Years ago I studied a community of grapplers, men and women who practice a no-holds-barred, high contact form of ground fighting. Participants wrestled, violently it seemed, for submissions, not points; yet what struck me was the fighters’ auras of calm. When asked how they tolerated pain and fear, many of them shrugged and said, “It is what it is,” expressing a radical acceptance of reality that has come back to me more than once in recent times.

Two years ago I gave up drinking and since then have been working in a program to get free of codependency. Like many people in recovery, I’ve found myself awakening to emotions I’d denied for years — anticipation, exhilaration, and also heart-pounding anger and fear. I broke an iPad stylus tip in a rage one externally calm afternoon — pounding out (of all things) my “f—ng” gratitude list. On another occasion, instead of pausing a heated discussion with my husband, I cursed him out in front of my embarrassed teenager and her open-mouthed friend, as if I too were an adolescent.

Like many people in recovery, I’ve found myself awakening to emotions I’d denied for years — anticipation, exhilaration, and also heart-pounding anger and fear. 

So far the things I’ve feared and raged about — like my loved one’s relapse, or the coronavirus debilitating my family, have yet to manifest; but whatever happens in the future, my immediate impulse to run or rant clashes with reality. Plunged into an overwhelming yesterday or hurtled into a nightmarish tomorrow, I become untrustworthy, even ridiculous today, pitting my strength against imaginary enemies, all the while ignoring real chances to act for good.  

Recovery experts suggest that the fight or flight response, a maladaptive physiological survival mechanism, both fuels substance use disorders and can become a lingering effect of living with one or with someone else who has one. Moreover, in these life-threatening coronavirus-controlled days, the general population seems to suffer from an urge to fight or flee. How many mainstream memes of late play on references to hoarded scotch or wine? How many community discussions on Facebook devolve into aggressive, ineffective rants against “you people” who have failed at social distancing? 

For those of us in recovery, the need has never been more real to stop responding like victims — even righteous ones — and to start speaking/acting/winning like strategic fighters. For suggestions about how to do this, I consulted with two professional fighters, both familiar with the effects of substance abuse. 

Seventy-three-year-old Tommy Coelho started boxing at age 10 and still teaches at Title 1 Boxing clubs in VA. A three-time Golden Glove State Champion, two-time Tri-State Champion, among many other esteemed titles, Tommy’s professional record belies the substance use disorder that led him to spend a night in the late sixties with a gun to his own head. As a short, small-boned kid he’d been bullied and the resulting fear and outrage haunted him. Despite adult successes, he felt beat up by life. 

Everyone he knew drank, and his own drugging and drinking spiraled out of control until he lost his job, his relationship, everything. He still doesn’t know why he decided not to pull the trigger, but instead followed a friend into rehab. On his second try, he completed his recovery program and has been in recovery ever since, working as a behaviorist for several decades at half-way houses and rehabs. Today, Tommy is an acute observer of the fight and flight response in himself and the boxers he coaches:

“I see we all have primal instincts to attack, yet as humans, we also need to socialize in order to survive.” Tommy believes we need communities like the boxing gym, where we can express aggression and fear safely and humanely. 

He encourages timid boxers to address what is right in front of them, the punching bag. For motivation, they need to look inside. 

As a boxing teacher, Tommy identifies the students who are socially unconfident, how they look around for potential critics, afraid to give the bag their all. He encourages timid boxers to address what is right in front of them, the punching bag. For motivation, they need to look inside. Whatever they find there is exactly what they need, whether it’s hope or fear, outrage or resolve. 

“You’re not trying to box. You are boxing.” It doesn’t matter how well. Once novice boxers become stronger, Tommy says, they start looking for ways to support others, giving them high fives, cheering them on. Confidence grows in community.

Drinking and drugs promise comfort and acceptance; Tommy acknowledges that for him it will always be hard to go without them. When he was using, he saw enemies everywhere, was always coiled and ready for a fight. As a drug counselor, he noted how quickly those with substance use problems defend their false friends and fight their real ones. Tommy says we believe we’re always going to be victims; the world is against us; using makes this tolerable; why bother trying to make things any better? 

“Fight those lies you tell yourself,” Tommy urges. “They’re your enemy, whether you’re boxing, working, or walking down the street.”

Iman Castaneda also embodies a warrior spirit. At age eighteen, she left Morocco to escape a family legacy of depression and drugs. Her two sisters were heroin addicts and her overwhelmed mother had arranged her marriage to a man in his thirties. 

Iman made her way to Virginia to live with her father. Soon, she ended up homeless rather than submit to the confines of sexist expectations. With no money or knowledge of English, she supported herself as a day laborer, a lone woman among men. Over the next five years, she found her way to becoming a firefighter and then a mixed martial artist. Flash forward twenty-odd years: Iman is a wife, homeschooling mother of two, and a retired professional MMA fighter, working at Capital MMA and Elite Fitness.

Although she believes nothing should hold women back, Iman understands how anxiety calls us to portal away from ourselves through social media, alcohol, even work. If you miss a beat when fighting, however, you’re going to get hurt. 

“You want to be hyper-focused on the reality of the moment. Leave it all there. And when you’re done, just let it go.” Absolute focus on the moment overrides fear.

Living with pain is another skill fighters develop that Iman believes would benefit non-fighters. 

“There is no magic pill. You train when you don’t want to train. You do it because you have a goal. If it hurts, I keep going. If I want to cry, I cry — till I’m boogery, and in front of my friends. But I keep going.”

While Iman feels sad the coronavirus has temporarily closed her gym, her fighter’s mindset insists, “it could always be worse. Whatever happens, we need to accept it, absorb it, and grow stronger together.” 

She encourages people to find goals, even small ones. Teach your kids a lesson. Walk an extra mile. Call someone if you have a question you can’t answer. But whoever and wherever we are, whatever fight we’re fighting, all of us need to “leave it, all of it, the fear and anger, pain, just leave it on that mat.”