People who meet Margo Talbot, who is something of Canadian sports royalty as a world-renowned ice climber, tell her this all the time. Talbot leads groups all over the world, she represents a major sports company, she is a supremely talented ice and rock climber.
Talbot, 54, lives the life. Well, at least that’s what people think when they see her speak, hear about her adventures. They want to live the good parts that they see and hear about. They often have no clue about the price Talbot paid to be able to live that life.
The back story is a little more vivid. A victim of sexual assault and abuse as a child, Talbot plunged into two decades of alcohol and drug abuse, sexual experimentation and despair before discovering ice climbing, which at the time was only done by outliers and misfits. A very messy life indeed.
Most folks don’t know that part of the story, which she tells in her book All That Glitters. Talbot, who was diagnosed as “mentally ill”, eschewed the drugs that were prescribed for her and went on to find her own way through sports and meditation. Her found her voice in the wild, which is where many of us discover who we really are, a wild that is swiftly disappearing just as we need it the most.
I interviewed Talbot last year in preparation for a book reading with a local group of female athletes. She was enormously generous with her time, energetic, vibrant, vivid. She is also deeply involved all over the world with mental health/mental illness issues, especially as it relates to choosing drugs over independence born of taking risks, experiencing who we can be in Nature. The Nature that is being sold off to the highest bidder in America, and all over the world.
Talbot’s story in some ways paralleled my own. I’ve done my own time with being diagnosed as “mentally ill,” taking drugs that addled my brain, dumping them and throwing myself into the joys of athletics and adventure travel. I also have a history of sexual abuse both at home and in the military. I spent four decades struggling with eating disorders. Another very messy life.
People tell me all the time they want to “live my life.”
The Price We Pay
On the surface, both Margo and I live extraordinary lives. I spend several months every year exploring some of the world’s most amazing places by horseback, camel, elephant, kayak, hiking boots, you name it. I immerse myself in cultures from Africa to Myanmar to Kazakhstan. I am most certainly not rich. I’ve had to sell off furniture, clothing, shoes, a whole lot of stuff to be able to afford to do this. This kind of travel can be damned expensive. To me, it’s worth it. Nothing in a store can match the stories I can tell. At 65 I don’t know too many women who still skydive, scuba dive, paraglide, and ride the kind of badass feisty horses I do. That has cost me some equally badass injuries, but that’s why I train like a banshee. I get up and walk away from a broken back. Fractured pelvis. Broken arm, wrist and nineteen concussions.
You want to live that life, do you?
Hmm. For me to survive what I’ve gone through, I put in up to three hours a day in training. And that’s just for starters. I gave up any semblance of a normal life, a life with normal relationships, a husband, those things that my friends have and treasure. I don’t have them. But I have stories. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would Talbot, who did indeed marry, but not until after she had healed that part of herself which would allow her to trust.
Our Instagram culture
In a fascinating experiment with high schoolers here in Colorado, a number of kids decided to declare last October a month without social media https://durangoherald.com/articles/191514. When asked about why (and by the way, it was hugely successful, surprise surprise), one of the organizers explained that too many kids were feeling suicidal because of what others were posting on SnapChat, Instagram and other sites.
It’s too easy to see those photos and feel as though our lives are miserable by comparison. The compulsion is to discount the hard, slogging, all-day effort to get to the top of a mountain and take that sunset shot. We make all kinds of largely wrong assumptions about how easy someone else’s life is compared to ours. People only post the good stuff. Life looks effortless.
Kids aren’t the only ones who do this. When I recently posted about an adventure on a sixties and over women’s site, one of the posters ripped me a new one about being “rich, having it easy, and shoving it in everyone’s faces.” This is a shocking misread of someone else’s life. Not only that, it had nothing to do with me. This woman was bitter and angry about her own life, and acting like an adolescent, she was comparing her life to mine. She has no fucking clue the conditions of my life, the costs to me to be able to do what I do, and how hard I have worked to get there and stay there.
Everyone Else Has It All Together
In the confines of our minds, we all have voices that convince us that somehow other people’s lives are easier, better, more fun, more exciting, and happier than ours. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wouldn’t wish upon anyone the rapes that I was subjected to in the military, or any of the other assaults I’ve experienced. I wouldn’t wish on anyone the suicide of my last family member. The medical bankruptcy that nearly ruined me. Oh my, I could go on. Perfect life? Perfectly ridiculous. The truth is that nobody has it all together. None of us does. Inside we are terrified, lonely, frustrated, feeling isolated. What makes any of us different is how we choose to deal with those emotions, the same ones we all have, and how those emotions and holy terrors lead us to live very different lives. We don’t give them permission to turn us into angry trolls. We go out and live. It’s a matter of managing the same compulsions and impulses that we all deal with in a way that opens doors rather than shuts us inside prisons of our fears and our insecurities.
As Talbot told me last year, those experiences in both our lives were and continue to be the crucibles on which we are forged into live-out-loud women. As a disabled vet, I am inspired by similar stories of veterans who find their voices in the wild through climbing, hiking, fishing, air sports. All without limbs, and often having been dumped by their spouses. They are also living the life. Would you have been willing to forfeit body parts and a bit of your sanity to live their lives?
I thought not.
Yet each of us who has lived through some pretty serious shit has a choice- turn it into the motivation to grab life by the balls, or use it as an excuse to complain about how your life is balls-up.
The Curse of Jealousy
Nobody would want my mouth, because I lost all my teeth to eating disorders. Nobody really wants my body, which has been racked with serious injuries, yo-yo dieting, and plenty of time as an obese woman. Yet people look at me and assume that my life is “perfect.” My lovely teeth come out at night. I don’t need a mask at Halloween, I just take them out and meet kids at the door. Scares the crap out of them. Saves me money getting a costume. You can’t make this stuff up. I frankly find this hilarious.
Perfect life? Hardly. I’d like the forty years back that I spent inspecting the inside of a thousand thousand toilet bowls as I upended my last meal.
You don’t want my life. Or Margo’s. Or anyone else’s. You have yours. And the same 24 hours that I have when I wake up every morning. The only thing that differentiates any of us is the willingness to have those inevitable life events turn us into warriors. Men or women, adult or child. It’s how we are formed on the anvil of life, with steel in our backbones, or discarded as scrap. Those who live life as scrap are the bitter, angry trolls.
As I write this today, I have a migraine, one of at least ten a month. My right rotator cuff is badly torn. I’m missing organs as well as a mouthful of teeth. Yet I am the luckiest woman in the world. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s. I have a badass life. But only because the bad in my life gave me, and people like Talbot, a chance to rise. We’re no better than anyone else.
Next Sunday I head to Indonesia for a client, four weeks on a boat, a river trip, tramping isolated islands. You want this life? It’s available. Nobody said you couldn’t- except you. This is the heart and soul of what it means to have an indomitable spirit. You need inspiration?
You owe no one an apology for the condition of your life. And because of those conditions, you too can rise.
You don’t want my life. Or Talbots. Or anyone else’s You have yours. The stories you write day by day, hour by hour, can be the stuff of legend in your own life.
What will do you with your remarkable and sacred life today?