For the last 10 years, I’ve been a reservist with the Queen’s York Rangers, a Toronto-based army unit. After basic training, reserve soldiers like me train on a part-time basis—one night a week, one weekend a month. We also deploy, voluntarily, on operations overseas. Four years ago, my unit asked me if I wanted to go to Afghanistan on a 10-month tour. Rather than any notion of patriotism, it was my desire for adventure—for an undertaking where the stakes were truly high—that compelled me to say yes.
In May 2008, after a year of full-time training in Petawawa, I was sent to Kandahar. My job as a watch officer in the task force headquarters was about as safe as it got over there: I coordinated time-sensitive operations, such as medevac, for troops engaged in firefights. Our base was frequently rocketed, but I was never hurt. In fact, I had some very good times, including, as strange as it must sound, the first time I went on a foot patrol into Lako Khail, one of the province’s most dangerous corners. As I walked along the dusty road, the only thing that mattered was the moment, and I’d never felt more alive.
After I came home, I had trouble adjusting to life outside a war zone. I was working as a staff officer, going to school for my master’s in creative writing and trying to get a collection of short stories published. Those pursuits all seemed pointless compared with the immensity of war. At first, I went through the motions of normal life, but I grew increasingly despondent.
By October, I could barely get out of bed. Small, everyday battles—paying bills, being stuck in traffic—were overwhelming to me, and I was furious with myself for losing control. My family and friends noticed that I’d become withdrawn and morose. I didn’t have the words to explain my feelings. I just felt myself slipping further and further from normal. One day, in desperation, I went to the military social worker. She was a calm, soft-spoken civilian who’d seen every sort of mental health crisis that deployments can produce.
Following some initial counselling sessions, I was put on a common antidepressant called Citalopram. But as things settled down into a medicated regularity, I knew I wasn’t really better. The pills dulled my emotions, but they couldn’t cure my overwhelming sense of futility.
I drifted from day to day, drugged and dazed. Then, on my 30th birthday, my friend Sarah—a poet, activist and all-around sage—suggested I challenge myself by taking up a new hobby. “Why not try something different?” she said. My immediate response was that I wanted to learn to box.
I’d always been interested in boxing. I was attracted to the physical conditioning and discipline required, just as I’d been attracted to the demands of army training. In the boxer and the soldier alike, there’s an old-school fighting spirit that speaks to me, which is an unpopular thing to admit in mild-mannered modern-day Toronto. Boxing is an all-or-nothing venture. In sports circles, there is an oft-repeated saying: you can play football or baseball or rugby, but you can’t play boxing.