I have experienced significant trauma recovery as a direct result of my training at Gracie University in Torrance, California. My goal is to start a discussion on the psychological benefits I’ve experienced and how it might benefit other trauma survivors as well. I am a survivor of childhood bullying. I am also a survivor of 18+ years of severe complex trauma (neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuses) at the hands of my family and strangers. As a result, I have a history of somatic trauma and triggers around touch, men, women, and assault scenarios.
I began Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Training in August of 2016 through the Women Empowered (WE) Program. Discovering this program, carefully crafted by women and men focused on trauma-informed empowerment and prevention, has been an incredible gift on my journey towards healing. After 2 years of training, I am both a pink belt and blue belt in Master Cycle. The following is an outline of the clinical benefits I experienced as a result of this training as they connect with core attitudes of mindfulness.
I have learned at Gracie to quiet my inner critic. I tend to be a very self-critical, excellence driven person and it took many months of allowing space for imperfection to learn to laugh at myself, shrug it off and keep going. The instructors are skilled in working with the perfectionistic student. They are encouraging and positive throughout. For example, an instructor would never tell you “you’re doing it wrong”, but instead praise what is right and make small adjustments, always conscious not to overwhelm a student with too many instructions. This was exactly what I needed to stay motivated and feel a sense of mastery developing throughout the process.
Patience / Persistence
Patience is of tremendous value at Gracie and a significant challenge for me. The teachers continually emphasize that the techniques are complex and many times counterintuitive. There simply is no jiu-jitsu without patience and persistence. Instructors often remark that is fantastic if a new student gets 25% on the first try of a technique. The benefits of the skills I get at Gracie extend outside those walls. A pronounced example for me is driving. I have always been an aggressive driver speeding, weaving, and wanting people to get out of my way. On difficult days, I find myself falling into old habits of speeding all the way to class at Gracie. As I am leaving their parking lot, driving home, I find myself more patient, waiting my turn, not pushing, not hurrying and letting people in whenever I get a chance.
Willingness / Beginner’s Mind
Instructors model a humanistic approach in their teaching, regularly sharing personal trials and errors on their journeys of learning jiu-jitsu. They model how to stay motivated and keep coming back. For the novice, a sense of curiosity and readiness to learn from a place of not knowing is nurtured. Many techniques are counterintuitive and require proper training to conceptualize. The clinch move is an excellent example. If someone attempts to punch you, you move towards them rather than away. To this day, my clinch sometimes needs work when I’m not concentrating as I instinctively don’t want to move myself towards the attacker.
Most techniques in jiu-jitsu require a high level of trust. Allowing someone to put their hands on your neck can push a trauma survivor out of their comfort zone. At Gracie they instruct participants to only put hands on shoulders to begin with and then as they advance, to put hands on throats, and eventually pressure. This helps the person desensitize to any associated discomfort and build trust. In addition, safety is a priority. When teaching a technique, they always emphasize how to keep your training partner safe. Extensive time is spent on how to break falls and accomplish training goals while preventing injury. Instructors and assistants circulate the room at all times, checking everyone’s safety and techniques. Newer participants are paired up with seasoned trainees to help newer students with the technique and also set the structure of safety (moving slowly, tapping early, frequent communication, continued verbalizations of safety tips throughout practicing, etc.). It has been a significant corrective experience for me to have many women and men take careful consideration of my safety while training.
When I try too hard and train too hard, my body lets me know immediately. Instructors are quick to encourage taking care of your body. They emphasize that sitting and watching is sometimes better than participating. I was once told “Take breaks from jiu-jitsu before it breaks you.” I find it difficult to take breaks because as a trauma survivor, feeling powerful is intoxicating.
I have had to learn at Gracie to accept my limitations. I train with men that are much bigger and stronger than me. When I master techniques, their size and strength doesn’t matter anymore. However, as a result of this difference, I have had to accept the reality that I need to know the techniques better than these men to accomplish control and safety. I have successfully executed the double leg takedown on a 250 pound man. I also managed to keep control of a 250 pound man in side mount control. I have had to accept the limitations of my age and strength, but in doing so I have also learned how to manage my limitations effectively.
Letting Go / Attunement
Having fun while making mistakes has been another corrective experience. Much of my abuse was centered on punishment for academic mistakes. To train in jiu-jitsu is to make 1000’s of mistakes and have fun while doing it. Newcomers to Master Cycle joke often that all they are trying to do is stay safe or just breathe. One of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu principles involves a concept of going with the flow. Once you have become fixated on accomplishing a particular submission, you inevitably create an opening for the attacker to defend against and even roll to an advantage. “Position before submission” is a concept that involves letting go of potential submissions in order to stay fluid and attuned so you can respond to what is given to you. Some of the best jiu-jitsu I have watched seems more like a dance than combat.
Friendliness / Gentleness
Smiles, hand shakes, and laughter set the tone at Gracie. Gentleness and consideration of your partner is emphasized every step of the way. Keeping each other safe and happily learning is a top priority and a great deal of time is spent making sure that trainees treat each other with respect and care. If any student is too aggressive or not assisting their partner in the “Gracie” encouraging way, they are quickly addressed and asked to leave if the problem persists. I will never forget my first partner - a young instructor from Mississippi showing me the “trap and roll” technique. He performed this technique with speed and precision while carefully cradling my shoulder and moving me in a way that protected me from muscle strain or injury. I am so grateful that he set the stage for me to know and feel how easy, fun and gentle the learning process could be.
Non-Reactivity / Confidence
As a trauma survivor, trigger reactivity has caused significant impairment in my life. When I first thought of testing for my Pink Belt, I knew that most candidates tested with Eve Torres Gracie, the female director of WE. I was concerned that in the reflex testing portion, where you are approached with a variety of attacks to which you must instinctively respond, that I would be triggered and might actually punch Eve. I came to understand that if I was still in a space of this type of reactivity, I was not ready to test.
As I continued my training, I instinctively put myself with the stronger partners in Women Empowered in order to push myself outside my comfort zone. As the weeks passed and I was feeling more confident with my skills, I scheduled a “pre-test” with a Alex Ueda. I felt very comfortable with this instructor and I did well. He explained that had it been a real test, I would have passed. Around the same time, I had noticed that whenever I was called upon to demonstrate a technique with Rener Gracie (Eve’s husband), I became reactive. I was not listening to his words, I moved too quickly and wanted to get as far away from him as fast as I could. It was odd because I admire his teaching, his gentleness, his encouragement and everything that Eve and Rener had created. But when he came anywhere near me, I got tense. After examining my thoughts, I remembered an ad for their gym about 20 years ago, and at that time decided it was not a safe place for me. I realized that in that ad, Rener looked like an attacker from my childhood.
I searched for the Facebook page of this attacker and it all came flooding back as I looked at his photo. I felt my body tense up, get nauseous, chest and stomach tight and breath being held. I reached out to Eve to share my discovery. She expressed gratitude that I entrusted her with my experience and that they had many trauma survivors over the years participate. She shared her experience that everyone responds to trauma differently and that they valued learning what would help me best (less contact with Rener, more, same). Her response was healing, validating and assuring that I was safe in this space. I felt so safe with her support that I asked if I might actually test with Rener as I knew it would be a true test for me of my abilities when triggered. Rener said yes.
From the time he entered the room for the test, I became 14 years old all over again. In a small room, door closed with Rener between me and the door, Rener calmly and slowly explained everything step by step. He encouraged me. It was not a surprise to me that I performed worse with Rener than I had performed with Alex. There were a couple very basic skills that flew straight out of my head when Rener put his hands around my neck. However, I was a triggered “14 year old” with a brand new set of skills and I passed the test. Since then I have had ample time to strengthen the reflexes of the few techniques in which I froze.
The thrill of passing with Rener was an enormous confidence booster. However what happened after the test was really remarkable. I opened up my attackers Facebook page again. Now as I looked at it, my body was calm. There was no reaction, no nausea, no chest tightening. I felt peaceful and I said out loud, “You are not a threat to me anymore, and I forgive you.” After years of therapy to recover from trauma, my logical mind knew I was safe but my body had to catch up.
The “victim” becomes a warrior at Gracie. It’s the complete opposite of the trauma suffered. I particularly like that almost all of the training emphasizes control over your attacker without submitting or hurting them. I can still remain compassionate and kind while strong in relationship to my attacker. I don’t have to become them (angry, aggressive, violent) to defend myself.
The scattered pieces of myself in my trauma narrative forgot about the warrior that I am (my strengths, my coping skills). This unique opportunity to grow in a safe and supportive environment allowed me to remember my true self and put myself back together. My whole body has learned to operate with calmness and fluidity to accomplish my jujitsu goals and heal the memory. It’s a challenge to express the full extent of gratitude for this program and what it has done for both my clients and me personally. I wish every trauma survivor would have the experience of profound healing that I have had at Gracie University. It has been, and continues to be, a spiritual jiu-jitsu journey for me.
Fighting Dissociation Phobia and Coming Out as a Professional with a Dissociative Disorder (Dr. Jamie Marich)
To access original piece with full comments published on 5-18-18, go to:
As you read the title of this article, I am somewhat scared about how you are judging me…judging us. If your information about dissociative disorders—or what the general public may still call “multiple personalities” - is from the movies (e.g., Split, Sybil, Primal Fear), we assure you, what you’ve learned about us is inaccurate. When I say dissociative disorder, it’s not lost on us that many of you reference these portrayals and maybe even assume that a deeply disturbed, murderous “alter” will pop out and get you. Or that, like in Primal Fear, our struggles are all an act to get us off the hook for bad behavior. What saddens me the most is the level of phobic responses to dissociation that we witness from other professionals in our helping fields—mental health and addiction recovery—even from those who claim to specialize in trauma treatments like EMDR therapy. Terms like Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia are now regularly used in public discourse. We assure you, dissociation phobia is a real thing and needs to be added to the list.
Every week we hear of or directly encounter stories like these:
This is a short list composed only of clinical examples. We can fill an entire book of tales on how family, friends, and the public are quick to label us crazy or defective when, in reality, the dissociative mind is one of the most beautiful constructs of creation.
Our minds are prismatic, multi-dimensional, and capable of solving problems that empirical science and its numeric precision can’t even begin to figure out. Many of us are extremely high functioning, creative, intelligent, and capable of bringing about real change in the suffering world because most of us can instantly respect and evaluate multiple sides of a story. Yes, we can be plagued by deep suffering and distress that can impair daily living, especially when triggered, invalidated, or negated. When we’re given the tools for healing—which must start with having our own experiences validated and our existence affirmed—the power of our post-traumatic growth may stun you.
The first client with dissociative identify disorder (DID) I ever treated with EMDR therapy expressed, “People fear what they don’t understand,” in attempting to explain his dissociation, an adaptive response to unspeakable early childhood abuse. Our own experience amends this statement slightly, “People fear what they can’t understand.”
The next phase of my work as a public figure in my field is to do my best to help you understand. It’s scary—we’ve been “out” as a recovering addict throughout our career and in recent years we’ve been fully out in all areas of our life as a bisexual woman. Being out as dissociative isn’t exactly a newsflash if you’ve followed my work closely over the years (I reference it in both of my books on EMDR therapy and disclosed my full diagnosis in an article with Psyched last year). However, coming out this boldly (to the level of using singular we pronouns…did you notice the fluctuation between I and we?) feels like the riskiest step I’ve/we’ve ever taken as a professional and a public figure.
We can hear our colleagues now—which include other writers and trainers in the field—snickering behind our back or in some cases in front of it. They have the potential to write me off as a crazy, unstable, untreated girl who loves the attention. Trust me, we’ve considered the reality that others may try to discredit us and we are remarkably okay with that; it shows just how significant of a phobia we are addressing. We fear that in the current political climate where such a fear of the other abounds, we’ll either be dismissed or targeted for how we interact with the world. A side effect of my dissociative mind has been a fierce love of diversity and pluralism, to the point where even our own liberal friends fear us for combating the cut-and-dry, us vs. them labeling that abounds in these modern times. Loved ones have even threatened or attempted to use my dissociation and its complications against me/us, threatening to expose how bad it can get to make me seem less credible.
I was diagnosed with Dissociative Disorder, NOS (now Unspecified Dissociative Disorder) in 2004 and I am one criterion away from qualifying for a full Dissociative Identity Disorder diagnosis (I have never been and am not amnesic about the experiences of my parts). Although dissociation was a mixed blessing of a survival response and a paralysis in my earlier life, the growth I’ve experienced through being properly diagnosed and treated has helped me to embrace how my mind works instead of resent it. You may be puzzled as to why I can be so candid about something that seems, on the surface, so dramatic. Here is the truth bomb—we all dissociate and we all have parts that compromise our internal worlds. I can come out so freely now because I’ve come to learn that I am not that much different from the rest of you.
Understanding how you personally dissociate and how your parts work is an important first step in understanding what those of us who surpass the clinical threshold experience. Are you ready for this? This may feel a bit daunting if you’ve never looked at it before.
Know Your Dissociation Profile
Have you ever daydreamed?
Have you ever drifted off or zoned out a little, especially when you were feeling distressed or bored?
Do you dive in to Netflix binges to numb out from life or imbibe in intoxicants, especially as a method of escape?
To overstate what may seem obvious, we all have. If you are a therapist, have you ever led your clients through a guided imagery exercise like the Calm Safe Place, prompting them to visualize “somewhere else” to relax? Yup—you’ve deliberately elicited dissociation, albeit a form that is adaptive for many. There’s a chance you may even like and make use of such an exercise yourself.
For those of us who dissociate regularly and tend to cross more clinically significant lines, the response to shut down or escape in our own minds developed early and became a bit more ingrained. It can be more difficult to come back to the present moment, especially if what we’re coming back to is highly distressing. Yet with the tools of recovery and wellness, especially those skills that can be learned in the realm of grounding and embodiment, we can.
As a kid, one of the abusive figures in my life routinely said, “Jamie looks like she’s been beaned in the head with a fastball.” Probably because I was daydreaming so hard to tune him out! My vivid imagination took me to some pretty incredible places and the hope I drew from these places made real life slightly more bearable. As I transitioned into adulthood, I experienced significant difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality, which made coping with alcohol and pills (more tangibly dissociative methods) appealing. If these themes resonate with any aspect of your personal experience, you are well on your way to understanding our experience.
Many teachers describe dissociation as a continuum phenomenon. We all dissociate, some more than others, and the experience may manifest differently at different times depending upon the nature and intensity of stressors. Although the continuum is a good start if you can wrap your mind around this description, for me the idea is too linear. I prefer to think of dissociation as prismatic. Light flows through a prism to reflect a series of colors—the more angles on a prism, the more dramatically light splits as it comes through—resulting in fascinatingly complex and stunningly beautiful patterns and fragments. For a prism to be a prism, at least two angles made of material transparent to the wavelengths of light for which they are designed must exist. Some folks have two angles, others have hundreds. The more intense the light (which can be cast as a metaphor for life stressors in this case), the more radiant the reflection. For those of us who have learned how the angles of our prism serve us under stress, radiant is a great adjective. Prior to learning how they work, the dispersion of light can feel blinding and confusing, to us and to others in our lives. Hence, shutting down the prism altogether can become more appealing. When you notice us go offline in our affect, this could be what’s happening for us.
In discussing dissociation and its various expressions, it’s useful to discuss parts. Although the word “alters” may still be used in context around DID, parts has become a more widely accepted and less shaming term; particularly because even the most conservative, set-in-their-ways reader of this article can identify two or more of their own internal parts.
Do you ever reference having an inner child?
Do you ever see yourself as being one person at home and one person at work?
Are you calm overall yet notice certain things can trigger a rage response in you, like the Hulk popping out of Bruce Banner?
Congratulations—you have parts!
The same parts or internal experiences that shape the theater of your life are similar to what we experience. Ours just may be a tad more fragmented, to the degree that we’ve given them names, numbers, or colors in assigning their roles. Our parts regularly dialogue with each other and fight with each other, just like the discord that you may witness between family and friends. These parts generally developed at different times in our life journeys in response to traumas and other stressors to keep us safe and protected. Some of these parts may still show up as more pronounced when certain situations or triggers wreak havoc in our systems. When parts and their characteristics show up as more pronounced, if you are a therapist or loved one, it does little good to think in terms of, “What’s wrong? What’s happening?” Instead, try “What are you being protected from right now? How is this part protecting you?”
Many of our parts can be quite delightful and even serve us in our public lives and others have the potential to create more problems for us in terms of acting out or shutting us down. Telling those parts to shut up or go away is generally not helpful. They need to be heard. Moreover, placating any one part or even our whole systems with platitudes like, “You’re in a safe place” is generally not productive either. Listen to the part or the series of parts that are most activated and ask them what they need to experience more safety in any given moment. Yes, if you are a therapist some of the parts may scare you or cause you grief. That doesn’t mean that we love or value our parts any less or that integrating these parts into some homogenous alloy is the best solution. Even the parts that we tend to hate or resent for causing us more grief in our adult lives can serve a purpose and resent, maybe even more than the others, this suggestion of classic integration.
Think of the common metaphor of the melting pot that gets used to describe the American nation—i.e., these disparate nationalities coming together, melting down to emerge as “American.” This metaphor has been challenged by many scholars and thinkers because it suggests there is such a thing as an ideal American. Instead, the tossed salad or a pot of stew is proposed as a better metaphor because all the different parts or ingredients contribute to making a tasty whole. With clients who can seem more affected by certain parts reacting to stressors, get to know the composition of the stew or the salad and what it tastes like (or could taste like) when the ideal blend and preparation of ingredients are achieved. If one day there are more tomatoes (for example) than usual, there is likely a reason for it…and don’t assume that the excess tomatoes just need to be cut out. They may be meeting a nutritional need, metaphorically speaking.
The metaphors for understanding parts and how they interplay are various. Explore which ones may work to describe your experience and help clients to determine which ones may work for them. Some like to use versions of a conference or kitchen table, a van, a house, or even a bundle of balloons. My preferred metaphor for my dissociative experience can be explained through Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Besides my presenting self (Dorothy), I have three distinctive parts of various ages who serve roles like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. There is also an older, sage/crone part who has more of a spiritual, ethereal presence within me like Glinda the Good Witch. (If you are a fan of Wicked, yes, this sage/crone part is a mixture of Glinda and Elphaba.) Dorothy needed all of them to tap into the vital truth and learning of the story: “You’ve had the answer in you all along.” Dorothy needed all of them to get home.
All of us who dissociate to the level that may cause you to be scared of us are just searching for that yellow brick road that will take us home.
Will you shame us on our quest?
Or will you help us?
If your answer is the latter, thank you for taking the first step by reading this article. May you keep journeying on in your desire to understand your clients, which happens by first learning more about yourselves.
Photograph by Dr. Jamie Marich (March, 2018: Dubai, UAE)
Institute for creative mindfulness
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