Life, Death, and the Clarity of Obsession

TAGS: powerlifting meet prep, training motivation, family, xpc finals, obsession, dave kirschen, powerlifting

COACH

I’ve thought a lot about the idea of obsession over the last few months. I guess that’s what happens then you suddenly realize that you’ve had one for 25 years.

Obsession is a word that gets thrown around a lot in powerlifting, usually worn as a badge of honor, depicted on T-shirts, with slogans like, “Obsession is just a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.” This stuff is usually worn by younger lifters, who lack anything substantial to lose and don’t yet understand what obsession can actually cost.

Veteran lifters tend to have a more jaded view, as they’ve seen countless others sacrifice jobs, relationships, and health, all for the fleeting euphoria of just one more PR. We look at these lifters with a mixture of both respect and caution, knowing that the downside of superhuman dedication is often a blind eye to the fact that the PRs are becoming increasingly rare and at a much greater cost.

In a sport like ours, it's easier to be the moth who sacrifices himself to the flame than the one who spends the rest of his life wondering what he missed.


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Sometimes, when life takes an unexpected turn, our obsessions can become something more. Much more. Sometimes rather than serving as an escape from real life, our obsessions can become a source of something that everyday life cannot always provide. Here’s how it’s worked for me. Spoiler: this won’t have much to do with lifting weights.

About five years ago, my mother was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of dementia. She was only 67 at the time, but in retrospect, the symptoms probably first surfaced at around 64 or 65. She has no living siblings and my father died many years ago, which meant her care would be my responsibility alone. Within a month of her diagnosis, my wife became pregnant with our first son James. A few weeks later, I lost my job.

It was rough.

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But while my world was being turned upside-down, there was at least one part of my life that I could still make sense of. I was 12 weeks out from my first XPC finals. Powerlifting obviously didn’t solve any of my problems, and you could probably argue that with all I had to deal with, I could have found more much productive uses of my time than lifting weights for eight to 10 hours per week. Maybe you’d even be right, but what I found was that when life seemed at its most painful, and I felt least equipped to handle my growing responsibilities, training gave me a feeling of control that I couldn’t find anywhere else.

I didn’t know why my mom got sick, or what I could do about it.

I didn’t know how to be a good father, or how to suppress the paralyzing fear of fucking it up.

I didn’t know what to do career-wise as a recently unemployed middle manager with a fading interest in the fitness business.

But if my bench was stalling off the chest, I knew that building my upper back and shoulders would probably fix it. Trouble hitting depth in the squat? Easy, just loosen my suit straps and maybe switch to another brief. Problems and solutions were much clearer in the gym than anywhere else, and setbacks that I used to find frustrating suddenly became an opportunity to problem-solve. And the clarity that working on my lifts provided would usually carry over to whatever issues I was dealing with in real life. Sometimes even a bad training session could provide more comfort than a good one, because it would present me with a solvable problem, and the mental exercise of figuring it out carried over to the real “scary as fuck” decisions I had to make the rest of the day.

I continued to train and hit my first 2000-pound total at the XPCs that year. While the progress I made in my lifting was welcome, I found the real value in my effectiveness outside of the gym. I started applying the same analytical skill-set I had built in the gym to the obstacles I faced outside of it.

I started to adapt.

After acting as my mom's sole care provider for a few months, I brought in some professional care providers to lighten the load. When her condition became more advanced, I sold her home and used the money to move her into a nursing home. Since my wife had great health benefits through her job, I decided to work part-time and be the full-time parent, rather than work more just to pay someone else to raise our kid. This was probably the silver lining in this whole situation because it provided me the opportunity to build a bond with him that I don’t think I would have otherwise. While my mom was still living at home, I began teaching the power lifts at a CrossFit box across the street from her home so I could always be close. While she hasn’t lived there in a few years, I still work there to this day due to the friendships I’ve built there.

Fast forward to today: Unfortunately, my mom’s condition has advanced considerably. She can no longer perform simple tasks like feeding herself or changing her clothes. She has also lost the ability to speak or understand speech. It’s very hard to tell without her being able to communicate, but I don’t think she knows who I am most days. It hurts, but just as before, my training has remained a touchstone, giving me the focus necessary to function when things get rough.

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A few months ago, after dropping a decent amount of bodyweight, I decided to try to qualify for the XPC finals at 181, a class I haven’t competed in in about 10 years. Shortly after making the decision to compete, mom’s health took a bad turn and she was hospitalized for aspiration pneumonia, brought on by her inability to swallow food properly. I was given the option to consider a feeding tube or begin hospice care. I chose hospice.

We all have to make tough decisions in life. Starting or ending a career, getting married or divorced, having kids or not — tough decisions are a normal part of life. But until you’ve had to decide how a loved one will die, I’m sorry, but you haven’t decided shit.

Here’s where the obsession part really comes in.

The day my mother was hospitalized, I was about eight weeks out from the meet. While I knew that there was a good chance I’d need to pull out, I decided to train as if I was still committed to it. Obviously, I missed a lot of training sessions, especially the first few weeks of her hospice, but to keep myself sane, I resolved that as long as I was somewhat close to contest shape, I was doing the meet. I trained at a gym close to the hospital when I couldn’t take the time to train with my team and stuck to my diet as best I could while spending all day at the hospital.

Most normal people probably wouldn’t understand this mentality, and might even think it selfish to focus on something as trivial as lifting weights at a time like this. But most people aren’t obsessed.

As it turned out, mom’s condition stabilized over the next few weeks. I set up her hospice care at her nursing home and she gradually started to recover. A few weeks later I had the best performance of my career, hitting the qualifying total for the XPCs.


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Like most of you reading this, I’ve always used training as an outlet for the energy and emotions that could be destructive if kept inside. This time, however, it was different. Rather than simply distracting me from real life, my obsession with training served as a focal point that afforded me structure during a period of extreme turbulence. By keeping my powerlifting goals intact, I forced myself to better adapt to life’s obstacles than I think I would have otherwise.

Mom has mostly recovered from the hospitalization. She is still in hospice care, and the dementia is obviously still terminal, but at least she’s comfortable. Sometimes, it even seems like she recognizes me. Those are the good days, and I try to enjoy them as best I can.

While the last few years have been challenging, I can’t overstate how good my life is overall. I have an amazing wife and a beautiful son, who are constant reminders that there is much more to life than lifting weights. Powerlifting spouses tolerate a lot, and I’m not exactly the steadiest personality on a good day. While powerlifting is where I can find clarity, family is what gives me purpose.

Powerlifting is a demanding sport with little in the way of material reward. I personally don’t believe you can have a long career without some level of obsession. Most of the time, achieving balance in life means holding your obsession at bay to prevent it from totally consuming your life.

But when external forces take that balance away, you can rely on that same obsession as something solid to cling to while the storm passes.

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