A Smashing Good Time

Breaking stuff, it turns out, can soothe the soul.

(Illustration by Tommy Parker)

“Do you want the bat, the sledgehammer, or this little guy?” Kat Burson offers a claw hammer as if it’s a daisy. A registered nurse and the owner of Smash Pit, a Springfield “rage room,” Burson knows a lot about healing and catharsis through violence. In her medicine kit, bigger sticks make a better balm.

I’ve loved baseball for four decades, so the bat wins. “Music?” she asks as I put on the necessary work gloves, catcher’s gear, and chainsaw face shield.

“Sure.” As she opens the door to a plywood-walled room the size of a middle manager’s office, the driving bass of Tool’s “Schism” begins. Inside, on the concrete floor, plates and glasses encircle an Apple monitor, keyboard, and Cisco office phone; equipment clearly curated to dispel white-collar grievance.

“I hit estate sales, Craigslist, ‘free stuff’ ads,” Burson says. “I spend a huge amount of time hunting down the right items.” With charming conviction, she explains that Smash Pit is more than a fun place to rage. “People need a chance to realign, especially in these strange times. I want to offer a safe, no-judgment zone for people to let go—so, have at it,” she says, smiling, as the door swings shut.

Alone in the room, I freeze. I’d been anticipating some harmless fun with a side-order of catharsis. But now, I’m recalling my 16-year-old self being grilled in a police station after an afternoon of shooting illegal bottle rockets at passing cars on Main Street. Back then, I wasn’t a bad kid. But small-town boredom stoked a destructive streak that almost dashed my dream of a college scholarship. I occasionally broke windows, picked fights, and once blew up an abandoned car with a homemade bomb, for gosh sakes.

Now, bat in hand, I worry about tempting fate. Would smashing things unleash the adolescent beast I’d tamed so long ago?

Relax, I think. You’ll be okay. So I begin, tentatively, juggling plates. Only I can’t juggle. Oops! The clatter feels satisfying. Next, I tee up some glasses and practice my golf swing. The shards hit the floor with a musical tinkle. “Try the office stuff,” Burson suggests as she pops her head in the door.

The Cisco phone conjures two decades spent in my personal Dante’s Purgatorio: a series of light-gray cubicle jungles. I remember the dropped calls, the flubbed transfers, the maddening voicemails. When Burson opens the door fifteen minutes later, I’m sweating and wheezing amid a workplace apocalypse. My smash-a-palooza has passed in a blur. I feel pumped but peaceful as Burson leads me to a chair in the waiting room to debrief on how humans calm the mind. Meditation, exercise, even smacking a tennis ball, all bring “realignment,” she emphasizes.

I confess, I can’t remember my time in the room. Criminal defense attorneys use the term “traumatic dissociative amnesia,” when arguing their clients don’t recall committing their crimes. I no longer need convincing.

Does Burson ever wonder if she might be courting harm, rather than healing it? The thought hasn’t crossed her mind, she says. She hasn’t had a single customer take a turn for the worse.

I leave Smash Pit and reenter metro-D.C. traffic feeling unusually groovy. But when I arrive home in Loudoun County, two hours later, I’m frazzled. Then I picture the keyboard breaking across my knee, the bat smashing the computer screen, and the phone yielding to the knob of the bat pounding the pound button (that’s what it’s for, right?).

Burson has given me a happy place to revisit whenever my patience is under assault. My episode of controlled carnage soothes the anxiety unleashed by NoVa’s gridlock.

Days pass. Then weeks. I’ve had no urge to smash again—whether in a rage room or anywhere else. Instead, I savor the memory of decimated office equipment and shattered glass. From time to time, I peek at the selfie I took after my smash session. All is well.

Am I healed? I’d prefer to say that, like all of us, I’m a work-in-progress. But I’m starting to trust the notion that Burson has closed one of my doors-to-nowhere through inadvertent “exposure therapy.” Her Smash Pit allowed me to confront a fear I never knew I had: the worry that my destructive demons might resurface. So far, they’re as happy as I am (at least for now, the pessimist in me must add).

Thanks, Nurse Kat, you’ve done your healing profession proud.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue.

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