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Those touched by opioid addiction find a release

One punch at a time, women touched by opioid addiction find solace, kinship

After Catherine Fennelly of Quincy lost her son to an overdose this year, she started a boxing group called Let It Out.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

RANDOLPH — “Everything you’ve got, ladies,” boxing trainer Tim Stanton barks. “Punch a hole in the bag!”

And so they do, nine women hammering away at heavy rubber bags, throwing fast and furious bunches of jabs, hooks, and uppercuts.

"Playtime is over!" Stanton yells.

Except, for these women, this is playtime — a cathartic escape from soul-sapping grief and frustration. Once a week, in a spartan gym on a bumpy industrial alley, they put on boxing gloves to vent their anger, punch by stinging punch, at how opioids have devastated their families and friends.

"Coming to the gym and hitting something — it feels right," says Catherine Fennelly, a Quincy woman who lost her 21-year-old son this year to a deadly mix of heroin and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic painkiller. In response, as she floundered for direction and purpose, Fennelly organized a boxing group called Let It Out.

Men are invited, but so far only women have participated. "We're not afraid of our emotions, and we gave birth to these children," Fennelly said.

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Like Fennelly, one of the other women has lost a child, but the rest are close to someone who has been held prisoner by opioids. Some of the addicts are sons and daughters, some are cousins, some are boyfriends.

The training and equipment are free, thanks to Stanton, a Boston police detective and former amateur boxer who owns the gym. Fennelly said the adrenaline-pumping exercise is an invaluable way to put aside — if only for an hour — the indelible pain in her life.

Robyn Houston-Bean, who lost her son in May, worked with Tim Stanton. He owns the Randolph gym where Let It Out meets, and gives them the space free.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

"When I leave here, if someone told me I was levitating, I wouldn't be surprised," said Fennelly, a 42-year-old hairdresser whose son, Paul Connolly, died in February.

As they gathered at TNT Boxing on a recent day evening, the women helped one another wrap their hands and wrists before the drills. They chatted knowingly in sweat pants and T-shirts, some of which read "Girls Just Wanna Fight" and "Stay Strong." Etched on many of their faces, behind the smiles, were creases of pain and weariness.

It's a pain felt by a staggering and growing number of families in Massachusetts, where more than 1,000 deaths were linked to opioids in 2014. There has been no letup this year.

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Robyn Houston-Bean lost her son Nick in May. The 20-year-old was found dead in his bed in the family's Braintree home. Nick had fallen prey to the pull of opioids despite seven months of recovery and a new job he enjoyed as an emergency medical technician.

"In the blink of an eye, something happened," Houston-Bean said, her eyes filling up as she recalled a young man voted "most memorable" of the Class of 2013 at Braintree High School. "Some days, I don't want to get out of bed."

But here at the gym, the energy is pulsating and positive. Stanton makes sure of that. He puts the women through the same training drills he requires of any novice — male or female.

"Ready to hit something?" Stanton asked the group with a grin.

The women did not box against each other, but instead pounded the bags with hundreds of punches, many of them coming in 30-second flurries that Stanton counted down with the loud, clipped cadence of a drill instructor.

They also received basic instruction in footwork, throwing a jab, and the best angle to face an opponent. Stanton, all movement and pep talk, worked almost as hard as the women.

"As a detective in Boston, I see what drugs have done," said Stanton, 49, who boxed in the super-heavyweight division in the 1970s and '80s. "This is the least I can do because the sport has been so good to me."

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The program attracts 10 to 18 women a session, and Fennelly hopes to expand Let It Out around the state.

The potential of boxing as a balm was hard to see at first. For four months after she launched Let It Out, in April, Fennelly sat by herself at the gym for an hour each week, hoping that someone, anyone, would show up.

The patience has paid off. Four of the women this night were newcomers, including one mother of a 23-year-old addict who has overdosed twice.

A photo of Catherine Fennelly and her son Paul Connolly is on display at the gym.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, decided to box because "I just need to do something for myself."

Fennelly said she started the program for the same reason, but that she receives so much from the others in return. There is shared understanding of addiction in the family and encouragement to persevere. There is camaraderie and a place to exhale — as well as the fun of throwing a punch.

"I feel like a whole different person now," Fennelly said. "When I was going through that with Paul, I didn't know what to do. I felt lost."

Now, Fennelly is motivated to stay strong for her daughters, Kirsten, 12, and Caitlin, 11.

"What kind of role model would I be if, after fighting so hard, I just gave up," Fennelly said.

Soon afterward, Fennelly fired dozens of punches at the dense, barely swaying bag in front of her. Finally, Stanton ended the flurry. Fennelly let out a loud "Wooo," dropped her head, and hung her tired arms at her side.

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And then, breathing hard and looking up again, she smiled.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.