Saturday, May 21, 2011

When Life Gives you PTSD, Turn It Into Lemonblog

I embody an oxymoron.

I never expect people to understand. It's not something I like to tell my coaches or sparring partners, but when it emerges, I get extremely embarrassed and frustrated. I'm afraid if I tell people, they will think I want them to feel sorry for me or I'll want them to go lighter and "carry" me in sparring. Sometimes, I do want them to go lighter because of the all encompassing feeling of overwhelm and fear that can overtake me. Properly trained responses escape my boxer being and I am not in my body anymore. This is not the Crazy Irish Girl. This is something else.

From what I understand, most people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being beaten as a young child, avoid physically violent confrontations. They don't continually throw themselves into it thinking that if they don't overcome the feeling, that they are less of a person, a loser, a pussy.

While I know a lot of boxers have endured some form of physical abuse when they were children, I don't know any who still have symptoms of PTSD in the ring. Somehow they worked through it. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon, basically, you can work through your ugly childhood past in talk therapy or whatever, forgive your abuser and move on. However, your body is still wired to react the way it did in the past when the violent moment becomes familiar- hyperventilating, going out of body, and basically not being in control of your reactions. This can be particularly frustrating when you are trying to become a boxer! I liken it to an Alzheimer's patient who is trying to play a memory game. You have a huge handicap and the odds are that your affliction will take over, nullifying your training and skill. It often feels like a losing battle. Of course, I don't want to tell my coach or training partners or frankly, anyone. I don't want to come off as an excuse maker, a complainer, or a total loser.

The shame that comes over me when I lose my form and feel that loss of control is all encompassing. I can see my coach out of the corner of my eye looking at me like I am from outer space, shaking his head and grimacing. I can see him thinking, "She can fire her punches at the bag and the mitts just fine, so why do her punches slow? Why does she get so tired so fast when she is in such good shape? She can do 12 rounds on the bag, why only 3 in sparring? Why isn't she doing the defense drill we just worked on? Where the hell did her mind go? She seems to be getting worse!"

I have a friend who has taken up roller derby. Like me, she is small, wiry and tough. Like me, she has post traumatic stress disorder and a dream to compete in a violent sport that puts her to the test with her affliction. Like me, she hates herself when she doesn't perform to the best of her ability and gets beaten by her PTSD. Because she is the smallest on the team, she is often the one targeted to be taken out first.

She recently confessed to me that while she is considered an "experienced skater," she once in a while will have a bad practice where she cannot do simple footwork drills. She would see the look in her coach's eyes, "What the hell happened to her?"

She even had a coach take her aside and ask if she was okay. A ref once joked that she had a drug or alcohol problem. She doesn't. She just gets overcome sometimes by her wiring; the primitive memory of her body being attacked. A xanax before practice would dull those feelings of overwhelm, but she doesn't want to depend on that. Finally, she told one of her coaches of the issues she was dealing with and feels a little better. Not so misunderstood.

Why put ourselves in these situations when it seems so self-defeating? For me, I think it is a way to work through it. I don't want to be the little girl cowering in the corner. I want to be the one fighting back and dominating as an adult. When that doesn't happen, I need to be patient and realize that I have a handicap that can make me feel like a runner with one leg. I don't want to give this any creedence or legitimacy, but when I don't, I beat myself up.

"Dare to suck" was a motto of a friend of mine which I seem to have adopted.

Yesterday, during sparring, I couldn't get it together. I actually, jumped to punch air that was about a foot above my opponent. My arms felt weak and wouldn't punch fast enough. When my sparring partners bullied me into a corner, I had to fight the impulse to freeze. Yes, they are a little bit heavier and stronger than me, but I should know how to move and fire back without such awkwardness. In these instances, I am not in charge. While I am excited to see them improve every day, I hate that my skills seem to decline.

I certainly don't want a pity party about being attacked as a child. So many people have had it so much worse. Of course, a lot of them turn to drugs, food, alcohol, and sex. Not boxing.

But I do hope for an understanding. The best way I know to deal with it is to breathe and focus on being in the present moment. As cheesy as it may seem, "The Power of Now" has helped me a lot with this. Be here now. When I do overcome the feelings in sparring, I feel like a world champion. It doesn't matter that it's just me getting out of a corner with a great shot in a small ring in a private gym in a minute corner of the world, it's me facing my demons and winning...even if it is just for that moment. I won that "now." Those moments feel few and far between lately so I am going to take a break for a few days and let those nerves that are firing on all synapses, settle. Tears, anger, and frustration are too close to the surface for me to get into the ring. They need to turtle back into their shell so I can relax and be the one in control again. I'm not sure if these feelings will ever go away, if I should quit because it's just retraumatizing myself, or if I should just go back to being a boxing class fanatic and not spar or fight anymore.

But, there is another part of me that has been bitten by the bug and that wants to keep pushing myself to get over this feeling. Maybe I should tell my coach so he'll understand what it is that I am going through and not just think I suck. I'm not ready to give in or give up so I have to accept these PTSD hiccups. After all, I am lucky. I know people who won't leave their house and who flinch at the slightest bit of surprise movement.

My film, "Girl In The Ring" deals with this issue among others, but I have never come up with a real solution. Perhaps there is none.

I am curious if anyone else with PTSD has had these feelings or experiences. What did you do? How did you get through it? If you don't have PTSD, do you understand what it is or do you think it is just an excuse for sloppy boxing? Please feel free to share your thoughts and stories.


  1. I am so grateful to you for writing this. You've just described exactly how I've felt for years.

    I'm a cage fighter who has faced, survived and overcome abuse on many levels, so many times. My last fight was last year and I lost in the first round. I was absolutely devastated, I was literally in tears. My coach and people who actually know what I'm capable of kept asking me what went wrong, stating 'that was not you in there'. I haven't even trained this year. I've been thinking of retiring from fighting as I can't seem to get my head around it.

    And then I read your article.

    Kc 'Carnage' Kendall

    (ps all the best for your future fights, including your personal fight)

  2. I don't have PTSD--and I really admire you for fighting through it--but I am going through extreme frustration in training right now, so your post and your example are valuable. In fact, I recently tried quitting weightlifting, but it didn't take, so let me save you the trouble of toying with that idea: it wouldn't take with you, either. You're doing the best you can, and you're doing what you have to do.

  3. I think every fighter has to overcome some sort of demon in the ring. There are good days and bad days. Today was a bad for me. I try to stay in control of my anger and focus on my form, every now and then my anger gets the best of me and my form is gone. I think the psychological part of fighting is just as hard as the physical. I appreciate that part of the challenge even though some days I just want to curl up into a ball and cry.