The first time I walked through the gym door, I was a 44-year-old disaster.

My 17-year marriage was at a breaking point, thanks to a shared mid-life crisis and our penchant for searching for comfort in all the wrong places. As an advertising agency copy editor, I was expected to accommodate the all-nighters and endless creative noodling from superiors for low pay and no hope of promotion. I’d worked there for eight years, and it literally made me sick; the long hours waiting for work to come in, not knowing when I could go home, not being able to plan dinner and after-work errands. Then there’s my family: two teenage boys—one autistic, the other precocious—and my mostly devoted, but on-and-off-the-wagon partner. I tried hard to keep all the balls in the air, to maintain some semblance of domesticity. But by November 2014, after my husband confessed to some rather bad behavior over the past couple of years, I could no longer see the point in juggling.

In the middle of all this, a co-worker mentioned she was looking for a boxing gym—which got me thinking. I’d been an athlete most of my life, but distance running (as a form of stress management) had led to rheumatoid arthritis and then adrenal depletion. So I started practicing yoga and doing lots of walking. This got me healthier, but it couldn’t counteract the long hours of sitting at a monitor, and wasn’t engaging enough for my rabid-squirrel brain.

My husband had boxed for years, but I wanted to do something that was completely my own, which got me thinking about martial arts. One of my best girlfriends had gotten into Brazilian jiu-jitsu... but I didn’t want anyone’s nuts in my face. That being said, I’d witnessed the transformation jiu-jitsu had on both her psyche and physique and wanted something like that—so for some reason I googled Thai boxing. That is where the magic internet gods intervened and said, “Here ya go, lady. Have a hit of THIS.” I had no idea what muay Thai meant, but the idea of kicking the shit out of shit carried a strong appeal.

illustration by Rachel Petrovich

So here I was, a 44-year-old nutcase walking through the door of Portland Thai Boxing & Martial Arts. I was feeling nervous and self-conscious; too old, too fat, too dumb. I made it through warmup drills—even though I was so winded I had to sit down—and then we lined up and bowed to the instructor. That’s when I experienced the first ding! of connection. (Along with yoga, I’ve studied under a Thai Forest monk and vipassana teacher at a local temple for about 17 years. I love the simple ritual of bowing in. It helps tell the squirrel that it’s time to pay attention for real—that we’re about to do something momentous.)

We started class with simple movement drills: getting into kick stance; moving forward, back, side to side; going through the basic punches—jab, cross, cross-hook, jab-cross. It felt like movement meditation, but more dynamic than tai chi or hatha yoga, and more contemplative and focused on the minutiae than kundalini. This is where it completely hooked me. My mind could not wander very easily to what my husband might be up to, or how broke I was, or how much I dreaded coming home to a dirty house, or the kids walking on eggshells because me and their dad were fighting again, or fretting that work was going to ping me late at night. In that class, for those drills, all I could focus on was every little detail of how to throw a jab while still protecting my face and side with my other arm, and making all the little tweaks that made it the most efficient and powerful movement possible.

So many details to track! That pain-in-the-ass squirrel in my brain was fully fucking occupied. When we moved on to learning the basic kicks, and I kicked a pad for the first time and it made that crack! sound? It was a straight-fire adrenaline injection to the bloodstream. I felt STRONG, and like I had POWER for the first time in forever. Addict-type that I am, I signed up immediately for a six-month membership.

When we moved on to learning the basic kicks, and I kicked a pad for the first time and it made that crack! sound? It was a straight-fire adrenaline injection to the bloodstream.

As I started my muay Thai training—which consisted of going to about three one-hour foundations classes a week—memories kept resurfacing from my childhood. Me at eight years old on the soccer field, messy ponytail trailing down my back, oversized puke-yellow community rec T-shirt hanging down to my scrawny scabbed knees as I waited for the opposing team to storm my goalie. Another memory: me and three of my eighth-grader friends from the all-girls school I attended in our butt-ugly brown-and-white field hockey uniforms, stalking down the field, ready to MURDER the opposing team, and wielding the smooth-polished heavy wood sticks like battle axes while sucking back the mint-flavored spit that pooled in our mouthguards.

I thought I was having these flashbacks because I was playing again, physically connecting with a classmate in a competitive and playful way—the kind of play that ends around age 10, when kids suddenly start getting all ooky about their bodies. That element of play is a huge part of the addiction for me, but not all of it.

As I persisted with my training—as I got better wind, a stronger stance, and better coordination; as I learned to hold pads for my partner, and be okay with being sweaty and snotty while looking stupid and gawky as we drilled specific skills over and over and over—I realized those memories were the times in my life when I felt most in charge, most confident, and held the most agency. You know, before boys and drugs and hating my body and all the toxic escape strategies developed. I kept thinking, “God! If I had only found muay Thai when I was 13! The trajectory of my whole life might have been different.”

When you’re a middle-school-aged girl, your sense of worth is so dependent upon what boys—and girls—think about your body and face. This affects boys too, believe me, I know; I’m a mom to a ninth-grader who’s gorgeous and has the body of Fight Club Brad Pitt, and it still gut-punches him when girls tease him about his acne.

I don’t think anyone is totally immune to teasing, but giving kids a strong sense of self-esteem helps A LOT. We all know that sports give kids a sense of power and self-confidence. What’s less considered, probably because it’s not taught in most schools, is how much MORE self-confidence martial arts training gives kids, as well as respect for your teacher and opponent, self-discipline, and the mindfulness practice that develops from movement meditation.

Learning to block kicks and punches teaches you to be highly observant and think ahead. Clinch work and grappling teach you to use physics—rather than relying solely on brute strength or size—to move your body through a physical situation. You learn to trust your body and use it to navigate the world.

I worked with one 16-year-old girl who was long and lean and didn’t fully realize how powerful and gorgeous she was. The first time she came to class and landed a solid elbow on the pads, her eyes got HUGE. There was a complete shift in how she saw herself. It’s like discovering you have superpowers.

While I regret not having found this as a kid, I’m supremely grateful that I get to do this now, as a 46-year-old woman. Growing up in the ’80s in suburban Cleveland, I didn’t know any older women athletes—much less any who ran ultras, competed in jiu-jitsu, or had a daily Bikram practice. I never dreamed I’d be getting punched in the face (lovingly and in a controlled way) by some 25-year-old up-and-coming cage fighter during my lunch break, laughing my way back to work with bruises on my legs, and smelling the stink of sweat and leather on my hands. Or that I’d be practicing grappling and blocking kicks with my 14-year-old kid—who’s already a wrestling phenom—at home in the garage at night. When I was his age, I was either stuck in my room fantasizing about being Iggy Pop, or sneaking out at night to get hammered on MD 20/20 and do whip-its on the playground. If he chooses to put on shin pads and a mouthguard, and trade kicks and jabs with his old mom and dad on Friday night instead of those other things, I’m all-in on that.

It helps to find the right gym, of course. While we have several MMA and muay Thai fighters, our gym doesn’t have the uber-aggressive fight culture that exists elsewhere. The owner has been incredibly careful to create a chill and welcoming place for students of all levels to train sustainably and safely. Muay Thai attracts a pretty brainy and hands-on bunch; we have doctors, software developers, communications experts, mechanics, chefs, firefighters, archaeologists, and cinematographers, as well as students in their 30s, 40s, and 50s training alongside high school and college students. No senior student is too senior to train with a first-timer. The foundations classes are full of advanced students as well as beginners. No one cares how much money you make, what kind of car you drive, how big your boobs are, where you live, or how many fights you’ve won. If you come in regularly and train hard and play well with others, that’s it—you’re in. Each class, each training session, is a clean slate. You watch your effort pay off in gaining skill and having more fun in sparring and drilling, because your body starts performing the way you want it to—with increasing grace, power, and economy. And eventually, all that hard work DOES pay off. The first few months you feel like you’ll never get better, but you keep showing up and paying attention. Then one day, someone tells you your kicks are looking wicked. Or that your hook has gotten so much sharper. Or that your pad-holding was really helpful. And you realize, as my husband kept telling me after our reconciliation, you’re becoming a martial artist. You KNOW a lethal and effective art form. And your body is the instrument honed to execute the form.

The truly unexpected part is that I’ve finally achieved the body I always wished I had, and it was by finding the right sport, and adapting my diet to optimally fuel my training. I found the sport my body and brain WANTED to do, and everything else fell beautifully into place. How I eat, how I cross-train, how I rest, even how I get through my sitting-is-the-new-smoking desk job, all are directed by muay Thai.

I’ve changed on a cellular level. I’m a completely different organism than the one who shuffled into the gym 18 months ago. I’m stronger, happier, and more grounded, which led to being a better artist, mom, wife, friend, worker, and mentor.

But I’m more than that. At my best, I’m a lean, sharp, finely honed instrument of good work. I’m not trapped by my life, my body, or even my mind. I can look anyone in the eye. I can make shit happen. I can choose to be an asshole to the cocky new guy who thinks he can mansplain technique to me, or I can calmly listen and just wait until it’s his turn to hold the pads, and let my work ethic speak for itself. I can leave an unhealthy job, and trust the universe will take care of the rest. I can choose to stay in my marriage out of love and curiosity about the future with this person, rather than out of fear of being alone. And I can do this because I know I can handle most of what life dishes out. It may not always look graceful, but I can literally take the punches, pause, assess, and set a new course of action.

Muay Thai gave me that. I’ve had wonderful spiritual practices in my life, but muay Thai gave me religion. I wish this for everyone, but mostly for all the 13-year-old girls out there. To them I say, “Go get some gloves, a mouthguard, a good teacher, and go fucking MAKE YOURSELF, kid.”