Patrick Pallies is a 37-year-old blue belt from New Jersey. If one were to peruse his social media presence, his photos would look all too familiar. Training sessions with instructors, friends and peers with the occasional visit to Marcelo Garcia’s or Tom DeBlass’ Academy. But what sets Patrick apart from your average blue belt is that he is both blind and deaf. In addition, he suffers from bipolar disorder. This is the story, in his own words, of perseverance and what the heart can bring to BJJ when we move past our limitations and we allow it.
Jiu Jitsu Times: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us about your experiences Patrick. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Patrick: I grew up in southern New Jersey and have lived my 37 years on the east coast. New Jersey will always be home, but I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the DC area where I attended Gallaudet University. Washington DC holds a special place in my heart, and always will, because it is where I learned to be an independent person with disabilities. I am Deaf-Blind and Bipolar. Although at times, I pass for being none of these things. I was born hard of hearing and have lived my entire life with hearing loss. I received my first hearing aid in second grade and I was in intensive speech therapy until I went to high school. Speech therapy certainly benefited me, but it couldn’t fix the Jersey accent! Never forget you roots, right?! It wasn’t until much later that my vision loss became an issue.
I have a history of failing, but never quitting and finally achieving. This isn’t official, but I think I hold the record for most undergraduate colleges attended prior to graduating at five. I tried, failed, dusted myself off and tried again. So at 18 years old I started the path to a college degree, which I earned at 32 years old. More recently I earned my Master of Social Work degree from Gallaudet University in May of 2016. Currently I’m looking to put it to use and move to one of a few cities, DC leading the pack at the moment. You will see this pattern play out again in my story as we continue.
In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and it was incredibly difficult to manage. There was a lot of trial and error with medications and therapists. All the while I worked two jobs and kept trying to earn my college degree. At one point, I was prescribed 25 pills to go with my breakfast every morning. Imagine what 25 benign pills would do to someone, let alone mood stabilizers and anti-depressants! Currently I take just a single anti-anxiety pill daily and soon that will be gone as well. The medicine I was on made me a mindless, loveless being going through the motions of a “life”. Throughout my twenties, with the help of my doctor, I steadily decreased my reliance on pharmaceuticals.
A long story short, at 26 years old I decided to enroll in American Sign Language (ASL) classes at a community college and I fell in love immediately! It fit me and it seemed to fill a void. Unknowingly at the time, I love never ending puzzles and ASL is never ending. It seems impossible to have perfect language skills but learning ASL is so much fun, I didn’t care if I became as proficient as a native user as long as I could continue to improve. I was challenging myself and slowly becoming a part of a vibrant and rich community. A year later, at the start of my third semester of learning ASL, I made a life changing decision. I applied to become a full time student at Gallaudet University. Within a few weeks I was accepted. Gallaudet is the only all Deaf university in the country. When you step onto campus the language shifts from English to ASL. Lectures? ASL. Ordering lunch? ASL. I basically arrived knowing the alphabet and a few phrases such as where is the food? And where is the bathroom? I dove into the deep end. It would be the equivalent of a two stripe white belt competing at ADCC. I was out of my league, under prepared, but hell bent on making this work.
Two months prior to quitting my jobs and moving to Gallaudet, I was thrown a curve ball. I went to see my eye doctor for a simple check up and it turned into a game changing revelation. At 27 years old and having perfect vision my entire life, I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. Usher Syndrome in a nutshell is the combination of hearing and vision loss due to genetics. There are variations (type 1, 2, 3) and the same vision loss absent hearing loss is called Retinitis Pigmentosa. Vision slowly closes in from the peripheral until it decides to stop. Some people lose all of their vision, some hold residual vision. There are no treatments or cures. It was around this time that I made the right, albeit difficult decision to surrender my license after years of total independence. People often asked what I can see, imagine looking through a drinking straw, that is more vision than I currently have. I’m currently working on a series of videos that will give you a better understanding of how I see. I’m As of my most recent test I have 10 degrees of vision in comparison to the average of 160-180 degrees that most people have.
I did make it work. My stubbornness finally got me past my failures and to the finish line. I earned my degree and my ASL had vastly improved. I decided that my masters degree was the next logical step. Again I found myself at Gallaudet University. It was the only logical choice in my mind. It had helped me grow so much and I knew I had so much more to learn. This time, I started to test the waters of learning tactile ASL. Meaning, instead of using my eyes to see what is being said, I place my hands on the signers hands and feel the language. For those keeping score at home, I am now engaged in verbal language, visual language and tactile language. Remember, I love to grow, learn and challenge myself but anyone can do this, just as I am proving. Graduate school had its share of ups and downs, but one incident (long story)changed my life forever and has led me to where I am today. A happy, enthusiastic, loving person that takes on all challenges thrown my way.
Jiu Jitsu Times: How did you get involved with Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
Patrick: I first learned of BJJ back when Royce Gracie ran through the early UFCs. I was in high school at the time and thought it was amazing, definitely something I wanted to try. Unfortunately for me I injured my shoulder as a freshman in high school and went on to have three major surgeries before graduating. I truly believed my grappling days were done.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2008, my first semester at Gallaudet and I decided to give it a try. I went to a local academy and felt like I was being sold a car with an option for beach front property. I knew this place wasn’t for me but I knew I had to keep looking. The semester ended and I went back to NJ for the summer and my brother said an MMA gym had opened in town. So we went together and signed up and that is when I first met Rob Mudrak at NextGen MMA & BJJ. He’s been my friend and coach ever since.
Jiu Jitsu Times: How long have you been training? Who are your instructors? What is their background?
Patrick: I started training in May of 2008. Until 2010 I was going back and forth between NJ and DC and I trained with Rob Mudrak when I was in NJ. Rob is a black belt under Rick Macauley, a two-time ADCC vet. Rob believed in me long before I believed in myself and I owe him a debt of gratitude. When I was in DC, I tried a few different academies but none were a good fit for me at the time. My training was sporadic at best.
I eventually found 50/50 BJJ and was a member there for two years. There was a lot of things happening during this time period (finishing undergrad school, starting grad school, learning academics, learning languages and depression) and my training was inconsistent. Ryan Hall, Jenn Hall, Seph Smith and Kenny Savercool were my instructors there and I am forever grateful for the things they taught me. Sure the instruction was great but the real world advice and lessons are paying dividends today. These fine folks supported and encouraged me during my first (and only to date) competition, an itch that is starting to resurface.
The life changing event I mentioned earlier, in short it was a depression that took me to the darkest places that are unimaginable in November of 2013. I had to take a leave of absence from my school and retreat to NJ to get my health in order. And I did, slowly but persistently. I was fortunate to have the opportunity build myself up stronger than before with the help of my friends and teammates at NextGen MMA & BJJ. This is when BJJ took firm roots in me. Fast forward to february 2015 and I was awarded my blue belt after 6 years and 10 months by Rob Mudrak.
Having my health in place and BJJ giving me a sustainable path to a life I wanted, I went back to DC to finish my masters degree. This time however, 50/50 have moved locations and was no longer metro accessible for me. I was able to drop by a few times and will do so again in the future. I was lucky enough to have a friend recommend Dave Jacobs to me. His academy was easy to get to for me and the instruction and environment were outstanding. Dave and Brendan Ready are of Yamasaki lineage and we also have black belts Garret Beck and Abmar Barbosa as instructors. Truly a great academy and I’m looking forward to calling the Rock BJJ home again.
Currently I am in NJ training with Rob and my NextGen teammates while I send resumes and cover letters around the country.
Jiu Jitsu Times: Describe the learning process for you. Walk us through a typical session.
Patrick: I’ve been fortunate to experience different styles over the years. Typically there is a warm up related to BJJ movements or body weight exercises followed by technique and rounds at the end of class. This tends to be the standard from where I’ve been with some variations thrown in.
For warm ups, the instructor will announce to class the drill, then come tell me and show me if needed. I’ve never told my instructors this but what the hell, simply jogging in circles gives me the worst anxiety! I feel like it’s a matter of time before I run into a wall, which by my own admission would be a great story!
During technique, instructors tend to show the move three to four times. Each time I will look at a different element. Example: first I look at the grips, second feet and legs, third where is their weight/what movement is involved. When we break to drill I like to ask the professor to let me feel the technique or I partner with an advanced student if possible to help me feel my way through the move.
During live rolling I slap hands, bump fist, establish contact and roll. Once I establish contact I close my eyes because they will do more harm than good. Closing my eyes has helped me develop better feel and timing. (I should note that I have been developing my sense of feel in individual areas [BJJ, using a cane, tactile ASL] and they are starting to support one another. It’s kind of cool to experience this for me). After we give each other all we can handle, we shake hands, hug, laugh and smile, we talk about when we are going to do this again!
Jiu Jitsu Times: What advice would you share with others who may share in your experiences and maybe face some similar challenges as you, or any challenges on the same scale?
Patrick: The answers to your problems are all within you. You simply need the right tools to help you find them. That’s what jiu-jitsu is for me, a tool to help me grow. Your tool may be yoga or blogging or knitting. Whatever it is, find it. How? Go out and do the things that you’ve always wished you tried. Do the things you’ve been scared to do. You have little to lose and so much to gain. Try, fail, try again. That is the recipe exceeding your “limitations”. Perseverance + Patience = Success
It is important at all times to remember that this is a one person race. You progress at your pace. Do not compare yourself to those around you. Like I said, this is a one person race and the only way to lose is if you quit. Life will give you every excuse imaginable but as long as you stay in the race, you will cross the finish line.
Jiu Jitsu Times: What are your long-term jiu-jitsu goals?
Patrick: Personally I want to develop great technique along the way and eventually earn my black belt. I fully intend to compete again and win again. I plan on getting some experience at local events but I plan on giving Masters Pans and Masters Mundials a try as well.
I’m beyond grateful for everything BJJ has given me, physical and emotional health, challenges, skills, work ethic, friends I’ve made and friends I’ve not yet made. I want to give back. I hope I can inspire some people to take the leap and start their journey. The goal that excites me the most is to be able to provide training for people with disabilities including people who live with mental unwellness. Mental illness is very stigmatizing and I’m very comfortable with mine. I’d like to help as many people as I can turn their unwellness into wellness. I invite anyone to reach out to me and I will gladly support you in you journey. Feel free to send a message to me to start a discussion on Twitter or Instagram @deafblindguy