On boxing and bravery
When my brother Alex died my whole world went numb. Occasionally the numbness would retreat, and in it’s glaring and unprotected absence, I got mad. Not just kind of mad, but really seething angry. It’s hard to understand exactly how anger shows up in your life after someone close to you dies. Sometimes anger felt very familiar to me. Other times it appeared like a stranger on the doorstep of my broken life and stopped at nothing less than burning my entire house down. One thing is clear: Anger was a full assault on all my usual defenses. It was a fight of epic proportions that often times I didn't even know I was fighting. A fists up, back against the wall, teeth bared fight. Except it was a fight I always lost. Every. Damn. Time. On the inside, I felt about as confident as a wet noodle, and in order to survive I had to find a way to throw myself up against the physical wall of reality in hopes of finding something stable to stick to. The bad news was that I knew, deep down, wet noodles rarely win. They get devoured.
Anger was something I dealt with every waking moment for a long time but felt like I could never show to the world “out there.” Anger is ugly. No one likes to be friends with an angry person. So I hid. I erected a shabby facade whose mouth said, "Sure! I’d love to meet with you on Thursday to follow up. Gonna be awesome. Totes exciiiiited.” <jazz hands!> But whose heart said, “Fuck-you-you-fucking-fuck my brother is dead and can’t you see that none of your fucking bullshit actually matters to me.”
Wet noodle. Thrown. Stuck. Picked off. Devoured.
Anger is sneaky. It seems obvious now, but I didn’t recognize it was even there, I didn’t recognize myself in it, and I certainly couldn't identify how my typically peace-loving personality could harbor this level of rage. I blamed others for the grief I felt boiling beneath every skin cell. I became more and more frustrated. Everything that once helped me cope with my daily existence didn’t work anymore. I was incredibly bored and even more tired. All. The. Time. I was annoyed that my go-to-feel-better music and movies and workouts somehow didn’t actually make me feel any better. They made things worse. This made me even more upset. Work was unsatisfying. Home was lonely. I was irritated that I didn’t have answers. All I knew for sure was that the world just wasn't working for me anymore.
I was convinced that the reason I felt this was because I just hadn't found the right way to fight it. I should try something new! Find a new routine. Move somewhere I've never been before. Find new friends. Find new hobbies. Someone suggested that I try boxing. "What a great idea, friend!" ... <jazz hands> <eyeroll> <fuck you>
I signed up anyway.
I started boxing not because I was particularly interested in it, or because I thought it was actually going to help anything. Honestly, I started boxing so this friend would stop talking to me about it. But deep down, I just wanted something - anything - that would make things better. Something that would just make life feel normal again.
And God... That’s when I realized how great it felt to wake up and hit the shit out of something.
Every Monday morning, my trainer Sean would take every seething-anger-filled punch I could throw at him. He'd stand, look at me squarely in the eye, and tell me in no uncertain terms that what I was doing was hard, and that it was only going to get harder... And so... I just kept hitting things. Hard. In my weakest moments when I couldn’t lift my arms, and when my lungs felt they would explode from my chest; when I was cursing the invention of boxing and the stupid people who had decided to put a stupid boxing studio in this stupid gym in the first place; when my entire body ached and I had no earthly reason to keep going, Sean would pick my sweaty ass off the gym floor and tell me it was going to be okay.
So... I kept going.
When I was shaking from exhaustion, when my wrists buckled and when my punches fell short Sean took one look at my aching hands and told me that I was doing a good job. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, and just to keep me on my toes, he reminded me that this wasn't going to get any easier.
I would often leave my session, feeling physically exhausted, yet somehow vindicated and stronger to face the day. There were other days though, when I would just go to the locker room in my sweat soaked t-shirt, curl up on the bathroom floor, and sob. I couldn't tell you why I was crying. Oftentimes grief has nothing to say. Grief can't do anything. Grief just feels. I told myself to suck it up and pull yourself together. It's just boxing and you're crying on the fucking bathroom floor for Chrissake. Get up. Someone might see you.
What I couldn't express at the time was that there was nothing I needed more than someone who could see me. Someone who would recognize that things were hard, who would notice my broken frame and bruised knuckles and help me get back up and start over. Someone who would see through all my usual defenses and who would still be there even when I was balled up on the floor desperately trying to convince myself that things were totally fine. I needed someone to see that things were definitely not fine. And who would simply acknowledge the fact that that things were definitely not going to get any easier.
Until then, my whole life had been about fighting -- putting my fists up or elbows out towards a world and relationships that I assumed were going to beat the shit out of me. It was easy to hide behind the illusion of strength. Frankly, it is still my greatest defense in a world that hasn't worked out the way I thought it would.
But after Alex died, Sean's consistent presence and friendship started to teach me that I might not always need to fight; that I don't always need to be strong; that the bravest thing I could do would be to let someone come alongside in my struggle, actually believe them when they offer encouragement, and let them help me when I have no fight left. For all of these reasons, Monday mornings with Sean were my medicine. A shock to all my failing systems.
I am still working through the hurt of my brother's death… in small ways and big ways. Somedays I still curl up and cry. I have moments when I feel victorious and strong. More than ever though I seek out people who are willing to stand with me and who are ready to help pick my battered spirit up off of the floor when it falls flat. All of this helps me see that if I have the courage to let people in instead of fighting them off, I have the chance to find myself in a position receive their goodness and generosity. They help me remember that even in my strength, and despite my weakness, there are things more powerful than me. Broken things like death and anger, and beautiful things like love and friendship. And that all exist side by side. Together. At exactly the same time.
I stopped boxing a while ago. I am slowly figuring out what I am supposed to do when I am not fighting. I’ve started writing more. I’ve started talking more and trusting more. I’ve started asking people for help and letting people know I care about them. Sincerely without expectation. These are all horribly terrifying things for me. But I have started to catch short glimpses of times that seem hopeful and whole again. I can’t explain it, but they are the seconds that give me courage to keep going. To keep doing the work. And remind me to not be afraid.