Coach

Epilogue: boxing

I went to a boxing gala at my gym on Friday.

Since quitting boxing 2 years ago, I train in the conditioning section of the gym. Great vibe, different people.

It was nice to see Cap again. I ran into Bradley, in town for the first time in over a year. I didn’t recognize him. No longer a wee adolescent boy, he is a grown-ass man now. In the 2.5 years since this hilarious mortifying story, he’s grown a foot taller and 50lbs of muscle heavier. Still shy and modest tho. He is gonna make some young girl very very happy one day. Good kid. #notanasshole #thosestillexist. Chair Thrower was at the gala, as was Cereal.

I felt at home, on Friday. In my life which is more tumultuous than one would expect for an accountant (now we know why), this gym has been my constant, my refuge, my safe place since fall 2012. 6 years. That’s longer than most of my friendships. This is the place that has given me the space to grow. To risk. To try and fail. To discover myself. It is the birthplace of Vanilla.

Boxing is an unforgiving sport. By stepping into the ring, every boxer tacitly accepts to show their true self to their opponent, coach and whoever is watching. You can’t mask cowardice or fake bravery when getting punched in the head. Every hesitation, fear, bluster and cockiness is blatantly obvious to anyone who watches. There IS no socially constructed mask to hide behind. To step into the ring, every boxer, no matter their level of experience and proficiency, has to be willing to be vulnerable, and to be seen. As such, I’ve noticed that most people at the gym don’t cling so tightly to their social personas – there is no point, when we’ve all seen their true colors in the ring. As a result, everyone is more authentic at the gym than they otherwise might be. Vulnerability + authenticity = key ingredients for friendship.

“I’m so glad you are part of my family”

I remembered something on Friday, that I’d long forgotten: boxing is a team sport. Yes, it’s true, no one can fight an opponent except yourself, no one can climb into the ring for you. And yet. Watching the teammates cheer on my gym’s fighters until they lost their voices, seeing them weep for their fellow fighters’ losses, jump for glee with every win, I remembered. I remembered what it feels like to stand in the middle of that ring, petrified and exhausted, and the wave of energy that would wash over me as I’d hear my friends cheer me on.

Lately, as life has been very hard, throwing me too many curve-balls professionally and personally, I have felt so alone. Friday reminded me: no one can fight my battles for me, but in the ring as in real life, I am not alone. At least at this gym, for a few hours every week, I am seen and I am understood.

Everyone who walks into the gym is looking for an escape from the outside world. Yes, the same can be true of a yoga studio. But here, people are looking for a reprieve from the tangle of thoughts, emotions, and frustrations that is a necessary by-product of being alive through the action of hitting an inanimate punching bag over and over again. It’s a safe haven that allows a person to work through whatever they need to work through, surrounded by people doing the exact same thing. The particulars of each individual’s tangled mess is irrelevant; everyone has preoccupations, and the gym is our way to work through our shit. People who walk through the door are looking for the freedom of a few hours when socially acceptable constraints are no longer required. The punching bags become the recipient for every harsh word that was bitten back through the day, every slight that was received, every injustice, every worry. For a few hours, the world stops pushing, and we can push back as hard as we want, without any consequences. Bliss.

“I’m so glad you are part of my family”

It feels good to not feel alone. It feels good to have a family.

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Phase 5 feels like accountability

On Monday I had a series of doctors appointments.

I got bitched out by a nurse at one point, “Oh, so you know about the importance of exercise when it comes to mental health? Yet you are only exercising 1x a week? I see. And you know about the link of sugar and carbs on someone with your condition? Yet you tell me at least 20%-50% of your diet is processed carbs? Okay. Well. You should know that many therapists in the private sector refuse to take on mental health patients until the basics have been handled. You are very lucky that your GP has put you into the public healthcare stream. (*)”

Thanks for that, lady. Really, you are gonna give my sick brain ammunition to help it convince me that this is all my own fault? That if I just tried harder, I wouldn’t be in this mess, I wouldn’t be so unhappy? Only thoughts that spin through my head everysecondofeveryday, you, as a health care professional, you are gonna give credence to that corrosive narrative? Merci beaucoup. I needed that. On top of me having to handle my sick brain, you are now gonna suggest this is, at least partially, my own fault? Fan-fucking-tastic. It wasn’t hard enough already. News flash: If I am only working out 1x a week, it is because I can’t get my shit together to workout more often, despite knowing how much good it does me.

In the moment, I was too stunned to respond. I was angry, very very angry, but didn’t want to make a scene. Finished my appointments. Made it to the office 3 hours later than expected, cried from stress the entire commute at the office, cried when my boss asked me if I was ok, cried when my GAB gave me a cookie she’d set aside for me to make sure our coworkers didn’t eat everything before I got in. Worked for 3-4 hours, went home, and cried some more.

Yes, I know about diet and nutrition. They are the staples of my toolbox. As I wrote back in June 2016, all still true except for the Concerta which I’ve updated:

  • Concerta. For my ADD, but it is also an upper, and since going back on it since Feb, I’ve noticed a sight moderation in the potency of my mood swings.
  • Exercise. My therapist told me to never go more than 2 days without exercising – to view it as seriously as medication, that without it I would eventually need to medicate my brain’s inability to keep my emotions in check. Funny that when I need exercise the most, I feel like doing it the least. I get paralyzed by all that I have to do at work, and working out feels like a vanity. I blink, and 3 hours have gone by with nothing to show for it other than crippling anxiety about my unproductivity, and I stay late at the office to try make up for it, and skip my workout.
  • Diet. A well regulated diet, without too much sugar, helps keep my mood swings at bay. Like any female, anywhere, when I am emotional, I live off of bread, chocolate, and alcohol. Not because that is healthy, but because my soul demands it in exchange for not burning the world to the ground.
  • Friends. When I get into my funk, the last thing I want to do is to inflict my moodiness on any of my friends – besides, they are all so busy with their lives, they don’t have time for this.
  • Writing. I have writer’s block.
  • Sleep. Anxiety takes care of that, real good. I flip-flop between insomnia and overwhelming fatigue, and needing 12 hours a night.

Tuesday morning, late for work, but I packed my gym bag. Made it to the gym. Coach was very surprised to see me, because my weekly visit to the gym has typically been on Saturdays, if at all. I told him, outraged, the nurse’s comments. “Now that’s a lady who gets shit done. Yes! She did! I mean, you are here, aren’t you?! When was the last time you were here on a Tuesday. What’s that? November 2017? I thought so. She got shit done, alright. She played you just right.”

Coach, y’all. I love him, but damn, does he ever piss me off sometimes.

I renewed my membership on Tuesday. I made it to the gym on Thursday. 200% improvement. Coach smiled. He remains, as ever, Coach, the puppeteer.

So yeah. Apparently Imma be working out a helluva more often now. Time to try beat this shadow to the ground.

(*) “lucky” is a very relative term. The public healthcare system in Quebec is free (don’t get me started on our taxation model). And like in all things, what you pay is what you get. A waiting list of 6 months to see a psychiatrist because I am not deemed an emergency, since I am still employed and don’t have any physical self-harm tendencies.


Recap of this recent battle with depression:

5 years ago my life changed

Anniversaries. I’m not the best at taking the time to celebrate those people and moments that matter. I forget, caught up in the current of every day triviality.


May 2012: I blew out my knee in kickboxing. Diagnosis: crutches and cane for 3 months + 9-months of daily physio to recover, with the possibility I’d never kickbox again. My identity as a cripple: confirmed.

July 2012: my mother died in her sleep. The depression I’d been fighting off since summer 2011 exploded with full force. I was a broken person. Drifting from day to day in a fog of misery.

Fall 2012: Superwoman suggested that I join the boxing gym she’d just discovered. It would allow me to work on my boxing skills, avoid losing too much of my fitness, keep me distracted through the long months of physio and rehab. I agreed to show up for one class. Limping down the staircase, hearing the sounds of the ring bell, the thuds of the punching bags, and the coolest trap music I’d ever heard, I felt like I was coming home – odd, considering that this was an environment in which I, crippled vanilla AF nerdy accountant, did not belong.

For the first year or so, I trained with Coach’s younger brother Slick, a pro-boxer and a coach in his own right. Slick did not have the time to impart much boxing knowledge on me, because he spent all his time trying to get me to work on my mental and emotional state. We didn’t use the word “depression”, but he could see I was not well. He made me do pushups every time I said something negative or mean about myself, even if it was funny. He encouraged me to read James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh:

“Doubt and fear are the great enemies of knowledge, and he who encourages them, who does not slay them, thwarts himself at every step.”

“Men imagine that thought can be kept secret, but it cannot; it rapidly crystallizes into habit, and habit solidifies into circumstance.”

“As the physically weak man can make himself strong by careful and patient training, so the man of weak thoughts, can make them strong by exercising himself in right thinking.”

Slick turned my whole worldview upside down. 2 years later, when I started therapy, I chose an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: “guided by empirical research, CBT focuses on the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems and changing unhelpful patterns in cognitions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes), behaviors, and emotional regulation.”


By late 2013, I joined Coach’s team. In 2014, I fought my first fights.

In August 2014, I slid into the most terrifying depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Overnight, I transformed from a fighter into a fragile girl who would cry for 3-5 hours a day. Coach didn’t understand, but he could see. Scary Coach became Gentle Coach. The team accepted my quirks, and continued to cheer me on every time I stepped into the ring. They didn’t know the particulars of my struggle, but they could recognize someone fighting the good fight of life.

Boxing is an unforgiving sport. By stepping into the ring, every boxer tacitly accepts to show their true self to their opponent, coach and whoever is watching. You can’t mask cowardice or fake bravery when getting punched in the head. Every hesitation, fear, bluster and cockiness is blatantly obvious to anyone who watches. There IS no socially constructed mask to hide behind. To step into the ring, every boxer, no matter their level of experience and proficiency, has to be willing to be vulnerable, and to be seen. As such, I’ve noticed that most people at the gym don’t cling so tightly to their social personas – there is no point, when we’ve all seen their true colors in the ring. As a result, everyone is more authentic at the gym than they otherwise might be. Vulnerability + authenticity = key ingredients for friendship.

By the end of 2015, I knew. These people were family.


2016. A transition year. I joined Coach’s new project, weight-lifting and conditioning designed for athletes, specifically boxers. The immediate benefits were weight-loss and a changed body shape. For the first time in my life, in my 30s, I wondered: maybe, sometimes, I might be beautiful, possibly sexy. For someone who struggled with eating disorders (binge-eating until I was nauseous and abusing laxatives) during my late teens and my twenties, the gradual silencing of the vicious body-shaming voices in my head was an unexpected liberation.

Even better? Thanks to Coach’s extensive knowledge, patience and careful coaching, I shed, permanently, the lifelong identity of a cripple, of inhabiting a body that betrays me. I am athletic. I used to be embarrassed to admit I boxed, as though somehow associating myself – me – with that sport was arrogant. Not anymore. I was a boxer.

I understood what life lessons this sport was teaching me. It taught me that I can take a hit and still keep moving forward. It taught me that I can fight back. It taught me to own all of who I am: sweet Vanilla and angry Vanilla. It taught me that who and what I am is worth fighting for. It taught me not to wait for any saviors: I alone dictate my destiny, through my actions.

I understood why I needed to move onto dancing. Saying goodbye to this sport was hard, but necessary.

I kept training with Coach (aka Dr. Booté). I kept partying with my boxing peeps, with hilarious results (please refer to exhibit A and exhibit B). The friendships are still strong.


2017. This year was hard. Life, my shadow, got in the way of my joy. I drifted from the gym. But when things got too confusing, too overwhelming, like a homing pigeon, I made my way back. Sure enough, Coach and my crew were waiting for me.


How do you celebrate a place that has shaped my very identity, freed me of decade-long insecurities, given me deep and constant friendships, keeps me sane, gives me the tools to face life as an adult?

How do you celebrate family?

#udnation

#udfamily

 

 

The D has arrived

Update on my funk/shadow situation: I’m ok-ish. Not getting worse or better, just meh. Treading water. I appear functional to the outsider: I make it to work every day, I am mostly delivering on my projects, I smile, laugh and occasionally have a sense of humor. But there is a huge cost to appearing so normal: I am permanently exhausted, my concentration is nowhere where it should be, I’m apathetic about my career, friends, blogging and dancing. I require a lot of naps and time-outs. But I know that as long as I am patient and persistent, eventually this cloud of grey through which I see the world will fade, and bit by bit the colors of the world will reappear. In the past, I used to feel shame of how I was wasting my life, drifting aimlessly. Now, I understand that this is the cost of depression: delayed career goals due to unrealized potential, strained friendships, and loneliness because I am in no state to meet anyone, practice vulnerability, and take risks. It is too bad, it is slightly unfair, but the Universe loves to dish out shit to everyone, and this is my particular cross to bear. There is no point feeling shame, or beating myself up. I am trying my best, I refuse to give up on the dream of one day achieving happiness, and that tenacity is something I should be proud of.

Part of taking care of myself has involves training at my boxing gym with Coach aka Dr. Booté. The vibe and the friendships run deep. One of these friendships is with TooWhite, a mini-me: with skin that is blinding in its whiteness, she is a 25 yr old kickass smart accountant that struggles with similar insecurities to mine. I feel very protective towards her, like a mentor professionally and personally. Yet she can squat 250lbs, has the best taste in trap music ever and is infinitely cooler than I will ever be. My little gym-bae. Soon after resuming regular training at the gym in August, I texted TooWhite admitting how much I’d missed the gym & Coach.

Isn’t she the cutest? She’s the cutest. #squad

The past 2 weeks have been very hectic, causing me to miss 2 workouts because of Canadian Thanksgiving and because I had another show on Thursday night. I missed my dose of TooWhite. When I showed up to the gym on Saturday, at the front desk was one of TooWhite’s close friends, J-dawg (he’s badass by association). Even though I’d had two coffees at that point, my brain clearly was not awake:

Hey! Long time no see! Is TooWhite already here? Yeah? She is! Sweet. Imma go get changed, but meanwhile can you tell her her D has arrived?

J-dawg blinked. I realized what I had just said. I stammered an explanation, “I’m her D, as in the letter, not as in the male genital, because you know, I’m a woman and all, and even if I wasn’t I would be broadcasting the intimate nature of our relationship, if any. D as in #squad, oh god, I’m not making this better, am I?” TooWhite’s friend solemnly promised me he’d pass along the message. When I strolled into the weight-lifting room 3 minutes later, I found him & TooWhite uncontrollably giggling. I’m a walking eggplant emoji, apparently.

#squaD

Recap of various vanilla Vanilla highlights at the gym:

When a post about toolboxes turns into a post about constipation

Step 1 to fighting my shadow is always going back to Coach and his workouts at the gym. His nick-name is Dr. Booté (as explained here and here) because he is “good for the booty and good for the soul.” Which is 100% true. How many ppl do you know who have this much fun while suffering?

 

I went once last week. I felt immediately more stable. That gym tho. It truly is a remarkable place. A safe haven.

I went on Tuesday, where we lifted very heavy shit, and did a circuit to end all circuits.

I went yesterday. I had a knot in my left thigh. Coach massaged it, I did squats, and felt a 2nd knot forming. By the end of the workout (which included another circuit to end all circuits – Coach is extremely creative in his methods to make us suffer and sweat!), I was pretty sure my leg had transformed itself into one giant knot. No muscle, no fat, no bone, just knot. Today, I woke up and apparently I’ve put on 5lbs overnight: water retention, my body’s usual reaction to brutal workouts as it attempts to heal itself. Also? I’ve been constipated for the past 3 days, my body’s usual reaction to extreme stress. Am I stressed at work? Yeah kinda, but really? my body is stressed because IT THINKS I AM DYING FROM BRUTAL PHYSICAL ASSAULT.

Who said going to the gym was good for you? I am a bloated, constipated cripple.

Yet…

I really do feel better. While I’ve been abiding by my therapist’s orders to move almost every day for at least 30mins, bc of all my dancing, I now realize that isn’t enough. I need the next level release of endorphins which come from Coach’s brutal workouts. The fact that those workouts come with friends and a lot of laughter? Can’t hurt. Except for the extreme muscle soreness. That part hurts a lot.

So yeah. My body feels like it has the flu, but my mind feels better.

Also? I discovered adult coloring books.

 

My shadow is a worthy opponent, but it ain’t gonna beat me this time. Coach + coloring books. I’m all set, apparently.

Now about this constipation… How can I convince my body I am not dying, I put myself through those hellfire workouts on purpose?

#thestruggleisreal

 

That time I didn’t go to Italy

Teacher. I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about him: a mix of horrified fascination, admiration and friendship. He has the knack of inspiring loyalty amongst his students even as the ones that have known him for years confess to a frequent desire to punch him in the solar plexus. Seems about right.

Much can be forgiven in a man that has all of the moves, and dances for dancing’s sake. Where Teacher goes, people follow, because he is sure to spread laughter and the contagious joy of dancing.

He makes me shake my head in amazement, often.

Exhibit A: an international wake-up call

I got an unexpected call from Teacher this morning. He is at some dance festival in Italy, with his dance partner and one of his best friends (a brilliant dancer and DJ). Teacher had been looking forward to this festival. So why on earth was he calling me at 7am on a Saturday? Groggily, I picked up.

Vanilla, these niggas tried to start a fight with me. Yo man, I’m so pissed right now. That’s not nice, what they did. That’s not nice. Why?! I dunno, they tried to fuck with the wrong nigga, thinking I’m all soft. Who? These niggas, I told you. No no, I’m ok, I’m fine, you don’t have to get on a plane and come here and box the shit out of them.

Oh I don’t?! Good he mentioned that just in time, of course I was half way out the door, toothbrush and passport in hand. Vanilla the boxing bodyguard, that’s me.

He hung up shortly after that, without telling me who or why. I haven’t heard from him since. In normal circumstances, with normal people, I would be wretched with worry. With Teacher, I am resigned to the fact that there is a 25% chance he will end up in an Italian jail, a 25% chance “those niggas” will end up in an Italian jail while Teacher is praised in all the newspapers as a local hero, and a 50% chance that in 3 weeks time I will stumble on some pic on Facebook of Teacher hugging and laughing with those dudes with not a care in the world, because they are actually cool people and “it was just a misunderstanding”.


I shared this story with Coach, who loves a good laugh. Specifically the part where I’ve now learned that the appropriate reaction to being woken up at 7am bc my friend got into an almost-fight overseas is to say “Stay put, imma be right over in about 9-12 hours and then I will fuck shit up.”

Coach shook his head, and then commented innocently, “Yes, Teacher is a rather passionate guy.” Ya think?! But then again… That time I got mugged, Coach promised to hunt the guys down and give them a “talking-to”. I am wondering if this is a bit of a cultural thing; demonstrating honor and loyalty to one’s friends in hyperbolic phrasing of grand gestures that don’t necessarily need to materialize.

You don’t have to get on a plane and come here and box the shit out of them.

P.S. I did say that Coach knows all the black people in Montreal, yeah? Further evidence. Of course, Coach knows Teacher. I should have known.

 

My street cred: I am so smrt

I woke up with a bad headache, which progressively worsened throughout the day. A hangover, really?! I didn’t drink THAT much last night. Some beer with supper, a glass of wine at my friend’s bday and a splash of delightful 15 year Guyanese rum. Must be the rum. Those bastards. I launched the emergency recovery procedures – a hangover on Monday is pretty shameful, gotta be productive, yo! I hydrated myself. Ate greasy, carby food. By 3pm, I’d maxed out my Advil consumption for the day.

I was really perplexed by this hangover sitch. Could it be old age? My bday is in 2 months and 10 days, one year closer to becoming a senior citizen. At one of my many bathroom breaks, the consequence of my diligent hydration policy, I noticed a smudge under my chin. Tried to rub it away, except it wouldn’t fade.

And that is when I understood. Not a hangover. No.

A mild concussion.


I went to the gym on Saturday. First time since March 2nd. Such a happy reunion with Coach and my crew. We skipped happily about in a circle, holding hands, in blissful companionship. Except really, we did burpees and bear walks, and Coach laughed at all our swearing and sweaty misery. Same thing.

During the warm-up set for our work-out of jerks (not the male variety; the lift), I boasted how 65lbs was too light a weight, “I’ve been gone for 5 weeks and look at that: no loss in strength. I’m AWESOME. I’m an AMAZON. BEAST MODE ON!!!!” And immediately rammed the barbell straight up into my chin, full-speed at max acceleration. I saw stars, felt my brain bounce back and forth in my skull and dropped the bar.

Coach, unperturbed, watched me and asked me kindly to refrain from killing myself on my first day back, “10 years I’ve owned this gym. Not one death. Please, Vanilla, brain-damage only, that’s to be expected in a boxing gym. But I’d rather not find out what my insurance policy covers with regards to client self-inflicted loss of life.”

I finished the workout, despite my swollen jaw, and the red bruise under my chin. Complained of a headache, like the ones I used to get after sparring.

I drank the whole weekend.

Spent all day today staring at a computer screen.

At no point did I connect the dots, and realize this was worse than getting a clean, brutal uppercut to the jaw, and with my history of (mild) boxing concussions, my grey matter is rather sensitive to getting bruised. Instead I did 100% of the things doctors tell you not to do when concussed. Woohoo!!! Brain damage for the win!!!!

Part of me is relieved that I am not allergic to delicious Guyanese rum. That would have been a real tragedy.


I tried to take a selfie, for the blog, to prove the extent of the jaw bruise (it has spread in size since Sat. In the next 48 hours, it will develop a charming yellow hue, sexy zombie-style). I failed. So I slapped on a filter to my pic, and behold, my artistic failed selfie:

Kim Kardashian would be so impressed with my selfie skills, I just know it. DUCK FACE!!!!

FYI – I’ve a history of breaking parts of my body: