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Biography & Autobiography Personal Memoirs

Love or Die Trying

How I Lost It All, Died, and Came Back for Love

by (author) Bob Ramsay

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jun 2021
Personal Memoirs, Motivational & Inspirational, Marriage, Near-Death Experience
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    Publish Date
    Jun 2021
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    Jun 2021
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"A ruthlessly honest memoir of love, loss, and redemption." — WADE DAVIS

A story of addiction and recovery, love and perseverance, and a reminder that it’s never too late to start over.

Bob Ramsay had it all — and lost it all, often. At forty, he lived in a drug treatment centre in Atlanta. Starting over back in Toronto, he began dating an older woman, a doctor named Jean Marmoreo, who had three teenage kids. The chances of this relationship lasting were zero. But they married and created a very different “out there” life for themselves, climbing mountains, running marathons, and exploring the ends of the earth.

Then one day Bob’s heart stopped, and life got much worse after it was restarted. But once again, perseverance and love won over fate, and today, Bob turns connection into an art form, while Jean Marmoreo is a MAiD doctor, leading her patients across the thin veil between life and death.

Love or Die Trying is a love story that unfolded against all odds and a reflection on a life anchored between a first death and the future.

About the author

Bob Ramsay is a communications consultant, writer, and founder of the speaker series RamsayTalks. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Medal in 2015 and the Bernier Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society in 2017. He lives with his wife, Dr. Jean Marmoreo, in Toronto.


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Excerpt: Love or Die Trying: How I Lost It All, Died, and Came Back for Love (by (author) Bob Ramsay)

8 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, in front of everyone, “You didn’t dent the car. You stole a car and crashed it and almost killed the other driver,” or some other truth.

One patient, an ophthalmologist from Florida, boasted to us for weeks how gorgeous his girlfriend was. He was right, but in one of our couples’ sessions, when everyone began by “checking in,” she turned to him and starting speaking, softly at first. “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 shoebox. There were a bunch of videotapes inside. I took one out and popped it into the machine …” Here, she paused, her voice rising louder. “And I spent the next half-hour watching you having sex in our bed with different women.”

He froze in his seat.

No one else in the room moved.

She glared at him, an avenging Valkyrie. “When I got here last night, I gave a copy to your therapist.” 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 the treatment centre to support you and learn some tools so they can help you stay clean and sober when you come home. 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 all much older than me and, although we weren’t estranged exactly, we were not close. My parents were also long dead. As for my friends who’d intervened on me, I was so guilt-ridden that I felt I couldn’t really ask them to step up.

But I felt I had to have someone attend (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’s thought and called Jean straightaway to ask her. I explained that it wasn’t really for a week, but rather for three days. She said she’d call back the next day with her answer.

When she called back to say yes, I was desperately relieved.

Two weeks later, Jean 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 first evening. I introduced Jean to my roommates and my therapy group mates and their families. It was a bit like a cocktail party back home, with everyone being very light and chatty. But the alums — those who’d been in treatment elsewhere — knew what was to come the next morning.

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 roommates 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 U.S. 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 if she liked 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, given her experience as a nurse at CAMH before she became a doctor.

The next morning, we were split into smaller family groups, and the spouses were asked to introduce themselves. By the time Jean’s turn came, we’d heard all kinds of stories of spouses, generally wives, saying that this was not their first Family Week, by any means. By this stage, they were just trying to hold the family together, not lose the house, and 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 husbands’ promises before, and while they hoped this time would be different, painful, family-demolishing experience told them it was unlikely.

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

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

What is she saying?! My heart sank.

“Do you live together?” the therapist asked.

Jean laughed. “No, no.”

The fact is, our relationship was a huge secret — to Jean’s medical colleagues and her friends of many years, and certainly to her ex-husband. And while her kids would occasionally see me when I stayed the night at their house, they knew nothing about me — and seemed to care less.

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

On the second day, just before the 8:00 p.m. AA meeting, Jean arrived outside the meeting hall.

“Bob, I can’t stay here. I’m going to go home tomorrow.”

“What?” 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.”


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 with her partner in tow. She was about sixty, 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.

“What? Why not?”

We all turned to look 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.”

It was clear by now that Jean had flown to Atlanta for her own reasons as well as mine. They had to do with her failed first marriage and the problems with her teenage kids. Being in what Talbott called “a safe place,” and in an environment familiar to any former psychiatric nurse, had unpacked some of Jean’s own issues — and she was only now becoming aware of them.

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.”

We did, and for the next hour I tried desperately to think how I could keep her there. If she left the next morning, I was sure she’d never see me again. That she’d view me as just a fling, a wild, risky, crazy boomerang relationship after splitting from her husband the year before. That this whole thing, especially her coming here, was insane.

After the meeting, I had to go back to my room in order to make curfew, as did my friend. Her partner said she’d walk Jean back to the hotel where all the families 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.”

These were pre-smartphone days and our outside calls from Talbott were very limited. So, when I woke up the next morning, I didn’t know if Jean was at the hotel, at the airport, or in the air. When I called the hotel, I was told she hadn’t checked out, but that she wasn’t in her room.

At breakfast in Talbott’s cafeteria, I saw my friend from the night before and 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 single day of her life waiting to end this no-hope relationship?

Five minutes into the class, the door opened and in walked Jean. She apologized for being late, said she had gone for a long walk and got lost on her way back.

I couldn’t wait for the class to end.

When it did, I asked her what happened.

“Well, your nice friend took me back to the hotel and asked me for coffee. Pretty soon, there were other women from 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 counselling 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, a big smile on her face.

Editorial Reviews

A ruthlessly honest memoir of love, loss, and redemption told with humour, grace, whimsy, and wit.

Wade Davis, author of Passage of Darkness

A revealing and generous memoir.

Winnipeg Free Press

This book, like Bob Ramsay himself, is a super charged, rollicking, sharp, funny, sometimes raw, always smart jolt of full-on life.

Zita Cobb co-founder and CEO of the Shorefast Foundation

Bob Ramsay is mad, bad, and dangerous, no thank you,' said the woman who ultimately married him; a love story filled with pain and fear, addiction and renewal; an overabundance of joy, I adored it!

Susan Ormiston, CBC Senior Correspondent

Do not be fooled by the breezy elegance and light touch as Bob Ramsay dances through the chapters of his life. This is a potent story of denial and self-awareness, relentless humour and existential fear, addiction and recovery, desperation and acceptance. Against a backdrop of tragedies and setbacks, momentous world events and grand adventures, this is above all a redemptive love story about two extraordinary people.

Dr. David Goldbloom, Senior Medical Advisor of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

We all need stories where love wins. We all need hope in the midst of the challenges we face. We all need to know what's possible when there seems no way out or no way up. Bob courageously shares his life story. A life filled with challenges yet love won out, hope was restored, and now hope is offered to each of us.

Rev. Brent Hawkes, Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto