• The Uses of Fear: Notes on Boxing & Novels

    Laura van den Berg

    Winter 2021

     1. The Uses of Fear


    In 2017, I walked into my first boxing gym. This was up in Boston, where I had found myself—at the age of thirty-four—derailed by a panic disorder that manifested most urgently as an intense fear of flying. The flying anxiety had come as a major surprise to me and to the people in my life. I traveled frequently and had never been afraid of flying until one day I suddenly was. I was left feeling betrayed by body and imagination alike, and I also had a logistical problem: I had places to be, from speaking engagements to making emergency visits to ailing parents, and going places had unexpectedly become far more grueling than it used to be. 

    For a while, I gritted my teeth and “powered through,” but with time the panic only escalated. Days before a scheduled flight, I would be up all night with insomnia, pacing, my mind brimming with catastrophe. The trip to the airport felt like approaching a guillotine; at times, it seemed perfectly logical to hurl myself from the cab or to rush from the T-car at the wrong stop, to stage a last-minute escape. On the flights themselves, I wept myself snotty; had gasping, heaving panic attacks; and apologized profusely to my seatmates if I was cogent enough to remember social etiquette. If I was lucky and the flight was long enough, I eventually passed out from exhaustion and came to feeling like I’d been hit by a bus. 

        In hindsight, the sensible thing might have been to stop flying altogether until I could get myself sorted out, but I hated the idea of fear curtailing my usual activities; I worked hard to sell myself on the notion that I was too tough and too stubborn to not do something just because I was afraid to do it. How ridiculous! Also, to stop flying would have meant to admit, to myself and to others, that something was wrong. So for about three years I pressed on, through these waves of anxiety that were intense but endurable, until I finally ran straight into an immovable wall. One morning I called my husband from Logan, sobbing by the gate as my flight boarded. I can’t get on that plane. At the time, I believed that to board the plane was to give myself over to certain death. I wept and shook in the terminal until my husband convinced me to come home. An hour later I was back in bed, exhausted and ashamed. My body had been trying to tell me something and I had been refusing to listen, until the message came through at such a high pitch it was impossible to ignore. 

        In the weeks that followed the abandoned flight, I started therapy and agreed to slow travel until boarding a plane felt less apocalyptic. Around the same time, I signed up on a whim for a class at a local boxing gym. I had envisioned a cardio-boxing situation, where we would listen to loud music and whale on a heavy bag and the room would be too dark for anyone to notice that I was inept and uncoordinated. I did not realize that I had in fact signed up for a technical boxing class—which is to say a class that focused on teaching the vast landscape of the sport, with the goal of working up to sparring (and, for some students, to fight competitively). 

        At my first class, we were instructed to warm up by jumping rope for five minutes. No problem, I thought. Who doesn’t know how to jump rope? As I fetched a rope, I searched for a clear memory of myself jumping rope as a child and started to worry when I could not retrieve one; before long, I was convinced I had never learned to jump rope at all. I couldn’t get through one rotation without getting all knotted up and having to start over. The coach took one long sad look at me, sighed, and walked away, pausing to nod approvingly at another student’s crisscrosses and double-unders. 

        Later that week, I brought home a jump rope of my own and started to practice in our apartment. After receiving a noise complaint from our downstairs neighbors (it sounds like . . . a herd of wild elephants or something?), I practiced on the concrete slab behind our building. For days I couldn’t get more than five or six rotations in a row. My feet felt lead-heavy; my shins ached. I would pass playgrounds while walking my dog, spot schoolchildren skipping rope with ease, and feel a wild and gnawing envy. And then one day I did ten rotations in a row. Then twenty. Then fifty. A hundred. I watched YouTube tutorials on different jump rope styles and took it all back out to the concrete slab. Though I was in motion—i.e. physically active—I was also learning an early lesson in the mental stillness boxing would require of me. I couldn’t be thinking in fifteen different directions at the same time, as I am prone to doing. I had to focus on one thing. This rope. That’s it. When I managed a proper boxer’s skip at the gym for the first time, the coach paused in front of me, raised an eyebrow, and kept circulating. I understood the absence of criticism to be praise.  

    Before boxing, my primary forms of cardiovascular exercise were smoking cigarettes and walking the dog—which is to say I was ill-prepared for the grueling nature of the sport, from jumping rope to learning basic combinations on the heavy bag to stumbling through footwork drills. During each session, I felt utterly inadequate to the task. And yet, for some reason, I kept returning. In hindsight, I think I understood that I had arrived at a moment in my life where I needed to seek a different kind of help—needed a different way to be, to think, to move. I needed, perhaps, a place where pain and fear could be faced head-on. I needed, perhaps, a space where I could relearn the value of stillness and slowness, where I could rebuild my ability to pay very careful and sustained attention.

    Boxing stuck. I stuck with it and it stuck with me. After a year, my anxiety had improved dramatically, thanks largely to the help of a skilled and insightful therapist who aided me in processing some lingering PTSD and showed me how to make space for overdue healing. I do not, in any way, mean to suggest that taking up a combat sport is a suitable replacement for professional help, only that boxing played an important role in my recovery. 

    The gym was, and remains, one of the few spaces where I thought about nothing beyond the task at hand (a level of focus that reminded me of really generative stretches of writing, a state of being I had been struggling to reach in my creative life). Boxing was also the thing that compelled me, finally, to take better care of myself: to quit smoking, to get more sleep, to drink less, to hydrate. (I have done a hard boxing workout badly hungover exactly once and hope to never endure such a thing again.) My therapist was amazed by boxing’s positive effect on me, remarking that perhaps this was an activity she should start recommending to other patients. Indeed, boxing is a great sport for obsessive thinkers; the details cannot be scrutinized enough. A half step to the left or right can be the difference between landing a punch or missing one and leaving yourself wide open for a counter. A half step back, a pull or a pivot, can be the difference between making your opponent miss and getting tagged. 

    Still, it can be perilous to overthink the technical detail when you’re in the ring. The idea is for the knowledge to become intuitive and reflexive. I think of this difference as “cerebral knowing” versus “bodied knowing,” a distinction that I think can be useful in writing too. At a certain point you have to get in the ring and experiment, move, fuck up, move

    After some months of instruction, I joined the gym’s beginner sparring group, which essentially meant I started over—learning to land a punch on a person is a very different enterprise than hitting a heavy bag (for one thing heavy bags don’t hit back). In sparring, one must be focused and also calm. A calm mind supports alert and energetic physical movement. The more experienced the fighter, the more relaxed they usually look moving around the ring. In the beginning, though, I was anything but calm.

    Sparring presented a number of new challenges, including putting me back in contact with fear: cold, sharp, consuming fear. On sparring days, I would walk around feeling jangly and preoccupied, my brain fogged, my stomach tight. At the gym, I had been finding immense relief from fear, and now here I was wrestling with it once again. While I’d told myself that I had to get on all those planes—and sometimes I did—absolutely no one was demanding that I keep showing up for sparring. So why did I? 

        Looking back, I think I had this idea that sparring could, with enough rounds, make me fearless. That fear was something to be beaten, to be cured. It wasn’t until I started reading interviews with boxers that I began to understand that fearlessness was a myth. “In boxing, I had a lot of fear,” George Foreman once said. “Fear was good.” The latter sentiment was confusing to me at first: How could fear be good? I regarded my own fear as embarrassing; I did not yet understand how fear could be useful. I did not yet understand the ways in which fear can keep us alert, inventive, and open. I did not yet understand that the goal was not to conquer fear but to learn to be with it, breathe with it, move with it. With flying I’d had no interest in examining my fear or seeing what I could learn from it (at least before therapy); instead I had treated it like a terrifying hallway I had to race down in order to reach a particular room, over and over again. But my flying fear was good, in the end, as destabilizing and painful as it was to experience. It showed me the ways in which my life had become unsustainable, the dimensions of myself that had gone unexamined for far too long, the healing that still needed to take place. This fear had a lot to teach me, if I was willing to listen. 

    Laura van den Berg is the author of five books, most recently the story collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. Born and raised in Florida, she splits her time between Central Florida and the Boston area.

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