"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.
Excerpt: Love or Die Trying: How I Lost It All, Died, and Came Back for Love (by (author) Bob Ramsay)
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.
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
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
A ruthlessly honest memoir of love, loss, and redemption told with humour, grace, whimsy, and wit.
Wade Davis, author of Passage of Darkness
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
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
A revealing and generous memoir.
Winnipeg Free Press