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.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included