Holly Lawson "Not All Heroes Wear Capes" (Column #2)

I found my home in boxing at the famed Wildcard Boxing Club in Hollywood. Well-known trainer, Freddie Roach was sitting at the counter the day I came in asking about training. Boxing became my refuge, for years I would train every morning while I worked other jobs, just because I loved it. Boxing fulfilled me in ways I hadn’t known I was empty. It showed me how to believe in myself and taught me to stand and fight instead of running from violence.

Boxing was the first thing I had ever done in my life, that made me want to be the best, that made me want to try. For someone who had always been able to get by in life by playing small, who never had to put in effort because I didn’t want to put myself in the spotlight, boxing gave me something bigger to achieve. It made me want to grow, learn, expand, by constantly sharpening my tools,  by forever absorbing the sweet science. I was equally obsessed and grateful the sport had given me everything it did. It gave me confidence I didn’t know I was capable of having. It gave me goals that were greater than myself. It gave me respite from depression which was sometimes so crippling, that the boxing gym was the only place I found solace.

Then I started fighting professionally. My career (and the path I took to get there), is a long tale filled with many ups and downs. It involves failed relationships, years of training, moving across the country alone. My story of boxing is so complex, and layered, and full of moments of such happiness, and such sadness, that I must skip to six years ago.

It’s December 2012 and my last fight was in August in which I was the main event at a local promoters show in Hollywood. Even though the place was sold out, I made basically no money. I was broke. I was exhausted. I was depleted in every way. I had been fighting for months with my on and off again boyfriend (that’s a whole other story for a whole other week), and I was angry.

I had chosen to forgo a safe route in life and a “secure career”, to chase my dreams. I had woken at 5am to run, I had done 3 a days to train. I had taken every opponent offered to me without even thinking about it. I had trusted a manager who said he understood how to market me, when in fact he couldn’t pull in basic sponsorship. I went on to introduce him to everyone in boxing, only to be told that he was going to manage a male fighter going forward. I had fought through injuries, I trained on days that followed sleepless nights filled with the anxiety. I had worked tirelessly through years of struggle because I knew what I was doing it for. I was a fighter, this is what we do. And, I was going to be a world champion……..

But I wasn’t. Not for lack of talent, but only for lack of opportunity. Here I was on the precipice of a complete breakdown, I had no idea how to get out of the hole I was in financially (or emotionally, or physically for that matter). I was terrified, I was disappointed and I was certain that my luck in life, was worse than most everyone else’s. I had to find a way to put myself back together so I could function again, even though I was convinced that this had left me in a bunch of pieces.

My life falling apart wasn’t the scary part, I had expected that. The nihilistic girl who had always lived inside me, always thought that I would never amount to much. Boxing had convinced me otherwise, it had shown me what I was capable of, but look where that had left me. I knew (and still know), that my ability, my talent and my knowledge in boxing, puts me light years ahead of the other women in my weight class. I knew I had a coach who made me smarter than every other girl, I knew that people knew me as “champ”, I knew that I had made many friends based around the sport and my participation in it.

I knew that my depression wasn’t so all encompassing and terrifying when I had been fighting. I knew I wanted the opportunity to fight for a world title, more than I wanted anything else. I knew that the structured training which boxing requires, was good for me, it taught me how to focus on the small details until they become the big ones. I knew I wasn’t getting any younger, and I also knew that I had spent years dedicated to a sport that I felt didn’t love me as much as I loved it. I was shattered, but I still learned to smile when every part of my being just wanted to bawl, and I learned to divert my attention to other people I thought I could help, people who needed me to be strong in some of the ways I couldn’t be strong for myself.

Diversion isn’t ever the answer, let me be very clear on that. I know that masking your own issues, by helping others with theirs, is never the way to address the parts of us that are broken (or injured, or slightly damaged). But in 2013, I worked as a trainer with a group of people, who’s issues were so much bigger than mine; I saw that I was able to bring some guidance, some support and some hope, to people who had felt isolated and ignored for much of their lives, I was given some moments of respite from my own issues, when I was giving of myself for others. In a time when I felt I couldn’t be trusted to guide myself, having others trust me enough to guide them, forced me to start looking at myself through a different lens.

My depression had hit an all time low (or high, I don’t know), when my sense of self was challenged because my boxing career ended in a way I couldn’t accept. While I have struggled with depression on and off for years, to varying degrees, I remember waking up one morning in 2013 and having a conversation with myself. 

“What are you going to do with your life now that you aren’t fighting?”

“Who are you if you aren’t a boxer?”

“Why aren’t you doing something about this?”

“Who’s going to love you if you aren’t special?”

“How are you special if you aren’t even doing that thing you’re best at anymore?”

My whole identity was based around this sport that I had dedicated so many years to. People knew me as “Lil Bear” instead of Holly, they introduced me as “the boxer” and my days were planned around my training hours at the boxing gym. Who was I without any of that?

I was a wreck. I was an angry, sad, tired and scared. I was dealing with daily headaches, insomnia and anxiety so bad that I taught myself to meditate while running and used that as a salve. I went on dates with men that I shouldn’t have wasted my time on (who hasn’t done that though?), and I also dug in and committed to training people who told me I was changing their lives, I made myself do what I thought at the time was just something to get me through every day. I would focus on something that was going well, I would find a small joy in every day, and mostly I would be open to the new people and new experiences which were being given to me via this new path, no matter how far I thought it was from the route I wanted to be on.

That job that I used as a bandaid to help me try to heal my heart, opened a door to training an actress for a major role (Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl). That relationship and that job, has opened so many doors for me, that I am able to speak about my boxing career without being angry (sometimes I am still sad, I must admit), because I know that where I am now, I couldn’t have gotten to by any other route but the one I have been on, even when that journey seemed overwhelmingly painful.

My depression at best  is like an ever present fog, sometimes it lifts but it is a constant haze of melancholy, forever existing even when I can’t quite touch it. But the struggle of defining myself by what I do, and not who I am, is one that I was able to come to terms with, by finding a way to make my purpose about helping someone other than myself…...

I do still like to punch people in the face though.


Follow Holly on Instagram (@lilbearlawson) and Twitter (@lilbearlawson)

Photo credit: @thisisdizzle

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