December, 1990. Driving home from work. Listening to music. The Righteous Brothers “Unchained Melody” starts playing. The song is on the radio a bunch these days thanks to the movie Ghost, which was released a few months earlier. I now know the words by heart. I start quietly singing along. Once again, the tears start. I’m bawling, and soon I have to pull over. I start screaming at the top of my lungs. “I’m sorry! I am so sorry! Don’t leave!”
It doesn’t matter. She’s gone. We’re still in the same house, but she’s gone. Divorce is imminent, but I can’t accept it. I’ve never known so much pain. I’ve never known such intense grief. The grief of failure. The grief of loss. Divorce is loss. The confusion of not understanding why she didn’t love me anymore. I’d never told anyone I loved them before. She was the first woman I’d dated who had ever said she loved me. “I love you.” Magic words to me. The words of acceptance. The words that told me someone saw more than I saw in myself. The most important words in the world to me. As I let go of everything on the side of the road, those words seemed like ages ago. Like they never happened.
We’d met at a bar a little over a year after I got to Dallas. My favorite hangout, Fast and Cool. I was drunk and high when we met—cocaine was giving me all sorts of new confidence with women. Cocaine had become part of my social survival kit, along with my fake diamond earring. Whatever look I was trying to pull off, it seemed to work with her. She told me I looked like Bruce Springsteen. She liked that I walked her to her car and asked permission to kiss her. I loved her West Texas accent. A sharp contrast to my Yankee Pittsburgh accent, and having her interested in me made me feel like I belonged in Dallas. When I gave her an alcohol-aided goodnight kiss, she was only the third woman I’d kissed in my life.
We were married in 1988. We hadn’t been dating long. Sure, we could have waited longer and got to know each other better, but for me at least, that wasn’t necessarily a desirable outcome. When she looked into my eyes, I could tell she was looking at someone she admired. That meant the world to me. I wasn’t going to blow that by letting her get close enough to see who I really was. I hid my coke use from her. I hid my eating disorder from her. I never told her what it was like for me to look in the mirror. All that would only complicate the one important truth of our relationship: she actually like me.
Our early marriage was a continuation of our first date in many ways. We’d go out drinking together. But perhaps for both of us, young as we were, and as little as we’d actually come to know each other, the “going out” part was far more important than the “together” part. She had more and more girls nights out at the country bars. Not my thing. I was having more and more guys nights out at the coke clubs. She didn’t know what I was doing. I thought that was for the best. I’d never learned how to allow myself to be loved. Not only did I want to protect my secrets, I wanted to protect myself from knowing what my own wife thought of me, of our relationship. In my mind, if I ever opened up to her or sought to talk about feelings, she’d reveal the truth of who I was—a fat, ugly little boy.
February, 1991. The last time we’re together as a married couple. We’re in her car in the parking lot of the Blue Goose Cantina. We’ve been separated since January. I moved in with my brother Mark, who once again is there for me. Our meeting at the Blue Goose is about finally having a talk about how we really feel. There’s so much I could say, so much I should say if I want to keep her, but she speaks first. She pulls out a handwritten note. “Brian, I’ve made a list of the pros and cons of our marriage. I miss the comfort of being with you. I miss the security. I, however, don’t miss you. I want a divorce.”
Days later, the moment I’ve been dreading. She’s coming to my office at Transport Insurance with the papers. The office phone rings. It rings again. I almost let it go to voicemail. It doesn’t matter anymore. Avoidance won’t bring her back. She’s at the reception desk front with her mother. The fifty feet of walking to the reception area seems like three football fields. My legs feel like they are encased in lead. They don’t want to move. Look at the floor—one foot in front of the other. I don’t want to do it in the lobby. I don’t want to cry in the lobby. I don’t want my failure to be in the lobby. It’s always been my failure. We walk out to the car. I sign the papers. I don’t want to, but I believe that if I am agreeable she will reconsider. She’s crying. In sixty days, it’ll be over. I walk back to my office I shut my door. I think of the Righteous Brothers again. I start to cry. I’m convinced no one will ever love me again.
If there was an upside to my first divorce, it was that it was the first time I’d ever thought about the possibility of therapy, even if my motives were a little misguided. I vividly remember going straight back to my office after signing the papers, shutting the door, and bawling. Through the tears and pain I hatched a plan to get her back. I’d go to marital counseling. If I showed her that I was trying to be a better husband, she’d join me in counseling, and we’d reconcile before the divorce was final.
I was broke, but I did have health insurance, so I scoured the providers available for those providing marital counseling. It was slim pickings. I finally found a Christian-based counselor. Being Jewish, it was not the ideal choice for me, but was better than nothing and would serve the purpose of showing my awareness of the error of my ways. My wife was in the Church of Christ so I thought that the religious element would be a plus in getting her to join me.
I remember driving the twenty miles to the counselor in Duncanville, Texas, projecting out the fantasy I needed to hang on to. I went and saw the counselor for about three weeks until it became clear that my wife wasn’t interested in reconciliation on any terms. I later found out that she’d met someone before we were divorced and had moved on. My plan had failed.
But as with my personal relationships, I revealed nothing of substance to the therapist. I cried a lot, and he gave me a lot of tissue. As with “frank” discussions in my personal relationships, seeing a therapist was more about patching up the story I wanted to tell myself about my life than exploring any problems. Soon I gave up therapy all together and delved deeper in the Dallas nightlife to find someone who would lift me up again. I had no conception that it as my job to do that.
Over the years, I’d occasionally see therapists, and I’d also get antidepressant prescriptions (I started those after my second divorce). But just like failed relationship after failed relationship, therapy wasn’t ever going to help sustain me because I continued to conceal what was really going on in my life. I got used to only revealing a little of myself to my therapists, just like I’d reveal just enough to my girlfriends—or wives—so they’d think they knew something about me. My biggest secrets were keeping me from love, and from self-understanding.
Relationships are hard enough, but when substance use is added to the mix, and recovery is not a part of the picture, not many survive. I was no exception. I was no exception three times over, in fact. I often think of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. The character played by Alec Baldwin is trying to “motivate” a group of down and out salespeople with a sales contest he’s come up with: “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize’s a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” If third prize in a sales contest earns you a pink slip, what does three failed marriages earn you? I’ve long since blown past earning my set of steak knives. I figure one more failed marriage and I’m dismissed from the dating pool.
In reality, none of my divorces were funny, and each in its own way was just as painful as the others. Loss is painful. Failure is painful. My first divorce was a link in a chain of denial that kept me from having successful relationships. In all three of my marriages (as well as other relationships) I refused to address or reveal two important essential facts of who I was: my underlying mental health issues stemming from childhood and my substance use issues. I was in denial, and more than that, I did whatever was necessary to conceal those truths from the women with whom I shared my life. Without honesty about those fundamental issues, how could I expect help from those who loved me?