Returning to BJJ gave Arnold the skills to overcome debilitating fear. She came back to her roots, her second family, BJJ.
Trigger Warning: Descriptions of Domestic Violence
Psalms 18:48 He delivereth me from mine enemies: yea, thou liftest me up above those that rise up against me: thou hast delivered me from the violent man.
In March 2013 Shary Arnold took her first step in her BJJ journey at Global MMA Academy under 2nd Degree Black Belt Beto Nunes. Unfortunately, Arnold’s steps (like so many) were previously impeded. She wasn’t able to resume her training until 10 years after her initial taste. Work, kids, and life in general become a priority that takes precedence over all things. Arnold’s derailment was much darker. In 2004, her spouse returned home from a one year deployment in Iraq. Arnold had knee surgery immediately after his return. Instead of going home to recover she was brutally sexually assaulted upon her arrival. That day marked the beginning of a six year nightmare.
BJJ Legends: Tell me about yourself, where you are from, if you have siblings. Tell me about your parents, elementary, middle, and high school.
Shary Arnold: My name is Shary and I was born in San Jose, California, grew up in Port Orchard, Washington until I joined the Army after high school. My mom, step dad and twin sister live in Washington and my real dad and his side of the family mostly live near San Jose, California. My mom and step dad moved us to WA when I was 7. I went to Burley Glenwood Elementary, Cedar Heights Junior High and graduated from South Kitsap High School. I played sports starting young. Began with soccer and then started playing basketball in 3rd grade until 11th. I was in a serious car accident when I was 16. My twin sister suffered the brunt of the injuries physically, but the accident left me with lingering hip damage as well as suffering from PTSD, nightmares and flashbacks.
BJJL: Tell me about life post-secondary.
Shary: I joined the army when I was 18 and was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. Got pregnant and then married shortly after I turned 19. Followed a marriage from Washington to North Carolina to Alaska and eventually to Florida. More than 6 years of our 8 year marriage was severe physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse. I spent most of my 20s living a double life, away from family and friends who didn’t really know what was going on.
BJJL: How did you meet your husband?
Shary: I met my (now ex) husband at Fort Lewis, Washington while we were both stationed there in the Army. A mutual friend introduced us to each other.
BJJL: When was the first time you saw his temper? Did it involve violence?
Shary: I remember the first time I saw his temper was soon after we started dating. He had locked his keys (and mine) in his car. He was yelling and irate and went to find a rock to bust out the windows. I had to calm him down and tell him we should just call the locksmith. There were several fights (without physical abuse) before he deployed to Iraq in 2003. I was pregnant with our oldest, my daughter Kaitlyn. He was aggressive and very verbal at that point and also showed signs of suicidal tendencies. He had told me about the abuse he was raised seeing, with his dad severely abusing his mom over many years. He also had been sent to an anger management treatment facility in his teenage years.
BJJL: Do you recall the worst incident related to the abuse?
Shary: There were so many incidents that i can recall. I can't narrow one down to say it’s the worst. He raped me and beat me, many times in front of my children. There was one time, it was morning and I was getting ready for work. We got into a fight and he started choking me. He shoved my face against the ground. I couldn’t breathe and I was about to pass out. The fight eventually ended but not without leaving my eye filled with blood. The pressure of choking me caused my blood vessels to pop inside my eye. I had to go to work like that and remember making up yet another excuse as to why I had bruises and now a blood filled eye.
There were so many injuries but thankfully never any broken bones. He ruptured my ear drum one time, many black eyes, bruised limbs, cuts. He hit me with a dinner plate that broke and the glass cut into my stomach.
BJJL: How did your friends and family react to how you were treated?
Shary: For many years, I didn't let anyone know. We had moved to Alaska in 2004 and I got pregnant with my son, Jakob. After the birth, my sister flew up to help babysit so that I could go back to work. We had been fighting and I was in the basement when he beat me. My sister came down the stairs and saw me on the floor. But like I had done so many times before, I defended him when she was telling me I needed to leave. My sister ended up leaving the house and wouldn’t talk to me. It wasn't until around July 2007 that his abuse led him to be arrested. It was a span over a couple of days, and a lot of it is a blur to me. But what I remember being in a lot of pain, he had choked me, beat me and I remember my muscles being so sore it felt like I was in a bad car accident. I think it was on a Saturday that I had enough and I swallowed some pills, not in an attempt to kill myself, but to stop the pain. He grabbed the bottle and held me down forcing me to swallow the rest. I remember at that point i had my cell phone under a pillow and I dialed one of my friends. She could hear the yelling and she called police. My mom flew to Alaska and helped watch the kids while I was taken to the hospital and given time to heal. She eventually took them with her to Washington for 3 months.
Currently however, I do not have a relationship with my mom, twin sister or step dad. They, for unknown reasons to me, have maintained a relationship with my ex-husband, even after he fully admitted to everything he has done. They had no regard for my safety and feelings in the situation, so I made the choice to take them out of my life.
Anyone who did not support me or provide safety and positivity, has been removed from my life.
BJJL: At what point did you start feeling it was time to walk away?
Shary: In September 2010, we had been in a fight in the kitchen. He tried to stab me but missed. He ended up grabbing my hair and dragging me to the bedroom in front of the kids. I was yelling for my daughter to find my phone and call 911. When he realized I had taught her how to call for help he started yelling at her and calling her names. He trapped me in the bedroom until he yelled at her enough and scared her into a ball on the couch. He then beat and raped me to the point I couldn’t move. After he was done all I could hear was yelling. She told me that he grabbed her by the arms and put her on the kitchen counter. I could hear him calling her a traitor and telling her if he goes to jail it’s her and my fault. It was at that point I knew I needed to get out. October 10, 2010, I told him I wanted a divorce. He wouldn’t let me out of the bedroom and finally when he did he loaded the shotgun and put it in his mount, in front of me and the kids. The police came and escorted him out.
Up until that time, when we lived in Alaska and he had mentioned possibly moving to Florida, I immediately started thinking about ways to leave. Living in Alaska made it hard to get away. Financially I would have never been able to make it. I had no support or a means to get away. But the possibility of living in Florida and the research I had started doing about the laws for divorce and I knew I could do it. So the move to Florida was a huge role in my game plan to leave.
BJJL: Were children involved in any of the abuse?
Shary: They mostly witnessed much of the abuse but there were many times his violence endangered them as well. There was one time we were at the mall and he said he wanted to get fast food. I said we should just go home, save the money and I would make lunch. He threw a fit. As soon as we got into the car he was punching the dash board. He punched the gear shifter and broke it off. Then as we were driving, he kicked the gas pedal and broke it off too. He ran two red lights and was driving erratically. I was terrified. And the kids were screaming. He was very verbally and I’d say emotionally abusive to them as well. He would yell and call them names when they wouldn’t do something right and I remember spending a lot of time after I left him, helping my daughter try to get past the complex he gave her. She lacked a lot of confidence because of how he treated her.
BJJL: What gave you the courage to not look back?
Shary: I finally hit a point where I didn't care where the kids and I were going to live, whether it was a car or cardboard box. I had been starting to train for a triathlon, mostly because if I wasn’t home, I wasn’t getting hurt. I think the time I spent swimming, biking and running gave me time to think and process things. I leaned on a few close friends who I told everything that was going on. I even wrote a letter to one of them before the day I left. (I will share it with you, because it has a lot of the whole story) All those years, he would tell me I would never make it without him. But I got to the point that once he went after my daughter the way he did, I knew I had to get us out of there and I would find a way. The day after he was escorted by police, and the weeks that followed, I started to feel life in my soul. The support I had from my work and close friends was unbelievable. And it gave me the strength to keep pushing forward. I’ve spent a long time reflecting and reading self-improvement books. I also was in counseling for many years during the marriage and after.
BJJL: When did you start BJJ? Who do you train w/both school and Professor?
Shary: I started training BJJ in March 2013 at Global Mixed Martial Arts Academy under Professor Beto Nunes. And starting September 2014 I transferred to Samsara Martial Arts under Rinaldo Santos (Under Carlson Gracie). Dylan Moquin and Jon Gold have become our academy’s main instructors on the days that Professor Rinaldo is at his home academy in Orlando, FL.
BJJL: How long have you trained there? What belt level are you?
Shary: Samsara Martial Arts Academy is recently new, opening up officially in August of this year. So I have been with them full time since their doors opened. I just got 2 stripes a week ago, so now I am a 4 stripe white belt. My progression has been up and down because of injuries. I have dealt with joint issues and hyper lax (super stretchy) ligaments that make it easy for my joints to dislocate, keeping me off the mats way more than I would like.
BJJL: Do you compete, if so, please tell me about it
Shary: My first tournament was in December 2013. I remember the anxiety I had going in there. Wanting to prove something. I had won gi and no gi in my division. But the weight class above mine only had one lady and she needed someone to fight so I said of course I'll do it. She had almost 50 lbs. on me at the time. She won by points in no gi. But when we got to the gi match, I was winning by points. I remember her getting to side control and smashing her weight on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I caught a glimpse of the clock and saw there was a minute and 20 seconds left. Not being able to breathe is a trigger for me. All of the times my ex-husband would choke me I panicked. Every time. But at this moment in the match, I felt that panic and shut it down. I relaxed. I held on and when I heard the buzzer go off and I had won, I was overcome with so many emotions. No one around me had any idea why I was crying, and I don’t even know if they noticed. But for me, it was huge. I overcame that fear at that moment and that match will always be in my heart.
BJJL: Fondest memory so far since you started BJJ.
Shary: There are so many memories from BJJ that are fond to me. I have traveled all over Florida to train at any school I can. The friends that I have met are more than my friends, they are the family I never had. Having a place that I belong means the world to me. Overall, when I think back and reflect on Jiu-Jitsu, the opportunities that have opened up, and just the way my life has been affected by it, I get really emotional. It means a lot to me and I can see the progress that I’ve made mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Having the outlet has helped me with stress more than any medication the doctor has tried to prescribe to me. On top of working full time and raising 2 kids on my own, I also take 10 credit hours at the local community college. School is a major struggle in my life. But the mental aspect of Jiu-Jitsu has helped me push through the hard times that I feel during school and I know taking an hour or 2 to train will help clear my mind and I can attack anything else I set my mind to.
BJJL: With your past being so traumatic, how has BJJ helped you cope?
Shary: BJJ has helped me cope in so many ways. The triggers of being choked, not being able to breathe, feeling all that weight on your body and not able to move, I have been able to shut that fear down. It doesn’t control me or cause me to lose focus in my grappling. If anything, it feeds my fire.
BJJL: Are there times that BJJ triggers anything related to your past trauma?
Shary: All the time. My ex-husband was a big guy. 350 lbs. at 6'3''. That weight on top of my body was paralyzing. I would fight back for hours but eventually had no energy to fight against him. In BJJ, we grapple all different sizes and weights. It’s tough sometimes. The choking and panic feeling when you can’t breathe is something most people have to get used to when they start BJJ. But for me, it’s not a new feeling. But I've learned how to react to it. In BJJ, it’s also different because you can TAP and be released. Dealing with triggers is all about how you react and think about what feelings its causing. I have spent years processing my feelings and triggers are inevitable. I never know when something is going to trigger bad memories or feelings. Having a good mindset to begin with has helped me heal. Talking about it and getting the feelings off my chest have helped a lot too.
BJJL: When was the first time you knew everything was not only going to be ok for you but better than ok?
Shary: I don’t remember the exact moment that it all came clear to me, but I remember that first week after I left, I had never felt more alive. It’s been 4 years and every day gets better and better. I am an emotional person, so I cry a lot when I have that sense of gratitude and appreciation for my life. Everything smells good, the air feels good to breathe in. Having freedom and having my kids who are happier and healthier now is the best feeling in the world.
BJJL: Tell me how you feel today?
Shary: Today, I feel an amazingly overwhelming appreciation for life. I have recently had some incredible people enter my life because of Jiu-Jitsu and because of the contest held by Girls in Gis. I feel strong and determined to succeed. I have so many plans for my life and my future only seems to get bigger, brighter and happier.
BJJL: How has BJJ changed your life for the better?
Shary: I can't see my life without BJJ. BJJ has taught me how to push through mental barriers. It’s taught me how to make mistakes and then learn from them. The friends I've made have been the best part of my Jiu-Jitsu journey so far. Training gives me a purpose and a challenge. I remember my first day in class, I was so nervous. I didn't want to suck! But I knew I would because I was new, shy and clueless. But I was a parent first, I had my kids training in BJJ for a few months, so I already had some friends that trained too. That helped a lot with my first day jitters. After that first day, the fire in my soul was lit. When I am injured and unable to train, it’s hard emotionally for me. I want to be on those mats. I want to be around the people that push me and also make me laugh. Its home to me.
BJJL: If you could go back and changed things, would you?
Shary: There are so many times I wish I could go back and change it. I think more so because of my kids. What I went through was terrible, but it’s made me who I am today. Strong. Driven. And I now have appreciation for life that I wish other people could feel. It’s amazing to wake up in the morning and have another day to work towards my dreams.
“Use the darkness of your past to propel you to a brighter future.” -Donata Joseph