Unfortunately, I’m a statistic.
I am the one in three women worldwide the UN says experience violence in their lifetimes. And like so many women, it was only after I was attacked, that I decided to learn how to defend myself. I enrolled in a martial arts school and trained for eight years, eventually becoming the first female instructor in the 25 year history of my dojo. But for me, that was only the beginning.
I’ve told the story before of the event that set me on this path I’m on today: in the early morning hours of 19 July 2000, I was attacked in my Los Angeles home by a stranger.
After the police and paramedics cleared out, I was immediately surrounded by my friends and my community. My family was on the phone with me so much I lost my voice just from talking to them. Even my job was sympathetic, giving me some time off to recover, and my health insurance would cover the medical and therapy costs. I was safe, cared for, and supported.
Regardless of all the love and support I had, as soon as I was left alone, I found myself reliving those terrifying minutes in the middle of the night again and again and again.
It was torture.
The way that trauma works in the brain is to replay the traumatic event over and over. Trauma is a brand new experience — you have no frame of reference for it, no context, no touchstone. It literally blows your mind. So the brain tends to replay the traumatic event over and over, essentially looking for a place to file it.
It felt like a betrayal: the emotional, psychological and physical wounds were all still so fresh and my brain was just replaying them over and over. I started to feel desperate to get away from myself, from the loop in my head. I got so desperate at one point that I thought, “if I kill myself, this will stop.”
And that made me stop. Because I just had to hold on until my first therapy session. But what if I didn’t have that option. And then I wondered: how many?
How many women who survive violence suffer a loop like this? But women who didn’t grow up middle class, in an environment where therapy is ok and domestic violence is not; who don’t have health insurance or jobs they can take a couple of days off from; who’ve never even heard about rape crisis hotlines; who can’t read, or who don’t yet read the language of a new country, and don’t understand the billboards that advertise numbers for domestic abuse victims, for sexual assault victims, for violent crime victims. Or who are living in communities where these things are never to be talked about, or where they are accepted and expected? How many women who the police will never help, because of the color of their skin or their jobs or their income?
How many women have trauma loops running in their heads? How many lives are cut short, dreams lost, potentials unfulfilled because they don’t even know there is help?
I made a decision that weekend: I would find a way to reach these women. I had no idea how I was going to do it, or when; I only knew that I would. I knew I couldn’t save anyone, but what I could do is help make it easier for all women to get help.
But first, I had to get healthy, and learn how to feel confident again. I recognized that, during the attack, in that moment my life was on the line, I couldn’t think, couldn’t plan, couldn’t take aim for any targets, couldn’t remember what to do. My body just reacted, and I had no control over it.
And I thought: if I can’t choose targets, if I can’t make decisions, if I can’t control my movements, then I need to train my body so that every move it makes naturally will be as devastating as possible.
Traditional self defense classes weren’t going to do it for me; like most women, I had had the high school workshop, gone to the community center seminar. But whatever I had learned in those classes is not what showed up when I needed it the most. The training I was looking for was in martial arts. That’s how I found Ninjutsu.
Ninjutsu was powerful, but a lot of the things addressed in our dojo were more than locks and throws and punches — we learned a lot about strategy, reading another person’s intention, balance, bodyworks. But mostly it was about learning to trust yourself, your training, and your body — your will to survive. I stayed with my teacher for 8 years, learning unarmed techniques and traditional Japanese weapons, working with people of all different ages, body types, abilities and disabilities, eventually earning my instructor’s certification.
In 2009, gang violence was creeping into my mom’s neighborhood in Chicago. She no longer felt safe walking to her favorite coffee shop to meet up with her friends. She asked me to teach her how to defend herself and of course I was eager — I hated the idea of my mom having to isolate herself, to live a smaller life just to stay safe.
But I knew it wasn’t going to be easy: she was in her late 60s at the time and no longer very coordinated, nor did she have the confidence to learn new physical movements (especially with Japanese terms). She was a stubborn old Swede…
…aaaand she was my mom.
I knew she’d resist everything I taught her in the way that mothers and daughters can be. I had to get creative: I had to make it easy, make the techniques accessible. Most of all, I had to make it fun (so she would forget she was learning anything from her own daughter).
I had to find correlations between the techniques I wanted to teach my mom, and her daily life, so I came up with some typical moves that women do in general: putting your hair behind your ears (elbow strike), opening a heavy door when your arms are full of groceries (front foot stomp), or just giving a cup of coffee to a friend (straight punch).
It worked! As long as my mom was having fun, she had the confidence that she could do the moves (because she was already doing them in her daily life). She picked up the techniques quickly, and was impressed and proud of what her body could do.
Now that she had a couple of options for defending herself, she could go back to her local coffee shop and enjoy catching up with her neighbors. That’s all she really ever wanted.
Where there are options, there is hope, too.
I ended up incorporating the terms and approach I used with my mom into Pretty Deadly Self Defense, and I’ve been teaching the program in different cities and countries ever since.
I had no idea back then, sitting on my friend’s terrace in Sherman Oaks that first weekend that I survived, that this path would take me to creating a self defense program, that teaching my mom was going to prove the challenge I needed to make self defense accessible, or that I would be able to share the tools I’ve learned with so many women and girls in the places I’ve traveled to. And I certainly would never have predicted that the term “give a cup of a coffee” would take on a whole new meaning in so many different cities around the world!
My mom inspired me. But it’s everyone at risk of violence or stuck in the trauma loop that motivates me. I want to give everyone a way out, to break the cycle and stop the loop, so we can be free to live our lives full of options and hope.
Susie Kahlich formed Pretty Deadly Self Defense, a user-friendly self defense system, based on her 20 years of martial arts training, her experience as a violent crime survivor, and simply as a woman active in the world. She has worked with violent crime, sexual aggression and trauma victims on three different continents and in multiple cities around the world. She is a member of American Bugei Federation and the Bujinkan, Yamato Dojo in Los Angeles, The Dojo in Covington, LA, has trained at Tendo Dojo in Berlin, and helped establish Bosen Chicago Dojo in the US.
In addition to her teachers, Chadwick Minge, Alan Friedman and Brian Simmons, she has worked with Philip Dao in Berlin, Edward Hines and Luo Dexiu in Paris, and Jesus Galvan in Chicago.
She currently teaches Ninjutsu at Juji Dojo / 7 Circles Akademie in Berlin.
Contact Susie directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.