Karen’s plan was fairly straightforward: Find satisfying work, meet a great guy, have two children and live a joyful life. During her twenties it seemed that she was on the right track. Things looked good.
Don entered Karen’s life when she was in her mid-twenties. He was good looking, charismatic and charming. The problem was that he had not yet settled on his career path, and within their first few years together he decided to return to college to further his training. While he focused on his studies, Karen worked and bought a house with her brother. It was a great arrangement: Karen lived on the main floor and her brother had the basement to himself. Don eventually moved in with Karen along with his daughter from a previous marriage. While he paid some rent, Karen carried the majority of the living costs but that was fine by her because she was very supportive of Don’s efforts to reinvent himself.
The presence of Don’s daughter meant that Karen was suddenly placed in a parenting role, one to which she happily adapted very quickly. She had always wanted and loved children, and the addition of a step-daughter in her life gave her the opportunity to play a significant part from the beginning. A short while later, she became pregnant with her own daughter. Life was moving along very nicely.
Then everything changed. Don became very ill with a neurological disorder that caused uncontrollable shaking and twisting in his neck, making it impossible for him to function normally. He had been working on a contract that was headed for renewal just prior to his illness, but when his health took a turn for the worse, the contract was not renewed. Don remained unemployed for several months. Since Karen had only been working at her new job less than one year prior to having her baby, there was no coverage. They had to subsist on Employment Insurance; in short, not a lot of money for a family of four.
Over the next few years, Don’s illness caused major problems. He found and lost four jobs, thereby leaving their family in a constant state of financial crisis. Karen ended up being the main breadwinner since her employment was always stable.
Finally Don seemed to find the right dosage for his medications and his physical condition began to stabilize. He found a new job as a manager at a Theatre and while it required all sorts of strange hours, Karen was nonetheless supportive as she wanted him to make a success of his job after so many difficulties. The problem was that Don had started drinking to excess. He had a role model in this behaviour: His mother is an alcoholic.
When the mortgage for the house came up for renewal, Karen’s brother wanted to sell his share. After some discussion with Don, Karen decided that it would be best if they sold that house, paid off her brother and bought a house of their own. They were in the process of trying to have another baby so it was a perfect time to set out on their own. She was certain that with a new beginning things would work themselves out.
That’s when Don decided to make an independent film. Karen did her best to talk him out of it. They had enough on their plate – a young child, a house to sell, a house to buy, his drinking habit, not to mention their desire to have another baby sometime soon. This was just not a good time. Don’s rebuttal was that this project was something he needed to do and that if he got it over with right away he would be able to help care for Karen during the pregnancy after having been unable to do so the first time. Again, Karen wanted to be supportive and she relented.
Don got to work on filming his movie in the basement of their house – a process which required Karen and the girls to vacate the property – while Karen made all the arrangements to sell it and find a new one.
All the while, Don was becoming more distant and angry. He’d attribute it to stress from his job, the impending move and his movie; there were many ready reasons. Things escalated to the point where he was yelling so loudly at his oldest daughter that the neighbours called the police. Karen insisted that he go into counseling for anger management and alcohol abuse as well as marriage counseling. Yes he would, after the move.
They moved into their new house at the end of August of that year. On October 6th they had their first session with a marriage counselor. On October 7th they celebrated their 5th wedding anniversary. On October 9th, his oldest daughter found him in bed with his on-screen wife. Don confessed to Karen when she arrived and pleaded for forgiveness. It had only been a momentary thing and had happened only once. It would never happen again.
Karen was horrified but she believed him. She desperately wanted her family to be intact for her daughter’s sake. She sent him to his mother’s house as she tried to process what had happened. Two days later she received an anonymous message on Facebook from someone on the set who claimed that Don had been having an affair for some time. Karen immediately left work and headed to Don’s office where she confronted him with the information. For forty-five minutes he denied the allegations and then eventually he broke down. He had been taking his mistress to hotel rooms and using their money to do it. In retrospect, it had seemed strange to Karen that he never had money to pay bills.
Shock. That’s the only way to describe Karen’s state. She was unable to work and to process information for some time. She had done so much for this man. How could he ever have done this to her? It was heartbreaking to think that all of her plans and her dreams had come crashing down around her. Her hope of having two children of her own was crushed. And this after having been a mother to his daughter for many years. Shock gave way to anger and sadness. Much bitterness remains.
The positive side to this story is that Karen was surprised by the support that she received from all quarters, both professional and personal. People gave her time, money and a sympathetic ear.
Perhaps the nicest outcome of all is the support that Karen received from her step-daughter. Karen says it best:
– She has chosen to continue living with me and her little sister as she completes her high school education, and she is most welcome to do so. She is angry with her father, who also cheated on her mom when they were married. She has very little to do with him. By contrast, she has told me over and over that I have been a good mom to her and she has propped me up when I felt that I couldn’t stand. We have been there for each other in a way that is really beautiful, and I am exceedingly proud of the kind, intelligent, beautiful young woman she has become. I feel like I have gained a daughter through this.
When I asked Karen what advice she would pass on to other women, she offered the following:
1. Don’t overlook how a person was raised, nor their past behaviour. People can talk a good game when they are dating but they will usually revert to the core values with which they were raised. Don cheated on his first wife. That should have set off a flag. His mother was an alcoholic – again another issue. If there are issues in your partner’s past, don’t ignore them. Look at the ethical values that they bring with them from their past.
2. Don was never accountable for anything. There was always a story for everything, always someone else in the wrong, someone else to blame. That kind of behaviour should be a warning sign.
3. If you have a secret that you feel you can’t share with anyone, that should also be a huge, red flag for you. By remaining silent you will continue to victimize yourself; by keeping his secrets you are complicit. You must find someone with whom to talk. Don’t carry the burden yourself.
4. You are not alone and you have worth. Always remember that.
My next blog post will be: Learning to drive – Judy’s story