Four years ago today my brother died of a heroin overdose. Maybe not died - that could have happened days earlier. We're not clear on that. My brother lived in Colorado, my parents in Pennsylvania. I had moved down to Tennessee to be with T, so none of us could drop by Gunnar's place to check on him, even if we had been concerned. I found out only later that my brother hadn't answered his friends' calls for a couple days before he was found, the needle still in his belly. He didn't answer my call that day, four years ago, when his body was discovered. I didn't think anything of it. I was sure he was off somewhere in the summer sun with his dog, happy and laughing. Gunnar experienced joy just as fully and deeply as he did pain. Like me.
Before I allowed his friends in to clean out his apartment I spoke with the detective investigating his death, a kind man, who never once made us feel that Gunnar was just another dead junkie to him. I told him I had a very difficult question, but I needed him to be honest with me. I wasn't crying. I don't think my voice even broke as I asked him what the condition of my brother's body was when he was found. Would it be awful if his friends came to clean his apartment? I couldn't send these people, most of whom I knew, some of whom I loved, into that situation. No, the detective answered back. The fan in his bedroom had been on. It had been cool in there. They would be fine.
Waiting for the detective to answer that question was not the worst moment of all the awful moments surrounding my brother's death. At that point I was riding a wave of dull, dumb numbness that even the term decomposition - never spoken aloud, but squatting like a poisonous toad in the back of my brain - couldn't quite pierce. No, the worst was the moment my father told me, over the phone, him in Pennsylvania, me in Tennessee, that my brother was dead. He said he didn't know how it had happened yet, the cop that came to the door had just told him Gunnar had been found in his bed.
I remember it took a bit for me to get that my dad was telling me my brother was gone. Irreversibly gone. Forever gone. T was standing before me, holding my arms, looking into my eyes. I whispered to him that Gunnar was dead and he helped slow my collapse to the floor. I hadn't quite understood the meaning of the word keening until that I heard the sounds that came from me then, an unholy mix of sobbing and screaming and the word "no" repeated over and over again. I cried until my voice was gone. I cried until my face was swollen. I don't know that I've ever really stopped crying. The tears are always there now, ready to spill over whether I'm happy or sad.
I moved back into my parents' house after Gunnar's death, T joining me later. The grief I endured over the next months didn't lessen so much as mutate. I felt infested with it, like it had metastasized from my heart, creeping into my blood. My bones. The pain that had once been sharp, so sharp it made me double over, curl into myself with the force of it, turned into a relentless ache. I tried to alleviate it with therapy, with writing about my brother's death and the sorrow I was experiencing. I can't say if it helped.
I didn't try to lose myself in drugs or booze or sex. When Gunnar died I was more emotionally stable than I'd ever been. But I still look back on that time with wonderment, amazed that his loss didn't destroy me. I knew that my brother's fate could have - should have, maybe - been my own. My end could have come at so many times, in so many ways. Suicide. Sex with a stranger who turned out to be a monster. An accident borne of self-destructive recklessness. Overdose. For decades I invited it all. But I dodged what Gunnar couldn't and I don't know why. Four years out from his death and I still sometimes wonder in my worst moments why I made it and Gunnar didn't.
If I had died, would Gunnar have lived? Would he have gotten the help he looked for but never found, shocked sober and sane by my loss?
Maybe part of the bottomless grief I feel is borne of survivor's guilt. Or maybe it's because I didn't try to save my brother, not really. I never visited him in the year between the admission of his heroin and crack use - just to me, not to our parents or his friends - and his death. I called him, checked to make sure he was still clean that way, but I didn't get on a plane to go see him. My relationship with T was already a nightmare. I was already dying a little, losing who I was in order to be what he wanted. I believed that if I left T to go to Colorado he would make me pay for it, withdrawing his affection, what passed for his love. I was exhausted and confused and I chose T over my brother. I don't know how I live with this.
I never got to tell Gunnar how brilliant and beautiful I thought he was. He knew I loved him, at least I hope he did, but I don't know if he ever knew how dazzled I was by him, by his charisma and humor, his intellect and generosity. That haunts me. Gunnar and I loved each other and battled each other in equal measure, two people too alike not to clash. But he was the one person I believed would be with me my entire life. My parents are in their 80s, in failing health. After they're gone I'll have no one. So I suppose my grief is not only for Gunnar, but for myself. For the years we should have ahead together, but don't. For the loneliness I'll soon face, and the longing for a family that no longer exists.
People keep telling me, well-meaning people, people I love, that my grief will lessen. I don't believe them. My grief resides in a small, secret place tucked inside of me, where no one can go. I won't allow it to be made weak, or diminished. My grief will endure, burning cold and bright because I owe it to my brother to bear it.
Today, just now, my mom was admitted into hospice.
In Pennsylvania, at least when facilitated by and paid through Medicare, you're admitted into hospice when a physician has determined you have six months to live. In my mom's case, this is connected to an advancing case of COPD that now makes it difficult for her to go up and down the stairs without losing her breath. She has other health issues, including an aortic aneurysm that is slowly enlarging and can't be ameliorated through surgery due to her fragile condition. She's had two recent mini-strokes and she's in the early stages of dementia. So, I suppose this new categorization shouldn't have shocked me and my dad. But it did, of course.
The nurse who arrived to talk to us about all this asked us a lot of questions about extraordinary measures to save my mom's life and if we've picked a funeral director and whether we want chaplain services. My dad and I numbly mumbled answers (no, we don't want any; no, but we're thinking cremation - it's starting to be a family tradition, after all, since my brother's death - no, we're not at all religious, but boy, it's times like these I wish we were). I found myself hating the nurse, who's name was Becky. Becky should be a cheerleader. Becky should be a capable mom, arranging car pools and swim lessons. Becky shouldn't be the woman who comes to tell you your mom is dying.
I've been told that I need to face up now to this fast-approaching loss. It'll make it easier in the end, my friends say. But the truth is I'm already at the very edge of my ability to cope. These last couple of months I've felt so relentlessly hopeless that I'm not certain I can take one more blow right now, one more goddamn tragedy in the endless stream that the past few years have brought. And so I've been willfully, with a streak of pure, perfect stubbornness I inherited from my mom, disregarding this looming eventuality. Breakdown now or breakdown later? Later seems the better answer.
I've been afraid for as long as I can remember of being alone. It's the fear at my center, the one that has motivated so much of what I've done in my life. And now here I am at 51, on the precipice of it. Unable to even date, if the truth be known, because my last relationship was so damaging I'm terrified I'll end up with the same type of man. My brother dead, my mom dying. My dad, 85 and walking around with kidney issues and an unhealed broken neck, getting a little bit more frail every day. No family here. No close friends, they've all scattered to the winds like starlings lifting off from a telephone line. No kids. I might as well be adrift in deep space. The future feels as cold and merciless as I imagine it to be.
I'm so fucking scared. I'm so scared.
And I don't know what to do. I'm less than six weeks away from climbing the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, the thing I've spent the past 18 months directing so much of my energy, except what I've spent trying to care for my mom and dad, toward achieving. Getting to and up that mountain is the goal that's guided me through the the pain. The heartbreak and the loss. It's kept me sane and promised me a future less ordinary. If I give up now I don't know what will happen to me. But going up Aconcagua is a three-week trip. How can I leave my mom and dad for three weeks now?
I'm trying so hard to be strong. I'm squirreled away in my room, writing, because it's the safest place I have. But I've got to stop crying and go hug my dad. After that, I don't know.
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.
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.
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.”
My therapist is insisting that I stay, in a word - a big scary word that I never, ever thought I'd use with regard to myself - celibate. According to her, I have too much to do. Too much else to focus on, what with training to climb mountains and traveling thither and yonder and writing articles and ripping myself open and revealing all the broken bits inside on this blog. Moonlighting at Penn State, too. And trying to take care of my parents, which I haven't done the best, bang-up job of lately. It is a lot.
She wants me to stay away from not only carnal knowledge but also casual dating and, from the sound of it, any unchaperoned visits with anyone between roughly the ages of 16 and 104. She says that if I want a different life, I need to do things differently. Which would be not jumping into bed, a relationship or anything in between with anyone. For I don't know how long.
It's already been too long. The last time I made love was early June. I refuse to look up the exact date because if I do I'll start thinking of that last time and it will begin anew, the sorrow and regret, the guilt and pain. And I'm just starting to be able to take a deep breath without feeling as though my chest is lined with shattered concrete. But, it was Paris. Paris was the last time. It's like a song, isn't it? A scene from a film, or a book. It was damp and chill and dim in our tiny garret, with it's view of Montmatre and, when the fog finally cleared on our last day, the Eiffel Tower. The bed was cold. I don't think we warmed it much. Perhaps I suspected what was coming. Perhaps T knew. Did he know it was our last time? How did he bear it?
I can't write about us right now, not like that. We were extraordinary. All my fire, all his cool. It was the first time I'd ever been entirely monogamous with anyone. It was the first time I wanted to be. I've had so many lovers. I've lost track, lost count, forgotten along the way their names and faces. In the first couple years before T and I committed wholly to each other they were everywhere, such exquisite men. Perfect distractions. Because even though I fought it like hell, all I really wanted was him. And he could never admit all he really wanted was me. Not until I was lost to him, swallowed by Ireland. In the grasp of another lover, a brawling, Black Irish madman who rescued orphaned kittens and old men who had fallen into rivers.
Before then, back when T and I were trying so hard to believe we didn't want to be together, there were the others. The cowboy in Wyoming, 6.5" and massively built, who guided me on horseback through the foothills of the Tetons, pulling me off the animal when the rain came hard and fast, tucking us beneath the branches of an evergreen. He took me across swollen rivers, asking me not to tell anyone - it was dangerous, he said, fording these waters, but he could see by the way my eyes shone even in the grey light that I wanted it. Later, as we lay in bed, the valley spread out below my cabin window, the mountains rising eternal beyond, he showed me scars from his years in rodeo, told me stories about sleeping in the outback, where he was awoken once by the sound of a grizzly snuffling though his camp. I felt tiny under him, enveloped.
There was the half-Sicilian high-fashion photographer in Milano, gorgeous, sleepy-eyed Fabrizio. I met him in a tiny club in the Navigli, saw his eyes follow me as I danced and drank, moist with sweat in the steamy Italian night. We went back to my hotel, playing songs for each other on my laptop - Jeff Buckley, I remember. Hallelujah. He was enormous. That night, fueled by champagne we pulled out of the minibar and coke we bought on the street, seemed endless. I was to attend a matinee at Teatro alla Scala that day. I never made it to the opera, instead laying spent in creased sheets half the day.
And the 19-year-old Swedish-Croatian boy I met in a village I can no longer recall the name of along the Adriatic Sea. There was a carnival that night, a live band playing American rock-n-roll songs in the square. We danced, drunk and giddy and kissing in an open-air club, and I took off my shoes as we walked back to my hotel. We fucked on the lobby bathroom's marble floor, cool against my sun-reddened back. He was sweet. Adorable. He wore braces. We're still friends on Facebook, though I stopped trading messages with him when I moved in with T.
I loved them all, these men, in my fashion. Freely, for a few nights, or a few hours, unbound from worries of past, future or anything at all but desire. I sampled them like the cuisine of the exotic lands through which I rambled. eyes closed in satisfaction, lips wet and gleaming. But in those first months that I lived with T I found myself mourning that we hadn't met earlier in life. Sooner, so we could have more time together. I would have traded them all, all my other lovers for T. And now he's gone. He's branded my heart, seared it black, and left me alone.
And what do I do now? How does a once-wild heart, cruelly tamed and tossed aside, continue on?
Have some advice for me? I'd very much love to hear it. Feel free to comment below or use the email icon above.
is a journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. She has contributed to Woman's Day, 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.