Trigger warning: The following contains an extensive discussion of panic attacks and a brief mention of eating disorders and depression.
We’ve just finished doing the punch-outs, so of course I’m gasping for breath. They’ve never been easy for me, after all, and my ams are weak and pathetic and I’ve given it my all. A lone drop of sweat works its way down my back. Then another. Then another. I am dripping.
The coach is standing in the middle of the shed, right in front of the drooping boxing ring. I can tell it’s been made and treated with a lot of love and respect; people rest against it like they’re old friends, comfortable with invading personal space without asking. But the ropes are fraying and the plywood creaks and groans and bursts out of place like buttons on a shirt that’s two sizes too small. I doubt anyone minds.
The coach is speaking. I try to listen to her, but instead of processing her words I’m noticing her limp ponytail, the sweat coursing down my forehead, my fingers trapped inside my gloves, the tin roof of the shed that gathers the hot air inside. Instead of paying attention I’m caught by the motes of dust that settle on the filthy mats, the way the worn punching bags are still swinging behind her, the even breaths of the others in the room. I’m not sure what we’re doing next. I should be listening.
I’m still gasping, though it takes me a moment to notice it. I’m tired, but I’m never this tired. All at once the room presses down around me and I’m an astronaut sucked underneath the waves to the ocean floor, the weight of the poisonous starlight in my veins threatening to burst my lungs and crack my skull.
I try to focus on my breathing like I’m supposed to. One, in. Two, out. Three, in. Four, out. One, two, three, four. In, out, in, out. Instead of my breathing slowing and growing deeper, my breath only reaches the top of my chest and each one is snatched from me. I am left empty. People are going to notice soon.
I have to get out.
I stumble from the shed into the Australian sun, the crickets roaring in my ears but all I have time for is my breath. I rip off my gloves and stand there, one sweaty hand pressed to my forehead, and try to slow my breathing. One two three four. In out in out. Onetwothreefourinoutinout. It’s not working it’s not working it’s not working.
My legs have a mind of their own, and they begin to carry me back and forth, as I often do when I’m trapped in my own lungs. I pace and gasp and pace and gasp, and I know the walls are thin so someone is going to hear me and I don’t want anyone to find me like this but I couldn’t stop if I tried. Dust is kicked up from every step. Shivers of bubbling pain shoot through my legs and fingers as numbness steals my coordination, and an excess of oxygen plays with my body like an unskilled pianist banging on the ivories.
The sight of his blue board shorts rounding the corner sends a jolt of surprise through me and I almost trip over my own feet. I turn my back to him, unable to pause my frantic pacing, and start walking away because otherwise I’m going to drown in my own blood.
“Are you okay?”
He’s come up behind me but I’m still walking. The world tilts sideways.
“Just sit down, come sit down. Is it social anxiety?”
I think I manage to nod, but I’m not sure because the world is no longer sitting straight. “Everything,” I say, or at least I think I say.
Then somehow I’m on the ground and he’s told me to put my head between my knees and I’m still hyperventilating, and my fingers and legs are numb and the sky is such a gorgeous shade of blue and he’s rubbing my shoulder and my chest is the swelling ocean that I must somehow fill or risk drowning in its wrath.
I sit there for a good while, gasping while my empty head buzzes. I can’t imagine what he thinks of me. I can’t imagine what the others are thinking of me. I can’t imagine what I’m going to tell people, what they’re going to ask. All I can do is sit and suck in lungful after lungful, then spit each breath back out into the sticky air that smells of dust and dying grass.
My breathing calms enough for me to spit out some words. “I’ve got anxiety issues,” I say as way of explanation. Then more words fall off my tongue and I don’t bother trying to stop them. “And I’ve got depression and an eating disorder.”
He makes a noise that could be surprise or pity, I’m not sure and I don’t really care. My fingers are still numb so I tear off my wraps and drop them in the dirt, then continue rocking and gasping and flexing my sparkling fingers.
Eventually I’m able to talk, to tell him about how I can’t eat out, how this is my third panic attack in two days, about the last time my brain convinced me to starve myself. It’s not something I usually tell people, even people who are a lot closer to me, but I feel like there’s a certain level of explaining I have to do when I’m on the ground, hyperventilating. I have to spit the words out between breaths, but my lungs are no longer screaming and my chest is no longer caving in on itself.
He says something, about how he used to be like me, about how medication can help. I tell him I’m already on medication. He doesn’t seem fazed by this.
“You just have to focus on one thing. Not a boxing glove, that’s too complex.” He looks around for an object and picked up a shattered piece of a zip tie. He holds it up. “Something like this. Just focus on it. Make your world smaller. I focus on colours, because, well, artist.” I nod, mostly because my capacity to do much beyond nodding is limited.
I don’t really feel like talking much, so he talks about his own history with eating disorders, with anxiety. I listen, and I talk when I can. I apologise often.
I wonder when I need to go back. I wonder if I can go back. I can hear the rest of them back in the shed and know I should be there too, but I’m not sure if I can stand up without falling over. I start putting my wraps back on. My fingers are no longer numb.
I talk and it’s weird to be sharing this with someone I don’t really know, who I’m not sure how much I trust but I suppose I don’t really have a choice. I’ve already fallen down the rabbit hole, but this time I’ve dragged someone else along with me.
We finally head back inside and we leave sweat patches on the ground behind us. He finds this hilarious, or maybe he’s just trying to distract me from facing the others. Despite my worries, no one says anything to us when we return. Maybe the coach shoots us a curious glance, maybe she doesn’t. I can’t pay attention to the minute details of communication if I want to stay standing. She offers me a muffin. I politely refuse, despite her insistence that they’re healthy. I walk away, and no one says a word to me.