So here I am. Tucked away in a lodge in Tanzania, so close to Kilimanjaro I can almost feel its shadow caressing my body. Just a little more than a year ago I swore I'd spend my 51st birthday climbing Kili, one of the Seven Summits, as the tallest mountain on each continent are called. I'm five days late. I'm okay with that.
I started taking an antidepressant today. Wellbutrin, to be specific - a low dose, 150 milligrams. It's been a long time coming. I held out after my brother overdosed three years ago, after my father broke his neck and our dog died and my mom started to lose her mind. Held out, too, when T left almost exactly a year ago. Held out even when my mother was diagnosed with dementia a couple months ago. I told myself over and over that given what I'd been through, was going though, I was doing okay. Anyone in my position would be sad, right? Anyone would struggle. This isn't illness; this is a natural response to a series of vile little gut punches, the kind that life seems to gleefully dole out every once in awhile. I'm okay.
But the thing is, I'm not. I'm not okay. I'm in a dangerous place, a place I've been before, long ago. I have the scars to prove it on the inside of my wrists. Long, vertical ones, the kind you have when you meant it. I've lost the ability to concentrate. I can't focus. Writing - pulling the words out, making something beautiful with them, the thing that's kept me mostly sane this past year - has become nearly impossible. I've slid downhill in the past few months, inexorably, but so slowly at first I didn't notice. I cry all the time now. I do have a few hours occasionally, maybe a couple days or a week if I'm lucky, when I feel a little less pain and fear, when I might actually experience little chunks of happiness. But then I tumble down that well, falling with what seems like no end. I lose hope. I start thinking it would be such wonderful relief to stop this monstrous hurt. I start thinking I want an end like my brother's...just drifting away, peacefully.
I think about it, but I don't do it. Instead, I bear down. I push into the hurt until it abates. And then I pick myself up and I go on.
But I'm so tired. I can't live this way anymore. And so I messaged my doctor and asked him to write me a script for Wellbutrin. I've been on it before; I know it's about the only antidepressant with no sexual side effects. Hell, even at my lowest there is no way now I'm going to take a med that lessens my ability to experience pleasure, or lowers my interest in having it. That really would send me over the edge. So, Wellbutrin it is.
Hello, old friend. It's been awhile, hasn't it?
At one point, after I was hospitalized a little more than 15 years ago, I was on Wellbutrin. Seroquel, an anti-psychotic, too. And Depokote, a mood stabilizer, and Celexa, for anxiety, I think. The maximum dosages of all them. I was no longer a menace to society, fucking 21-year-olds and snorting Ecstasy and taking off for Philadelphia with a guy I barely knew to a house I'd never been with nothing but chaos on my mind. Instead, I slept 12 hours a day. I never got sad. I never felt happy. I was stable, doing fine, only occasionally wondering what had become of the woman I once was. I'd been declawed, made safe by swallowing sanity in a bottle. But it felt like just about everything I'd been - good, bad, all of it in between - was lost along the way.
After a few years I went off the meds. I was with a partner, living in a beautiful old house in a small town, far removed from havoc and the desire to create it. Without any warning my girl parts turned traitor, demanding that I have children, and fast, before it was too late. So I went off the pills, those bright little bits of stability, all of them, under my psychiatrist's supervision. I stepped down slowly, by lowering the dosages of each med one by one, until I was clean. It took months, unbearable months, when I was so sick I could barely move from the couch. Low-grade migraines that never ended, nausea, exhaustion, dizziness, all day, every day - it was akin, I imagine, to what chemotherapy patients endure.
I never got pregnant, but I stayed off the meds. And I was okay. For better than 15 years I was simply Jill: Mercurial yes, difficult but not dangerous, with a shiny spirit that drew people to me. I still sought the edge, but never went over it. I began building a career, discovered that I have an ability to write that people will pay for, and found that I could satiate my need for thrills with sky diving and volcano boarding and the like - less dangerous pursuits then bad boys with big drugs and fast cars and malleable morals. And then I fell hard for T, the man I believed was him, the great love of my life. I'd walked away from the woman who'd been diagnosed as possibly bipolar, but definitely afflicted with Borderline Personality Disorder. I was no longer ill. Not me.
And now here I am, back on medication. Does it mean I'm sick again, this little dose of Wellbutrin? Or does it mean I'm well enough to know I need help, a bit of a bump, to set things right again? I thought it would feel like defeat as I slid the first tablet onto my tongue today. But it felt a lot more like relief. I might not be okay, not really, but I think I will be soon.
I was in the gym yesterday, training. Working my body hard enough on the elliptical that sweat was running down my neck, my breath coming in gasps and pants. A song called out over the speakers, a silly song from the mid-90s, when I was sort of a big deal as the night jock at an alternative rock station in Oklahoma City.
I was a wild thing then, not even 30 years old. I changed my hair color on a whim, from black to red and back to black, and I changed my men that way, too, though I was married. Married to one of my great loves, a man I hurt terribly, one of the few regrets I will carry forever with me, a stone on my soul.
I was very, very good at my job. I was sexy and funny and ditzy and smart; I was all the things I'd been told a few years before by a radio consultant I couldn't be at once. As a woman, he'd said, I could choose - my on-air persona could be the seductive kitten, or the bubbleheaded cheerleader or the amusing sidekick, if I worked morning drive. Nothing more, though probably a lot less.
But I did what I wanted and was pretty much exactly on-air who I was off. I was a big hit - there was a lot of talk almost right from the beginning that I was going to end up in L.A., or maybe New York. Along about that time I met S and all those dreams dissolved, like sugar in hot coffee, though far less sweet. S was an addict and a dealer and I fell for him for no good goddamn reason at all. Except he thrilled me. He spoke to me with sly poetry and seemed capable of feeling every big, bright, dangerous emotion I did.
Every night with him seemed like it might spin out of control, might spin me right off the planet and into the black, silky darkness. I liked that. The way I liked that he played Dylan - Tangled Up in Blue - while he fucked me, once after he cuffed my hands behind my back and pushed me facedown over the back of the couch. I liked it the way I liked how he helped me shed my clothes beside a motel swimming pool after we'd dosed ourselves with LSD and wanted to feel the water, shockingly cold on that hot Okie night, against our skin.
There were other drugs of his ahead for me. Crack. Meth, injected with a needle once. Never heroin. Somehow I avoided heroin. This was all a couple years in the future, though. So was the night a dealer waved a gun at me, as S sat frozen and I smiled, beautifully high and figuring I'd be fine.
But every night that long-ago Oklahoma summer, every time I was on the air, I played "Semi-Charmed Life." The lyrics tell the story of a couple undone by drugs, looking for something else to get them through "this semi-charmed kind of life." It was a light little alt-pop confection, no great art, but when I heard that song it seemed it was written just for me, cursed as I was with my own semi-charmed life.
I hadn't heard it for years and years before yesterday in the gym. But as I listened to it, my eyes starting to burn with tears I didn't want to release, I realized I wasn't that girl anymore. The self-destructive one, the one tormented and broken, a great, shining magnet for men even more broken then her. The one who hungered for any experience, especially experiences of the darkest kind. I'm not her at all.
The last couple of years have hurt, so deeply and profoundly it makes me want to believe I've gotten all the hurting done, though I know it's not true. My brother's death from an overdose, after he discovered the only drug I'd managed to avoid. My parent's decline. T not simply leaving me after all our years together, but abandoning me with the greatest speed, as if I were hazardous to him. Or just, I suppose, as if I were worthless.
And now, my mother's dementia diagnosis. It was less than a month ago, but it seems to be chewing its way through her, through what's left of my family, very fast. The more she slips away into strange fantasies built on long-ago truths, the older my father becomes. I'm watching it happen, but I haven't processed it, or come anywhere close to accepting it. Do you ever, I wonder? I'll guess I'll find out.
A week after I listened to my mother tell her doctor it was 1976, that we were living in her long-dead grandmother's house in a town an hour away, I received an email from a company offering to host me on a Kilimanjaro climb. In exactly 95 days, on July 27, I will place a foot at the bottom of that mountain. I'm not coming down until I've touched the top of the world.
This is my semi-charmed life, every tragedy, every triumph, and for the first time I'm embracing it, arms open, eyes forward.
Maybe he's just what I need, when I need it, this feral man I'm about to take off across the South with, just the two of us and his guitar in a throwback maroon van, shiny with chrome, smelling of me - patchouli and lemongrass - and him - clean sweat and sweet weed - and the musky, satisfied scent our bodies create together. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I didn't expect to see him after Nashville and that weekend I can't quite remember that left me with a broken foot and a lost voice and shining eyes and a pretty-near healed heart.
But CC called me after I got home and I answered and he hasn't stopped calling and I haven't stopped answering. I texted him a few weeks after Nashville late one night, wrote him that I was thinking of how we had lain naked and smooth together under that white, soft sheet. We should hook up, he replied. New Year's. We met in the middle, exactly halfway between us, in Charleston, West Virginia, and he wasn't irritated I was hours late. I could hear his guitar as I walked down the motel hallway and when I opened the door he smiled.
We spent most of those three days in bed. He's as hungry as I am. We've been tormenting each other for a week now, as we get closer to our next tryst. Whispering what we want in late night phone calls, swearing that we aren't touching our own bodies, that we're saving it all, every bit of longing and need, for each other. We laugh, saying those desk clerks better give us a room on a deserted floor. He was going to head down to Florida, to warm weather and beaches, though he prefers the mountains to the sea, like me. I wasn't going to get involved again, at all, for a long, long time.
CC fascinates me the way broken-not-bent people do. I recognize myself in him, I think. He inspires my bones. He sings to my wild. In the hours we spent in the cool, grey light of our motel room he shared such intimate pieces of himself. He was open, unguarded in a way T had never quite been, not in the five years of our relationship. CC told me he was nearly illiterate when he went to prison. He taught himself how to read with Lee Iacocca's autobiography, the only book he had, pouring over it again and again. When he got out a couple years later he bought shelffulls of books, whole rooms full. He said he shipped them all home to his mother for safekeeping when he left LA for Hawaii, but he doesn't know what happened to them.
He told me spent years in Hollywood, trying to be an actor. It surprised me a bit at first but now I can see it. There's a certain vanity to CC, and a charisma, too. He takes care of himself - drinking wheat grass juice. working his body out hard - the way people who know they're beautiful do. He told me he's half-Cherokee and half-Polish. He has the high cheekbones and bold brow of a Native American. The strong nose, too, and I can see an echo of his heritage in the shape of his eyes, though they are a muted green rather than brown.
He told me when he was about five or six his father took him and his three brothers to K-Mart, where he set them loose, instructing them to go play. Instead, CC quietly followed him, watching from a hidden spot as his dad picked up a set of golf clubs and tried to return them for cash. When the cashier refused, he walked out of the store with them. CC says his dad was a con man.
He told me about the women he's loved and the trouble he's made, about his brothers and his mom and how alcoholism runs rampant through his family, like it does in mine. The more CC talked, the more I liked him. He's like a great literary character, I kept thinking, he really is Dean Moriarty in On the Road. I want to write his story - or perhaps I want him to help write mine.
I set off in hours for two weeks travels with him, from Nashville to Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to New Orleans, to Florence, Alabama and back up to Nashville. I've packed more lingerie than I knew I had and stuffed beside the corsets and nighties are fleece jackets and hiking boots, because we like to get outside almost as much as we like to stay in bed. Almost. Along the way we'll be hitting up juke joints and dive bars, blues clubs and honky tonks, as I ferret out the songs of the south for a magazine assignment.
I don't know what to expect. I don't know how it will all go down. Maybe we'll end up in Honduras. Maybe he'll teach me the guitar. Maybe we'll part ways and never speak again but always smile when we think of each other.
Oh, I love that. I'm so grateful life has the ability to surprise me yet.
,About a month or so ago, I lost a big job. It would have been, at the time I lost it, the biggest writing gig I'd ever gotten. Not precisely the most prestigious, or the most fun, but it certainly would have paid the most. (Unless you consider hours spent, and then it most assuredly would not have paid the most.) It was a job as the new Pennsylvania guidebook writer for Moon Travel Guides. They do a nice job, Moon does, as I discovered in my research when I first applied for the gig, back in September. They're not Lonely Planet, but their publications have a bit of zip along with a ton of good information.
Some friends sent me the ad they ran - I think in Philly's Craiglist - detailing their search for a new guidebook writer. I saw it late; they were closing their call for applicants in about a day. So even though I was at a travel conference I pulled an all-nighter updating my resume and writing a beautiful cover letter that was basically an epic poem to my home state, which if you know me at all you know I love pretty much like nowhere else.
I crushed it. I got to the next level, a phone interview with the acquisitions editor, which I did on the run, as I was getting ready to leave on an epic trip that started with a visit to the Log Cabin Republican's annual D.C. soiree, continued on with a long weekend's jaunt to Puerto Rico, and ended with a three-day, thirty-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park with my good friend, Hope. I crushed the phone interview, too. I found out I was one of maybe two writers in contention for the guidebook gig while I was hiking the AT.
The acquisitions editor wanted me to have my proposal - my 60-page proposal - finished in two weeks. A 14-day period that included not only what I believe could accurately be called a shit-ton of deadlines but also more trips thither and yonder. I told her I couldn't do it and make my other deadlines - and there was no way I was letting my editors down. She gave me a two-week extension. I proceeded to kill myself getting that monster done. I mean, instead of going to the beach in Puerto Rico I worked on that proposal. Instead of hitting the town in Memphis, I worked on that proposal. I worked pretty much 36 hours STRAIGHT, no stopping, to make that deadline. I worked as hard on that proposal as I've ever worked on anything in my life. 60 pages.
It was GOOD. I had plenty of suggestions how the next Moon Travel Guides PA guidebook could be improved - amending what I consider pretty glaring deficiencies - and it was well-written, funny and intelligent and informative and full of love for the Keystone State and all the weirdos and misfits who call it home. I was sure I had it in the bag. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be the next Moon Travel Guides Pennsylvania guidebook writer. Although I did have plenty of doubt about how I was going to research and write the damn thing and still climb Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua. But I'd figure that out as I went along, I told myself. The important thing was the money, which would pay off my credit card and allow me to get Botox.
Yes, this is what I was going to do with the guidebook money. Credit card debt and Botox. Which should tell you just how puny that check was going to be, because I'm not that deeply in debt.
And then I didn't hear back from the acquisitions editor and I didn't hear back and I didn't hear back and it started to occur to me that maybe, just maybe, I didn't get it. One morning I woke up, checked my email, and discovered, in fact, that I would most assuredly not be writing the next Moon Travel Guides PA guidebook.
"Huh," I remember thinking. "THAT'S weird."
And that was about the level of my non-response. I was surprised, in a sort of "How did that happen??" kind of way. But that was pretty much it. Despite all that work I put into that proposal - work I was not getting a cent for, work that I figured there was a good chance was somehow going to mysteriously end up in the new guidebook from whatever writer got the gig over me - I didn't really care. Equanimity, thy name is Jill.
Thing is, it's not. I don't handle rejection or failure or any combination thereof well. I can even get what you'd call a little high-strung about it. By all rights, considering I was also going through everything else I've been detailing in this blog, I should have taken to my bed for at least a week. But I didn't. I sort of shrugged it off in a way I can't explain.
Two days later, I was under contract to write a web column for Woman's Day, based on this blog. Two days later, I was fulfilling a dream I'd held for decades inside myself, carefully, with great tenderness, a little fear and almost unbearable love, the way a first-time mother holds an infant. Two days later.
I found out I lost the guidebook gig Tuesday. Wednesday, I had a call with the features editor of the Woman's Day's website, a doll of a girl I met on one of my press trips to Puerto Rico that I pretty much flat-out adore. While we were bouncing around in the back of a van on a madcap tour of San Juan, Maria told me about the Hope After Heroin series Woman's Day was publishing online. I thanked her for having the guts to tackle a subject as ugly and tragic as heroin addiction and then informed her my brother had been lost to an overdose. If she was interested, I said, I'd send her a blog post I'd written about Gunnar's death. She was interested and pretty much just like that, within two weeks I'd written my first essay for Woman's Day, which may just be the most important thing I write, ever.
Maria liked that essay, and the subsequent article I wrote about Carmel, California for Country Living's site, which she also edits. So I decided to pitch her a column for Woman's Day based on this blog. Because, you see, when I first started this blog, back in July, I said - I mean I actually said this aloud, to various family members and friends - "I'm going to start a blog about what I'm going through since Gunnar's death and my breakup with T and my parents' health issues and also about getting ready to climb Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua. And I'm going to write as honestly and beautifully as I can. And then, in about December, I'm going to sell it to the website of a women's magazine like Woman's Day."
I actually said that. More than once.
In early December, a DAY, one damn day, after I got turned down for that guidebook, I pitched the column to Maria. She liked it. She liked it so much she asked me to send her six column ideas so she could present them to the editor-in-chief at their meeting the NEXT DAY.
She emailed me less than an hour after the start of her meeting with good news. I was now a columnist for Woman's Day. As a matter of fact, my very first column for them went live a couple days ago.
That's not to say my future is assured. Woman's Day expects big things of me - 25,000 visitors per column, which seems a dauntingly ginormous number. They are giving me a shot for the first quarter of 2017. After that, who knows? But I will tell you exactly what I'm working on making manifest: getting that contract extended, getting a book deal, climbing those two damn mountains to the tippy-tops, writing a memoir - and grinding Cheryl Strayed under my boot heels in the process - after which I'll write a screenplay and win an Oscar. And then get that TV show on-air I've been been chewing on for a half-decade. And maybe, just maybe, climb Everest.
Why the fuck not, right? Who does it serve to dream small? Not me. Not anyone. And if I fail? Hell, if I die up on that nasty beast Aconcagua? Well, at least I gave it a shot.
By the way, the reason I didn't get that guidebook deal? The other writer has a "really succinct voice that meshes well" with the guidebook's style.
I can live with that.
I've been writing a long time about facing fear, about how it cracks open wide your life, and - to paraphrase Leonard Cohen - lets the light in. But I've just discovered it's one thing to face a fear of drowning by whitewater rafting, or of heights by paragliding off a mountain. It's another thing entirely to face a fear that you will not be strong enough to take care of your family when they need you most.
Almost a year ago exactly my father fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae in a fall. He could have - should have, really - died. But he survived and after hours in our local hospital was transferred by ambulance 90 miles to a medical center with specialists more capable of handling his injury. While I was with him in the ER, T stayed with my mother. She's not really able anymore to spend much time alone. She's got emphysema, is on oxygen 24/7, is in almost constant pain from a distintegrating spine and is beginning to show signs of what I'm afraid is dementia.
Once, not long after my brother's death, she was so confused that my father and I had to show her a photo of Gunnar and gently explain to her that her son was never coming home.
"He died, Mom," I told her. "He's gone." I held her as she sobbed, thinking there was really not any way that I was going to survive the moment. It hurt too much. You always hear tell about how life is cruel, but until then I didn't understand just gleefully cruel it could be.
The night my dad broke his neck my uncle and cousin came to stay with my mother, so T could be with me. We followed behind the ambulance bearing my father, the stars shining down on us with a brillance that only seems possible on the very coldest rural Pennsylvania nights. After Dad was tucked in to the ICU we checked into a motel. I remember I was afraid to go to sleep, terrified the phone would ring and a voice on the other end would tell me my father was dead.
We were there three nights, the whole while my aunt and uncle watching over my mom at their house. Finally my father was stable enough to be transferred to a rehab facility in our town, where he stayed for two weeks. But I'd spent a lot of the time he was recovering in ICU numb with fear that I was going to lose him. The rest I'd pondered what I would have done without T. How could I have coped if I'd been without his quiet, steadfast support? What if, after spending all day at Dad's bedside in ICU, I would have had to go back to that motel and crawl into that cold bed, alone?
I used to believe I would have broken apart. Maybe I would have. But I'm no longer the woman I once was. The pain of losing T - and my ability to negotiate that pain, as unlovely as the process has been - has honed me. I think it has sharpened my abilities to bear trauma and stress. If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger. Eventually, that is, after it's first torn you apart, left you bloodied in a ditch by the side of the road. But if you rise up out of that place, the seams where you've stitched yourself together are more solid than you would have believed possible.
Three days ago my father went to see his doctor. He wasn't feeling well. Before he could make it in he nearly collapsed in the parking lot. A creatinine blood test revealed he was in kidney failure. I took Dad to the ER, the same ER I'd taken him almost a year ago, after his fall, and waited four or five hours while they ran more tests. Although the ER physician believed his issues were only caused by dehydration, they admitted him. I was forced to leave mom alone. T, of course, is long gone, a memory I'm willing to become more faded, dull, like a Poloroid picture that never quite developed. My mother did fine. I did, too, on my own, taking care of my father.
They discovered the next day that both of my Dad's kidneys were blocked by stones, which he's suffered from his whole life. I get them, too. They scheduled him for surgery, to implant stents to drain his kidneys and restore their function. Sometime that day, while Mom and I were visiting Dad in the hospital, our pug dog, Lola, injured herself. When we came home she was having trouble standing on her back legs.
I spent yesterday getting Lola to the vet and Mom and me to the hospital, picking up Lola and taking her and my mother back home, making dinner and finally going back alone to the hospital tonight to spend time with my dad. It was stressful. It was exhausting. Mom and I got into a couple of arguments. I need to have so much more patience. Because she's scared, too, just like me.
But it looks like Dad is going to be fine, though I just heard they're keeping him another night. We're hopeful Lola will mend, too. My Dad and I have had our issues, our blowups. But last night I was able to sit with him for a spell, reading aloud to him as the hospital quieted around us. I'll never forget it, that time. I'm grateful for it.
I'm grateful, too, that I was able to handle everything, all of it, on my own. Not perfectly, or gracefully, or with as much good humor or equanimity as I would like. I want to do better. Unfortunately, I know I'll have the chance to try. But there is comfort in knowing that I didn't fail my parents. In knowing that I'm stronger than I once was - and less strong than I will someday be.
His name was Craig, though he told me I could call him CC. I met him in a honky tonk - Robert's Western World I think - in Nashville, the same city where I met T almost six years ago. I was with a couple of friends and I went to the bar to get a refill. I was drinking Red Bull and vodka, an insane beverage that if you're not careful can make you blackout drunk while you're still, more or less, walking and talking. I drink them when I'm exhausted but refuse to concede defeat. Or I did - before that night it had been years since I'd had one. I wasn't precisely intoxicated, but I was on my way. I was having fun. The joint was crowded, the band was good and I wasn't thinking about T. I wasn't sad, or fearful, or feeling guilty about something I couldn't quite name. I was feeling like the woman I once was - carefree, bold, even joyous - before pain came into my life and pulled up a chair, deciding to stay for a spell.
And then, drink in hand, I turned to head back to my table and there was CC. We looked at each other. And there was never any doubt what was going to happen. Because in that moment, quicksilver fast and white hot, like a lightning strike on a deserted beach, we recognized each other. It wasn't that we'd ever met before. I think that CC and I simply saw the same wild in each other that dwells within ourselves. That's the only way I can explain it. It's happened before to me, most recently in Ireland, the night I met Thomas. It's an attraction that goes beyond appearance, and maybe even chemistry. I think it's really more of an unconscious acknowledgement that you've just met one of your tribe.
CC was beautiful, though. I can't say that didn't matter. Only about my height, but packed with sinewy muscle that spoke less of time in the gym than long days of physical labor and intense dedication to play in the sun and fresh air. He had wispy silver hair, big fierce green eyes, a huge smile that revealed a mouthful of straight, white teeth and a laidback, laconic speaking style. He looked and sounded like the surfer he soon told me was. He'd lived in Hawaii, he said, for seven years, and skiied most of the big mountains in Colorado. I don't know if even five minutes passed before he kissed me.
When we returned to the table we found my friends gone. That was okay. CC and I spent the rest of the night making our way between honky tonks. I know Tooties was a stop, and maybe Legends, where my life had changed when T pulled me to my feet for a dance. T, who had broken my heart badly enough I feared it might never be made intact again. T, who I didn't stop to ponder once that whole long, sweet evening. Instead, CC and I kissed and laughed, buying each other drinks and telling tales about our lives. At 51 he was just a bit older than me - and he had my energy, too, like most of the rebels and madmen who have shared my bed over the years.
I took CC home with me that night, as I knew I would, and the next night, too. He was a skilled lover, ardent. We used our fingers and mouths to pleasure each other. His hands were roughened from carpentry and contracting work. His tongue, hot and seeking. It had been so long - going on four years - since I'd been with anyone but T. I was tense, a little shy, at least at first. But running my hands over CC's strong chest, pinning my mouth, tender from his kisses, to his hard abdomen, I felt something unmooring inside me. Perhaps it was the woman I once was, before T. She wasn't gone, I was discovering. She just been tucked up inside me, hidden away from criticism. From judgment. And now she was coming free.
When we'd finished, CC curled himself to me like we were two cats in a patch of sunlight. We slept like that, easefully.
We spent much of our second night talking. CC was a loner, living in a van he drove around the country anywhere he chose. A brawler, he had practiced Buddhism for years as a way to control his temper and still meditated every day. He smoked weed but seldom drank, was estranged from his family and had been in prison in his youth for dealing coke. He'd never married and was largely self-educated in the service of "freeing his mind." I was the first woman he'd been with in more than a year. He was kind to me, sharing himself freely, without hesitation. He told me of his youth growing up poor in Ohio with an alcoholic father. I told him my brother died of a heroin overdose.
Somewhere along the way, in between bouts of lovemaking, perhaps while we were talking, or maybe even sleeping, it came to me that I was more relaxed with this near-stranger than I think I ever truly felt with the man who I believed was the love of my life. With CC I could be utterly, completely myself.
When morning came, I suggested he pick up a copy of "On the Road." "You remind me of Dean Moriarty," I told him. Then, with a lingering kiss, he was out the door. He texted me later, asking again the name of the book I wanted him to read, but I haven't heard from him since. Maybe I'll call him on Christmas, maybe not. It's possible our paths may cross again, the way those of inveterate wanderers often do. Either way, he's nicked out a little space for himself in my heart. Not only for his fearless individualism and lively mind but for the part he played in healing me.
Because that's what happened in Nashville. I feel as if I've shed a cloak of iron. So free I might as well be floating. For the first time in months, maybe even years, I feel happy. I know the afterglow will dim, but I'm hoping it remains just bright enough to show me the way forward.
I should be asleep. It's nearly three in the morning and I leave for Nashville at six. But I'm a night person - my usual bedtime is 2 a.m. or later - and I'm completely amped, anyway. My brain is whirling and swirling like a carnival ride and if I had my own theme music right now it would be very loud calliope, like the kind you hear on a Merry-Go-Round, only sped up about a million times.
A little less than six years ago I met T in Nashville. It was during a press trip, exactly like the one I'm leaving for in a few hours. Until tonight I hadn't been thinking about what this might do to me emotionally, being in the place where we began, where we danced and drank and fucked, not for a moment suspecting that it would change our lives. Hell, I was halfway living with someone else when I met T. Had been for a long time, though we were a couple at that point only in theory. I never told T that. I'm no innocent. Haven't been for a long time.
But I started to get anxious tonight, and pretty soon I was wondering if this trip was going to put me right over the edge. I've been a mess for the past month. I'm not sure anyone knows exactly how close I've been to breaking down. I guess I don't really, either. I've been having bouts of real panic and despair, mostly late at night, when I'm alone. When I feel like I'm the last bit of flesh and bone left on the planet. Like only ghosts surround me anymore. The ghost of my brother. The ghosts of my parents, the way they used to be when they didn't hurt so bad in pretty much every way possible. The ghost of T, too.
Thing is, I'm starting to come around to the realization that T's abandonment - really, there's no other way to put it when someone who's pledged to spend the rest of his life with you leaves you with barely a word to care for your failing parents alone and disappears, never to be heard from again - so, yes, T's abandonment (and God, does that word make me feel like a loser) isn't the issue. Or, it's less of it than I believed. It's everything else: Gunnar's death, and my parents decline and my friends all leaving this town. Turning 50, too. The fear that I just might never really amount to much. That I'll never fall in love again.
I actually think I'm getting over him. Because I'm sick to death of missing him, and I wonder how much of it is me just torturing myself, anyway. Maybe I haven't completely let go because holding on feels so good in the very worst way. My self-esteem is lower than its ever been in my life. Do I think about him because I feel like I deserve to be punished? Or because I need to build the whole thing up in my mind to justify staying in a relationship that nearly erased me? Or simply because, for better or worse, I loved him more than I've ever loved anyone in my life?
I've been thinking about something a friend of mine recently wrote me. She was in an abusive relationship throughout her 20s; it took her most of her 30s to heal from it. "Remember, you are free," she wrote to me. "You have YOUR LIFE."
Tonight, as I was packing for Nashville, I started trying on clothes. They were things - dresses, pants - that I haven't been able to wear in years, because I gained so much weight when I was with T. (As much as it hurts and embarrasses me to say it, I have a feeling that's part of why he left. That and because it's no fun living with someone trying, and failing, to fight her way out of depression.) These clothes, almost all of them, they hang baggy on me now, enough so that I won't be able to wear them. I've got muscles where I never did before and more energy, even with the fear and sadness I fight every day, than I have...maybe ever. I've got the kind of energy that can climb mountains.
Which is exactly what I'm going to do. I haven't forgotten. I just haven't been mouthing off about it as much.
Because I have MY life. MINE. And not only can I climb mountains if I want to, I can go on a press trip and not feel guilty about it. not fret about making it back to the room in time for a phone call. And during that press trip - say this one to Nashville - I can wear short, short skirts and show off my long, long legs and go honky tonkin' in my damn cowboy boots. I can drink and dance with anyone I want to, or no one. I can wear some of the drawerfulls of lingerie I have for myself...or for someone I haven't yet met.
I can live.
Or. Or maybe it's all just bullshit and bravado - which I've been accused of more than once - and I'm simply settling in to my loss. Maybe this is it. What if there isn't more? What if this is who I am now? Someone more than a little broken?
Either way, look out Nashville. Here I come.
I'm grateful for my mom and dad. They're old and difficult and broken in a way that can't ever heal by my brother's death. We fight. I'm not nearly as patient as I should be with them. I want to do better, but I haven't. And it kills me to see their health degrade, to see them sick and in pain. But they love me unquestionably in their imperfect way, the way I love them unquestionably in my imperfect way. We do the best we can, the three of us. And for that I'm grateful.
I'm grateful for my brother. I'm grateful that he lived, if I regret every day the way he died. I still sense him here, can nearly hear his great, booming voice and feel the way he he would wrap me in a hug, putting his whole big body and sprawling soul into it. Every once in while I still miss him so much it doubles me over. But how very, very lucky I am that I was Gunnar Shroyer's sister. I'm so grateful for that.
I'm grateful for my friends. The ones who've come into my life after the end of my relationship with T, the ones I'd lost touch with have who re-entered it since and the ones who have been here forever, it seems, helping me navigate the crests and troughs of healing. This is one of the most difficult stretches of my life and it's because of you that I'm making it through. I hope you know how much I love you. For each of you I'm so very grateful.
I'm grateful for the wild. For the mountains and forests and streams. For the paths that cross them, where I've felt a peace I've found nowhere else. Those three days last month I spent hiking the Appalachian Trail were some of the best of my life. How is possible that at 50 I've discovered this lust for the wild, this strong, steady need to wander it, to explore it, to pull it close it around me, like a lover or a gown of silk? I think this love, like all great loves, will take me somewhere I couldn't imagine when I first started to fall.
I'm grateful for writing. It's hard. It hurts. But every once in a while, when I know that I've written something of beauty that might make someone feel not quite as alone as they did before they read it, I think there's a chance my life might just have meaning.
I'm grateful for every single fucked up man I ever lowered myself to let inside my heart and head, because you've shown me what I don't want ever again. I'm grateful to every single man I've hurt, because you deserved better, and you've shown me who I don't want to be. I'm grateful for the sound of a train coming slow on the tracks, for good vodka and fast cars with stick shifts, for the candles I've lit in the cathedrals around the world for my brother, for hot sunshine and cool sheets, for the scents of lemongrass and lavender, and patchouli, too.
I'm grateful for high heels, even though I shouldn't be, and great jazz, for the taste of dark chocolate speckled with sea salt, and the feel of champagne tickling my tongue. I'm grateful for sex, hot and fast or long and slow, and how my appreciation and need for it has only deepened with age. I'm grateful for the pleasure I'm discovering in working my body, in feeling it sweat and stretch, and that it's still healthy enough to do everything I ask of it.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I've still got a little bit of shine left in me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I still got a great love ahead of me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe life still holds the magic of sweet surprise.
I can't make this poetic. I can't make this beautiful. I probably can't even make this especially well-written. I'm so tired. It's a quarter after 11 on a Friday night. I've been crying pretty hard for a while now. The kind of crying that I can't really see through, that clogs my nose and makes my head hurt. The kind of crying that feels like it burns. Like the tears are so hot they scald the skin.
I guess I'm bottoming out. It's nowhere I haven't been but it's someplace I never wanted to return. It's been a long time since I felt this kind of isolation and pain - since back in the bad old days, back when anybody who knew me well probably wondered if I was going to make it. Would I see 25? Would I see 30? Would it be an overdose, a suicide, murdered by a lover? There was a time when I was a Class V tornado tearing through the lives of those around me, though I was as treacherous to myself as anyone else. Almost.
I haven't been that girl, wild and reckless, driven nearly mad by an emotional pain that I could never name, in a decade, almost two. I'm still moody, probably always will be. I have a terrible temper. An Irish temper, actually. I've been named a spitfire only recently, and once upon a time, back when we met in Nashville, T called me "a handful." It wasn't so very long ago that a man in a bar took one admiring, appraising look at me and dubbed me "dangerous." It didn't displease me, exactly, though it was in front of a lover who ended our relationship soon after. I intimidated him, he told me.
I've been told I glow and shine and pull people to me, almost like T pulled me to my feet and on to the dance floor without even asking that first night in Nashville. Those are good things. But like my brother, my poor lost brother, there is a price I pay for this bit of allure and it's the dark little speckle on my soul I carry, like a burn mark, maybe, or a cold spot. It's smaller than it's ever been. But it's still there and I'm feeling it more acutely than I have in years.
I think I know what's going on. I think I know why I'm struggling so much, have been, for a couple of weeks. It's the comedown I always get when I return after a long run of travel - and this time I was out on the road, with just a few days home here and there, for almost two months. It's the goddamn holidays, too, which I dread this year almost with the intensity I dreaded writing my brother's eulogy. It's wrapping up my 60 page book proposal, as well, and the postpartum crash that comes inevitably after the conclusion of a big project. And it's the election, of course. Because I'm afraid, really afraid, of what's already happening to this country.
I'm not easily frightened, at least not of men in dark alleys and low-lit parking lots. I've always walked where I wanted, when I wanted. I'm 5'9", I'm strong, and I move with assurance. It's protected me so far - or perhaps it's just been thanks to the same kind of fortune that safeguards drunks and small children - but I'm wondering if that blissful carelessness must now end. A friend of mine, a lover off and on through the years, messaged me the other night, concerned for my safety in the light of recent attacks on women. He was conflicted, but in the end advised me to get a gun and learn how to use it.
But it's not really the possibility of physical violence that scares me. It's the vulnerability of my parents and me. We are so alone. I'm 50 years old, now partner-less, and doing my best to take care for them without any help at all, while working very long hours as an independent journalist. I make little money doing this, though I'm good at it. I am starting to see a little daylight; I've been getting better paying assignments and more of them. I hope to be making a decent living eventually from journalism, but in the meantime I supplement my income by working part-time seasonally in Penn State's Office of Admissions.
My parents have outlived most of their savings, which was gutted by the market crash after 9/11. My dad has an unhealed fracture of his C1 and C2 vertebrae. My mother has COPD and is in severe pain from back issues; the two conditions have nearly rendered her bedridden. I take medication for various ailments, including diabetes, although I'm working hard to get in shape with the hope I can greatly alleviate these conditions. I see a therapist weekly. I believe if it weren't for her I might have been hospitalized. It's been a horrific few years.
If it weren't for Medicare and Medicaid my parents and I wouldn't have health care. If it weren't for Social Security we might not have a place to live. I wonder, if the new administration has its way, how we're going to survive.
And in the midst of all of this, two weeks ago, my therapist left the practice I use, one of the few that takes my insurance. She wasn't happy there, and told me during our last session that she had only stayed as long as she did so she could continue to counsel me. Laura understood me, saw me clearly and without judgment in a way few people ever have. I told her everything. Everything. I would walk into her office, terrified and sobbing, and she'd had me a tissue, patch up my psyche and send me on my way. Me thinking I just might be able to make until the next appointment.
The last time I saw her she told that I give her faith in humanity. She actually said that. Faith in humanity. How do you respond to something like that? I just thanked her. Told her she might have saved my life.
My new therapist is different. She wants me to fill out some kind of worksheet. Say affirming things to myself in the mirror. Write a goodbye letter to T, for God's sake. She says I'm in denial about the end of our relationship. I have trouble with that. The last thing in the world I want to be is some sad woman pining for a man who doesn't deserve her. It is possible to be in denial when I know that my life will be far, far better without him? I know we could never be together again. I don't know that I even still love him. I'm...processing.
It would be so much goddamn easier to process if I could just be in another relationship. Although, I suppose the processing would stop, and that's the problem, isn't it? I hate being alone. I'm as terrible at it as I am terrified by it. I love love. And sex. And romance. I've been married once, engaged three times, and lived with I don't know how many men. But I'm trying to change my life, to heal that dark little speckle inside of me. And as Laura once said to me, "If you want a different result, why don't you try to do things differently?"
And so that's what I'm doing, but the result is nights like this. Nights when I want to give up, but somehow manage to hold on, believing in the morning I'll feel just a little bit better.
is a journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Her new column about travel, adventure, love, loss, heartbreak and healing can be found on the Woman's Day website. She has contributed to Country Living, Gothamist, Washingtonian, EDGE Media Network, Canadian Traveller, Country, Country Woman, and a host of other festive publications and websites. She is the travel editor for the nation's most beautiful publication, Faerie Magazine. Her column, Rebooted, is published across Pennsylvania. She does not have a death wish.