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?