Day 1: Leaving it All Behind
It was all gone. Everything. Every piece of furniture. Every book. Every Pot. Pan. Fork. Kitchen knife. Sold or given away. All that remained, my clothes and a few personal items, were packed into my car which sat running outside the front door. I looked back at my empty apartment one last time, locked the door one last time, and got on the elevator one last time. Then I got into my car and pulled away. For the first time in my entire life I was homeless, but not without hope.
Driving west on the 76/PA Turnpike, I found myself looking back, in the rearview mirror and at the past 465 days of my life. For so many nights I had sat alone, hunkered down in my cramped suburban Philly apartment not believing this was my life. If it wasn’t for traveling, journaling and pouring my heart out on the pages, I don’t think I would be where I am today. And if it wasn’t for friends and family, I’m convinced I wouldn’t be alive today.
We humans are social animals, unequipped to go it alone, especially when the shit hits the fan, when our world is knocked off its axis. While men are raised to think we must constantly be strong, the past year has taught me otherwise—it doesn’t make you weak to need people. While on some level I knew this, I didn’t truly understand it until my world literally fell apart. I had always considered myself confident and independent, but on April 23, 2018 I was a shattered replica of myself, afraid to be left alone for thirty minutes, for fear of a crippling panic attack. For fear of my life.
We humans are social animals, unequipped to go it alone, especially when the shit hits the fan, when our world is knocked off its axis.
My family and most trusted friends assured me they were never more than a phone call or text message away. Surprisingly, even the new friends I made in the months that followed somehow welcomed me, embraced me and comforted me, despite knowing my controversial and highly-publicized story. A year later, it was a heart wrenching, and conflicting decision to leave them all behind, to move on to the next phase of healing, to find a new normal, and create a new life.
My wife and I had moved to the Mid-Atlantic, full of excitement and hope for a new start. A little more than a year later, my wife gone, our lives sensationalized across the globe, I found myself escaping that same place, no longer able to hold back the flood of memories and ghosts that haunted me regularly. Villanova. The restaurant where Jennair I were supposed to meet. I-476. West Chester Pike. The damn grocery store. Everything was a trigger. Every day was just a day to get through.
But my escape, was just that. It was mine. And true to form there was no plan. No real agenda. I had only a Google map and a roughly plotted, cross-country route just begging to be veered from if not ignored altogether. This was the kind of trip I had always dreamed of, getting in the car, pointing it in a general direction and just driving, meals and bathroom breaks be damned. Beyond the next 24 hours I didn’t have a plan or place to stay. Head west my internal compass begged. Head west.
I was under no delusion that by simply changing my geographical coordinates that I was no longer hiding from my problems. In the past year, I had been to seven different countries. Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, The Dominican Republic, Argentina, Jamaica and Spain. And not once did I truly escape from the darkness, the shadows that followed me. I had an emotional meltdown in Barcelona, drank myself into oblivion and woke up on the beach in Costa Rica. As painful as it all was, I knew on some level it was all part of my grieving process. I couldn’t fathom the idea of sitting still. “Keep moving,” an old friend told me. And I was hell bent on following that advice.
But this road trip was a trip like no other, starting with packing. During my 24 year marriage, I was never “allowed” to pack the car for a trip. I “didn’t know what I was doing,” I was told. And when I tried to do it anyway, my wife would look at the car in disgust, pull everything I’d packed out of the car and onto the driveway and repack it before my very eyes. “That’s how it’s done,” she would say, smugly dusting off her hands and shutting the trunk with a satisfied look.
No doubt she had two traits I didn’t share: a gift for packing and a need to be in control. After many years I learned to my own detriment, and now I realize to hers as well, to avoid conflict and just go with the flow. I knew I wouldn’t win, so it wasn’t worth the fight. But by avoiding conflict and always letting her win, I enabled her and her behavior, constantly handing her the power instead of working toward a compromise. I wish I had another chance to try. Because some things are worth fighting for. But I just didn’t want the fight.
Now 6.5 hours in, the sun began to set. I had made it. My first stop. Shaker Heights, Ohio. Climbing out of the car and looking into the back seat and trunk at the neatly stacked Ziplock storage bags full of clothing, I felt a slight smile come across my face.
“This is how it’s done,.” I said out loud. I felt another shadow lighten.