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I’m All Out of Coping Mechanisms

Illustration:

Matt Keeshin

The consistent horror of the past few years left me feeling a bit lost to say the least. Emerging out of it all left me completely disoriented.

Whenever things got bad in life or in my head, art always served as my primary coping mechanism, allowing me to process complex emotions like failure, rejection, discrimination, and various forms of hate.

Growing up outside of Chicago with a cast of artists, writers, musicians, and architects in my family, countless mediums of art were intertwined with the mess of living and working to get by. Finding ways to engage with cinema, paintings, food, and literature were all healthy processes for gnarly emotions. Lockdown during ‘Peak Covid’ was one long art therapy session for me, filling sketchbooks with drawings referencing dive bars I missed and famous boxers I idolized in between a steady diet of whiskey cocktails and push ups. Maybe not the healthiest option, but that’s what got me through it.

By 2023, those coping mechanisms weren’t working. All the walking, biking, working out, streaming services, meditating, horoscopes, and self-help ‘literature’ weren’t cutting it. Now, enter the best friend, boxing, and a terrifying (exciting?) proposal: join a fight club.

I had been on and off doing boxing classes at Overthrow Boxing for the past several years, but those were of the ‘more burpees, less hitting people’ variety. I struggled with the basics like counting, breathing, and any punching combinations. But still, she pointed out that if I didn’t sign up for the actual fight club at the gym, I’d get jealous of how good she’d get. This was true, and the last minute decision to spar with strangers seemed like the right move at the time (that and starting therapy). Training began the next day, and self-care summer was off to an exciting start.


The anxiety wasn’t going to get better overnight, but I was willing to throw a lot at it. I had always wanted to go into the ring. I wasn’t sure how upping the aggression and my lack of skills were going to play out since I barely tolerated the toxic masculinity of gymnastics for a decade.

I was nervous about walking into a room full of Patrick Bateman types, i.e. cis-masc-boxing-bros who were all too willing to fight, but really wanted a hug. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found on the first day of class: an eclectic group of artists with day jobs daydreaming about their passions and wanting to challenge their comfort by boxing. Classmates were more John Wick than Rocky Balboa. A diverse group of people who do their own stunts, have good taste in tattoos, and love baking.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one picking up pieces from my life and figuring out my next steps. I guess this was the glimmer of hope I was looking for. We all gotta start somewhere and not being alone on the quest for safety, comfort, and confidence was a good first step.

You can learn enough about yourself from willingly getting punched in the face. Boxing took practicing stress relief to the extreme, compared with the traditional coping mechanisms of hand squeezes and breathing exercises that I was doing in therapy. The irony was not lost that in order to be a good fighter and stay alert, my body had to be relaxed. Albeit, struggling through a boxing class to learn better anxiety-management techniques quickly veered towards dramatic, especially with headgear and a mouthguard. However, my breathing improved and my shoulders were less tense outside of class.

Taking a hit wasn’t so much an issue as I had more trouble throwing a punch. As it turns out, I do not like punching people for fun and that is the most important part. I was now wondering exactly what I was doing and why I was spending all this time being uncomfortable.

The fear of sparring with someone felt almost the same as staring at a blank piece of paper. This became an intense weekly episode of breaking writer’s block. I kept a journal to better understand the movements. I realized with all the diagramming and notetaking that I missed writing. Combat sports were not the last resort I thought they were. So maybe I couldn’t risk hurting my hands. I made a note to write about the experience whenever I haphazardly revive my writing career. I reviewed the tapes and art remains the undisputed champion.

As far as boxing goes, I was disappointed that I didn’t have the endurance and stamina to get through a match. Things didn’t go according to plan, but I was happy to find comfort in a community of people who are compelled to test themselves and take risks. I arrived at the final match as a spectator to support my friend, and cheer the rest of the team on. The season finale of boxing camp was worth the price of admission.

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