How Karate Saved My Life

Having a stroke at 37 left me grimly facing my own mortality, but karate helped me recapture a sense of invincibility and self confidence through the medium of kicking ass...
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Having a stroke at 37 left me grimly facing my own mortality, but karate helped me recapture a sense of invincibility and self confidence through the medium of kicking ass...

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Just over three years ago on a typical Sunday morning, spent shouting at my children, in an attempt to leave the house within fifteen hours of deciding to go out I had what I can only describe as a funny turn. Over the previous couple of weeks I’d had a few of these where my vision would seem obscured briefly as if I’d stared at the sun too long. This temporary impairment was followed by what felt like a steaming hangover which would clear gradually and I’d be back to normal within an hour. Being fairly stereotypically bloke-minded, i.e deliberately ignorant of anything medical, I put these episodes down to a consequence of having three kids under five, stress from trying to build up my business, alcohol and life (wife) in general.

However on that Sunday morning things kicked in much harder and stronger. Standing in the kitchen I suddenly felt terrible, it reminded me of a hangover I once had in the Alps where following a vodka après ski session I’d fallen asleep whilst trying to get into bed but had managed to lose consciousness laying on the granite floor wearing just my pants in temperatures of -10C. It was like this but worse, what made it worse was I’d not had a drop of alcohol and had almost lost the sight in one eye - I was shitting myself. My wife noticing the look on my face whilst I hung onto the kitchen worktop to steady my wobbly legs was typically sympathetic, “Can you stop daydreaming out the window and get those kids in the car before I go mental”. Thinking I might jeopardise the promise I was on for later I complied and somehow managed to get through the rest of the day with the hangover feeling gradually fading. What didn’t return to normal though was my vision and the next day thought I’d better get along to the doctors to see if losing part of the vision in my left eye was something I should be worried about – turned out it was.

Over the next few weeks I underwent various tests, saw a number of specialists (the NHS is the bollocks by the way) and was eventually diagnosed as having had a stroke. “A fucking stroke! I’m 37 for fucks sake, how have I had a fucking stroke at 37?!”, was my measured reaction to the news delivered by the startled cardiologist. Turns out although I was fairly fit (could still play 40 minutes 5 a side without throwing up most weeks), normal weight, a non smoker and moderate drinker, I’m genetically wired up shit and unbeknown to me was suffering from high blood pressure. Apparently this had caused a clot to build up in the veins which when released had flounced round my body until it found a vein smaller than itself in my eye and lodged fast. The previous attacks were the times it was passing through the eye and hadn’t stuck but this time the bastard had.

There was a silver cloud though; I’d had the best type of stroke as having gone to the eye and not the brain there was no damage to speech or movement and the vision in my left eye had eventually cleared back to pretty much normal. Other than medication to control my blood pressure for the rest of my life and some words of advice on how to prevent this happening again such as a good diet, plenty of exercise etc I was cleared to carry on as before. Now though where I’d previously felt invincible I felt fragile and in danger of another stroke. I felt I’d let my family down and made sure not to tell anyone of my condition, it was almost as if my stroke was contagious and I was paranoid I wore it as a badge, like was some kind of paedo on a register. I constantly worried I would drop dead at any moment and couldn’t bare the thought of leaving my kids without a Dad, I would visualise them at my funeral sobbing their hearts out, watching my coffin disappear behind the curtain (with Stone Roses’ I Am The Resurrection playing in the background of course) , I was cracking up. Even my wife was concerned.

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During a moment of clarity I remembered the specialist’s advice to become as fit as I possibly could and decided to pull myself together, somewhat bizarrely I decided to join a karate club. I can only put the decision down to having always liked the outfit (since found out it’s called a gi and referring to it as an outfit won’t ingratiate you to established members) and being shit at fighting I’d often fantasized about taking on and beating a dozen high street drunks following a good kicking from just one.

I turned up for my first lesson and very quickly discovered how hard the art of karate is. Within ten minutes of a brutal warm up I was a sweating shaky mess now desperate for a sudden death. What made it worse were the thirty or so men and women, mostly black belts, all in pristine white gi’s barely breaking into a sweat and led by the 70 year old 8th Dan Sensei who was resembled a ginger rhino. Panic had set in; I was ten minutes into a one and a half hour lesson and starting to wonder whether throwing up in the middle of the dojo would eclipse the indignity of running out never to return. Thankfully before I could make the decision the ‘warm up’ finished and I was told to break off from the rest of the class so I could be humiliated further by a brute called Tony who would teach me the basics. Despite his intimidating appearance and obvious ability to reduce me to a heap with less than two punches he turned out to be a top man and incredibly patient I as attempted to move my arms and legs together in something resembling karate. The strength required to look even marginally competent takes years to build up and for several days following that first lesson I felt as though I’d been trampled by a herd of cows.

Thankfully I stuck with it and gradually over the weeks and months that followed things started to click. Once I’d got a grip of the most basic Japanese instructions, built up some strength and passed a couple of gradings I was feeling much less of a tit and was hooked on the buzz it gave me. Until you experience the energy and power generated by someone with 20 odd years of training up close you don’t appreciate the sustained mental and physical training that goes into it. Knowing that most people in my club literally have the capability to kill with 1 strike certainly sharpens the senses during sparring sessions.

Now after nearly 3 years of training 2 or 3 times a week I’m about 60% along the way to gaining my black belt and feel better than I ever have in my adult life both mentally and physically. Karate for me is a life saver, my confidence and general state of happiness are even greater than before my stroke, I don’t worry about dropping down dead, I’m in the best shape of my life, I’ve met some amazing people and apparently I’m even a nicer person for it. Go give it a try, you’ll look and feel a bit of a knob for a few weeks but trust me it’s worth it.

(Also it’s a good feeling knowing I could beat the shit out of most of those high street drunks if required.)