On Tuesday, I went to archery for the first time in four years.
For about a year, in 2012-13, I used to shoot weekly with an after-school archery club. It was run by a guy called Peter who’d been doing it since the 90s for 20p a session (though it went up to 30p while I was there; that’s inflation for you), and for quite a bit of the time I was there, I was the only member who wasn’t a twelve-year-old boy. But that was okay. It made me feel tall.
I actually got quite good at archery. I wasn’t, like, brilliant — Peter said if I continued to improve, I’d be able to think about competing the following year, but I wasn’t at that level yet. But I wasn’t bad either. I stopped going in the immediate lead-up to my AS Levels because I was busy and needed to concentrate on work, as well as having a lot of other extra-curricular things going on at the time… and then, as you know, immediately after my AS’s, I hurt my wrists and archery had to go.
In Freshers’ Week I went to the introductory session that Cambridge University Bowmen, the archery society, were running. They told me I clearly knew what I was doing and didn’t need to come to the beginner course, but unfortunately I couldn’t come to the general sessions either because they clashed with one of my lectures. So I didn’t end up joining, and to be honest, my shoulders probably weren’t strong enough for it anyway.
This week, however, I decided I really needed to do something. I’ve talked quite a bit about my Irish dance nostalgia, and I think that contributed to this mood. I also haven’t been able to go to ballet this year — a neck injury in the autumn term and a sprained ankle last term meant I’ve been to a whole two and a half classes this year, and while certain aspects of ballet are still enjoyable to me, a combination of pain, self-consciousness, and dysphoria mean that ballet rarely soothes my anxiety and quite often triggers it. When I’m looking for an activity to do that will make me feel better, one that constantly gives me bad feelings about my body and my gender identity isn’t the best choice.
I needed something physical to do, and so I contacted the archery society and asked if I could join. And thus, on Tuesday, I went along to a session and gave it a go.
I wasn’t sure how my wrists and shoulders would stand up to it, or even if I’d be strong enough to draw the bow, but it turned out okay. I was aching the next day, but it didn’t hurt, and it didn’t pull anything out of place. (After standing up for three and a half hours, though, my feet were killing me; not the part of me I thought would suffer most.)
I also thought I might have forgotten how to shoot, that all my technique might have gone out of the window in these intervening years, but the guy in charge watched me shoot three arrows to double check I knew what I was doing, said, “Yep, you’re fine,” and left me to it.
And I … wasn’t terrible. I mean, I missed a lot, which was to be expected. Not only had I not done it in years, but it was my first time shooting outdoors, so I’m not used to needing to compensate for the wind. But I didn’t miss all the time. I even hit gold twice.
Archery, like swordfighting, is also one of those hobbies that makes me feel stronger and more dangerous than I actually am. As a small, fluffy, physically weak person, there isn’t much that makes me feel like I could (a) defend myself and (b) make someone regret testing me, but when I find those things, it’s empowering. It hasn’t been practical to go to the local HEMA club recently, so longsword is off the menu, but when I’m feeling particularly out of control of my life, I need something that makes me feel strong again.
But more important than all of that was the fact that archery made my brain go still.
I’m an anxious person. I overthink everything. My mind is constantly working through every scenario (often catastrophising along the way), or thinking about what I’m meant to do next, running through plans over and over again even though there’s nothing I can do about them right now. I’d had a pretty rubbish day, with a revision lecture and an Irish class that made me realise I know nothing and am going to seriously struggle in exams. I walked out of Old Irish on the edge of an anxiety attack and/or tears, and all I wanted to do was curl up in my room and hide until the exams are over.
But I dragged myself to archery and by the time I left, I wasn’t even thinking about that. It gave me something else to focus on that forced me to stay in the present, to focus on what I was doing right then instead of worrying about the future. My brain had been like a constantly churning whirlpool of stress, and two hours of archery made the whole thing go still.
It reminded me why I liked it so much when I was sixteen, and also made me think that possibly the reason I managed my anxiety so much better before my wrist injury was because I was able to spend two hours a week finding my calm with a bow.
When I discovered I’d have to pay £20 membership fee for this term, I was a little bit concerned at first, even when I calculated that if I go every week that’s only £2.50 a session. But for the anxiety-calming effects of archery… well, that’s a lot cheaper than therapy, right?
I don’t cope well with exams. I find them disproportionately stressful, especially as my performance can vary so much depending on my pain and fatigue levels on the day of the exam. I also have a terrible memory, so no matter how insightful my analysis, my inability to remember any details of whatever I’m talking about usually gets in the way of good marks. Moreover, I don’t feel like the Cambridge system will give me enough time to really settle into revision, especially as my exams are bunched together with no gaps in between.
I anticipate that this term will be hellish and anxiety-filled. But if one evening a week, I can let my mind become calm again… maybe that will help me cope in the long run.