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Kohl Laren goes to sleep most nights on a twin mattress in the bed of a 1992 Ford F-250. It’s not bad. He’s got a camper shell, a hot plate to cook his breakfast in the morning, and enough sweatshirts to keep him warm through the night.
In a lot of ways it’s better than how he grew up. At least here there’s no one yelling at him, telling him that he’s worthless and denying him food. At least now he owns more than one pair of underwear and his shoes aren’t held together by duct tape. At least these days, the only beatings he takes are in the gym – and he puts himself through them on purpose.
That’s the important part for Laren, a 22-year-old kickboxer and amateur MMA fighter. After an intensely abusive childhood that led to hospitalizations and suicide attempts, he found in martial arts a form of therapy that’s helped him in ways that more conventional methods have not.
It’s what led him to his current focus, a project he’s dubbed “Chase the Pain,” in which he aims to tour the fighting arenas of Thailand and Cambodia in a journey of self-discovery through combat.
Part of the appeal is the extreme nature of the fights and the training there, Laren said. Pushing yourself through pain and fatigue, pushing past your concept of your own limits, that evokes an intense emotional state that brings him back to his history of abuse.
“It just comes out of nowhere, and when that happens, you face all these weird kind of feelings,” Laren told MMAjunkie. “That takes me to a place I haven’t been before. And for me, when I get to that place, I return to those feelings from my childhood, and that’s hopelessness and despair.”
Laren grew up in the northwestern corner of Southern California’s Orange County. His parents were separated, which left him with his mother, an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy who abused him physically, verbally and emotionally, all while taking good care of his younger sister, he said.
His mother regularly abused drugs and alcohol, Laren said, and was eventually arrested for and pleaded guilty to DUI and child endangerment charges. But her anger toward her son seemed to stem from a seething resentment of his father.
“My sister was treated better almost in spite of me,” Laren said. “She was treated almost like an example, like this is what you would be treated like if you didn’t remind me of your dad. I was made fun of and starved and made to think that I was somehow overweight or didn’t even deserve to eat food, and this was when I was 8, 9 years old. I was severely anorexic, like 25 pounds underweight as a kid. I remember being at the hospital, and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and then they realized I just wasn’t eating.”
His family wasn’t poor. His mother could have afforded to buy him clean clothes or working shoes. The neglect was intentional, Laren said, and he internalized the abuse he endured every day.
Maybe he really was worthless. Maybe he really didn’t deserve to eat. Maybe he was a lesser human.
“Then at a certain point, me and my mom got into a fight, and I stood up for myself,” Laren said. “It was the first time I’d ever defended myself against my mom. She threw me out of the house, I was on the curb in my underwear, and my dad picked me up. I lived with my dad after that.”
It was his father who took him to his first jiu-jitsu class. What Laren soon found was that, when he was on the mats, just trying to avoid being choked and armbarred, he wasn’t thinking about all the horrible things he’d been through. The emotional scars that followed him everywhere didn’t seem to be able to follow him into the gym. There just wasn’t room for them, not with the immediate physical urgency of the task of the hand.
“That was really comforting, because I was really a prisoner of my own thoughts,” Laren said. “Any other time when I wasn’t training, I was trapped by these terrible thoughts. But when I was in the gym, it was sort of a meditative state. I could only think of myself as a martial artist and not think of all the trauma.”
He took an MMA fight as soon as he turned 18. He lost, but it wasn’t really the point. He gravitated more toward muay Thai after that. It was just so intense, so filled with painful rituals and intense training. It was there he was introduced to the concept of “intentional suffering,” a path to self-realization articulated by early 20th century philosopher George Gurdjieff.
“It’s putting yourself through something that is uncomfortable in the hopes of growing through it,” Laren said. “If you’re always in a state that’s super comfortable, you don’t really have to think about what you’re doing. But when you’re uncomfortable, it promotes an increased self-observation.”
That, in a way, is how he ended up living in his truck.
He doesn’t have to be homeless, Laren said. He’s had an apartment and the comforts of financial self-sufficiency, even if it meant working three jobs to get there at times. But that wasn’t helping him work on his issues or process his past. His martial arts journey did, but it required a focus he didn’t feel he could give while chasing a series of simultaneous paychecks.
So he gave it up and came up with his new plan. That included getting even more serious about training with his coach, Austin Ahlgren of OC Muay Thai, as well as traveling to Southeast Asia to immerse himself in a new and uncomfortable fighting environment.
It’s an effort he’s currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, with the ultimate goal of bringing the lessons he learns back home to help others who have lived through similar trauma.
“If you notice a lot of kids who’ve been abused, they turn to drugs, alcohol, partying, anything to pretend like those feelings aren’t there, to ignore them,” Laren said. “I feel like I’m in no position to help those people until I figure out how to deal with those feelings myself, and I think going into this unfamiliar environment and putting myself through this is going to help me grow through those feelings.”
The journey and the battles along the way won’t be easy, Laren said, but then that’s kind of the point. At least this time his suffering will be on purpose, in the service of some end. At least this time it’s not for nothing. And, if it all goes the way he hopes, maybe it will lead him somewhere new.
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