I leap from right to left, forearms blocking my head. As I do my best imitation of a boxer stance, I hope for sweat to materialize on my brow.
"Picture someone you hate!" the coach shouts. A man I dated last summer flashes in front of me. I take another swing. "You've got a good reach," she assures me.
I never imagined a fistfight would help me battle depression. I was that kid in gym class who walked around the running track with the smokers and the fat kids. But after trying numerous therapists, the best turned out to be my boxing coach.
"You're young, attractive, smart, funny, but you lack confidence," my first shrink told me. She enjoyed anecdotes as much as theorizing. She told me stories about her son and his friends. From time to time, she asked questions about my life, too. Her solution was to leave town and run away from my problems.
After that, I avoided therapy. But running away didn't help. A few years later, I saw another counsellor who began by asking what I wanted from our sessions. I told her. We talked, but never about what I wanted. Describing my desire to smash all the porcelain at my summer catering job seemed off limits. A co-worker had made unwanted passes at me, later inventing stories for the entire crew of our steamy romance on the beach.
That job was the first time I discovered the cathartic power of boxing. A friend voluntarily doubled as my punching bag. He even gave me tips about my follow-through.
My therapist preferred passive aggression. "Maybe you'd like to think about seeing another counsellor," she proposed.
I found a different shrink. I told him about my difficulty forming meaningful relationships. "Friendships aren't worthwhile if there isn't intimacy," I said.
"Sounds like you're confused about the boundaries in relationships," he said. I felt like some book he'd never read. It was the first and last time we spoke.
Finally, I found what I was looking for. Walking into the huge warehouse, I followed a maze of corridors before coming to a room with punching bags at one end. There was a boxing ring on the right. Weights were stashed near the door next to a rowing machine. At the far left was an empty area facing the mirrors. The walls were plastered with posters for movies like Girlfight and Million Dollar Baby. This was the home of Toronto Newsgirls, an all-girl boxing club.
Wandering around like a lost kitten I felt intimidated, but the coach and owner came up to me with a smile. "Hi, I'm Savoy," she said.
"I came to see what this is all about," I said.
"Have a look around. Play with some of the toys if you feel inspired."
A journalist in a boxing club, I started reading an article plastered on the wall. A trainer approached me asking if I wanted to have a go. She meant skip-rope jumping.
I hadn't picked up a skip rope in 15 years. I took off my boots and started skipping in my socks, wool sweater and jeans.
Then came the ab workout. The exercises had names like plank and superwoman. They all hurt. Each crunch felt like a punch in the gut. Good practice for boxers, I guess.
Maybe the problem is I don't have any guts. "You lack confidence," said the therapist in my head. I punched her lights out. The buzzer went off. I wanted to lie down. But I didn't.
Savoy found me in pain at the end of round three. "Come here," she said. We walked over to the mirrors. "Now do your best impression of a boxer."
I jabbed around in the dark, afraid to look in the mirror. With every strike I felt like an idiot. But I was hooked. The road to confidence passes through humiliation, I told myself.
I moved on to the punching bags. Therapist number three didn't know what hit him. By the time I was done my knuckles were bloody. A woman approached me, asking, "How's it going?" I showed her my hands. "You should be hitting with these knuckles up here," she said, pointing to the set closest to her wrist.
After two hours I was pumped. I wanted to jog all the way home. Two girls from the gym helped me find my way out of the warehouse. One introduced herself as Trigger. Every girl at the club has a boxing name. Savoy asked me to start thinking of mine.
"I guess if we didn't scare you away after the first time, you're here to stay," Trigger said as I walked in for my second class.
"Have you thought of your boxing name yet?" Savoy asked. She doesn't know how to be passive aggressive.
"I'll come up with something," I said.
"Well, what do you do?"
I told her. "Hmm ... what's scary about journalism?" she asked.
"The truth," I said.
"What's your last name?"
"Well, we've already got a Wolfie. What about Carmelle 'The Truth Hurts' Wolfson?"
I used to be immobilized by fear. Now I face it head on every time I step into the ring. The pain after a night at the club is immense. But so, too, is my sense of accomplishment. There's a pair of boxing gloves in my day timer where my therapist used to be.
Carmelle Wolfson lives in