It was late 2002, and 45-year-old Lee Gaitan was looking forward to a new chapter in her life. “I raised my daughter. My husband’s career was established. I didn’t have to work full time. This is fantastic,” reflected the accomplished writer and author, who was teaching English as a second language, to adults, at the time. Although all wasn’t completely rosy (Lee’s mom was in a coma, and the doctors didn’t know if she’d regain consciousness), Lee was looking forward to her daughter, Torrie, coming home from college for Christmas with her new boyfriend.
Suddenly, her world went topsy-turvy in a matter of seconds. “My husband and I were planning to decorate the tree, but when I walked into the living room, he was sitting in the dark,” Lee clearly remembers.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I’m leaving,’ he answered.
‘Great, if you’re going to Target, I could use some more picture hooks,’ Lee responded, naively. “I was so stupid. I couldn’t process what he was saying.”
‘No, Lee, not Target. I’m leaving you,’ announced her husband of 22 years.
Hubby wasn’t just leaving. He had quit his job; lost $1.5 million (their life savings) in a company he was creating, about which he knew nothing, and was planning to run off with a former stripper, who had five children!
“He had a clear plan,” Lee said. ‘I’m leaving on New Year’s Eve and flying out to Arizona. When I return, I have an apartment,’ he announced. ‘But you can’t tell anyone now because I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s Christmas,’ he warned.
After moving 10 times for his career, Lee and her husband were then living in a new home they built in Atlanta, and their daughter was a student at a pricey private college. A former real estate and construction executive for a large restaurant company, and then a general contractor, her husband was downsized out of his job in Chicago and had been transferred south.
After her husband’s earth-shattering announcement, the “very foundations of my life started crumbling,” Lee said. Over the next 10 years, not one area of her existence escaped unscathed, including her career and her health. “It was brutal, and I can count the number of times I wanted to give up,” she told FabOverFifty.
Happily, she didn’t, and she brilliantly–and humorously–tells her tale of despondency and rebirth in her second book, called My Pineapples Went to Houston, Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry.
We couldn’t wait to sit down with Lee to hear what gave her such resiliency during her traumatic experiences, and how she came out (whole) on the other side.
FABOVERFIFTY: First, the obvious question. How did your husband manage to do all this without your knowledge?
LEE: My dad was dying of colon cancer that year, and I was often with him in Pennsylvania and could no longer handle all the finances, as I always did. That’s when my husband emptied everything out.
What were the first things you did when your husband left?
I was forced to sell our new house in Atlanta, my jewelry, and my car, just to be able to pay off my husband’s debts. But I was still left with nearly $100,000 in debt, from taxes he’d left unpaid to charges he made on my credit cards, and had to work up to five jobs to pay it back.
What were you doing at the time?
I had a college degree in communications and had worked in public relations, TV and radio. After my daughter was born, I taught part time and was focusing on freelance writing for magazines. I also published a book (Falling Flesh Just Ahead and Other Signs on the Road to Midlife) and was ready to promote it. Everything was wonderful. I had no clue what was going to happen.
Luckily, my writing and language skills enabled me to get a job in a middle school, after my husband left. I didn’t like it, but I made wonderful friends and wonderful connections who kept encouraging me to start writing again. That job saved me.
What was your daughter’s reaction?
He not only walked out on me, he totally walked out on Torrie. She was 20 and it screwed her up. While her father played daddy to five children in Arizona, he stopped all contact with her. Not a call, nothing. Nothing on birthdays. Nothing at graduation Nothing, for five years! How could he leave his daughter, I thought. She’s like a prize.
After he left, Torrie transferred to the University of Georgia, and won a Hope Scholarship, so tuition was paid. She also worked. He abandoned me, too, but I got all the shit, because she dumped on me all the anger she felt for him. It was really, really rough. I was the one who stayed and cleaned up the mess.
How is Torrie doing now? Does she see her father?
She is married and living in Boston. Both she and her husband are extremely successful, but she still has a lot of anger. Her father contacted her before she got married, in 2011, and she asked me if she should invite him to the wedding. ‘But mom, only you’re walking me down the aisle,’ she told me. Torrie kind of sees her father now.
How did your husband meet the other woman? Is he still married to her?
He dated her in high school. She called him a couple of times during our marriage to tell him that her husband was abusive and beat her, and that she ran off with the kids and she was stripping to make money. And I remember saying to him: ‘We need to help her. Find her a job. Give her a reference. She has kids and you have to help.’ I neglected to tell him not run off with her.
I made the mistake during our marriage of thinking that surface cracks were nothing, but they turned out to be fissures. When my husband was good, he was very, very good. A supportive husband. But when he lost the business, he was so embarrassed, he had to run and get away from it. I told him to stay and clean up the mess. ‘You have people who will help you,’ I stressed. But he couldn’t man up.
So he hid out on a mountaintop. He and his girlfriend lived in a cabin without running water or heat.
He actually began the affair when my dad was dying.
They’re divorced now.
Note: Lee later learned that her ex-husband’s girlfriend had lied about her husband’s abusiveness. “He actually paid child support and visited his kids,” Lee said.
How did you meet your new husband? Tell us about him?
Jorge was a student in my ESL class. He was in international banking in Colombia, during the drug cartels in the 1990s, but came to the United States after he detected a money laundering scheme and his life was in danger. I was still married and didn’t know my first husband was going to lose his mind, so I tried repeatedly to set Jorge up with my divorced sister. ‘I found a guy for you,’ I told her. ‘Very handsome and sexy! Divorced, no little kids.’ But nothing really clicked.
After my husband walked out the door, I started teaching again, and, coincidentally, Jorge decided to come back to class at the same time. The first thing he asked was ‘How’s your husband?’ I told him I was divorced and that I had had the big plan to give him to my sister.
‘I think you give me to the wrong sister,’ he answered. We ended up marrying in 2006.
Jorge is now working as a civil engineer. He also has a finance degree and a masters degree in marketing. He has two married sons, both architects. One lives in Bogota and the other in Barcelona. My daughter immediately bonded with them both. We all travel to Colombia once a year.
What did the last dozen years teach you?
Even though horrible things happen, you have to find ways to have some enjoyment in life. Talk to your friends. Read. Find moments since you don’t know if the next moment will be your last.
There were definitely days when suicide would cross my mind. I had been pushed so far down, and every time I lifted my head up, thinking I have everything under control, something else would pop up. I’d say to myself, ‘OMG, who did I piss off in the universe? If I can’t take this anymore, my only choice is to check out.’ But then I’d think, ‘What kind of legacy would that be for my daughter?’
You have to remember you’re not living in a war zone, you haven’t lost a child, you haven’t witnessed horrible tragedy, so you’ve got to figure this out. People have done these things and continued on. As hard as it may be to believe at the moment, you really can and will emerge on the other side of the bad bounce life has thrown your way. You can and will emerge stronger, wiser and more grateful for your bad bounce than you ever imagined possible. Certainly, none of us would choose to be the one left behind in a relationship, watching in disbelief as our spouse walks out the door, but we can survive and even learn to thrive once we let go of ‘what was’ and learn to embrace ‘what can be.’
Bounce Back Check List or What to Do When Your Husband Walks Out the Door…Without You!
Gather good people around you: Friends, professionals, support teams. I had to go to therapy and take anti-depressants to get out of the nosedive I was in. Do what you need to do. Ask for help. Use every tool at your disposal to help you rebuild your faith and belief that you will turn the situation around. It’s absolute death if you stop believing.
Everyone reacts differently or at different times. Remember that you are grieving a loss every bit as real as a death. At first, you may want to variously scream, cry, curl up in a ball on your bed, eat ice cream, escape into mindless TV shows or stay up all night talking to your best girlfriends. Or you may do none of these things. You may walk zombie-like through the first few days or weeks, numb with shock. All of that is perfectly normal, and I don’t think anyone can tell you what is the right way for you to grieve.
And look at it as often as necessary to remind yourself of all of the things you still have going for you—first and foremost yourself and your survivor spirit.
I don’t care how insignificant the positives seem now and how overwhelming the negatives are at the moment, write down every good little thing you can think of. If you’re going to need a new job, think of all your skills and experience; if you feel abandoned, think of friends and family who are there for you; if you feel one-upped by his new squeeze, remember all the beautifully unique things about yourself.
Laugh at the absurdity of the situations you find yourself in. Laugh through your tears. Laugh at a silly Facebook post. Laugh out loud. But, laugh.
Believe that what you have at this moment is enough to get you to the next moment. In the worst moments, there are still quiet little signs of hope that can get you through. Learn to appreciate every drop of mercy that comes your way, and don’t focus on or bemoan the big rescue that never comes. Savor the small moments of grace that sustain you, sometimes minute by minute. The lens of gratitude has a magical way of magnifying the smallest bit of goodness, until it is enough to cover your need.
Do all the things for yourself that you would urge a friend to do when experiencing a crisis. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, lean on friends, pamper yourself with a new haircut, a mani/pedi, a massage, or whatever little treat comforts you. And don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed. A very hard thing has happened to you, and when hard things happen, we ask for help from many sources.
No matter how great any marriage is, there are always compromises and sacrifices that each person makes for the sake of the relationship. Guess what? You don’t have to please anyone but yourself now. Reacquaint yourself with who you were/are as an individual before you were one-half of a couple. Maybe he hated dancing and you have been sitting out every toe-tapping tune for 20 years. Now is the time to put on your dancing shoes again. He hated foreign films? Well, he’s not here now, so bring on the subtitles! Whatever interest, hobby or just plain way of being you had to submerge for the greater good can re-emerge now. Don’t be afraid to try new things. There is no one to judge or question your choices now, so go for it!
I’m am not joking here. That’s a powerful symbolic gesture, and serves a practical purpose as well. Changing the locks—locking you ex out of your life—sets metaphorical boundaries around you. This is now YOUR space and YOU decide who gets to enter and who can’t. From a pragmatic standpoint, you don’t want him coming in when you aren’t around, taking things without your permission or knowledge or riffling through your papers and documents.
No one wants to sign up for a crisis, but you really do surprise yourself. When you have to do it, you somehow do, and find out what you’re made of.