A figurative and literal kick in the pants calmed this Fort Worth native’s mental health issues.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and we recently chatted with Fort Worth resident Melanie Gibson who, as an adult, returned to her childhood practice of taekwondo in a desperate attempt to quiet her mental health demons. Now, she’s written a book about it.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I’m a native Texan born to an Oklahoma dad and Pennsylvania mom. I was born in Denton, raised in Snyder, and have lived in Fort Worth for the last 15 years.
Were your mental illnesses diagnosed when you were a child?
I didn’t seek help until I was much older. As a child, I knew something was wrong, and I often felt sad or angry for seemingly “no reason.” But I just white-knuckled it through school and work because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do.
I finally sought help around age 30 and came away with diagnoses of anxiety disorder, depression and bipolar disorder. I didn’t magically get better right away, but knowing what I was dealing with made the recovery process easier.
How did you get involved with taekwondo?
When I was about 10, I told my parents I wanted to learn karate. I can’t remember why now, but it seemed like a very clear decision. “Karate” was the only martial art I’d ever heard of. There was a taekwondo school in Snyder, so we all took lessons for a few years. (Karate is Japanese; taekwondo is Korean. There are some similarities, including kicking and hand strikes.)
Do you practice now?
Yes. Fast forward to age 33. I was still struggling with my mental health after being in therapy and on medication for a while, so I went back to my roots in taekwondo for something fun to distract me and get me out of the house.
What belt are you currently pursuing?
I am a second degree black belt currently pursuing third degree rank. I’ve had to put training on hold while I recover from ACL reconstruction surgery, but I’m getting my strength back and can’t wait to get back into the dojang (taekwondo school).
If someone is interested in getting started with taekwondo, or other martial arts practices, where would they begin?
Practicing a martial art is a personal decision. I don’t think one martial art is better than the next. First, it should be fun. Second, think about why you want to do it, and what you hope to get out of it. Some people want a good workout; others want to learn effective self-defense; others want to compete. Look for a school that can give you what you want. Ask to watch a class or two before you make a commitment.
I like my dojang because I can learn from the competitive fighters who do a more modern style of sparring and still practice the old school traditional taekwondo I learned from my Korean grandmaster.
In your new book, “Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts,” you say that taekwondo has helped you at work as well as in your relationships. Can you give a couple of examples?
Oddly enough, learning how to fight and practice a martial art helped me be more relaxed. Practicing taekwondo requires such mental focus and discipline that it squeezes any sadness or worry out of your mind.
It also gave me a community and people to interact with, which kept me from sinking into self-centered despair. I also stopped caring about whether I was in a romantic relationship or not. I stopped measuring my value and worth on someone else’s opinion of me. I was proud of what I was doing and accomplishing on my own in taekwondo.
What would you say to someone who is struggling with mental illness?
Get the professional help you need and find tools that can help you improve your self-awareness around your mental patterns and habits. Journaling helps me record what I’m thinking and develop an objective perspective on my emotions.
What 3 tips would you give to help someone get started with a new hobby or practice like taekwondo?
#1. Look for something that gives you a mental distraction and requires a lot of focus. Learning any new skill, whether it is knitting or a martial art, forces your mind to focus on one thing, and you’ll find that after a while, you aren’t thinking about what was troubling you before.
#2. Do something that’s fun and something you look forward to doing. Don’t waste your spare time on a hobby that isn’t enjoyable.
#3. Try small time commitments at first so you don’t feel overwhelmed and aren’t tempted to quit before you see if you like it or not.
What are some of your favorite places to hang out in Fort Worth?
Fort Worth has a world-class arts scene, including the Kimbell Art Museum, The Modern Art Museum, and the Amon Carter, which has American Western art. My dad was a college art professor, so I was raised on classical art, but the Modern is my favorite museum to visit. I also enjoy going to Texas Ballet Theater performances at Bass Hall.
There are some great places to eat: Cane Rosso (pizza), Gus’s Fried Chicken, Rodeo Goat (burgers), Angelo’s BBQ and Pho District (Vietnamese) are my go-to favorites. And right in the middle of Cowtown you have Spiral Diner, which has amazing vegan food.
I’m a rural west Texas snob, so I avoided the Stockyards for years (I’ve seen cattle before, thanks), but Lonesome Dove is a nice date night or birthday celebration restaurant. Do visit the Stockyards, but buy your boots at the Justin outlet on Vickery Blvd—better prices. When I’m not doing fancy things like going to the ballet or art museums I like hanging out at Rusty’s or JJ Dakota’s to drink cheap beer and shoot pool.
Cover photo Wesley Kirk
Leona Barr is a freelance writer in Austin.