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Boxing Helped Me Fight Through Trauma

Martial arts pulled me from the emotional fallout of grief and powerlessness

Elena Cresci
Jun 12, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: White Collar Fight Club

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As I bounced off the ropes, I thought, “God, I’m out of my depth here.” Moments before, a gloved fist had sent my head reeling backwards with a well-timed jab and cross. My guard was nowhere to be found. That’s why they always tell you to keep your hands up. My opponent followed with a front kick and knocked the wind out of me.

Everything hurt. I thought about how much I’d rather be on the other side of the ropes, outside the ring, where there’s less danger of getting smacked in the face. But the round’s not over yet, so I continue to get my arse handed to me for another 20 seconds, which felt more like 20 years.

I was 16 when I realized fighting was my thing. I’d just experienced the worst summer of my teenage years, bookended by two particularly nasty experiences.

My grandfather died in a house fire in the summer. Since my grandmother’s death a few years before, he lived by himself on a farm in West Wales. Just before his death, he had to sell all his cows because he could no longer look after them properly. All that was left was one dog, which refused to leave the front gate even as the house smoldered.

Firefighters found a heater that usually lived downstairs in his room — my mum says he tended to kick the covers off in his sleep. It was the day before my first exam, and instead of taking advantage of my school’s extenuating circumstances policy, I stubbornly powered through exam season. I did well despite it all, though I now realize my stubbornness meant I didn’t deal properly with my grandfather’s death.

Then, later that summer, I had my first brush with something I’d experience over and over in various nightclubs at university — the casual groper. This happened at, of all places, a Christian festival. (You know how people sometimes have a rebellious phase because all their friends are smoking and drinking? My rebellious phase was going to church, because that’s what all my friends were doing.)

I was still a slightly awkward teenager, inexperienced with boys, so when a twentysomething guy took an interest in me, I thought that finally I had blossomed!

Then he tried to grope me.

If he’s reading this: Hi, buddy. I still remember you. You’re a piece of shit.

Both these things made me feel angry but also powerless. Realistically, there was nothing I could have done about the fire, but for months I woke in a cold sweat thinking I could smell smoke. Once fire has taken something from you, you can never think of it in the same way. And part of me blamed myself for being too nice, too friendly, too open to Christian-festival douchebag. That’s the thing about being a woman — somehow it’s always your fault.

Somewhere in this mess, a friend introduced me to a karate club that focused heavily on self-defense.

Karate, like most martial arts, is as much about humility as it is fighting. Humility is crucial in those first few weeks, because there’s a lot of flailing in the early days of training. Most people, including my 16-year-old self, don’t have the first idea of how to punch properly, let alone kick.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I realized I could punch properly. I do remember accidentally winding a bloke twice my size during practice — I knew how to do it but not how to control it. I apologized profusely but also felt a tiny bit proud. Then I got winded by a back kick in the same session. Elena: Never get too cocky.

The more I got used to hitting and being hit, the less powerless I felt. I had so many bruises that a teacher at school pulled me aside to check that everything was okay at home. But I was better than okay—I felt strong. When I got older and guys tried to grab me in clubs, they’d be met with a swift wrist lock and the stink-eye. They wouldn’t try it again.

All my grief, all my rage was funneled into those sessions. The club became my second family. I swore blind I’d never be one of those people who stopped training because of work. And then adulthood struck.

Journalism in the UK is intensely London-centric. I didn’t even like London that much, but I desperately wanted to work in journalism and knew that’s where I’d have to live. The energy I used to pour into martial arts went toward getting a job on a national paper. When I got the call for the Dream Job in London, it felt like the sacrifice was worth it. I now know that tying your identity and self-worth to an organization takes too much out of you.

Much of my work involved delving into the more unsavory side of social media. Back when we were tracking jihadis on Twitter, it was normal to see a beheading a few times a week. Then there were the terror attacks, and I verified a video in which a police officer was shot in the head. Months later, I’d be on the Tube, and the whole scene would flash before me.

Vicarious trauma is real. Media organizations don’t realize that young social media–savvy journalists can be traumatized by exposure to these types of things. Often there isn’t a support framework in place for journalists who are keen to show they can handle anything and don’t know to ask for help. I was used to being “tough,” and I didn’t want to admit I had a problem. But my anxiety was becoming hard to manage.

When 71 people died in the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in West London, I had to confront my problem head-on. I was meant to be verifying social media reports but could barely look at the rolling news bulletins surrounding the newsroom without bursting into tears. The last thing you want to do as a journalist is make a major news story about you. And this is one of the most important stories in Britain right now, representing government austerity, prejudice against immigrants, and the housing crisis. The repercussions of this fire and the events that led to it will last for years.

What I didn’t realize was that I hadn’t dealt with the emotional fallout of the fire that killed my grandfather more than 10 years before.

I feel ashamed even writing this — ashamed to admit I could barely hold myself together that day. Unfortunately, trauma doesn’t let you decide what is and isn’t an appropriate time to turn into a complete mess.

That’s when I knew quitting the Dream Job was the right decision. What followed was a different kind of grief, like grieving for the person I thought I was and the future I thought I was going to have. I found a new job with a wonderful team but still felt like my entire career was down the toilet. A stubborn fog refused to lift. Most days, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I could not have been further from the girl who trained so hard that she happily went to school covered in bruises.

In the midst of this fog, I received an email about a local charity boxing event — a mad, eight-week training camp with a fight at the end — and I saw there was the option to train and fight Muay Thai.

Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is known for its devastating kicks. It’s sometimes called “the art of eight limbs,” because it combines fists, elbows, knees, shins—all the things normal people do not want to be hit with. It is as brutal as it is beautiful. Fighters can clinch, and they can sweep their opponent to the ground.

I had wanted to try it for years, but having only sparred in a small class with men twice my size, I was mildly terrified of the damage Muay Thai would do. In Thailand, fighters will have hundreds of bouts but retire relatively early because the training is so grueling.

A sliver of me remembered how karate changed my life when I needed it most, pulling me from grief and building me back up. As terrified as I was of being shown up in the ring, I was more terrified I’d be forever stuck as a listless shadow of myself. A day before the deadline, I signed up.

I’d like to tell you now that what I experienced at that first session was a triumphant fighting-based epiphany. It was so hard that I threw up halfway through — and I don’t remember that happening to Rocky.

Our trainers would warn us about “gassing out” — when you run out of fuel in the ring. It happened to me almost every week.

In our first sparring session, I was hammered so badly by my opponent that I cried in the showers for 15 minutes. My pride was wounded, and my leg was covered with the biggest bruise I’ve ever seen. I limped out of the gym and thought about not going back.

My leg, my bruise.

Epiphany gave way to the same stubbornness that was unveiled after my grandfather died. Unwilling to quit, I strapped up my leg and went straight back to the gym the next day. And the day after that. When things in my life went wrong, I went to the gym and screamed at the punching bag for an hour. Telling depressed people to “just do some exercise” has become such a tiresome cliché, but there was something so visceral and raw about expressing it this way.

By the time fight night rolled around, everything about me was different. I had muscles! I ate protein balls! Most important, I had a backbone again! I properly felt like me. And not just because I could do 20 pushups in a row.

Photo: White Collar Fight Club

I thought I’d feel nervous when I walked out. Backstage, I was pacing the tiny room with all the other amateur fighters. I tried to tell myself I really didn’t care if I won or lost, because I got what I came for. But, yeah, I wanted to win. My opponent — the same one who had given me such a hiding in my first sparring session — walked out first.

My turn came as Rammstein rang out across the venue — because, you know, there’s nothing like furious German metal to get you ready for a fight. And for the first time in a long time, I felt completely calm.

Elena Cresci

Written by

Journalist who sews and punches things in her spare time. Not at the same time, though.

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