Image Credit: Ray Nalangan
(Please Wake Up)
I remember the first time I saw Sarah. I was working for the Department of Physical Therapy in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the county hospital in San Francisco. About fifteen feet from me stood this beautiful woman. Tall and slender with long, curly, dark-brown hair, donning horn-rimmed glasses and a white lab coat, she stared intensely at a collection of papers in her hands while performing dietary calculations. She was completing her internship to become a registered dietitian, and I remember being just stunned by her natural beauty. After making a few inquisitions around the hospital, I discovered we had a mutual friend, through whom we were eventually introduced.
Our first date was simply effortless—the interactions with each other were natural and unassuming. We went to an area north of San Francisco, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, to a place called Tennessee Valley. This stunning location has several walking trails through an expansive two-mile meadow. Each path gracefully outlined with blue and yellow wildflowers, tall, green shrubbery, and freshwater streams seemed to engage all of the senses. The early-afternoon air was cool and crisp. Tracks of dirt and gravel eventually opened up alongside a natural estuary, accented with large winged birds surfing the occasional flurry of ocean winds and the slowly disappearing late-morning fog. The scenic route graciously became a small, sandy beach nestled in between towering, rocky bluffs. I was thirty-four years old and remember sitting with her upon one of the flanking vertiginous hillsides. Here, scattered among tiny purple wildflowers, sprouted gray and brown rock formations and long green grasses beaten down by the continuous ocean gusts. From this perch, one could see the bright-blue, endless ocean in front and the peaceful estuary off to the right. It was a perfect day and one of the best dates I ever remembered having.
Intelligent, charming, and self-assured, Sarah radiated an eloquence of beauty and wholesomeness that was neither contrived nor trendy. Most notably, her true gift and allure for me was her natural ability in being grounded without any distraction of self-delusion. She rarely was interested in what others thought of her and would explicitly announce her intentions in whatever manner appropriate. I remember thinking, “Finally, here is a woman with whom I would love to be involved.”
As we discussed our lives and families, I recall one of our conversations:
“What were you like when you were young?” she asked.
Slightly embarrassed, I replied, “I was a pretty skinny kid, so I got involved with bodybuilding in my early twenties.”
Without any self-regard, she responded, “I am so glad you don’t do that now—I’ve never liked that bodybuilder look.”
Instantly, I reflected back to that project so long ago, barely remembering the calculus for my involvement. I only wish I could have recalled that moment and its impact when I was fifty-two years old.
After a relatively brief dating period primarily spent on the East Coast, where I was finishing my degree in health science, Sarah and I were married and subsequently moved back to the Bay Area to begin a new life together.
As a young boy, I had envied and aspired to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilders of his era. These professional athletes, whose bodies were near-perfect in musculature proportion, were my ideal vision of the male persona. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I would sit in my bedroom, flipping through the pages of various bodybuilding magazines like Muscle and Fitnessand Flex. The juxtaposition of what I looked like compared to these gigantic men of mass and muscular symmetry presented a chasm of such great distance, any personal possibility of attaining their physical stature was pure phantasmagoria. I was a painfully skinny boy. As a junior in high school, I stood over six feet tall and weighed 145 pounds. I was so thin, in fact, my high school basketball coach pulled me aside and said, “I won’t cut you from the team, but I will not put you in most of the games because you are just too thin.”
I was devastated. How could I be too thin to play basketball?! Aren’t basketball players supposed to be thin?!
As if my life depended on it, I worked tirelessly to gain weight. I consumed high-calorie drinks with milk, protein powder, and ice cream and tried to devour as many peanut butter and honey sandwiches as I could choke down. Unfortunately, despite the constant engorgement, I was unable to put on a single pound. I would sheepishly go to my high school weight room looking for any clue that could assist me in this grueling process. Here, I would watch football players (large boys without visible rib or clavicle bony projections) bench-press 315 pounds. I remember thinking, “How is that even possible?” One day, I found the courage to strike up a conversation with the varsity football coach and self-consciously asked him if lifting weights would help me gain weight. What I expected from him, after eyeing my gaunt frame, was a censorious reply. But to my pleasant surprise, he responded enthusiastically with, “Hell yes! If you want to gain weight, son, start lifting weights!” With new encouragement, I began acquiring weight lifting equipment (weights, bars, and a bench) and started performing specific exercises designed to add muscle mass. Pushing myself physically was not foreign to me. I lived on acres of land and did exhaustive chores (chopping up fallen trees for firewood, carting the wood up difficult terrain to stack, and excavating bedrock for irrigation trenches). Continually stuffing myself with food was a burden I feared I could not maintain. The one thing of which I was certain—I could mercilessly punish myself physically.
With the motivational aid from pictures I had taped to my bedroom wall of Arnold Schwarzenegger exercising with heavy weights, I worked out tirelessly for months. Then one day . . . it happened. I saw my upper body in the reflection of my bedroom mirror after an exhaustive chest workout and, for the first time, recognized definition and size. With utter amazement, I thought, “It works!”
I began to see a path forward, an opportunity to change my life. An ethereal winding trail, hidden during my entire youth, started to illuminate from below a thick fog of doubt and insecurity. Through the wisps of mist and damp air, I saw a bright and warm route to a goal. I was nineteen years old, and this vision catalyzed the spark to becoming a bodybuilder. It wasn’t long before I joined a local gym to begin a four-year journey into what I had hoped would eventually lead to competitive bodybuilding. This was my chance to get away from the skinny, insecure boy who could not defend himself when teased and physically constrained by athletically larger high school classmates while struggling then failing to get free (all laughing). I was an adolescent whose self-esteem hinged on the very perception that in order to be an attractive, self-assured, and accepted man in society, I must be a muscular and powerful protector of the weak. I wanted, in essence, to be a superhero. This is not an uncommon delusion for those of us who suffered the harsh criticisms from our adolescent peers of being too thin or too fat.
For the next four years, I trained rigorously and remained dedicated to becoming a competitive bodybuilder. However, an untimely shoulder injury quickly arrested nearby goals for competition and, as a result, my intensive training and aspirations slowly dissipated. Within a few months, creeping social distractions gave space to a subsequent reevaluation of my path, illuminating a new direction. From this position of equanimity and developing perspective, I decided to walk away from the sport altogether and attend university. But somewhere within the innermost reaches of my being smoldered an ineradicable desire to physically and mentally prove myself. This insatiable hunger—cultivated from years of being told I was not good, smart, or strong enough—panged within the deepest regions of my soul. Little did I conceive at the time that as I grew into adulthood, this would sprout into a surreptitious thicket of strangulating psychopathology.
The feeling was simply electric. I would tighten the thick leather belt across my waist (designed to support my lower back) before walking into the squat rack (a large, metal, columnar cage with metal brackets holding up a forty-five-pound Olympic bar). I placed my upper shoulders and neck square under the bar and lunged upward, dislodging the enormous weight off the brackets, then back down again, testing its balance. I had placed four forty-five-pound plates on each side of the thick steel bar (a total of 405 pounds). A slightly awkward sway in any direction could result in a grave back, hip, or knee injury. This was a lot of weight, but I energized my strength with so much self-encouraging hyperbole, any concerns about my ability to lift it was muted. With the music of Van Halen’s “Right Now” roaring from my headphones, I propelled myself upward with all of the weight pressing into my upper back and shoulders. I carefully took a step back from the rack with one foot, then the other. The bar bowed slightly across my back; the large plates on each end bobbed and rattled. I aligned my feet shoulder-width apart and could feel my knees begin to ache and lower back tighten. After taking a few deep breaths, I would mentally repeat a few positive affirmations before slowly lowering the weight until my upper thighs were perpendicular to the earth. Then, with every ounce of strength, I pushed and extended upward until I was back to a full standing position. The muscles in my upper legs started to burn and quiver. “One,” I would say to myself. I had five more repetitions to go until I completed the set. Each set consisted of six to twenty repetitions for a total of twenty-five to thirty sets. The sets would be evenly divided among four to five different leg exercises, engaging the individual muscles that made up the upper legs and calves. It was exhausting and would take the better half of two hours. Every day in the gym was like this, and I would go six days a week. Each day’s workout consisted of different muscle pairings until every major group was exercised.
After my first regional state competition in the summer of 2017, I had made a significant personal mark. I was fifty-four years old, and although placing last in the fifty and over “Bodybuilding” category, I placed fifth against several men half my age in the open “Classic Physique” category (In “Classic Physique,” athletes are judged on overall symmetry with less focus on mass). All this was accomplished naturally against about one-third of the athletes who were using performance-enhancing drugs (anabolic steroids). I was determined to do it one more time, against the stern concerns from my wife to try and better my placing by working on a few weak areas. This would take almost an entire year, involving countless hours with my coach working on diet and lifting techniques, increased time in the gym, frequent weight checks, and posing practice. I simply dismissed Sarah’s consternations about the continued process, which essentially meant spending less time at home with her and our two teenage daughters.
On most nights, I would not get home until after 9:00 p.m. Entering the family room from the garage each night, I would notice all were absent, the kitchen dark, the house quiet. Standing alone in the darkness of our family room brought insidious feelings of dread. I would sometimes quietly listen for any movement from the upstairs bedrooms—daughters laughing, showers running, Sarah or anyone talking. Most nights, not a single sound was heard. As I explored the whereabouts of my family, I would find my daughters isolated in their rooms on their electronic devices, and Sarah in bed asleep. I don’t believe I have ever felt more alone than in those moments of hopeless discovery.
I began to perceive myself as someone existing on the fringe of society. I was an insecure outcast throughout my adolescence—scrawny, reticent, and fearful. Staring at the massive weights resting on the rack before me, I became powerful, assertive, and courageous. I saw myself as one of the few who, when placed in apposition to the many, became distinguished and admirable. I believed I was doing what most would or could not accomplish. This vision became an artifice for motivation. I developed a solipsistic state of mind, stretching into the arena of martyrdom. I wanted to do that which I believed adversative to what most of society believed important. For example, it would be 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night and I’d be in the gym, physically punishing myself to the point of complete collapse. All of humanity, I imagined, was out at dinner with friends and family in restaurants, bars, or at parties enjoying themselves with the relaxing refurbishments of fine foods, alcohol, and merriment. “They are out there because it is easy, and I am in here because it is hard.” I took such pride in this spiteful state of egocentricity that any invitation to join their shallow celebrations was obstinately refused.
Sometime in the early spring of 2018, I had decided on my last two shows—starting in May and ending in early June. At the beginning of my sixteen-week dietary schedule, I started to have some real trepidation but remained determined. However, by the halfway mark, I began to feel imprisoned. My perspective became opaque, and my tolerance for any trivial annoyance became so thin that I would become angry, dispassionate, and unsympathetic. I have little recollection of specific events during this time, except to note that I became divorcing of all enjoyable things around eating, or any general family gatherings involving food. During the last twelve weeks prior to my final two competitions, I was on a limited daily diet consisting of chicken, vegetables, nut butter, and one rice cake. Two to three times a week, I would get my weight, body fat, and skeletal muscle mass measured. On good weeks, when my trainer was happy with my numbers, he allowed one cheat meal (a meal of my choosing without restrictions). Minutes before checking my weight, I would become anxious that he would say, “Nope. No cheat meal this week.” And he said this often. I would leave his gym depressed, frustrated, and angry. I brought this home to my family and it was palpable. I wanted to capitulate but continued thinking, “I have come this far—I can’t quit now.” Just remembering those moments causes my stomach to burn and chest to tighten.
By this time, I had recognized myself as a robotic instrument designed to complete a specific task, and simply turned off all internal switches of emotion aligned with empathy and compassion in order to stay focused on completing my goal. Psychologically, I had slowly ventured into a paradox. I avoided involvement with any kind of social or intimate activity while quietly struggling to escape my own shackles of smothering fears of social rejection. I felt like I was a man being torn in two, with a dedicated pursuit of an objective I did not understand.
My confusion in this venture proved to be more than a simple failure of introspection. This was a phenomenon, glacially constructed from years of social anxiety and self-loathing, where profound emotional entanglements of insecurity cultivated. Decades of reinforcing self-doubt proved poisonous to early romantic relationships, as I was simply unable to trust that my partner would accept the deepest, most fragile regions of my soul. Now, I was unwilling to concede and address any of this as an adult, let alone as a married man.
And, what is painfully poignant, this diffidence became part of the final erosive condition that led to Sarah’s and my gradual emotional separation and loss of connection.
I cannot remember when the lights started to fade within her. I was focused, persistent, and driven; perhaps worthy qualities for reaching an ambitious goal, but in this story, they are specious. Not only did I ignore the warning signs and needed commitments to ensure my family’s overall health and vitality, I continued concealing my intuitions and fears with a fantastic masquerade by barricading its sensitive center with an enormous distraction. My quest to becoming a successful bodybuilder at age fifty-two was that perfect distraction. I would cast myself into the throes of physical torment and sacrifice to avoid the intense emotional trauma and acknowledgement of a relationship spiraling into unrecoverable failure. It continued keeping me from the deeper areas of self-awareness and interactions with Sarah in ways most important to repairing our dissolving partnership.
A few months before my last competition, I discovered something that ultimately became an aide to my current psychological health and wellbeing. Based on a podcast about mindfulness to which I had recently listened, I began the practice of meditation intermittently. By the middle of May, I was practicing daily. This is when a growing transformation began within, and then one day…I woke up.
I began to see things hidden from me for years. As my walls of isolation started to dissolve, I recognized that she was not around. Sarah was physically present, but emotionally, she was absent. One late July afternoon, I approached her with my concerns. I remarked on how badly I felt over the past two years, having allowed this sport to become a wedge between us. I described my feelings of isolation, sadness, and generalized regret for not connecting with her regularly. I mentioned ways I was going to make an honest and sincere attempt to repair us and our family. I went on for minutes and she listened silently. Her silence, however, proved to be suffocating and deafening. At the end of the conversation, my greatest fear had been realized: it was too late. I will never forget her face, the words, and how I felt when she looked at me and said, “I think we should get a divorce.” It was the anguish of a thousand daggers impaling my chest at once.
The next several days and weeks at home proved to be the most excruciating pain I had ever experienced. As I tried to remain positive and openly present, reassuring her of my commitment to finding a true connection, she remained distant, uninterested, and cold. It wasn’t that she wanted to hurt me or that she didn’t believe in my intentions. For her, in combination with some earlier struggles in our marriage, it was over and beyond repair. I felt as though she had passed away, but still physically existed, such that I could only see her but not interact.
By late fall, she moved out of our home. The home where, for over twenty years, we raised two daughters, entertained friends, hosted pool parties and BBQs for the girls when they were young, and decorated yearly for birthday parties, Halloween, Christmas, and the occasional New Year’s Eve parties.
Naively, I believed I was reactivating a central goal that would prove healthy. I wanted to push myself both physically and mentally, accomplishing what very few can. I wanted to prove that my deep feelings of physical and psychological insecurity could be abated with the completion of this goal. Unfortunately, not only did I fail to understand that attention placed on pursuing any goal (no matter how salient) must be balanced with a more important devotion to the intimate connection of close relationships; I failed to recognize my own personal obscurantism.
It seems so absurd and surreal now, upon reflection, that at fifty-two years old I decided to reconnect myself to a sport of such great detachment, involving countless hours of punishing mental and physical strain. By the time I reached fifty-five years of age, I had competed in three major amateur bodybuilding competitions, including a first-place finish. In that three-year alluring journey, however, I also managed to edge a lethal dagger into the heart of my twenty-one-year marriage.
In my home office, on top of a large bookshelf, rest trophies and medals—painful reminders of the metaphorical nails hammered into the coffin of my twenty-five-year relationship with Sarah. As I look upon these pieces of metal and plastic, I think to myself, “Is this what I sacrificed so much for—a few cheaply made trophies, a couple of medals, and the ability to tell myself, “I did it”? The only thing I accomplished was the catastrophic payment of a price to boost an ego that now lays tattered and broken. The hyper-motivated and athletic echelon of society will explicitly describe doing an extreme competitive sport like bodybuilding, ultra-running, or competitive cycling as admirable. “It strengthens character, builds self-esteem, makes you a better person.” What they do not tell you is, in the process, you can become selfish, monocular, divorcing, and isolated.
Maybe if I had read something like this before I decided to hire a bodybuilding coach, endlessly map out months of diet and training, thereby excluding me from important family functions, I might have had a real conversation with Sarah about the details of the prospective journey. Maybe I would have heard her concerns about pursuing this goal and the interference it might have in our already-injured relationship and continued life together.
But I never had that conversation. I never had the experience of looking over at my wife and daughters after having had such a discussion and saying, “Yeah, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” All I cared about was my own hubris—what I wanted to do, and more importantly, what I wanted to avoid. I thus allowed the distraction of an immature ambition to become a subterfuge of pursuit, ultimately convincing myself that nothing was going to get in my way. (Well, nothing did).
As I sit in my home office, writing these last few sentences, I look around at an empty house full of fading memories onto which I try desperately to hold. I remain isolated and alone, witness to the distant echoes of a home once filled with laughter and joy, now muffled by the constraining tones from my weak and immature rationalizations used to pursue an incipient fantasy. I stare blankly at my computer screen, wondering if all this is just a dream while hoping against all hope that this excruciating slumber will end. Unfortunately, I do not awaken.
Matthew Kurowski has worked as a physician’s assistant for twenty-two years and currently works for a large HMO in the department of general surgery. He graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in biology and a minor in music, and from George Washington University with a BS in Health Sciences. When not working at the hospital, he enjoys reading, writing, and composing music for the piano. He is an avid meditator who has spent time on silent retreats. He lives in Northern California with his oldest daughter while his youngest daughter is away at university.