[This post includes candid discussion about physical violence (specifically being punched in boxing), and depression]
Have you ever been in a fight? A real fight? Have you been hit in the face?
I bet more than a few of you have; probably worse than me. My brother and I used to talk about fights. Had we ever been in a real fight before? No. Scraps? Yeah, kind of. We talked about how we’d perform. About how you don’t know how you’d do. How you think you’d do well. But how you just don’t know. I said, I have a reservation to hurt someone. Or maybe I said, most people would have a reservation to hurt me.
I started going to boxing classes in Minneapolis sometime in my 20’s. I loved the classes, loved learning about the sport. I was fascinated by the technique of it. As a kid, I was in a jujitsu based martial arts program for ten years. That, too, was focused on technique, on craft. This karate was not the kind where you belt up and up to a black belt in a year or a couple years. After ten years of work and tests and technique I was one level below black belt. I’ll go back and finish that one day. Maybe I’ll have to start again at the bottom. In a way, I’d like that.
Boxing was attractive to me because it was a whole new set of techniques, of skills. Of things to teach your body. Balance this way, move like this. Create the dance and flow of inertia that lends towards this power flowing through your fist. I am not great at it. In fact I’m not great at much, but I’m stubborn. I dig in. And I practice. I like the practice.
The classes in Minneapolis were overwhelming though; full of enthusiastic hipsters, never the same folks twice. Queer people who I wanted to know but never had the courage to. I hated my body, and the classes became tied up in all of that meaning and anxiety. I’d get physically sick before attending. It became harder and harder to make myself go.
Then, at the ripe old age of 30– or was it 29?– I moved back to Wasilla. I intended to start my kennel, but I moved in with my parents to save money and to ground myself and pick a direction. And I found a little boxing gym.
Little was the operative word. It was called “Mark’s Boxing Gym” and it was exactly what it purported to be. It was a boxing gym owned and run by a guy named Mark, and that was that. The floor of the gym was smaller than my current kitchen and living room combined. There was a ring, and bags, and a space to stretch. Mark had things tucked cleverly away. Here a weight bench he could pull out as needed; here a free hanging heavy bag he could orient to the middle of the ring for different bag work. Two large speakers, perpetually blasting terrible screamy music that was popular when I was in high school (I only ever recognized Lincoln Park), and a timer running three minutes on, thirty seconds off, three minutes on, thirty seconds off, ticking away with comforting certainty. You can do anything for ten seconds. You can do anything for thirty seconds. You can do anything for three minutes.
Mark worked with every boxer one-on-one. The setup was consistent, understandable. Predictable. It was good for me. My anxiety sloughed off like snow melting from a roof. I grew confident. I grew sure.
This is the time that I began to be hit in the face.
That’s a good thing. You have to learn that in boxing. I was one of only a few women at the gym, and when I started sparring I was the only woman in the ring. Shorter than everyone there by half. I don’t remember them all. There was a 16- or 17-year-old boy there named Canyon. He was sweet and shy and chubby. Long, curly red hair in a pony tail, and glasses. A dorky, sweet guy. He weighed more than 200 lbs. I don’t know. Maybe 250. He was a giant.
There was another guy named Wade. Not as tall or large as Canyon, but ripped. The kind of arms that look like flexing trees: too big around to make sense.
And there was Mark; a small guy, but built. He’s won body building contests, and he’s boxed forever. He’s a great teacher. I loved working with him.
Mark is who I sparred with first. He starts people off slow, carefully, boxing in slow motion. Tapping your face guard when you don’t slip the right way. He speeds you up little by little. But it’s gentle, careful. Getting you ready for the feeling of it. And the exhaustion of three minutes in the ring.
Then you spar with someone else, in the ring, for real, for the first time.
The guys always wanted to be gentle with me. So they’d hold back. But I didn’t. The first times I fought them, they’d go easy. And then I’d hit them in the face. And they all shared this universal look of surprise like: Oh this person isn’t playing. And their chivalrous reservation fell away, and because I am slow and mainly good at blocking punches with my face, they’d hit me.
Getting hit in the face is a strange experience.
We always wore face guards, but it still hurts.
It’s surprising how much it hurts. It almost always makes me laugh. It’s such a shock.
It’s been a while since I’ve sparred or fought. My memory of being hit is vague, like I’m looking at it through a sheet of gauze. But what I remember is my reaction. The surprise of it. How you realize right then that yes your head is part of your body and your body exists. That you are real and in space and in pain. It hurts being hit in the face. Your head swims. Your eyes water. It is the epitome of… shock. Shock is such a good word for it. Onomatopoetic. First the rush of air as the fist comes to you. Moving in a way you are not trained to expect, that has not happened before. Then the contact, the open O of surprise as the world alters because physics are congealing around your face and nerves you never knew you had are signaling red alert. Then the bones, the skull, the neck, as they move and shake and crack backwards. Shock.
First there is pain. And then there is, after a moment of delay, my reaction. Whether it’s machismo or some more innate thing, being hit in the face does not scare me in the moments after. In fact, it ought to scare me more. Instead, it’s like all the pain pops out of being, and instead, I am propelled. To action. To reaction. It gives me… A deep joy. The joy of digging in.
In sparring we always wore headgear, but for my first fight, my head was bare. It was a fight against a girl, the first time I’d really fought a girl. I was sexistly uncomfortable. I didn’t want to hit her. She had no reservation at all. She came at me, screaming. I danced away, surprised. And then, easily enough, she caught me, because I am slow and the best thing I do in boxing is block punches with my face. And she hit me. Bare headed, my cheek collided with her angry fist. The pain of being hit, but unmitigated by foam or structure. A real hit.
It hurt; and it was a small hit, compared to Canyon’s pounding fists, or Wade’s muscled shots, or Mark’s stinging precision. Or any of the other guys I’d fought week after week. She hit me on the cheek and I laughed in her face.
Mark says I have “a chin.” Like Rocky. I can take a lot of hits to the face. I barely bruise. I’ve gotten hit in the nose (never broken, at least not yet), and I’ve never gotten a nosebleed. I finally got a black eye in my second fight. I was inordinately proud of it.
Later I realized how stupid it was to keep taking all those blows. Later I finally accepted that being concussed on repeat every Sunday afternoon was a bad plan.
It’s not that I liked being hit. Being hit hurts. It hurts then, it hurts the next day. It screwed up my focus and made me nauseous and tender in the face, and the shock of it isn’t nice. It isn’t a good shock. The fierce joy I got from it was the joy of opposition. But the hitting wasn’t good so much. It wasn’t… nice. It’s funny, I feel such nostalgia about it. I think it might be more about the movement of boxing, the joy of technique. When you execute a hook right, when your body becomes fulcrum and lever and momentum– There is a syncing with the universe that is good and whole.
I know that if– when– I go back to boxing, I have to do better to not be hit so much in the face. If nothing else, because I know it’s costing me time, life, ticking away little bits and pieces of myself.
Anyway, all of this was supposed to be about how much it sucks to get hit. How much it hurts and how much it surprises you. How it happens in the slowest of motion, but cannot be stopped once it starts.
And the reason this is supposed to be about that, is because sometimes, in the very depths of my worst brain, depression is a punch. A hit to the face. A slow blow, where you feel the disintegration of muscle and the screaming of nerves under a crushing fist. Where your head snaps back and you can tell the vertebrae of your neck are misaligned.
Though I’ve had it for years on years, it’s always such a shock, when I come to this low place. Such a horrible blow.
And then I guess tomorrow, or next week, or next month, when the slow motion equal and opposite actions conclude their movements, their dances, the glancing, shuddering collision– When I come out of the lowest part of this mental disease– Maybe then I’ll laugh. And slip and duck my way around the next one, or not. I’ve never been good at moving my head. The best thing I do in life is block punches with my face.
This was supposed to be about my sled. Last weekend we went on a mush, part of a camping run. On the way back during our second run, the bottom of my sled (the basket) hit a stump and the plastic exploded in pieces on the trail. I haven’t had the chance to go pick them up. When your team gets ahead of a thing, you have to move on. No going behind the sled. I had to foreshorten our planned expedition, a three legged camping trip. Instead that run concluded the camp. I felt terrible about it. Was I being selfish? Could I run with the broken sled? Was I just tired? I was tired. All of my confidence easing back to anxiety, back to doubt.
I brought my sled in, intended to fix it.
And the truth of this week is, depression arrived and we squared off and the timer dinged. And I went out with my fists up, but not up enough, and it hit me, in the face. Not once. But a rain of blows. The cycle where you get hit over and over and you can’t stop it, can’t get your hands up, can’t break away. Your coach and your loved ones around the ring, yelling at you to get out of the corner, to slip, to duck, to move.
I’m waiting out the three minutes, a long three minutes. Interminable. All I can seem to do in this time is endure. Keep going. Have a chin. Accept these blows to my face, over and over. “Get your hands up!” Get your hands up. Metaphorically, I’m not sure what that is. I have my meds. My people. My dogs. Sometimes depression just gets through. Just whales on you.
I haven’t been able to mush. And it’s a bad cycle. Because that more than anything makes me feel awful. I’m letting the dogs down. I’m failing.
I don’t want consolation or comments or solutions– I’m not asking for that. I know a lot of folks deal with this. I’m not the only one who’s been in a fight. I’m just acknowledging what is so for me right now. And what is so is that I’m getting my ass kicked at the moment.
Sometimes that happens.
My first fight, I lost, by judgement. I couldn’t knock the girl out. I didn’t want to. I lost but I looked a lot better at the end of the fight. It’s weird to say that. I am not proud to hurt someone else. But I’m proud of the skills and the technique.
My second fight, I won.
In sparring, sometimes there’s a blow that’s so bad your eyes go white and full of stars. And sometimes I’d be so frustrated with myself, I’d go red in the face, tears at the corners of my eyes. I hated those moments. But I didn’t stop. I dug in. Presented that chin. And I’d make it to the end of the round.
And if that’s all you can do, that’s all you can do. Keep your hands up, protect yourself. Wait. Dig. The three minutes will end. Things will change. Maybe just for thirty seconds, but there will be relief. A moment to re-gather.
I’ve had my two minutes of taking the pounding of this brain chemistry. And my thirty seconds of deep breath.
And now I’m going mushing, damnit.
Come on, depression. Round 2.