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17 Days till Kili: Parkas, Poles, and Perseverance


August, 2016
At the gym the other day, a trainer approached me, smiling. “I hear you’ll be joining our Gladiator class.” I looked around to see whom she might be talking to. Because if you ask any of my friends and family to pick 10 words that LEAST describe me, Gladiator would surely be on that list. Unfortunately, she was, in fact, addressing me. And I did, in fact, survive the class, which is part of my training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro next month.

It’s my quest to do the thing I cannot do: to honor the past, and in the process, blow away some ghosts and regrets.

In 2006, my brother, Billy, died of a drug overdose. They found him in a crack house, slumped over a tub. He’d combined cocaine with a ridiculously lethal dose of Fentanyl—the drug which recently killed Prince—and the coroner said he’d died instantly. It was July. He was 46 with three kids.

Seven years later, my little sister, Eleanor, took her own life after spending years in the grip of addiction. Same month as Billy: July. Same age: 46.

We were five growing up. And then we were three.

I had my own wonderful family, and, after spending more than a quarter century on national television, discovered a surprisingly engaging second career. But they say addiction shatters families, and it’s true. I was exhausted from years of watching my brother and sister circle the drain and trying all the things “they” tell you will never work because you’re powerless to influence the outcome: Money. An intervention. I pulled Billy out of police precincts. I moved Eleanor into two different in-patient treatment facilities where she got an alphabet soup of differing diagnoses and no meaningful help. There were funerals. Personal belongings to sift through. Creditors. Pictures. Memories. Billy’s children are three beautiful, living reminders of the man he was and I’ve spent countless hours trying to help them deal with the devastating fallout from his death. There was never a question in my mind about committing to be involved in this. Along with my dad and two remaining brothers, we cared deeply about all of it.

What I stopped caring about so much was my own health. I remember the precise moment I plucked some fattening pastry from a food tray at Billy’s memorial. A tiny voice inside said, “Screw it. Who cares.” That’s been my attitude ever since. Didn’t care what I ate. Stopped regularly going to the gym. I’ve been taking sleeping pills for the past decade and don’t much care what people think about that either. Loss can take a foothold in your life, and you deal as best you can. I saw this for what it was. And down deep it made me sad.

When I heard about the amazing group of women climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro this fall, I read the website headline: “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way” (http://kiliclimb2016.com/). And it occurred to me that saying “yes” to this challenge could help me lessen the heaviness, both literal and figurative, of those losses, lead me back to myself, and allow me to honor and celebrate Billy and Eleanor, who never actually reached the summit of their own climbs.

So I work out with the Gladiators, huffing and puffing, and climb the damned Stairmaster and jump in the pool and spend a day staggering up a mountain when there are million valid excuses to stay home and do something easier. I’m accumulating more and more hiking paraphernalia on my dining room table: compression sleeves, poles, a parka. I eschew dessert more often – believe me, a very odd feeling. And I’m raising money for the organization Shatterproof, which is working to save lives lost to addiction, for better screening, better treatment, better laws, and to lessen the stigma that leaves people in active substance abuse feeling ashamed and alone.

I deeply understand what it takes to try so hard and fail anyway after losing my siblings. So I accept this challenge without knowing the outcome because the willingness to say “yes” is the crucial step, whether the climb is finding a cure for addiction, reversing global warming, or simply trying to get back in shape after 10 years.

Thank you for joining me on this incredible journey, and stay tuned for more!

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