I loved being a blue belt for about a day. Then I hated it.
I stayed a blue belt for two years. Even now, when I see that thing draped over my bed’s headboard, I look at it the way I look at pictures I took with certain terrible exes: “We had some good times, but overall, f*ck you.”
It’s not the belt’s fault, of course. It’s just a piece of fabric that kept my gi top closed and put me in tournament divisions with other people at my rank. But the person I was as a blue belt and the emotional garbage I went through as a perfectionist who was no longer exceptional was kind of awful.
Like many other blue belts who get the “blue belt blues,” I went from being a white belt who destroyed everyone in my division to being not-a-white-belt who lost. And lost. And lost. I went from leaving my ego at the door to leaving my ego in a dark alleyway in a bad part of town, and eventually, my ego decided it was tired of getting beat up, so I let it come back into the gym with me.
I thought that my blue belt meant that I was automatically better than all the white belts, so when someone I outranked clobbered me in training, I didn’t think about how they were 50 lbs heavier than me or had been training just a few months less than me — I just thought about how much I sucked.
It didn’t help that everything else went south during those two years, either. I got fired from my soul-sucking job, my long-term relationship crumbled, and I sank into a depression that made getting out of bed feel nearly impossible. I went from training six days a week to missing an entire month of jiu-jitsu. When I finally did go back, the love I’d had for it was gone. I forced myself to go every day that week, and I cried in the bathroom after every single class.
I became very, very close to becoming another blue belt statistic. I told myself I just needed a change of pace, that I was just in a rut. I told myself I just needed time away to remember how much I loved it. I told myself that I should try another form of exercise, like pilates or dance. What I didn’t want to admit to myself was that I was teetering on the edge of walking out of the gym one day and never coming back.
I would love to tell you that there was some epiphany that made me realize that I hadn’t lost my love for jiu-jitsu after all, but there wasn’t. I clawed my way out of all the holes I was in, and the ascent was slow and messy. Anti-depressants helped me get out of bed and back into the gym, but my insecurities about my own abilities in jiu-jitsu didn’t go away — I just trained through them. I only won a couple of tournaments, but even after I accepted numerous second-place medals (and a few “participation” bronze medals), I didn’t stop feeling inadequate — I just trained through it. I started to regain my love for jiu-jitsu, but there were still plenty of days in which I would’ve rather been anywhere but on those mats. But I just trained through them.
I know belts aren’t supposed to matter. I wasn’t chasing my purple belt. But still, when I got it, I felt lighter. My professor had his own reasons for giving it to me, but when I looked at it, all I could see was, well, it wasn’t blue. I hadn’t quit even when I’d desperately wanted to — not just in jiu-jitsu, but in all the other areas of my life. And the new thing tied around my waist was proof of that.
I’m now a year and a half into being a purple belt, and I still look at it the same way as I did the first time I wore it. I still have my days when I want to do anything but train, and I sometimes still get down on myself when I get clobbered by someone my scaredy-cat ego says I should be able to destroy, but I no longer question whether or not I belong in this sport. It’s not about the belt, but what it represents: not a finish line, but a checkpoint that reminds me of how far I’ve come. I know that if I didn’t quit then, I’m not going to quit now.
Featured image by Giulliana Fonseca Photography