Yesterday I was standing in the queue at FinnBees, the coffee shop where I’ve started working, down by the shingle beach in Bray, a small town outside of Dublin where I’ve moved. People in the ‘city’ make fun of this small seaside town, call it Brairut, but I like it - it’s very East coast, reminding me of the Yorkshire seaside towns of my childhood, Bridlington, Withernsea or Filey, but only much more cosmopolitan - and with better ice-cream. I’m told Sinead O’Conner lives a few hundred metres down the prom in a sea house painted yellow, and down past her house is the old Bray Head hotel, the nightclub from Neil Jordan’s film Angel, where his manager and a deaf girl get gunned down by the IRA and sets him off on a path of vengeance. Life’s funny like that, that you see a film when you’re a teenager with one scene that sticks in your head, and thirty years later you find yourself living a stones throw from that place.
I was standing there in the queue - in the coffee shop - when I found a friend standing next to me holding out a hand to shake. I took a double take as he looked different - he was looking sharp; clean shaven, clean shirt, clean hair - job interview clean, first date clean. He was his usual smily self, funny and smily, the kind of guy that gives off a shy charm that women always fall for - even though, already young, he looks like he’s had a rouge passage - but still dashing, only in a street fighting gypsy way.
This friend of mine’s life revolves around two things, climbing and his girlfriend, his Instagram and Facebook leaving you in no doubt about his love of both. Love is the bobbin around which life is wound, and without something or someone to love life can just feel like a pile of string, and without either of his loves I know this young man - with a troubled story - may have got irretrievable knotted.
“I’m meeting my woman” he said when I asked him why he was looking so flash, the word woman probably not used not out of disrespect, but out of street fighter embarrassment, at being spotted out - Sunday best. “oh it’s not good though - it’s a story for a bivy as you say” he went on, no smile behind his eyes, but something else, something wrong, that look were men laugh at your concern then slink of to cry alone. “We’ve split up”.
It’s always shocking when you know couples that seem so together, so locked into each other, when you find out they’ve broken up. You always ask the same questions of why and how, and hope they sort it out. You know that somewhere people you care about are going through a kind of hell, only a little worse than death, a tragedy that staines their lives and sometimes never ever really comes clean, leaves them damaged, untrusting or bitter - well if that loves was any good anyway. I looked at my mate. “Do you want her back?” I asked, not bothering to ask who’d left who - after all what does it matter. “Yes” he said. I wondered what had happened. They’re young, people make stupid choices, stupid ultimatums, make mistakes. Life’s not book, a film - no rom-com. It’s better and worse than that. It’s unscripted. People often break up because what they thought was love has run its course, but mainly it seems someone says or does something without thinking, or does something because they think too much. Real love is lost because people fuck up and allow the weight of what is ‘right’ - like in those books and films - to get in the way of forgiveness, a pragmatism and empathy that maybe only comes with age, people way to complex to be judge by any unwritten book of rules. I wondered what advice I could give to my mate, how if he wants to get back together to not let pride or what other people may say or do get in the way, how non of that matters when it comes to love - that you should crawl through shit and glass to keep it alive.
“It’s about climbing” he said, “she thinks I’m climbing too much, when all I want to do is climb more”.
‘Oh’ I thought - well that’s different.
In Cold Wars I wrote a line about how climbing, or any obsession, can be highly destructive and destabilising in a relationship, because it becomes ‘the other’. What a lover wants is to be loved completely, to be the centre of the world, the focus of a life - not in a pathetic or needy way, but in an unsaid, and maybe even undone way, like a blank cheque that’s never to be cashed, that in the fire of a life you’d be the first to be saved. Like I said, this is not about being needy or pathetic, it’s about love, love that takes your appetite away, that leaves you daydreaming about your other, beyond sex and friendship - just love, love, love. When you really love someone the closer you get the closer you get to some incredible fusion, to touch them, to lay with them, to laugh and talk shit all that you need, more than food or money or life itself - pure energy. You are two planets in each others orbit, perfectly balanced and prepared to spin around each other forever. Well when love is new that is - to keep this up takes effort, and life always buts in - work, family, kids, Youtube - but as long as you never lose contact with each other that fusion can be everlasting.
But then climbing comes along, climbing or any other life devouring obsession, and can fuck it all up, knocking your love and life off its axis. Now you must be shared, time divided up. Worse than an affair, that when you are no longer there - the love of your life gone - and empty place at the table, and empty bed - they are doing something that seems so unimportant, that you are worthless to a lump of stone, a bike, a mountain trail or curling wave. They tell you that it means so much to them, that it makes them feel alive, that they wouldn’t be the man or woman they love etc - all that crap - but ultimately why aren’t you enough - why can’t you find this together, which tends to translate into salsa dancing. At least a crime of passion can be overlooked, understood and forgiven - put down to hormones or a mid life crisis - just fucking - but what about the crime of obsession?
I get tons of emails and Facebook messages about this problem, from both sides, from those in relationships, those who’s love is breaking down and those that are alone. I see people who have so much in common break down due to obsession by one side, or the ability to deal with it on the other, while others try and piece lives back together without compromise. The other day I read on a pro athlete’s blog ‘“Everyone tells me I can’t have another relationship until I give up being so into sport, but I take that as bullshit! Surely I can be me, and follow my passion without that needing to exclude the possibility of a relationship.”
One of the saddest emails I ever got was from a cyclist who wrote:
Just finished reading Psycho Vertical. It was like I was reading about myself, only I haven’t climbed in 35 years. My addiction is cycling. Whatever it is I am searching for inside myself, cycling has yet to reveal to me. My love of aerobic activity has cost me two marriages as both my wife’s realized the riding would never stop or even slow down, my goals growing with my years. I have never been diagnosed, but am sure I am ADD, cycling brings some calm.
I am happy alone, yet crave someone to come home to, someone to simply be there.
I doubt that will ever happen my activity rarely leaves any of me for them.
Your book has already helped me to make some peace with who I am.
Now I’m someone who’s pretty unique as I’ve been both the source of such obsessive pain - which ended a sixteen year marriage - but also the ‘victim’ of it - ending a seven year relationship. I’ve seen it from both sides (the topic of A Map of Scars - the book I’m writing at the moment). These experiences, although destructive and full of tragedy, have helped me see the impact of obsession in a unique way I guess, and I hope inform me on how to deal with it in the future, and find away through it.
This shit damages lives, and yet little is said about it become most usually we celebrate the ends (the medals and the summits) and not the means, that often when that hero or legend stands tall in their finest hour they stand amongst the wreckage of a someone else’s life. And this is not restricted to sport, but to work as well, something that effects so many people simply labeled as workaholics, but becomes all consuming.
And so, having seen this from both sides I thought I sketch out some ideas, my thought from both sides - from the obsessor and the victim of that obsession.
You are an addict, and everything you do and say and believe is wrong - effected and warped by your obsession. Like any addict it seems normal and anyone who wants to slow you down, or stop you can fuck off.
You are convinced that you are right and nothing is wrong, your heart and head bullet hard, the only thing that matters the goal of your obsession.
You find that you have no real need for friendships beyond your obsession, for the textures and subtle colours of normal life. Everything else - and everybody else - is a distraction. You will get back to life, and will fit in in between trips or training (you can fit it in when you’re resting, make use of that dead time).
Nico once sung “After every last shot there is always another” and that’s how you live, that you know you are giving it 100%, but after this you’ll slow down and change - kick back. You never will unless you’re stopped, get injured, get dropped, realise you’re over the hill or just no good.
Normal life is a firefight, something to rush through in order to reach a goal, sticking plasters for any and everything that deserves attention and care beyond your obsession.
You may think this is over the top, but one day you will look back and be shocked about your behaviour in the pursuit of what you loved - blind and uncompromising. I know that I have been blind to much in the past, that everything else came second, that I let so much good slip through my fingers because nothing mattered but that that mattered the most, ignored my kids, my wife, friendship - the simple act of living - become all I cared about was some future climb. I once told someone who’s dad had had a stroke to stay at a training camp rather than come home, and know of someone who left someone they loved - who was close to killing himself - out in the dark and cold instead of inviting him in as they had training early in the morning. Each and every athlete, if they consider what they have done, must see some deep and troubling. The very act of training hard, damaging your body, hurting your mind, is using up your lifeforce. I’ve met a lot of people who you would consider as being world class athletes and I would consider may as the most unhealthy people I’ve met - physically, mentally and emotionally - a bag of stress and neurosis - eating disorders and body’s broken forever. A funny story - well funny and very grim - that perhaps shows the worst aspects of obsessive behaviour is this one: two climbers on the way to a crag in Yosemite spy the dead body of a soloist in a tree. Instead of running to tell the rangers, they instead carried on and went climbing, thinking they’d call it in on there way home - why waste a day? Only when they went home they found a bear had pulled down the body and eaten half of it. If you consider this story, it’s deeply troubling on many levels.
So what do you do?
Well some can give up - go cold turkey or find something easier to manage, a gateway drug to normality. Some come to terms with the inescapability of their isolation and obsession, that what they love and need to be alive is not another person, but a surfboard, a road bike, and pair of rock shoes. They make a choice to be alone, holding out some hope that one day they may find someone who understands - who can take it - but feel - within their obsessive fug - that it’s worth it. I do know of people who did find someone else, someone who was as obsessed as them, a junky, where shooting up seems OK - seems normal. But often - the tragedy - is that when confronted by another’s obsession, love makes one wake up - and see the reality of their life, to see at last that texture and colour, to see that what they thought was distraction was really the gentle music of life.
For most though you can’t turn your back on what or who you love if you truly love it or them. That’s not an option really, unless you’re willing to give either up and live with the consequences.
If you’ve already lost one relationship it’s easy to believe you can come clean and find another, that the excitement of being with someone new, falling a bit or a lot in love, can work. Love is intoxicating at first, and you make compromises, to focus everything on the new relationship - you blow life into it with all you have to give - you even think that maybe it means more than your other love. But maybe a month, maybe half a year down the line that obsession creeps back in - it always does. For some it’s welcomed back, like a friend of the family, only one just out of prison, dangerous maybe. And with feet firmly under the table the obsession grows, and you ask for your cake, slice after slice until it takes hold again. You push hard to have it all, but something has to give usually, one heart has to break - sometimes a little sometimes a lot. What at first is support and understanding can soon grow to resentment. Worst still you can make yourself irrelevant, that the stronger the love, the stronger the pain.
First you feel love,
then feel sorrow,
then feel hate,
then feel pity.
Then one day you feel nothing at all,
and wonder how you ever did.
But in the end, no matter how damming these words I’ve written may seem, the fact you can lose everything you have, it still feels worth it.
That’s how it feels
First off you’re not a victim, you probably knew how it would be but thought that love was stronger than that, that you could be enough. Well you weren’t, but don’t make this personal. In the Red Shoes (a great film to watch if you want to understand uncompromising obsession, as well as Whiplash) the ballet dancer is asked why she wants to dance and her reply is “Why do you want to live?”. Another film to watch is Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, where no matter how much Drover loves Lady Sarah Ashley he has to go droving, something she mistakenly sees as a lack of love - that he loves his cows more than her. But cycling, climbing, running or droving are NOT the problem. Yes you can stop cycling, climbing and running, but they are not what ales your relationship, they are the manifestation of who that person is - what makes them them, an ingredient that makes you love them, part of that DNA. To deny it or to stifle it for someone else is both wrong and damaging. Imagine if you loved to sing but one day someone asked you to stop out of love, who’d you be able to do it, would you still love the one you loved if they can ask the un-askable, and how long could you keep it up? Somehow you must come to terms with and find some peace with the focus of their obsession - to not stand in the way, but to stand beside it and know you do mean more (you have the un-cashable cheque). If you make an ultimatum of ‘it’ or me, they may chose ‘it’, because they don’t believe that ‘it’ would ever leave them, or ask such a question. In the end Lady Sarah Ashley comes to realise this, and understands that he doesn’t go droving because he loves droving more than here, but because that’s what he is - he’s a drover.
What to do?
A relationship, no matter how strong and fixed it seems, is not static, but fluid - good - bad - ecstasy - tragedy - fighting - forgiving - a process of holding on to something you cannot live without, that you’d be a fool to let go. Most of all a relationship is a never ending process of negotiation, of empathy, understanding and acceptance.
If you can you need to be able to stand back somehow from your obsession and take stock. You need to understand that what you see as restriction and nagging and neediness is nothing but an excess of love. Do you want to be loved, to be wanted or is that love simply standing in the way - that person you once loved nothing but a speed bump?
I know a lot of people who’s relationships are in crisis and I always say “go on holiday together - just the two of you - and if after a week you hate each other - or don’t care either way, then split up, but if you feel love again, make it work”. If you can, take a holiday from your obsession to see if you have a relationship still. If you refuse to even try then you’re fucked, and deserve to be alone, and for your partner to find someone deserving of their love.
If you have the gift of someone else’s love, and you don’t want to risk losing it, then take a slice off the top of that obsessive focus, and focus it on them - if for no other reason than breaking up will be a major set back to that obsession!
If you’re alone, you must find a partner who shares your passions and obsessions, that when you are away instead of being jealous of it taking you away, they are sad they are not able to join you, but know that they will have fun times to come. Having a partner who has there own obsessions helps, as it gives you space within to handle yours - just don’t let that space become a void.
Probably most important of all is to have empathy and compassion for each other, to not act like a selfish asshole and give as well as take. Love should never be taken for granted, or simply left to spoil - for some it never ever comes again. You need to make the time to sacrifice what seems so precious, to spend time with those you love, and know that they know how much they mean to you - that they are not forgotten or neglected, but valued and cherished.
And so reading this do you recognise any of this in yourself? Perhaps you do, but think it’s under control, perhaps you should let someone close to you to read it and see if they agree.
But what of the positives you ask? after all without those positives, those affirmations of all you wish to be, that makes the obsession worth it, there would be no obsession at all, there would only be a sickness.
Well I’d had to juggle with a lot of obsessive behaviour all my life, even if I didn’t recognise it at the time (I also see it in my son Ewen - which makes it easier for me to see it in myself), coming most obviously in the form of climbing and writing, but also tons of other things. If other people are going to have to come to terms with me, I need to come to term with this, and need to see it as both a blessing and course, that all I have is down to such behaviour. I also have to acknowledge the harm it has done to good people who loved me. For me even the threat of death was not enough to make me stop, my focus on goals making death normal, something you just accept, like a muddy rugby shirt. Compared to that, what chance was there for love to win out? But having felt the pain of someone else’s uncompromising drive (that’s what it takes) was what broke me in the end, I got to feel it, be be of no value to someone you love, for your love to be set aside for years in pursuit of goal who’s end is uncertain. I was strong enough to inflict it, but too weak to take it - especially when I knew I’d lent the weight of my own obsession to someone else.
But now, I find myself here, down by the sea, sat with a friend, taking time to talk about stuff like this, telling him a little of what I’ve written here. For a long time I had no real life, life was simply waiting - but now I have one. Here I sit with a new friend in that new life, life no longer just narrow passage that led to some end, but something wide and boundless, full of what I once saw as log jams and speed bumps - but what I now know is called living. Now I have someone - my own Lady Sarah Ashley - who is a little obsessive and driven and so understand why I need to go droving, to sit alone and write stuff like this, who accepts that’s who I am, that who - or what - you love is as much a construct of their faults as their goodness, and to take either away would mean they are nothing at all.