Tim Hillegonds earned a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing (MAWP) from DePaul University in Chicago. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Rumpus, River Teeth, Baltimore Review, Brevity, The Fourth River, the Ploughshares blog, the Brevity blog, Midway Journal, RHINO, Bluestem Magazine, and r.k.v.r.y. quarterly. Tim was awarded an Honorable Mention for nonfiction in the New Millennium Awards 36 presented by New Millennium Writings. He was also nominated for a 2015 Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. He currently serves as a contributing editor for Slag Glass City, a digital journal of the urban essay arts, and is seeking representation for his memoir, A Story Like This.
To Make at Once Both Tender and Fierce
I remember with clarity the first time I stepped through the ropes and into the boxing ring, the way the vinyl slid across my shoulder blades as I ducked in between them, the way the canvas dimpled and flexed and gently accepted my weight. I remember the way the ring’s enclosure felt foreign and confining, how it occurred to me that it wasn’t a ring at all, how I felt trapped and scared and nervy, but also incredibly free, incredibly in tune with some part of me that I’d never been all that comfortable with. I remember the satisfaction I felt the first time I let my hands go, all the hours I’d spent on the heavy bag throwing ones and twos, threes—jabs and right hands, hooks—finally paying dividends as some of them found their mark and landed flush. Perhaps what I remember most, though, is the assurance I felt, the security that came after I’d taken my first clean punch, after I’d watched the world flash white and then black and then white again, and then sparkle like fireworks falling back towards Earth, my feet still firmly planted beneath me.
I came to boxing late, at twenty-six, after emerging from a drug and alcohol rehab a confused version of who I once was. I was scared and perplexed, full of false bravado, wondering how I could possibly figure out a life without drugs and alcohol, without bars, without the anchor to which my friendships seemed tethered. “The only thing that has to change is everything,” one of my addiction counselors had told me as I stared out the window of his office, watching the Minnesota snow fall gently from a sterling sky. What the hell does that mean? I’d thought. How much do I really need to change?
It would be years before I understood what he meant, years before I could see that sobriety would require of me an all-inclusive metamorphosis, a complete restructuring of my internal patchwork. But I would begin to see it eventually, and the revelation would be prisonlike in some ways, and freeing in others, rendering me either paralyzed by fear, or allowing me to reimagine myself a more complete version of who I always wanted to be.
And who I wanted to be, who I think I always wanted to be—to be fair, who I sometimes was for brief moments in time—was often defined by and measured by my relationship to fear. I wanted to be fearless, or perhaps simply to have less fear, because I’d found that there was so much anxiety in sobriety, so many dangerous turns I could make, so many decisions that seemed innocent and pedestrian, but had the power to deliver me over the precipice of relapse.
But perhaps more frightening than even sobriety and relapse was the idea of fearing the very thing I think we’re all entitled to: self-assurance. By which I mean to say: to live without fear that we will betray ourselves; or, to command some control over our bodies.
Control over one’s body is often ephemeral, appearing and disappearing like sunlight on skin, nothing left but a warm and fading residue. On the other hand, control, even a brief moment of control, is also a powerful reminder that it’s possible to restore balance to the opposing forces inside us, to bind together the self that is moving away from order with the self that is moving towards it.
And for me, the self that is moving towards that structure, that order I’ve found in both boxing and sobriety, is able to find solace in borders, to find peace inside the ropes, to find comfort in the fact that boundaries have been delineated. It’s as if someone has drawn lines around my life and said, “Here, Tim. Right here. This is where you fight.”
In the earliest days of boxing, before weight limits and round lengths and referees, rough circles were drawn into the dirt to specify the boundaries of a fight. Later, those circles became squares, and later still those squares were lined with ropes and elevated above the crowds, but they were still referred to as rings. Inside those rings, those so-called square circles, as boxers strive to become better, as I strive to become better, we engage in a form of conversation, a silent dialogue between bodies called sparring.
Over the years I’ve found that there’s a steady progression to sparring, a slow build that begins when the bell rings, and then rises until the rounds are over. The progression to sparring is physical, and literal, and something that any boxer can identify. It’s a progression that is seen and heard and felt. A progression that is measured by the pace of one’s breathing, by the dilatation of one’s eyes, by the tentativeness, or lack thereof, in one’s step. It’s a progression that is measured in liquid, in sweat and sometimes blood, and by the snap of leather on leather, or leather on fabric, or leather on flesh.
In the beginning, I knew nothing of this progression. I knew only that I was caught up in something that seemed somehow outside me and inside me at the same time. An instinct I was born with yet still needed to learn. A give and take between fear and courage, between failure and triumph, between the person I was before I threw my first punch, and the person I was after.
Leave now, I remember thinking the first time I stepped through the ropes and into the ring to spar, glancing at my opponent shadow boxing in his corner, my throat a cracked strip of desert road. Leave now and you’ll always be a coward.
It’s a phrase that has come back to me often, always before sparring, and also one that’s been modified over the years. Quit now, I sometimes hear myself think, and you’ll quit every day for the rest of your life.
The fear that lives inside me was greatest at the beginning of sobriety, when all I could do was hope that everything I’d been told in rehab would actually come to fruition. “Don’t give up before the miracle happens,” they said. “Don’t drink and go to meetings,” they said. “It takes time,” they said.
But the problem with fear is that it’s nothing if not persistent. Fear can’t be eradicated, and it can’t be permanently suppressed, but it can be controlled to some degree. There are ways to harness it, I’ve learned, to find enough confidence in oneself to know whether a fear is or is not rational.
I knew none of this in early sobriety. I knew only that I was always, no matter where I stood, one decision away from relapse, one shot glass or rolled up dollar bill away from losing every sober day I’d amassed. So perhaps the only way to keep myself from falling back into a life I yearned to get away from, perhaps the only way to truly fight for my sobriety, was to step completely out of the metaphor, and literally start throwing punches.
After I left that rehabilitation facility in Minnesota, when I was twenty-six, I came back to Chicago and tried to assimilate back into my life as best I could. I still held the same job—working for an insurance wholesaler in a glass-and-steel high rise off Wacker Drive—but everything else, it seemed, had changed. The twenty-eight days I’d spent in rehab had shown me, in painstaking detail, how dysfunctional my life had become. I learned that I didn’t eat the right foods. Didn’t go to sleep at the right times. Didn’t wake up when I should. Of course, there was so much more to it, too, so many other ways to quantify the dysfunction, but when I walked out of that facility into the dry Minnesota snow, hesitant to leave the safety of rehab behind, I believed without a doubt that one of the biggest problems I faced was that there was no order in my life, no routine, just the constant, frenzied pursuit of a party lifestyle that had led nowhere. When I emerged from rehab, my counselor expected me to change all that, to alter my life in a way that introduced a positive level of predictability. But that task seemed insurmountable—too big of an ask for a guy who hadn’t paid his electrical bill for months because he needed money for vodka and cocaine.
But not long after I’d gotten sober, the company I worked for was acquired by a larger organization headquartered in Atlanta. I was asked to relocate there, which seemed like it might be hard at first, but also seemed like it might be necessary, because for as much as I didn’t want to move, I knew that maybe I needed to leave Chicago, that it was possible I needed to become comfortable with myself in a way I wouldn’t be able to when I was surrounded by remnants of my former life.
So at twenty-seven years old, less than a year out of rehab, I moved to Atlanta, and then, a year after that, to Baltimore, where I bought a rehabilitated condo in a neighborhood called Reservoir Hill.
In those first few years of sobriety, as I traded in the Midwest for the South and eventually the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, it was the repetition of boxing that interrupted the loneliness I felt from getting sober and moving to places where I knew almost no one. I could walk into a boxing gym anywhere in the country, pick up a jump rope or start moving around the heavy bag, light on my toes, snapping off jabs and right hands, and lose myself in the movement of boxing, in the simplicity of one action being repeated over and over again. I found the ethos of boxing as soothing as the Serenity Prayer, and as defining—in some ways—as the biological factors that rendered me an addict. Boxing with its repetition, its music, its language. Boxing with its community, its etiquette, its racelessness. Boxing, that sweet science of bruising, with its mysterious ability to shape one’s body, to both mollify and harden, to make one at once both tender and fierce.
“The body submits itself in earnest,” Leslie Jamison writes in her essay “The Immortal Horizon,” “in degradation and commitment, to what words can only speak of lightly.” She’s writing about ultra-runners and not boxers, but I contend that she could be writing about boxers too, because she’s writing about those who choose to push their bodies past what seems reasonable or healthy, beyond what seems normal, beyond logic and safety and social acceptability, for the sake of control, for the idea of control. “Maybe this,” she continues, “is why so many ultra-runners are former addicts: they want to redeem the bodies they once punished, master the physical selves whose cravings they once served.”
I understand this as truth, as stingingly precise as a crisp jab landed on the bridge of my nose. But I also understand it as a not-quite-realized assertion; because for as much as I want desperately to redeem my body for all I did to it in my years of drinking and using, I also want it to continue to suffer, if only to know it can take it.
One’s relationship to one’s body—in addiction, in recovery, in boxing—is at once adversarial and amiable. At times the body tenders itself to what was learned, gives itself over to the memory of muscle. Other times, it forgets.
And when it forgets, when it forgets to slip after sitting down on a hard right hand, when it forgets to weave after throwing a lead left hook , when the body forgets like that night three months into sobriety when I stood shoulder to shoulder with people drinking in a bar on the north side of Chicago in the early hours of the morning, trying not to drink but wanting to so badly, wanting so badly to taste my old life again, to feel the cold burn of vodka in the back of my throat, to feel the wave of quietude wash over my mind, to feel that creamy trapdoor open, that cottony tunnel to oblivion, when the body forgets like that it opens itself up for the thing that’s always coming: the punch one doesn’t see.
In that first year of sobriety, when nothing about my life made sense anymore, I was convinced that I could still inhabit the same world I’d existed in prior to entering rehab. I was convinced I could still exist in the same spaces, still occupy the same roles, convinced I could still go to the bar with my friends and be the guy who stayed out late, pushed the party to the next level. I was convinced that I could be the same person I was before rehab; convinced, even, that I wanted to.
However, there was a price to be paid for that misinterpretation, a cost that came in the form of a near-overpowering anger. I awoke in those early days of sobriety, sans hangover, feeling angry and violent and unable to articulate exactly where my anger came from. I walked around Chicago, trying to pass the time any way I could, somehow feeling displaced in a city I’d known my whole life. I walked down Rush Street and watched men in tailored suits post up next to mahogany bars in the Gold Coast, their fingers wrapped around thick tumblers of whiskey or vodka, and I’d fight the urge to walk inside, snatch a man off his barstool, and pin him to the wall by his throat. I felt constantly, inexplicably on edge, endlessly suppressing the compulsion to act on my rage.
To say that boxing allayed my anger wouldn’t be quite right—I’m not sure violence can truly assuage violence. It did, however, allow me to bring my anger into focus. Boxing allowed me to tenderize my rage, to soften it through punches, to open it up and examine it with the clear mind that comes when the body becomes completely and fully exhausted.
And exhausted I was. Exhausted from sobriety. From moving my life from state to state. From training until my knuckles bled and my shoulders burned and my forehead was tender to the touch from punches.
I think back to that first year of sobriety and it seems so simple now, the reason it was all so difficult: I didn’t listen. My counselor had told me to “not drink and go to meetings,” and instead I didn’t drink and went to the bar. Boxing instructors had told me to throw “punches in bunches” and move laterally, and still I fired off single shots, moved straight back, and was surprised when a counterpunch landed flush to my eye socket.
To listen, I’ve learned, in both boxing and recovery, is to survive. To surrender. To submit to the notion that even when I’m prepared and confident and unshakable, other people can sometimes see the landscape of the fight—almost any fight—more clearly than I can.
“I can entertain the proposition that life is like boxing,” Joyce Carol Oates writes in On Boxing, “—for one of those bouts that goes on and on, round following round, jabs, missed punches, clinches, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent so evenly matched it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you . . . Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.”
And for me, boxing has been edifying and instructive, it has pointed me to where I can find the essence of my true self, that place where I become absorbed in a moment and the rest of life ceases to matter for two or three minutes at a time, that place where I become in tune and aware of every piece of me—the fear, the cowardice, the rage, the addictions. In those moments, as sweat seeps from my pores and my muscles clench to absorb blows and deliver them, I know my body as intimately as I could ever hope to.
Which I believe is precisely what Oates means when she says “your opponent is you,” because it is me, every part of me, that I summon every time I climb through those ropes, every time I fight the urge to quit, to flee, to give in to that part of me that screams into my skull that I don’t deserve to be there, or be sober, or be anything other than the failure I was so close to becoming. In that ring, while a clock ticks and gives order to chaos, while my opponent slips and moves, while I slip and move, while the world outside slips and moves, I bite down on my mouthpiece and walk forward into the fear, hooks and right hands, jabs and uppercuts, weave, throw, step.
“ I think often about boxing and fighting, about violence and compassion, about what it takes to stay sober over the long term. I’ve wanted to write about my experience with boxing for quite some time now, but whenever I sat down to write, I found myself stuck. What eventually got me unstuck was realizing that writing about boxing meant writing about recovery, and there was no way for me to separate the two. Writing this essay once again confirmed for me that what Vivian Gornick (quoting D.H. Lawrence) wrote in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative is true: 'Man is free only when he is doing what the deepest self likes, and knowing what the deepest self likes, ah! that takes some divining.' ”