Honky Tonk Woman
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.
A Sort of Homecoming
As long as I can remember I've avoided achievement. I left Penn State - more precisely, I simply stopped going to classes much - midway through my last semester. I was a University Scholar. I think I ended up about nine credits short of my theater degree. About six years later I left my husband, Sean, whose last name I still carry with me (I suppose some might say like penitence), though he loved me more than I'm afraid any man ever will love me again. I loved him just about as much.
I actually left Sean twice. The second time it was for a drug addict.
I walked away from radio, too, just as I was on the cusp of breaking big, after I'd come close to snaring a gig as big-deal shock jock Mancow's sidekick.
I'm not sure what short circuit in my brain accounted for this kind of behavior. Fear of success, fear of failure, a fascination with self-destruction, simply an inability to focus on the long view, or to maybe handle routine, it could be all of these things. Or none of them. But at the very least it's made for an interesting life - sometime I'll have to write the story of the time a crack dealer put a gun to my head - and until recently there wasn't much I regretted about it. Certainly not the degree and not even radio. Sean. I regret Sean. Still, two decades later.
Sometimes I wonder if T is some kind of cosmic payback for the way I treated my husband. He was the best man I ever knew. Brilliant. T was so proud of his intellect but Sean, he was scary smart. Got a perfect score on his SATs. Johns Hopkins tried to recruit him at 14 for med school and throughout our marriage he'd periodically get literature from MENSA. They were trying to recruit him, too. Brilliant and funny and creative and handsome and kind and he loved me exactly as I was.
So, of course I left him.
I don't want to live this way anymore. I'm ready to see exactly what I can do when I put my mind to it and keep it there. I don't want to be that woman, the smart and talented one - oh, no genius, to be sure - who just never really seems to get it together. Which is why I'm so afraid. Terrified that I've fucked up so badly this time there's no putting it right.
I had this amazing thing started, didn't I? I'd announced to the world that to heal my broken heart and take back my life after a lot of terrifically horrible events I was going to climb two of the Seven Summits of the world next year. I was going to detail my training and my emotional as well as physical transformation right here, on this blog, with brutal honesty and hopefully even a bit of poetry. I started training, remaking my body with the help of my supremely talented trainer Steve Jury, at Victory Sports and Fitness. Other people stepped forward to help, like Tamar London, who took such incredible "before" photographs of me.
And in the first month 11,000 people read this blog. 11,000 people. I still can't quite believe it.
And then I started traveling and the assignments, big ones, from national magazines, started coming, so fast I could barely keep up with them, and I even got invited to submit a book proposal. I couldn't do it all, I couldn't. I tried. I worked very hard, but something had to give and that something was this blog. This blog, and training. It's been weeks and weeks since I've been to the gym. I've gained at least five pounds, probably more, even though a lot of that traveling involved arduous physical activity, like when I hiked 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. God, I loved that. Those three days on the AT to me proved that I wasn't crazy, that Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua were calling to me because I belong there. I belong to those mountains.
I loved training, loved how my body was becoming so much stronger than its ever been. And I loved this blog. In a very real way it saved my life, along with the people who followed it, the readers who reached out to tell me that my writing actually meant something to them. That it helped them. What a fine thing. The finest thing, I think, any writer could ask. I loved it all and I left it and I'm ashamed because I'm afriad that this is more of the same kind of behavior I've been doing forever.
But all I can do now is try to do better. I'm going back to Victory this weekend. Training begins afresh. I guess I'll have to ask Tamar to take pictures of my new body - instead of leaner and more muscular, even rounder than it was. Honesty, right? Even when that honesty includes failure.
At least I've got a lot of new stories to tell. I've not only hiked the AT, I've been skydiving and doing something called body rafting in the wilds of primal Puerto Rico. I've actually been to Puerto Rico twice, and to Memphis, and Richmond, also, where I was nearly abducted from a lesbian bar by a former lineman for Penn State. That was a strange night. Along the way I've healed a little bit and had a few epiphanies and continued to cry and, upon occasion, to smile.
I hope you forgive my absence. I hope you'll return to gleesonreboots, the way I have, invigorated and damn curious to see what's next.
Whatever it is, I can promise you it won't be boring.
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