By Georgie Bull
My instructor often tells us that Taekwon-do isn’t just a hobby, but a way of life.
It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve come to understand that.
I’ve had issues with my mental health since I was a child and, unfortunately, these issues were mostly ignored until I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my mid-twenties.
These days I live by the five tenets of Taekwon-do, which has greatly benefited my life.
What changed my mind?
The spring of 2017 was perhaps one of the toughest times in my life. My mental health was affecting every aspect of my life, from work to my relationship and friendships, to my hobbies including Taekwon-do. I had failed a grading, I was unemployed, and being so angry at my poor mental health and circumstances had contributed to pushing away friends and family. I was in a pit of despair, everything was going wrong; how could I claw my way back up?
After thinking about it, I decided that my problem was ultimately a lack of self-control. For my entire life up until this point, I had let my illness take the reins, contributing to disaster after disaster, rather than trying to control it. For people with bipolar disorder, having enough control over the illness to manage it is like discovering the holy grail.
Self-control is the most important tenet for me to live well; the biggest struggle of bipolar disorder is its polarising mood swings and exercising self-control over the erratic behaviour that often follows a swing in either direction.
I have been told by doctors, friends, and counsellors that, as bipolar disorder is a mental illness that can not be controlled by the sufferer, I can’t blame myself for any choices or actions whilst in a bipolar mood swing.
I personally consider that a flawed way of thinking. It’s true that even after taking my medication faithfully, mood swings can still find their way in. It’s true that bipolar disorder can distort my perception of events and can make unwise ideas seem like good ones.
However, my illness cannot physically move my limbs and control my actions, or actually open my mouth and speak for me. Only I can do that.
Exercising self-control in any way I can, however small, is the only way that I have been able to gain power over my illness. Choosing to take responsibility for my own actions, rather than blaming the illness, leads me to consider how my moods and actions could affect those around me. Making sure to treat the people around me with courtesy and respect, even when I feel angry or depressed - the times when I’m most likely to say something that I don’t actually mean - has retained my support network of family and friends. In cases when my medication hasn’t worked as well as it should, remembering that I do have control over my choices has been the difference between making unwise decisions and staying on the path to wellness.
I could have blamed my medication for failing my first red-tag grading - the zombifying pills certainly didn’t do me any favours - but that would have been too easy.
With the knowledge that I was on medication that made me forgetful and slowed down my reaction times, I really should have been practicing more than anyone else. But I didn’t. In turn, I could have blamed my laziness and lack of motivation on my depression - but then, where does it end? How can I expect to live with integrity while looking for blame in all directions, except inwards?
Training in Taekwon-Do has taught me that failure is an opportunity to learn.
I learnt a lot from failing my first red-tag grading. Most importantly, I learnt that I needed to work on my mental health, and that a few setbacks along the way is never the end of the journey to achieving my goals.
I’ve had many, many failures since then, across all areas of life, but I’m always looking for opportunities to learn from it. These days I’m not afraid of failure, which I think has improved my Taekwon-do and other areas of my life. As long as I work hard and try my best every time, I can’t see any reason to be ashamed of failing something, whether that’s a Taekwon-do competition or a job interview. The only real failure in life is giving up on something you want to achieve. There’s always another chance - another job, another grading - for those who persevere.
A month ago I started my own business as a copywriter, and saying it hasn’t been easy would be an understatement. At times it’s been crushing and so stressful that it’s nearly driven me to tears. On the bad days, keeping perseverance and indomitable spirit in mind has been the only way to keep going. There have been times where it feels just too difficult. Taking the easy path - to give up and return to my current job - has crossed my mind more times than I can count. But that’s not what I want to do.
Much like the journey to black belt, achieving big goals is not easy. I remember many instances out of the years I’ve been training in Taekwon-do when I’ve thought that I would never make it this far. Patterns that didn’t come together for me until the last minute, a failed grading, many sparring matches where I’ve lost so badly I’ve wondered whether it was even worth trying. Trying to run my own business often feels like a sparring match, where I come at opportunities with a good angle, only to get knocked down again and again.
Sometimes, the fact that I have yet to make any decent money off of my business makes me feel like I’m failing. But, of course, the actual moment of failure would be when I stop trying and throw in the towel for good.
Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit are lessons for life, not just for the dojang.