myself and hopefully I’ll be able to strike a ring of truth with a few of you as well. After all, though we all started at different times in different places for different reasons, we’re all on the same journey now.
These days I hardly ever talk about Jiu-Jitsu outside of the gym unless someone else brings it up. Has anyone else noticed the myriad of responses you get when someone finds out you practice BJJ for the first time? It can range anywhere from genuine interest (or feigned interest at least as often) to ridicule, to some dude automatically assuming you consider yourself a badass. That last one is my favorite. It’s actually quite comical to me when people think I consider myself a tough guy. I know you will understand when I tell you there is no more humbling experience than the first time you square up with a guy (or in many cases, worse: a female) half your size and get absolutely taken to school. I think that might actually be the unofficial lesson #1 of BJJ: You are not a badass. Coincidentally, lesson #2 is that you never will be. But if you stick around long enough and suffer through enough maulings, eventually you’ll be able to hold your own to some degree. Not because you got tougher on the outside but because you were tough enough on the inside to go home, nurse the wounds of your bruised ego and still come back to endure it again. And again. And again.
(Photo Courtesy of Bob Ross)
I wasn’t athletic in my younger years by the way. Not that it matters, just some background about myself: I’ve never considered myself a jock. As a matter of fact in high school I was the burnout that hated jocks. That’s ok though, were cool now. You’re some tough dudes. I like tough people, sissies have always disgusted me.
Pretty early out of high school I became a Paramedic. Emergency Medical Services was a career that at best gave me twice the pain and frustration that it did satisfaction. Along with that came extensive and continuing education, fierce periods of physical exertion and an intense feeling of camaraderie. Is this starting to sound familiar? Physically and mentally I could no longer handle that job. Not to get overly dramatic but quite literally, I believe it was killing me. Once while I was getting off duty I had a dizzy spell so bad I asked my partner to sit with me while we waited for my blood pressure to come down just so I could walk across the parking lot to my car, much less drive home. Call me weak if you want but the national average of an EMS career is about 5 years. I lasted damn near 15. With the kind of stress that comes with that job comes intense periods of anxiety that sometimes can only be relieved by interacting with others going through similar experiences. With that comes a bond. It’s a bond that can’t possibly be formed with anyone else on earth because no one else will ever get it.
(Photo Courtesy of Bob Ross)
In EMS there is a constant struggle. Between disgustingly low pay , incompetent managers, some hopeless coworkers and quite a few patients that really aren’t sick, just refuse to care for themselves (much less walk their own fat asses down the stairs) eventually you become the picture of the stroke victim you’re expected to save. Throw in a real person, really dying here and there and you can see where this is one of those things that reading about it just isn’t enough. You can never know it until you’ve lived it. That’s where your friends come in. Sometimes you wind up drinking and laughing with a guy you thought you hated just a few hours ago just because of a shared experience and people who should be close to you become outsiders. They just haven’t been there; no one else gets the struggle. That’s a strange place to be: when your loved ones become strangers, not due to any fault of their own but because they can’t even fathom the demons in your head, much less help you cope with them. In short, at one time not all that long ago my head became a very dark and strange place to be.
So where does Jiu-Jitsu tie into all this? I can’t do EMS anymore. It’s too much both physically and mentally and the pressure was threatening to break me. Let me say that I am very fortunate to have moved on to other areas of the medical field and am very thankful to have met some very high caliber people there too. But something’s missing and it has been ever since I traded my medic badge for hospital scrubs. I truly love what I do now and I love the people I do it with but there was a bond in EMS that just isn’t able to be replicated. I intensely missed being accepted by a group of people all from totally different backgrounds yet united by a common goal. Where was the camaraderie? Where was the brother (and sister) hood? What about the strange need to feel the world closing in around you? The feelings of intense pressure and impending doom that I had learned to thrive on? I never expected to miss that aspect of my life but apparently after so many years, it had become my home.
Jiu-Jitsu. That’s where Jiu-jitsu comes in for me. EMS fulfilled me in ways I can never fully explain except to those who have had their hands in the same blood that I did; but at the same time it was constantly trying to kill me, to make me another body on the pile. Jiu-Jitsu challenges me in very similar but in much healthier ways. Believe it or not there are quite a few similarities as well. Problem solving in real time for instance. I have to think on my feet (or on my back as the case may be). When I was a new medic and started getting nervous, sometimes I would have to consciously slow my breathing in order to not panic and retain the ability to effectively care for my patient. I have to focus on my breathing now too. Sometimes it’s from exhaustion, sometimes it’s the weight of one of my larger sparring partners “making waffles” as one of them likes to say. Other times it’s the weight of my sensei’s brutal knee on belly pressure. The point is that it’s an absolute necessity for me. Another absolute necessity that crosses lines is the ability to solve problems in real time while the world is seemingly crashing around you. I think one of the primary reasons I love our art so much is the sense of pressure, the feeling that the world is closing fast and you need to keep your head, not panic and decide a way out. Now. Notice I didn’t say think of a way out. There’s no time for that bullshit when a 260 lb monster is threatening a kimura, you just better move your ass. The same went on the streets: bad scene, blood, lights and the sounds of sirens, diesel engines, incoming helicopters and screaming family members. All the while you have a patient trying to meet their maker. Don’t think. Move. Your movements had better be automatic. What was it Saulo Ribeiro said? “If you think you are late. If you’re late, you muscle. If you muscle you tire. If you tire, you die.” Or someone else dies… same-same.
I’ve found other similarities in Jiu-Jitsu that mirror unwritten rules we had back then in EMS. I’m sure some of these will sound familiar:
Look out for each other.
Work together and not against each other.
Your ego is your enemy; a little humility goes a long way.
Always be ready to listen and learn.
Be willing to teach but only when the time is right.
Speaking of teaching I guess that’s another missing link BJJ has recently filled for me. I loved teaching new medics. As much as I wanted out of EMS at that time, I found sincere satisfaction working with the newbies right up until the end. I don’t mean instructing in a classroom either (I tried instructing CPR classes once. Let’s not talk about how that went, ok?) No, I mean real-world, hands on teaching. That I could actually do effectively. Toward the end of my EMS career it was one of the few things I had left that actually let me not hate being there. It’s funny to me that I never really even realized I missed the teaching aspect of the whole thing until the first time I was asked to run a Jiu-Jitsu class. I can’t claim to be the best to learn from, and by no means do I consider myself anything but a student. However teaching that class made me remember that there had been some things about the job back then that I didn’t completely despise.
(Photo Courtesy of Bob Ross)
So that’s where BJJ ties into my life. It fills a void. Or at least that’s how it works in my train-wrecked mind. I’m not a huge guy nor do I consider my ground game to be stellar. I’m in ok shape but I’m not naturally athletic. I have to work hard at it and that’s ok because it’s not about being the swiftest guy on the mat. As a matter of fact it’s not about you at all, cupcake and it never was. At the end of the day it’s just about showing up, if not for yourself then for your partners. That guy struggling to breathe because your knee is digging into his sternum, you’re there for him. Push him harder. The guy working his ass off to catch you in that choke, you’re there for him, dig deeper. Work your ass off and make him earn that tap. Because rule number one is simple: You don’t bail on your partner. Not ever.