It all started with Billy Blanks. As an unco-ordinated and rather rotund teen, I chopped at the air in time to Billy’s Tae Bo videos. Sloppy roundhouse kicks, scared pets, toes stubbed on furniture – in hindsight, this forecast my inauspicious boxing career.
While I was doing my PhD in psychology, I joined a gritty boxing gym in San Diego. Initially I boxed to stay fit, but as the years passed, my relationship with boxing became more complex.
Boxing was a release that helped me cope with the anger and sadness of losing my father. It eventually became more of a meditation – the ring a sanctuary where I had to step outside my mind, cluttered with therapy cases, and my own existential angst.
It was also an arena in which I forged some life-long friendships with an extraordinarily interesting group of people, ranging from ministers to criminals. This is not to say that I was an exceptional boxer. I was a slow study and a frustration to many, none more so than myself. One coach joked that I was like a gas-guzzling SUV – inefficiently using force and determination instead of strategy or finesse. It dawned on me that I was sometimes prone to navigating like a miniature monster truck outside the ring as well.
The bullishness that defined my boxing style also propelled me to plow forward despite my body telling me otherwise. This is an embarrassing confession for a psychologist who urges her clients to attend to their own self-care. It has taken having two concussions, three days apart, to put a practical end to my love affair with pugilism.
Last fall, after nine years of training, I agreed to my first and only amateur sanctioned fight. I had planned a trip to San Diego a week prior to the bout, and spent some time there training with my former coach, James. A boxer, 16 years my junior, needed some practice with a southpaw, and a sparring session was arranged.
Stephanie had grace and a seeming innate talent and lightness. Her punches were not light, however. I walked directly into her straight right and dropped immediately to my knees. She helped me to my feet with tenderness and concern. I tried to “shake it off” but felt blood running down my face and was frankly amazed that my legs had somehow disappeared from under me. James used his T-shirt to stop my nosebleed, gave me a pat on the back and said, “Get back in there, mama.” We went two more rounds.
A crowd had collected to watch us spar. People clapped afterward and came to shake my hand. Unfortunately, I was too discombobulated to fully appreciate my fleeting minutes of fame. Later that evening, my grandiosity fizzled into a sense of disquiet, as my eyes refused to focus and I felt agitated and unwell. I remember thinking on the plane back to Toronto, Just get through the fight, win or lose, and then you can take it off the list; it’s already planned, and this could be your only chance. I refused to let my coach, opponent or myself down. In hindsight, I don’t think I’ve ever let myself down so much.
I felt better on the day of the fight. My mantra as I approached the ring was, “Don’t get hurt.” My body seemed to sense the danger, though at the time I was not aware that if one has not fully recovered from a concussion, it takes much less force to cause a second and more serious one. After a disappointing performance and a second-place finish, I found myself concussed again.
I overheard the doctor calling me “Miss Anisocoria” during my overnight stay in the ER. My happiness at being called “miss” was dampened when I found out that anisocoria (uneven pupil size) was cause for concern. After I’d been prodded, angiogrammed, MRI’d, CAT-scanned, seen by a neurologist, ophthalmologist and a sports medicine doctor, it was finally concluded that the radiation I was receiving from scans was likely more deleterious to my health than whatever was going on with my pupils.
I was told that to get better, I needed to do as little as possible. Avoid stimulation, TV, reading; no exercise allowed. Don’t do and don’t think. A good friend used to joke that I would have to be netted and tranquilized in order to get me to sit still, and thinking and attending to people was my job, my passion and my source of income.
Initially, doing nothing was easy. I simply couldn’t withstand stimulation of any type. As time went on, doing very little became exasperating and my lack of Zen has likely had the most limiting effect on my recovery. The last five months have been a slow trajectory in terms of improvement, and despite the current social concern about concussions, I have felt alone and at times unable to articulate the nuanced changes I have experienced.
As I feel increasingly back in the game, in true psychologist form, I am trying to find meaning in the experience, to make lemonade from lemons. I realize that I am grieving the sport of boxing as much as I am grieving the five-month hiatus from my life.
I’m hanging up my gloves now, but I do so with an ever-growing appreciation of the life lessons that boxing, my coaches and my opponents tried to teach me.
Julie Goldenson lives in Toronto.