The Notepad Vol. 3: On Fighting
Kickboxing helped me deal with PTSD, made me a better, more disciplined person
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It was a closed fist that pushed Zack to the other side.
One moment he’s sparring with this kid Malik, not quite sure what he’s doing and then reality comes crashing into the bridge of his nose. The cracked leather of Malik’s glove, the blood trickling from Zack’s nostrils and the sound of a buzzer bestowing its mercy on the young man.
Even in a sport as brutal as Muay Thai, it’s rare that people get hurt in sparring. But it happens. And if you’ve never been pushed to that place before, it can feel like you’re a passenger in your own body, reaching for the steering wheel from an unfamiliar place.
After the round, Zack stumbled into the winter night with his gear still on and tears streaming down his face.
“I can’t let him leave like that,” Coach Chris said.
Out in there in the biting February cold, Chris performed a sort of baptism.
“What happened in there was real,” he told Zack. “For the first time in your life, you were real. And when you’re real, you can’t be un-real again. So if you need to cry, cry. If you need to go home and bawl your eyes out, go home and bawl your eyes out. Because you went to a real place and it’s scary as hell. But it’s a place of healing, brother.”
There are a lot of coaches who would’ve discarded Zack after that but not Chris. I was in Zack’s shoes a few years ago, when Chris dropped me with a liver kick at our old gym.
It was like all the air had been sucked from my lungs. The impact crumpled me and I lay on my back, desperately trying to take my gloves off and spit out my mouth piece so I could breathe again. For a moment, I thought I might die on the floor of this greasy gym on Verdun Ave. Just another rotting bag of meat staring at the stucco ceiling, waiting to be carted past the vape shops and all-night diners on our way to the morgue.
But then the oxygen came back and, when I rose, I felt more alive than I’d ever been. I couldn't land a kick to save my life but this wasn’t about that. At its best, fighting forces you to find a calmness in yourself when everything inside you wants to run away. And for me, it is the ultimate act of self care.
You’re never more in the moment than when you fight from a place of calm. There are no memories haunting your brain and no fear of tomorrow eating away at you. Just two people playing a game. No anger, no ego, no aggression. Just a game between friends.
I didn’t know it back then, but I was dealing with an illness called complex post traumatic stress disorder.
In a nutshell, my brain re-wired itself early in life to deal with repeated episodes of sexual abuse from an older boy. You exist solely in fight or flight mode, you’re always evaluating threats and planning an escape. There’s this noise in your body that never stops telling you you’re rotten. Imagine trying to fall asleep when your brain keeps re-playing the worst things you’ve ever done or had done to you.
The only constant is shame.
I learned to quiet that with alcohol and drugs — weed and mushrooms at first but then ketamine, MDMA, benzos, Ritalin and the occasional bump of coke. Of course, that shame was always waiting for me when the high wore off. Especially on nights when I’d embarrass myself. Which were frequent.
Eventually, I left Muay Thai to pursue drinking and self pity.
I wound up hitting bottom on Canada Day in 2019, hungover and sapped from a night of doing ecstasy, I was confronted with the person I’d become: someone who lies and manipulates, a boyfriend who has no loyalty to anything but his own gratification and someone whose only redeeming feature was a job he did 37.5 hours a week.
I came dangerously close to killing myself that day. It’s not something I’ve ever written down but I wouldn’t be alive were it not for the people closest to me, forcing me to get professional help. Those are the very same people I hurt and whose forgiveness I still feel unworthy of.
After a brief stint in a psych ward, I was too scared to go back to the gym. I used to regret that but it put my on the path to meet Marie-Pier, become a father and live a life without shame. I still struggle every day, and there are times where I relapse and get caught in a spiral of pain, anger and — my personal favourite — self-destruction.
But with therapy, medicine and exercise, things are immeasurably better now.
I started back Muay Thai in January.
When I walked through the door, Coach Chris gave me a bear hug and we went to work. He left the old gym during the pandemic and opened his own martial arts school. It’s a warm place, a loving place and — despite us swinging punches at each other — it’s a safe place.
Our crew is a cast of misfits; Zack the security guard who dissects film theory before class and Eric the economist who has to explain the bruises he’s amassed to his white collar colleagues. Dimitri, the engineering student who collects April Wine records and screams at himself whenever he messes up a combination. It’s okay, Dimitri, you’ll get it next time.
In the outside world, Suzanne is a technical writer who wears a catheter on her arm so she can take her insulin everyday. In the gym, she covers the catheter in tape and goes full tilt on us. Suzanne is a bad motherfucker.
My favourite crew members are the kids. Malik, Adan and Max, each of them explaining the adult world to each other based on “this shit I saw on TikTok, yo!” I remember one afternoon, Adan puffing his chest as he walked out the gym, telling us all to “stay blessed” before hopping into the passenger seat of his mother’s minivan. I love that kid.
We are a team because of Coach Chris Shawbell.
He looks like the henchman from a martial arts movie — square jaw, flat nose and a scar looping from his brow to his forehead. He even sports that cop-style buzzcut where the top of his head looks so flat you could skip a rock on it. But Chris is a gentle coach, someone for whom fighting is much more about rhythm and movement than brute force.
“You’re not trying to kill them in a fight, you’re trying to give them question mark brain, you’re trying to steal a moment from them, you’re trying to predict the future based on what they’re showing you in the present,” he’ll say.
Lately, Coach Chris has fallen on hard times. Earlier this month, he signed a lease for a gym in Lachine and, as it turns out, the location wasn’t zoned for that purpose. And though we’ve had help from borough councillor Vicky Grondin and Mayor Valérie Plante’s advisor Jimmy Zoubris, you can’t change zoning without thousands of dollars and months of lobbying.
For those of us who fight for Chris, it’s inconceivable to go anywhere else. So we’re all trying to keep ourselves in shape while he scours the city for a new, affordable space to rent. Should things get off the ground, Chris will have a program for at-risk youth, he’ll teach Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a fitness class and a course for seniors who have Parkinson's disease.
In the meantime, I’ve been training solo, bombarding Chris with questions about how to slip punches and what drills will make my hands faster. I hate jogging with a passion but because Chris told me I need to “do roadwork” if ever I want to compete, I’ve turned into one of those goddamn running people ( **jogs on the spot at a traffic light**). Most days, I at least get in a few rounds of shadowboxing, stair sprints, some jump rope and I attack the heavy bag if my joints aren’t feeling too old. In all my life, I’ve never had this kind of discipline. That’s Chris’ effect on me.
It makes me a better partner, a better dad and since I’ve been back training, I’ve fallen in love with my work again. No, this isn’t an infomercial. Yes, I would love it if you bought a subscription to the newsletter.
The only meaningful way I can try to help Chris is by putting the word out there that fighting saved me and maybe, if you’re feeling a bit lost, it can save you too.
So if you know of any places for rent in the Sud Ouest or if you’d like to join the family, let me know. I guarantee you’ll know almost immediately if the sport is for you. Chris’ website is here.
And I’ll even wager a free lunch that you’ll find a strength and humility in yourself that surprises you.
The Notepad Vol. 3: On Fighting