I'm unlovable, aren't I? That's what I've hearing in my head since T left. To be more specific, I am a crazy nightmare bitch. Unstable. And, it follows, unlovable. I'm too much, was certainly too much for him. I'm too emotional, too needy, too loud, too demanding. I get too angry. Too often. I wear dresses that are too short, or dresses that are too low-cut. I stay up too late. I wake up too late. I'm too disorganized, too self-centered, too flirty. I'm too much.
That's why T left, right? After all, he told me not infrequently I was too much in various ways, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not. And I believed him - still do, actually. Because a long time ago, several lifetimes away from the one in which I currently feel imprisoned, I was diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. Maybe a bit of manic-depression thrown in for good measure.
BPD, currently all the rage with the mental health community as the personality disorder du jour, is basically crazy nightmare bitch syndrome. It affects mostly women and hits in early adulthood. It's diagnostic criteria include fear of abandonment, impulsive behavior, unstable and intense relationships and mood swings. About 10 percent of people diagnosed with it commit suicide. If you make it to middle age, you're in luck. The crazy usually burns itself out by then. Your life smooths out, the emotional pain - that nearly constant companion that's hitched a ride on your back, happily digging it's needle claws into your heart - finally abets.
Up until that point it's a fairly hellish ride. I half-heartedly tried to kill myself a few times. Left my husband, who loved me more than anyone might ever again, for a drug addict. Sabotaged success every time I got close to it. Was hospitalized for 10 days on a lockdown ward. And through it all I experienced bright, shiny highs akin to the feeling I expect to earn standing on my summits next year. They alternated with a distress so deep that on those days when I bottomed out I wistfully wished for death the way a child yearns for ice cream on a sultry summer day.
And then, about in my mid-30s, all that angst and upheaval, all that chaos and suffering, the feeling that at my core was nothing but an icy, yawning hole, all that shit just started to dissipate. I stopped using drugs and began writing. I got into a long-term relationship. It wasn't really love, and D had plenty of issues himself, but he brought an odd security to my life. Under my doctor's guidance I went off all the psych meds I'd been taking. There were a lot, including an anti-psychotic, and the doses were heavy. I began to travel, sublimating my need for excitement into a socially acceptable activity that I figured probably wouldn't kill me. I found stability. I found peace. For years, five, six, even more, I was happy.
And then I met T, a man who hadn't lived with a woman in some three decades. A man who never saw his family, who had no friends - who had largely cut himself off from the rest of humanity. We collided with the impact of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. He broke up with me three times in two years, always with the same reason: We were too different. We'd been apart for about six months and I'd more or less moved to Ireland when we ran into each other at a conference. We slept together. It made me realize I didn't want him anymore. It made him realize he still wanted me. By the time I returned to Ireland a few days later he'd gone mad. He called and called and called until I finally picked up.
He told me, "You are the most remarkable woman I've ever met."
Exasperated, I asked him, flatly, "Do you love me?"
"Yes, Jill. Yes, I love you," he'd answered, saying those words for the first time. He told me it over and over again in the following weeks, describing the life we would make together, as he wooed me from across the Atlantic. He was as desperate as I've ever heard a human being in my life. I succumbed.
I left Ireland a few weeks earlier than I'd planned so I could spend a fortnight with him before I went on to Peru, on a trip with some friends I'd already scheduled. We made love endlessly, whispering to each as we lay entwined when our bodies were too spent to move. After I came home from South America, without another thought, I moved in with him. We loved each other. Despite the ending, the callousness, coldness, of how T left, we loved each other. It was never easy, it was always a roller coaster, but we loved each other. And yet, he judged me. He found me wanting. Or rather, he found me too much.
When I wanted intimacy, to punch through that big barrier he'd built around himself, I was too needy. When I wanted to travel, to take the press trips I worked so hard to be offered, I was too selfish. When I wanted to walk at night in Knoxville for exercise, I was too reckless. When I asked him to visit a couples counselor with me, so we could fix the communication problems that threatened to destroy our relationship, I was too demanding. When I lost patience with his ingrained, unacknowledged sexism, with a statement like "I let you walk at night" - he actually said that to me - I was too angry.
I was too angry, actually. I was angry at something I struggled to name. At the idea that when I behaved, when I acted in a way T approved of, I would be rewarded with intimacy, with good humor, with affection. I told him once, "I feel like I'm your puppy dog and when I'm good you toss me a biscuit." He shrugged off the comment.
Or maybe that anger was just the dregs of my illness, the last little residue, still more than enough to kill a relationship that both participants swore would last a lifetime.
So, he's gone. I tell myself over and over again that I'm not toxic, that I didn't push away the great love of my life with my instability. That I'm not unlovable. But after telling me he was ending it - a brief conversation in which he was breathtakingly indifferent - T departed without saying goodbye to me, without so much as a farewell note. Without even leaving a forwarding address. I have a stack of mail sitting beside me and nowhere to send it. I haven't heard from him since the day before he rolled a moving truck from my parent's driveway and headed back down south.
This is the man who held me, staring into my eyes, keeping me upright, when my father called to tell me my brother died. This is the man who got up in middle of the night to help my father to the bathroom when his fractured neck was healing. This is the man who promised me he knew how to love, when I'd told him over the phone, back in Ireland, that he didn't. I know this man, despite all his spiky armor, better than anyone in the world knows him. I know his faults, the ones he can't bear to look at himself, and I have always, for five goddamn years, loved him despite them.
This is the man who didn't even give me his forwarding address.
It is very, very hard to not believe in my lowest moments, and maybe even in my best, too, that I am not unlovable.
But I'm trying.
Since T left I hurt sometimes. More profoundly and deeply and hopelessly than I ever have in my life. When this hurt comes on, sidling slowly up to me, whispering slyly at first and then shouting and finally screaming, it’s from someplace I can’t name. Some primal place, where everything I am and all I will be lives. I think of my brother, whose death this anguish encompasses but is not limited to, and I wonder if he is waiting somewhere for me. I think about what it might mean to join him. When and how I might join him.
I hurt sometimes, you see. The force of it may be my birthright, a result of rowdy brain chemistry and an unkempt personality structure passed on to me through generations on both sides of my bloodline. I’m emotional, upon occasion intensely so, and this latest heartbreak, on top of all the others of the past few years means that every once in a while I feel for a bit like someone set fire to my soul. Like I’m burning to death from within. It’s awful. But it passes. It always passes.
And I’m strong. Everyone tells me that and I suppose it’s true. T told me I was a strong woman right before he left, as if to say, “I know I’m gutting you, but you’ll be alright. You’ll be just fine.” This casual reassurance – one of the few declarations he made before leaving with no explanation other than “Didn’t you see this coming?” – was perhaps the cruelest thing he ever said to me. But here’s the thing…he’s right. I will be alright, eventually. I’m far too stubborn and way too prideful to let any man, not matter how great my love for him, wound me permanently. All this vulnerability I’m showing, the soft, surrendering white of my belly I’ve displayed to all? I’m able to do it because I know I will emerge from the nightmare of the past few years someplace amazing. Like the roof of the world.
This is not a suicide note. Hell, no.
I’ve been accused lately of bravado, specifically I believe for a Facebook post I made bemoaning the forgotten push-up bras I’d neglected to pack for my Acapulco trip. Or maybe it was my last blog piece, the list of lovers I in no way regret. Is it bravado or is it simply a piece of me, submerged by anguish and loving a man who despised that piece as much as he desired it, fighting its way to the surface?
There is a part of me, always has been, which yearns to live fast and big and hard. That loves push-up bras and loud laughter, flirting and dancing and blazing down the Cross Bronx Expressway hellbent for Queens in a Mini Cooper I can handle like I was born with a stick shift in my right hand and a steering wheel in my left. That drive, which I undertook for the first time in my life Monday – solo, with only a stressed GPS spitting out mind-bending directions every 20 seconds – brought me back to myself like nothing else since T left.
I had forgotten in the years I lived with him that I am a capable woman. I can drive. I can write. I can travel the world. I can fuck. And I can climb mountains. I think I spent so long downplaying my power, diluting my charisma, listening to innuendo, subtle and not, that I was difficult, dangerous, a mess, unworthy – all true to some degree but the last – that I began to believe it. I am a lesson, I suppose. A cautionary tale, that even a woman who is capable, who is strong, might attempt to subvert the deepest part of herself to suit her lover.
I knew a week, maybe two, after I moved in with T what would be required of me. We were staying at a very tony resort in Georgia. It was a press trip he’d arranged, one I tagged along on as a guest. We were having dinner with the PR representative, as well as an editor at Travel Weekly and his wife. Everyone was getting drunk on good wine except for me. I didn’t feel much like drinking though I was having fun chatting with the editor, who was intrigued by me and my column. We were in no way flirting, just discussing my work, and at the end of the night he handed me his card, asking me to contact him. He just might be interested, he’d said, in publishing my column.
When T and I returned to our suite he wouldn’t touch me. I forced myself into his arms, trying to charm him, to make him smile, telling him about the amazing life we had ahead of us. After all, we were going to spend the rest of our lives together, traveling, writing, loving each other madly, weren’t we?
“Maybe,” he’d said.
Stunned and hurt I told him, “That was mean. Really mean.”
“I’m sorry,” he’d replied, not looking at me. “I’m just not used to the women I’m with outshining me.”
And I’d answered in a comment I still regret, that was perhaps the last full gasp of the woman I would soon no longer be, “Get used to it.”
This is a story I've never told. This is the story of how, a little over two years ago, my brother died of a heroin overdose. I've hidden the truth from most people about Gunnar's death - even his friends, even our extended family - at the request of my parents. But I'm not ashamed of how he died, I never have been, and I think we dishonor him by hiding behind half-facts like "His heart failed." Yes, Gunnar's heart failed. His big, beautiful heart - strong, if never wise - failed because a few days after his college graduation he injected a dose of heroin into a vein in his belly. And it killed him. And he laid there, in his bed, for we're not sure how long. Perhaps a day. Perhaps - more likely - as many as three. While his cell phone rang and rang and rang, his hordes of friends wondering where he'd gotten to, and me and my parents thinking he was still alive. Thinking life would go on like it always had. Thinking we had time, still, to be a family instead of the weary, worn little band of survivors we've become.
About a year before he died my brother called me one night. I was living in Knoxville with T, had been for about three months. Gunnar told me that he'd been shooting heroin, been smoking crack. But he was several months clean. He was seeing an addiction counselor, a therapist, a nutritionist. He was working out; the gym was his new addiction. Not, I think, that he was ever precisely addicted to heroin. He wasn't a longtime user...it hadn't yet eaten away at all that was good in him. He was, at 42, entering his last year at the University of Colorado and maintaining a high G.P.A. as a philosophy major. He was, not to overstate it, beloved by his professors and fellow students. So many of them called and wrote us after his death. They sobbed when they talked to us, even his advisor.
Gunnar was the single most magnetic human being I've ever met. I once called my brother the only person I knew who was a celebrity without being famous. He had hundreds of friends - and not just social media friends, but people he'd met over the years and drawn into his always-widening army of cohorts and admirers. Many of them modern-day hippies like him, whose best days were the ones spent inside a venue, at a Dead or Widespread Panic show. Everyone who knew him has a story. Rich, a friend to both my brother and me, talks about the time he casually mentioned to Gunnar that he liked his coat. My brother literally gave it to him off his back. "No, Richie, you have it," he'd insisted when Rich had objected. "Please, I want you to have it."
Gunnar was equally generous with me, hitchhiking from Colorado to Oklahoma to help pack a moving truck and whisk me away from a toxic boyfriend. I was in the Memphis airport once with that same boyfriend, in a long line of travelers stranded by a storm at Christmastime, when I mentioned that I hoped Gunnar, at least, had made it home. "Gunnar??!!" hollered a girl in line behind me. "Did you say GUNNAR?? Do you know Gunnar??" After I nodded, told her yep, he was my brother, the little group around her cheered. Stranded at the damned Memphis airport at Christmas and there's a half-dozen people who know Gunnar. Do you know that two years after his death one of his friends is still making buttons with his picture on them, spreading them far and wide so my brother can still go to shows and travel the world?
But Gunnar had something inky-black and hungry tucked inside of him, a cruel, sharp-toothed little beast that ate, ate, ate away at him, gnawing at any contentment he found, any peace. He hurt. I know it, because I recognized it. It was the same hurt I've felt within myself, only Gunnar had it in greater measure. I suspect that's why I'm still alive and he's dead. The worst part of it for me, the saddest, most terrible thing of all, is that he fought so hard to heal himself. So very hard. But he didn't quite make it.
That night that Gunnar told me he'd been using heroin I didn't get angry. I think mostly I was just...dazed. I remember parts of my face feeling numb, my lips and fingertips going cold. I'm sure I said the most supportive things I could. After I finally hung up I went to T, crawled into bed beside him. "My brother," I said, "is going to die. He's clean now, but he'll relapse and overdose or get sent to prison. And then my parents will die. I'm going to lose them all. And then I'll be alone." T didn't say what I needed to hear. "I'm your family now, baby girl," he didn't say. "You'll never be alone, " he didn't say. He was probably even then wondering what he'd gotten himself into. As ferverishly as I loved him, a part of me was, too. I was wondering what I was doing with a man who often seemed as if encased in glass, under a bell jar. Unreachable.
I didn't go out to Colorado to see my brother, to support him in his quest to keep sober. I was so overwhelmed, so depressed, my life in such upheaval after leaving my friends and family and moving down South to be with T. I couldn't muster the will or the energy necessary to make that trip. I don't kid myself that I would have saved him. That a year later he wouldn't have died, alone in his room. But he would have, at least, known how very, very much I loved him.
Do you have a story about my brother? Please share it in the comments below, or if privacy is necessary, use the link above to email me. I'd really like to hear it.
Last week, the day after my 50th birthday, I went to see my friend Shaie speak at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist church in Warrington, outside of Philly. I occasionally attend services when I'm traveling, like the achingly beautiful mass given in Irish I witnessed on St. Paddy's Day in my beloved Dingle, Ireland a couple years back. But the habit is more about honoring and exploring the local culture than anything else. I'm not at all religious, though I guess you could call me spiritual. I'm uncertain of what comes next after this life, but I believe, or at least I very much want to, that something does. I've lost too many people I loved too much in the past few years to long consider any other possibility.
Though I attended the Unitarian service simply to support my friend, the sermon nonetheless worked it's way into me. Shaie, who is currently seeking her master's degree in divinity at Vanderbilt, spoke in her soft, sweet voice about the times in life, as she described, "that feel simultaneously empty and full, containing both endings and beginnings, moving the experience of life from what is known to what is new." She titled her sermon "The Blank Rune," after the stone in the ancient set of divinatory symbols that represents contact with true destiny, which may hold our highest good and yet brings to the surface our deepest fears.
This space between that Shaie spoke of, where all is uncertain, filled with equal parts panic and potential, is where I live now. My past life, with a love I thought would last forever, with a younger brother I thought would live forever - Gunnar always seemed simply too vital, too big and filled with energy to ever die - and with healthy parents who could tend to themselves, is over. My new life, with its quest to ascend Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua next year, has barely begun. There is little I know with any sureness. Instead, there are only questions.
Will I be able to make my body, mind and spirit strong enough to climb Kili, let alone the nearly 23,000-foot behemoth that is Aconcagua? Will I find the support from sponsors I need to make these trips happen? Will I have it within me to write a book about it all? Will I have it within me to care for my mom and dad with the compassion and diligence they deserve? Will I find great love again? And will I finally, finally make of my life something I can be proud?
I have underachieved my entire adulthood, veering close to big, traditional success upon occasion, like the time I was one of a half-dozen women under consideration for the sidekick position on mega-star Mancow's syndicated radio show. But I never quite made it, always distracted by fallout from my chaotic life, or the next novelty to catch my easily unfocused attention. Often a man. Often a man broken and unworthy. The drug addict. The rage-aholic. The commitment-phobe incapable of intimacy. I used to joke that, given my choices in previous companions, my next lover would be a serial killer. It's not a joke I make anymore. I'm leaving these loves, and whatever emptiness within them that called to the hole in my soul, forever behind.
No matter if its a place of healing, the space between is uncomfortable - it often hurts like hell, actually. It's terrifying to have no real idea what the future holds, only plans and intentions, dreams and desires. Living in the space between requires faith, a faith I find myself struggling to capture. It's like stepping off a precipice, trusting you will float rather than fall. But trust is really the only option, because when you start to fret about the future, to worry it, like rosary beads between the alabaster fingertips of an ancient cleric, you stop living. Trepidation sets in. Dread. And before you know it, you are immobilized. You become one of those people beaten by life, unsatisfied, unhappy, but incapable of reaching for better. More than anything I fear this surrender.
So I'm trying to trust in the process, as Shaie suggested in her lovely sermon. To breath deeply and exist in the still, small moments - as yet rare and all the more precious for that paucity - when I am able to let go of doubt. I've set my goals and I'm working toward them. I will work toward them with more diligence, passion and focus than I've ever worked toward anything in my life. That's really all I can do, anyway. Work hard. Trust big. Trust that there is beauty and love and adventure and joy, too - real joy - ahead. Trust that all this pain and fear will one day dissipate, leaving just a distant, disquieting recollection, an ashy smudge of a memory of the time when I thought I just might not make it.
I have a tendency toward impulsivity. Something bright and shiny and thrilling and BIG pops into my head and I think "Ooooh! Good idea! Let's GO, baby!" Leave my family and friends and everything I know to move down to Tennessee and in with a guy who has TWICE before cracked my heart open like an uncooked egg by breaking up with me the moment real commitment or true intimacy became involved? "Ooooh! Good idea! Let's GO, baby!"
We all know how that turned out. Though I can say now, six weeks out from when T walked - no, ran is a much more accurate word - six weeks out from when T ran out of my life I don't regret that move to Tennessee. I regret plenty of other things about our relationship, but not that. Because if you're going to be impulsive about anything, it might as well be love that at its best was so true blue if it had a color it would be the shade of the sky over the desert after a storm. No matter how big the hurt it eventually brings.
Of course, you're catching me at a good moment. Ask me how I feel about it when I'm sobbing at the dining room table before my stricken parents in the middle of supper and I might not be quite so perky about the whole thing. I still cry. A lot. Not every day, but close. I still, if you want to know the truth, cannot quite believe he's gone. At best, I miss him right down to my bones. At worst, I find it ridiculous that I'm expected to continue on without him. At very, very worst, like last night, I'm seized fully with a terror of the future looming in front of me, sinister and ugly, like a dark shadow in a desolate alley. Of the alien aloneness of it. T left. My brother is dead. When my parents are gone, I'm it. The last woman standing.
Anyway, as you might have guessed, I did not agonize over the decision to climb two of the Seven Summits in '17. I began with the idea to tackle Kilimanjaro next summer. I remember thinking something along the lines of "The last time T broke my heart I moved to Ireland for five months. This is the last, last time he will break my heart. So what in the hell do I do now?" And there came the image of Kilimanjaro, unbidden, blasting its way into my brainpan. Almost immediately I decided to blog about the experiences I would have as I trained to climb the mountain, thinking maybe it might not only do me some good, but also a few other people. People like me, who had lost so much they were in danger of losing themselves, too.
Then a few days later I heard that a lot of people climb Killi, about 25,000 annually, so shortly after that I decided to up the ante and add Aconcagua to my list. Only about 3,000 a year try it, maybe because it's known in South America as "The Mountain of Death." And then I got a web designer and a trainer and a photographer and went public with the plan and...here we are. The whole process, from "Ooooh, good idea! Let's GO, baby!" to now took three weeks. I want to think there is something magical in that - the speed, the ease, with which it all came together.
But now it's finally hit me, exactly what I've done. And I'm so scared. Not precisely because of the climbs...it's more the failure that could come with attempting them. Suppose no one reads my blog? Suppose I can't find any sponsors? Suppose I just can't do it? Because who do I think I'm kidding? I'm just a frightened, desperate mess. I'm not brave or a warrior. I'm not even a jogger. How in the hell am I going to get this nearly 50-year-old, out-of-shape body up two of the tallest mountains in the world? I really have no idea, other than to work harder than I ever have before and listen to the guys at Victory Sports and Fitness.
I had my fitness assessment at Victory last week. I was nervous, really nervous, because I pictured getting asked to do a pull-up, failing miserably, and everybody in the gym laughing at me, which is pretty much what happened in 5th grade. But instead Rob, Victory's energetic and charming owner, simply evaluated my posture, flexibility and range of motion. He discovered that my left calf is slightly less developed than my right - and assured me we'll get that squared away. He found that both my big toes only bend about half as far as they should. We'll deal with that, too, because I need my feet in good working order for Summit Day on Aconcagua, a 12-hour trek to the top. My scapulas, however, are in great shape - strong enough, Rob assured me, to bear the pressure without a shoulder dislocation if I take a tumble during the ascent and catch myself with my hands. That's as long as I don't fall 65 feet into a crevasse, like two Americans did on Aconcagua a few years ago on New Year's Eve. I'm not telling my parents about that.
A couple days after the evaluation I had my first session with my trainer, Steve Jury. Steve is about my age, with a big mustache and kind eyes. I like him very much. I also trust him to know what I need to do to get up those mountains because a couple months ago Steve did just that on Kili. The day I met him he showed me pictures of Africa he'd taken from the top of the world. In a few he's perched in front that epic, endless landscape, the place where man began, smiling so wide you'd think it was the best day of his life. Maybe it was.
Our first session surprised me. I don't know what I expected - Steve hurling medicine balls at my stomach while screaming at me to "Feel the burn," maybe. Instead, mostly what I did, along with a little cardio and some serious ankle and big toe stretching, was breathe. Flat on my back at first, later with arms held over head, then legs extended out and finally while on all fours, I breathed. From my diaphragm, with lips pursed, pulling my belly in with every exhale. It seemed easy enough. Too easy. Breathing?
"Baby steps to big steps," Steve said.
I liked that. Steve also said "Suffer now and summit later," which I liked even more. It sounded tough, like something I can chant to myself when I want to quit during a workout or practice climb. I understood the concept more clearly by that evening. My core, from my pelvis up to my breasts, had begun to ache with a dull, consistent pain that I hadn't felt the likes of in a long time. It's the pain, I suppose, of beginning. The pain of hope, too, perhaps. Because hope hurts just as much as it soothes, doesn't it? That's the hell of the thing.
Baby steps to big steps.
This is the beginning. This is how it starts, with a whimper, not a bang. My name is Jill Gleeson and in 11 days I will turn 50 years old. It's something I may find difficult to discuss with any semblance of wit or intelligence - though I will do my best as we go forward - because basically I have no clue how in the hell I got to be so old. I was 24, like, the day before yesterday. And it was fun.
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.