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In Praise of Corner People

Being a part of Rock Steady Boxing is one of those experiences where more is happening than what can be reasonably expected or planned for, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a situation where together we achieve more. At Rock Steady Boxing we are fighting back against Parkinson’s, forcing our compromised brains to find new ways to achieve a working relationship with our muscles and the rest of our bodies.

And learning to box turns out to be exhilaratingly effective in improving that brain/body partnership for us, the boxers, the fighters, the people with Parkinson’s.

But, as incredible as that is, there is more even than that going on at Rock Steady Boxing. What is also happening is something that can’t be planned for or factored in, or guaranteed, and it is happening because of people that are not often noticed. It is happening because of people we sometimes overlook and sometimes take for granted. It is happening because of our “Corner People.”

For me, that person is my amazing friend, Gail. Gail is a great corner person in life, and at Rock Steady Boxing. Gail is a professional violinist – an accomplished, sensitive, successful musician – but she hangs out in the boxing ring three times a week whenever she possibly can. Gail attends Rock Steady Boxing with me in beautiful Niagara Falls, Ontario, and while she sometimes claims that she doesn’t need to help me much, without her it would be difficult for me to even attend. I don’t think I would risk the half hour drive three times a week without her in the car. I fear I would fall asleep on the QEW.

But Gail’s impact on my well-being is greater than she realizes.

Dealing with the personal losses one incurs with the onset of Parkinson’s is demoralizing. Not trusting oneself to drive on the highway is a demoralizing thing. Normal movements and tasks are constant and ongoing challenges. It is discouraging to have to steel oneself and summon all of one’s willpower to move from reclining in bed to a standing position. It is a strangely heartbreaking loss when one can no longer shampoo one’s own hair. It is not comfortable to see oneself “sidelined” and no longer able to keep up with the pace of one’s own life.

It is bewildering to feel so oddly uneasy and unsure about how to just stand around casually, as people so often do, when one’s shoulders seem uncomfortable and strangely alienated, to feel so ill at ease in one’s own body. So, while depression often results from a paucity of dopamine in the brain, the physical losses involved in this disease are enough on their own to trigger a depressive state of mind. And perhaps this depressive state of mind creates an even greater depletion of dopamine.

Gail, however, is a great encourager; she boosts my dopamine levels with her encouraging words. Gail tells me I’m doing great at the Bosu balance balls, she admires my punches, reminds me when I’m standing too far away from the heavy bag, and she tells me that I am strong. And I need this.

I’m convinced that encouragement and praise actually make me stronger and give me the boost I need to persevere against this disease. Encouragement is like a drug, strengthening and renewing my mind’s ability to achieve the “mind-over-matter” state I need in facing Parkinson’s disease. I think Gail’s positive, up-building comments actually increase the dopamine available to my brain and allow me to do the basic movements that sometimes seem beyond me.

And there are other great corner people in our boxing club. Henry is a beautiful help to his wife Yuko, with his encouraging smile and the quiet solid support he offers just by being there and taking his cues from Yuko. “Rocky” Ray is a gregarious free spirit. He spars with his wife Kathy, engaging her and entertaining her and all the rest of us as well. And somehow he can do the twist to every song on the play list. Wally comes with Debbie, making her laugh and taking it on the chin when he is the focus of her mischievous sense of humor. Donna comes with John and she is 100% focused on how to improve John’s situation, looking for what to change to help her husband thrive. Lynn is there with “Bear Paws” Steve, and Gerda’s daughter, Cindy, dashes over after work whenever she can.

I love these corner people. They help put the “steady” in Rock Steady Boxing. These are people who stand alongside and make a difference. Not only do they provide physical support with challenging drills, their emotional support is altering the course of their boxing partner’s disease. Corner people must have a special place awaiting them in heaven.

They live out the rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Our corner people show the rest of the world how it is done and they make it seem easy and they make it look fun. Their efforts make a difference; their words are as important as the neurologist’s words and as impactful as any medications. When I receive the encouragement of a good friend like Gail, I can almost feel my brain enjoying a shower of invigorating dopamine.

 – “Lightning” Linda boxes with RSB Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada