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Love or Die Trying

Love or Die Trying

How I Lost It All, Died, and Came Back for Love
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7. Family Week

Family Week at rehab is a scary time. The patients are still in denial about the damage their addictions have caused, and now their families arrive to say: “You didn’t dent the car. You stole a car and crashed it and almost killed the other driver.”

One patient, an ophthalmologist from Florida, boasted to us for weeks how gorgeous his girlfriend was. He was right. In one of our couples’ sessions, when everyone began by “checking in,” she turned to him, starting softly: “Mark, I’m so glad you’re here. You need to be here. Please do what they tell you.” Then her voice rose, her face reddening. “Last month after you left home to come here, I was cleaning out the bedroom and saw something on top of the closet. It was an old shoe box. There were a bunch of videotapes inside. I took one out and popped it into the machine …”

Here, she paused, her voice rising another octave “… and I spent the next half hour watching you having sex in our bed with different women.”

He froze in his seat as she glared at him, an avenging Valkyrie. No one else in the room moved.

“When I got here last night, I gave a copy to your therapist,” she added. Then she then lifted her big purse from the floor, opened it, and pulled out three more tapes. “And if anyone here wants to see them, just ask.”

Hell hath no fury.

The term Family Week suggests you’ll ask members of your family to come to your treatment centre to support you and learn some tools so they can help you stay clean and sober when you leave. Addiction is, after all, a family disease, and yes, my mother was an alcoholic.

But when I heard about Family Week, the thought of inviting either of my two half-brothers or my half-sister never entered my head. They were fifteen and twenty years older than me, and we weren’t estranged, exactly, but we were distant. My parents were also long dead. As for my friends who’d intervened on me, I was so guilt-ridden I really couldn’t ask them to step up a second time.

But I had to have someone (though not all the patients did). I had to appear normal. I couldn’t be alone, my loneliness exposed for all to see. Looking back, I doubt I gave any of my family or friends a second thought. I called Jean straightaway and asked her. I explained that it wasn’t really for a week, but rather three days. She said she’d call back the next day with her answer.

I waited, nervous, unsure what her answer would be.

But in the end she said yes, I was desperately relieved.

Two weeks later, she arrived in Atlanta, checked in to the Comfort Inn nearby, and made her way to Talbott.

The first Family Week event was a welcome barbeque that evening. I introduced Jean to my room-mates and my therapy group mates and their families. It was like a cocktail party back home. Everyone was very light and chatty. But the alums, those who’d been in treatment elsewhere, knew what was to come the next morning.

Most Talbott patients were doctors and nurses, with some lawyers, judges, airline pilots, pro baseball players, and the odd admiral, priest, and orchestral conductor thrown in. Nearly everyone had a professional body that could withhold their licence to work — a powerful incentive to stay and “do the program.”

Talbott wasn’t one of these thirty days in and out facilities. This was long-term treatment, and since time itself is a factor in staying sober, and Talbott’s goal is not just to have you remain clean after you leave, but to work in the cockpit or the operating room, no one got out in less than three months. And if you were a relapsing anaesthesiologist, you could be there for up to a year.

All of Talbott’s eighty patients at that time lived in a low-rise apartment block within walking distance of the main building. I had three room-mates my first month: Ted, a defrocked priest who was an alcoholic and a sex addict; Gord, a kidney surgeon from Dallas who’d been one of the youngest colonels in the US Air Force; and Dan, a doctor from Ottawa who was a fentanyl addict.

On our way back to Jean’s hotel after the picnic, I asked her, “So, how did you like my friends?”

“Well …” she said slowly, “I don’t think I’ve ever met such a smart, charming, articulate group of sociopaths in my life.”

I guess she’d know. Before she became a doctor, she was the head nurse at what is now CAMH in Toronto, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

The next morning, after we were split into smaller family groups, the spouses introduced themselves. By the time Jean’s turn came, we’d heard all kinds of stories of spouses, generally wives, say that this was not their first Family Week, by any means. By this stage, they were just trying to hold the family together, keep the house, keep the kids from checking out entirely, either by disengaging or by raging, in order to cope with the chaos at home. They’d heard their husband’s promises before, and while they hoped this time would be different, painful family-demolishing experience told them likely not.

“So, Jean, tell us about yourself,” the therapist asked.

“Well, I’m a physician from Toronto and I …” She paused, “I don't really know why I’m here. I don't know Bob that well …”

What was she saying?!

My heart sank.

“Do you live together?” the therapist asked.

Jean laughed. “No, no.”

The fact was, our relationship was a huge secret, both to Jean’s medical colleagues and to her friends. And it was also not something she’d informed her ex-husband of, although their kids would occasionally see me when I stayed the night at their house. But they knew nothing about me or my situation, and they seemed not to care.

Over the next three days, Jean and I attended classes and groups and AA meetings together.

On the second day, just before an 8:00 p.m. AA meeting, Jean arrived at the assigned hall. “Bob, I can’t stay here. I’m going to go home tomorrow.”

“What?” I was overcome by a feeling of panic.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“No, no, you have to stay.”

“No, really. I'm going to go back to the hotel, pack my bags, and take the first flight out tomorrow morning. You’ll be fine without me.”

“No!” Why was she doing this? She couldn’t leave me.

“Jean, what’s wrong?”

At that moment, a female patient I was friends with walked by us with her partner in tow. She was about sixty years old, an alcoholic, and a nurse. Jean had met them at the picnic. “Shall we go in?” she said.

“Jean doesn’t want to.” I said, devastated.

“What? Why not?”

We all looked at Jean.

“Because I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’ve made a big mistake coming and now I need to get back to my children.”

I was completely undone. Panic tied my tongue.

My friend said: “Sure, okay. But you’re here now and we’re all going in, so let’s go to the meeting together.”

Jean acquiesced, and for the next hour I tried desperately to think of how to keep her there. If she left next morning, I was sure she’d never see me again. That she would convince herself I had just been a fling, a wild, risky, crazy boomerang after she’d taken her three kids and left their father the year before. That this entire episode, especially her coming here, had been insane.

After the meeting, I had to go return to my room in order to make curfew, as did my female friend. Her partner said she’d walk Jean back to the hotel, where all the family members were staying.

My last words to Jean were: “Stay, honey. Please stay.”

I had never felt as desperate as I did at that moment.

All she said was: “Goodnight.”

This was pre smartphone days, and our outside calls at the centre were very limited. So, when I awoke the next morning, I didn’t know if Jean was at the hotel, at the airport, or already in the air on her way back to Toronto. I called her hotel as soon as I could and was informed that she hadn’t checked out, but that she wasn’t in her room.

At breakfast in Talbott’s cafeteria, I saw my friend whose partner had walked Jean back to her hotel. I waved her over.

“Have you seen Jean?”


“I guess she’s gone.”

“Bob, I think you should let her tell you.”

I’d pushed a boundary and got pushed back.

Despondent, I made my way from breakfast to our first class. What would I say to everyone? That we really weren’t that close? Or worse, that she didn’t like what she saw in our first day and decided to not waste another day of her life waiting to end this no-hope relationship?

Five minutes in to the class, the door opened and … in walked Jean. She apologized for being late, explaining that said she had gone for a long walk and had gotten lost on her way back. I couldn’t wait for the class to end.

When it did, I asked the obvious: “What happened?”

“Well, your nice friend’s friend took me back to the hotel and asked me to go for a coffee. Pretty soon … other women [arrived who were there for] Family Week — half a dozen of them. We all crowded around the table. I told them I had to leave. We talked in a way I’d never done in my life — even when I was counseling alcoholics. When the hotel closed the coffee shop for the night, we went upstairs and continued to talk in my room. We talked for three hours. Not just about me, but about all of us. They told me about their panic, their need to flee, their determination to stick it out. By the time we all went to bed, one thing was clear. My wanting to leave last night had nothing to do with you. It had everything to do with my failed marriage, and how I’d stuck it out long after it was over. Since I left him over a year ago, I’d never given myself the time to, as they say here, ‘process’ it all. I cried and cried when we were talking, and those women held me and hugged me, it felt like all night long. They were wonderful.”

“So, you’ll stay?”

“I guess I need to,” she said, smiling widely.

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Before You Split

Before You Split

Find What You Really Want for the Future of Your Marriage
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Chapter 1
Is there really no way out of stuck?

One day, fifteen years into our marriage, we reached the tipping point. My husband, Carey, and I had endured years of conflict, now layered with ever-­growing bitterness and contempt.

I was working a challenging job in legal affairs and governance for a hospital, and Carey was pastoring a growing church that demanded his full-­time attention. Our schedules were packed with managing our careers and caring for our two children, ages nine and thirteen. Along with all the responsibilities of leading, serving, and volunteering at our church, we were involved with our kids and their school and all their extracurriculars, such as music lessons and team sports. Though our lives were full, we still tried to connect as a couple.

On this particular day in early summer, I breezed out of the hospital and into the front seat of Carey’s Mazda. I looked forward to catching a lunch with him, just the two of us. The last of the cold bite in the air had been replaced with tropical warmth. It felt good as I breathed it in.

The lightness of my mood didn’t last.

As soon as I closed the car door, Carey muttered something about how I had kept him waiting. My attempt to explain my tardiness didn’t help. He criticized again. And in rushed the flood of frustration and resentment I had held back since our most recent unresolved argument.

Keeping our lunch date suddenly seemed futile. And I wasn’t hungry anymore. Thick and suffocating silence hung between us. My hope for a better connection this time disappeared.

What was the hidden issue behind this argument? It went deeper than my being late. Because we had so many resentments, neither of us really knew for sure. On the surface, we had an endless supply of fuel for our disputes: who would be responsible for driving to the game the next day, who was cooking what for dinner, how the last discipline incident went down, whose family’s event we would attend, who was working late that night, and on and on.

This day’s argument followed the same old pattern: I would get upset over something Carey said and I’d shut down. Carey would respond by trying, progressively more insistently, to provoke a response from me. The more he tried, the more upset I’d become. The angrier I felt, the more I’d withdraw into my silent and zoned-­out world. And then at some point, I would break the silence and explode into either anger or tears. It was as though this pattern had worn a rut so deep that neither of us could steer us out of it. We were stuck.

This day, it was impossible to hold my emotions back. I dissolved into tears. Head tilted toward the passenger window, I watched as drops patterned the sleeve of my navy suit. I looked at my hands clenched in my lap. Gripped with despair, I pulled at my wedding ring and forced it off my finger.

“There,” I said, throwing the ring on the floor at Carey’s feet. “You have it. I don’t want it anymore.”

Inside, I was a tangled mess of conflicting thoughts and emotions, desperate for our marriage to be anything other than what it was. I didn’t want to be divorced, but I couldn’t endure another hour of what our relationship had become. Unwanted anger, bitterness, and resentment filled me, but I didn’t know how to get rid of those feelings. I hated being hateful. And I melted into one more self-­pitying episode of “I just can’t do this anymore.”

Even with my thoughts clouded by anger, I knew the significance of my ring. When Carey was a cash-­poor student in law school, he’d sold his prized Ford, the one that was a gift from his grandparents, for the money to purchase that ring. It was everything he had to offer at the time—­a symbol of his steadfast love, devotion, and sacrifice. And now there it lay, discarded on the floor. That day, I was dead to compassion.

It became clear to both of us that something needed to change, and though the time for change had been many yesterdays ago, today would do.

How did I end up here?

How had my wedding-­day dream of living “happily ever after” turned out so bad? And how did I end up here, writing a book about it? Not only did I go through a desperate season in my own marriage, but I’ve also learned from the struggles other married couples have gone through that I’ve seen from various vantage points.

I’m a lawyer trained in divorce law. Even before I threw the ring off my finger, I had a clear picture of the consequences of divorce. Perhaps I felt then as you do now—­I didn’t want to go there. Since the time our marriage was that bad, I helped hundreds of people through the often painful journey of separation, and I still do as a family law mediator. Being a divorce attorney is like practicing palliative care—­only not caring for people through life’s end but caring for people through the death and aftermath of their marriages. I wasn’t motivated by any desire to help people end their marriages. On the contrary, out of compassion, my aim was to help people by ensuring their legal affairs were taken care of during a very difficult time of grief and transition.

I’m also a pastor’s wife. Carey and I have spent several decades serving and leading our local church. Maybe you think being a church leader stacks the marriage odds in our favor. After all, we should know a thing or two about love, right? But I wonder whether it sometimes does the opposite. I believe authentically following Christ from a healthy emotional place does benefit a marriage. But if you’re not emotionally healthy—­as Carey and I weren’t—­you still get tripped up. Being in church leadership adds a pressured and complicated layer. We were passionate about serving Jesus but naive about love, and we lacked mentors.1

Much of what I have to share relates to what Carey and I went through. I was desperately unhappy in my marriage, and I didn’t have a clue what to do about it. Since then, I’ve learned that the story I was seeing and believing at the time was not the full story. During our tough season, when I wondered if I should leave, I was unaware of how the emotional state I brought into our marriage was integrally wrapped up in the struggles and conflict we were experiencing. I had developed strong feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward Carey, which had risen from our unending conflict. All I knew was I would look at our young sons and all we had built together, and I’d ache with the knowledge that I had to make a choice about what to do with all this negativity. And I thought, It feels like it’s over. So now what?

Looking back, I know if I’d listened to my negative emotions, I would have taken my escape.

I’m grateful that I didn’t.

What about you?

Perhaps you and I have something in common. Maybe you fell madly in love with your spouse and, for at least a while, you couldn’t think of anyone else. You could have been surrounded with people, but your spouse was the only person in the room. Fast-­forward to now, when at times you can’t stand being in the same room.

You may have found, as many couples do, that the spark that carried you through the first few years vanished far more quickly than you expected. Maybe you still have sex sometimes, but you’re not fully engaged or interested in it. You aren’t that attracted to your spouse anymore. Bad blood has followed you into the bedroom.

Maybe your marriage has you feeling overwhelmed. It’s been tougher than you thought it would be. Your dreams on your wedding day now seem like someone else’s. You feel trapped when you look at your old wedding photos and wonder, How did we end up here?

You look around, and your other friends seem happier than you are. You may have even spotted better prospects. The one guy on your work team seems to have his life together, and he’s a lot kinder to you than your husband is. You’re trying to dismiss the nagging thought that you’re wasting your life by staying.

Maybe you’re in that season of a long drawn-­out argument. Or perhaps you and your spouse just drifted apart over time and the feelings are gone. Maybe your partner has changed so much since your wedding day that you hardly recognize the person you married. Or maybe you’re dealing with the fallout from a betrayal.

How did you go from “I can’t wait to see my spouse” to “I can’t stand my spouse anymore”? Something has shifted so massively in your relationship that you find yourself thinking:

I didn’t sign up for this!

I just can’t do this anymore!

How can marriage be this hard?

This is not the same person I married!

My heart is breaking for you because I too have been to that awful place where I thought the only viable solution was to give up and escape. Even in the quiet moments when your brain comes up with reasons to stay, your feelings ambush you in the next storm, shouting, That’s it. I’m done. It’s over. I know the unhappiness that escapes words. And as real and as forceful as those emotions are, they may be trying to tell you something—­something deeper than “I’m done.” There’s probably more of a story underneath your marriage angst than you realize.

Maybe you can identify with how I felt when I flung my wedding ring on the floor. Throwing off the ring was my way of saying, I’m done with this version of our marriage. We needed to get honest and seek help or we weren’t going to make it.

Is it time for you to do the same?

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