If PTSD or general trauma has affected your life and your jiu-jitsu, you’re not alone. And that’s exactly what artist and BJJ blue belt Tiffany Pascal depicted in her powerful comic “Rolling With Trauma.”
The post is part of Pascal’s series Dear Jiu-Jitsu Boyfriends, which centers around her and her teammates’ experiences in the gym. The comics range from the silly to the serious, and “Rolling With Trauma” was, for many of Pascal’s followers, a particularly powerful piece of art.
Pascal says that the comic — and her passion for art itself — is “a half-open window to the after-effects of childhood abuse.”
“One of the things that goes unacknowledged in relation to trauma from childhood is that it often remains dormant until adulthood,” she says. “I was pretty withdrawn socially and, despite having developed a conscious sense of self-worth, I was struggling unconsciously with a very negative, dangerous self-image throughout my early twenties. “I think many people overcome their past negative experiences through various achievements — education, sports, volunteer work, family, etc. — without truly integrating the aspects of themselves that they are ashamed of. For instance, I always prided myself in being strong and athletic. In jiu-jitsu, no one ever really feels strong and athletic consistently. You can feel vulnerable and powerless, and that sense of vulnerability can bring out a lot of old shadows from deep within your memories—things you tried to compensate for through your successes.”
Like many other BJJ practitioners who are also trauma survivors, Pascal has had to fight through flashbacks in the middle of training sessions. “I think some of my teammates thought I was just being hypersensitive, but it’s so much more than that. I am generally sensitive, but the level of terror and despair and rage I was experiencing during a hard roll was not normal,” she says, adding that it got easier once she started being more open with her teammates about her struggles.
Dear Jiu-Jitsu Boyfriends started as an inside joke between Pascal and her teammates, but after realizing how much her friends loved it, she saw its potential to connect with people beyond her own academy. Now, with almost 1,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 6,000 followers on Instagram, it’s clear that her intuition was correct. Still, she admitted in the caption for “Rolling With Trauma” that she was “a little nervous” about posting that particular comic. “I know that lots of people are like me but are afraid to talk about it,” she says. “Women often deal with a level of personal and collective violence that still goes fairly unacknowledged, and society still tends to view women as weak. In turn, men often feel a deep shame if they don’t live up to the impossible standards of toughness, of being invulnerable, powerful heroes and run into similar issues. It is hard to discuss trauma when you’re afraid everyone will see you as a victim.”
Pascal’s talent, experience (she has a BFA in painting/drawing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and an MFA in drawing at the University of North Dakota), and heart is clearly shown in her artwork. But even though not all of her comics deal with such heavy topics, Dear Jiu-Jitsu Boyfriends is, at its heart, much more than just a series of cute drawings. “Training in jiu jitsu with this particular group of men (until very recently, I was the only woman in class) allowed me to heal on many levels,” she says. “I learned a lot about trust, communication, and self-control from these men, who I am sure are dealing with their own issues too. I think it’s somewhat funny that learning how to break their arms and choke them has put me on a path to loving them and being more open to men, in general.”
Just as Pascal has had so many supportive people by her side throughout her jiu-jitsu journey, Dear Jiu-Jitsu Boyfriends isn’t entirely a solo project, either. She credits her teammate Luis Aleman as coming up with some of the ideas for her comics (including the “Deadly Sins of Jiu-Jitsu” series), marketing her artwork, and being her “co-writer,” especially on the long-form stories featured on the comic’s website.
Pascal is about to undertake a brand new adventure as a deck officer in the merchant marines, having recently resigned from her five-year-long position as an Assistant Professor of Digital Media at NMSU Carlsbad. But that’s not going to stop her from training or creating — she hopes to document her travels and life at sea through her comics, and of course, going from place to place means that she’s going to be able to train at various BJJ academies from around the world.