Kalani Simpson

No longer weighed down
by addiction

SHE'D done it. She'd lifted what her father called "one large slab of patio ready for lift-off!" The judges' lights had called it good, the announcer agreed and the place went nuts. She punched the air in triumph.

This was when her dad knew. He could see it in her, in this moment. She was herself again. The old spark had returned.

Then, again. More weight. This time, poundage equivalent to "enough rice to feed one sumo team at one sitting," dad said. Up! Good! Yessss!

She slapped her hands together, SMACK!, chalk everywhere.

"Just like on TV!" her proud father said.

She'd done it. She was the World Association of Benchers and Dead Lifters Hawaii state 148-pound women's dead-lift champion. She'd climbed the mountain. She was all the way back.

At the end of it all, after all she'd been through, after all those dark days, she'd done it. She got the movie ending. She lived the storybook finish. This is that happy ending.

Except it isn't.

It's the happy beginning.

"And now my brain is so clear," Malia Koenig says. "It's as if like (on the computer) with Windows and you have drop-down menus. Well, that's what my brain is like now.

"It's like I think of one thing and I've got this drop-down menu going for it, and then I think of another thing -- and I can keep all on top of it."

"That's one thing about sobriety," she would say. "I had deadened and numbed my senses for so long that everything came back to life."

ONE DAY SHE came home and her kids were gone. This was a year and a few months ago. She remembers the date exactly. It's scorched into her brain.

It was a crazy, chaotic time. The marriage was ending anyway, so let's not wade in with a third-hand newspaper story and start assigning credit or blame. It's immaterial what Koenig's now-ex-husband's motivation was when he took their kids to the mainland.

Doesn't matter now. Didn't really matter to her then. That's not what this story is about.

What matters is that it happened, and what she did about it. What matters is what happened next.

Koenig figured she had three choices. She could go to court, get a sheriff, go through a vicious custody battle with her children stuck in the middle. She didn't want to do that to them.

She could follow her ex to the mainland, chase him. "I wasn't going to play that game," she says.

Or, there was one option left: "Become the best me I could be, show my children, take that time, the time I had away from them, to clean myself up.

"So I chose the third one," she says.

As she put it, she screeched on the brakes and went the other way.

Thank goodness. She needed to wake up. She needed to start climbing.

She needed to get clean. Her father so celebrated those triumphant lifts because he knew what she was really winning when she'd raised that weight. He'd seen where she'd come from. What she had been.

Addiction ...

"Geez, you want me to break it down to daily intake?" she says.

No, um ...

"It was really bad," she says. "I mean, an 8-ball a day.

"I was dancing, my ex had stopped working and I had to support the family and it was the only way I saw fit that I could pull in money and still spend time with my kids. It all just totally spiraled. It went into the lowest lows I've ever had."

The lowest one was realizing her kids were gone. She knew it then. It was time to get to work.

SHE GOT CLEAN. She kicked. Then, not even a week later, she was lifting weights, under the expert tutelage of a friend of a friend.

She always thought she'd kept in decent shape, had always lost the pregnancy pounds, had been to "gyms." This was different. There still has never been anything as heavy as that broomstick on that first day.

She learned to breathe, to stand.

She learned philosophy and form.

When Koenig talks about it, it sounds like she took up karate, rather than pumping plates.

"That's what I really feel, is I was reborn there," she says. "My whole sense of being born into my body."

She found out she was stronger than she thought, in more ways than one. She found out she liked lifting, found herself dreaming about it, even though when her coach first shared tales of lifting dreams, Koenig thought it sounded nuts.

She found it helped her focus, and she liked that. That was something special, new. Normally, her brain can spin in 1,000 directions at once.

She found a support system, when she needed one the most.

"She's just the world's best coach," Koenig says.

"It makes me want to cry, obviously," she says.

She's found work, too. She's a partner and CEO in a local Internet company. In a year, she's worked her way up from data entry to boss.

"It's been really good to have the business to work through to help keep me focused," she says. "Sometimes, maybe early on in the first few months of sobriety, that it was very hard to stay focused. It was, just, my cells -- every cell in my body was just craving this certain behavior and I was like 'no!' "

It's easier, now. She's smiling.

She's lifting.

"To me, I guess it's the equivalent of what some women do when they go to a day spa," she says. "I get to just focus on myself. That's what I get out of power lifting.

"For me it frees my mind it strengthens my body. It strengthens my ability to focus. To me it's a relief and a release and yet it's educational. I learn a lot about myself after each of my training sessions."

SO HERE SHE is, state champion now. Drug free. She'd found out about the June 11 Hawaii Power Lifting Meet just weeks before, while most serious lifters train for months. She signed up. She was terrified.

Then she went up and dead lifted 303 pounds.

It wasn't the happy ending, just the official beginning. She's a walking cliché these days -- high on life. Her business. Her lifting. Her kids.

She's still addicted. Just addicted to better things.

"It's just me, though," she says. "I'll take anything and turn it into an addiction. It's just my personality type. But my strength is that I recognize that weakness. And I can use it. It's there when I need it. It's there for me to pull from."

Her oldest daughter lives with her now. The others officially live with their father on the mainland, but they're with her long holidays, and for the summer, seven weeks.

They just missed seeing those triumphant lifts. Their plane was a couple of days too late.

But they see the difference in her, the way her dad does. They see the spark. They know she's back.

"It's a real sweet-sour mix," she says. Things are going great, everybody's getting along. Her brain has returned, firing on all cylinders. Lessons from lifting have made her a better mother, believe it.

And now that she's sober she can feel everything -- including the pain of missing her children when they're away.

But the state title qualifies her for the world meet in November. Her ex-husband has already said he and the kids are headed to Reno to watch. They'll be there, cheering for her, all of them.

Training for a world title?

"Why not?" she says.

That would make a pretty good happy ending. But then, life doesn't work that way. If it could be another happy beginning, it would be more than good enough.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com

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