Battling “Spiderzilla”…the stress monster

Steven Barnes
6 min readMay 7, 2020

I dealt with so much fear from a bully-plagued childhood that it took me seventeen years to earn my first black belt. The quest to deal with that fear led me down some unique paths.

Thirty (very) odd years ago, I attended the “Warrior Retreat,” a ten-day workshop in the Tehachapi Mountains, where, it was claimed, I would be taught martial arts combined with shamanic spiritual practices.

There, I met a woman named Dawn Callan, who was teaching the women’s track. She was about 4'10", a honey-blond with a wicked sense of humor and a kind of personal force I’d rarely encountered. The women’s graduation exercise involved padded attackers, and Dawn’s people hadn’t been able to come, leaving her with only her “Combat Chief” (a human mountain named Robert Humphrey, much missed). She asked if some of the guys on the men’s track would help out, and I said “sure.” I was armored up, and told the drill: the women stood in a ring around a central mat, facing inward. An armored “mugger” “stalked the circle”, engaging verbally with the different students, until we found one who seemed ready to go. Maybe she was confident, maybe afraid. Hard to explain the “connection” we were looking for, but when we found it we grabbed her and pulled her onto the mat, where she had to respond with focused violence under considerable emotional stress.

It was wild. But Dawn was right there at every moment, coaching, cajoling, making sure the brawls were safe for all involved, a voice in their ears that would NOT let them quit, and that they’d remember the rest of their lives.

She had such phenomenal awareness and presence that my curiosity just got out of control. After I’d worked with about half the women in the circle there came a moment when I was standing maybe twelve feet away from Dawn, and her back was to me as she was dealing with another woman. I was supposed to choose my next “victim” and a crazy thought ran through my mind: “I think I’ll attack Dawn.” I really wanted to see what she’d do…

Here’s the problem: her back was to me. She was focused elsewhere. But the moment I THOUGHT THAT THOUGHT, she stopped, turned her head and looked back over her shoulder at me with what I can only describe as a reptilian grin on her face. Eyes burning. And without her moving, it felt as if a sledgehammer hit me in the chest. No kick. No punch. Nothing but the force of her will.

Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts.