Suicide by Imitation Love

By Greg Baer M.D.

July 4, 2008

Nearly fifteen years ago I attended a twelve-step meeting where I met Tom, who was just beginning the process of recovering from a lifetime of difficult experiences, including alcoholism, drug addiction, and a term in prison — all this despite the outward appearance of a successful life as a respected professional in his community.

Over a period of years we became close friends, and I enjoyed watching him grow in his sobriety and happiness, but eventually he began to slip into old behaviors. He became increasingly secretive and distant. He began to drink and use drugs again. He even became violent, on one occasion shooting a gun in the house near his wife, who had been loving and supportive toward him for many years.

It wasn’t long before he divorced his wife and moved in with a woman who drank with him and supported him in his self-destructive behaviors. One day I received a call from Tom’s ex-wife, Linda, who told me that Tom was dead, as a result of the complications of his drinking.

I drove to the next state, where Tom and Linda lived, to spend some time with her, and over the next several months I communicated several times with her about her grieving. A few days ago I received an email from Linda, and I’m sharing our communication here in the belief that it may be instructive to others.

Loved or Hated

Linda: I have spent the past nine months trying to decide if Tom loved or hated me. I believe the answer is . . . yes. No one had more fun for ten or more years than we did. He could be attentive and kind. He took care of me when I was sick. He took me to places I had always wanted to go, and so on. He proclaimed to everyone that I was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Greg: Tom meant what he said, but he didn’t quite understand what he was saying. All his life Tom never knew what it meant to be loved unconditionally. Then you came along and really did love him. But he had no experience with that kind of love — it was completely foreign to him — so he couldn’t quite believe it. He was so wounded it was unbelievable to him. Even when you — and a few others in the Real Love community — tried to love him unconditionally, he still felt like he had to earn it, as he had always done, so he didn't quite feel the unconditional love. The end result was that he felt alone almost all the time, even when he was around other people. Remember how he was always telling his stories, always putting on a show around people, always telling people the great things he’d done, always proving how wonderful he was? He was buying love, even when he didn't have to. You gave him Real Love, but he didn’t recognize it. You were the best thing in his life, but he didn't quite understand why.

Always Looking for a Way to Dull the Pain

Linda: Then we ran into Carol at Applebee’s, and then came “Can you come fix my pool filter,” etc. The need for repairs increased, as did the drinking and then the lies started.

Greg: Even though he had a source of Real Love from you, he didn't know what to do with it. He couldn't just relax and accept it, so he was always looking for another source of Imitation Love, another way to dull the pain in his life. Hence the use of praise, drugs, alcohol, whatever. Carol was just another source of Imitation. That's all. She was just another bottle.

Why the Lies

Linda: He came in one morning from work and announced that he had been fired because of paperwork irregularities that were not his fault. Then later I get to find out from other people that the DEA had been watching him for months, and they had found drugs in his briefcase!! Prior to this, he had been the Golden Boy at work. They relied on him for all the difficult jobs. How could he lie to me? How could he do all this?

Greg: You must understand that in his world, he had to lie to you. He couldn’t bear telling you the truth and experiencing the pain of losing even more approval. And how could he do this? It’s the only way he could see to treat his pain. It’s what he’d been doing all his life. Sure, for a brief time, he learned some other ways when he was sober, but when we’re in our greatest pain, we don’t tend to do what’s right; we do what we’re most familiar with. Our addictions are simply the repetitive behaviors that we’ve become familiar with, the behaviors we can’t stop, even when they’re harmful to us. You need to understand that he was swimming not only in his addiction to drugs but in so many addictions. He was addicted to anything that would stop his emotional pain: alcohol, drugs, pleasing people, saving the day by doing great things for people, getting people’s attention with his stories, and it goes on and on.

Linda: Then Carol and the booze came on the scene.

Greg: All ways of stopping his pain. It's all the same story, just different chapters and verses.

Not Mixed Messages

Linda: Many times I had told him that he sent mixed messages.

Greg: Not really. It's all the same message, just with different verses and harmonies and titles. He was consistently telling you about his pain, just in different ways.

Linda: He could be so confusing. He could yell at me for spending a dollar, but then he could say, “I have to get sober so I can spend the rest of my life with you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. The past 10 years with you have been the happiest of my life.”

Greg: It’s all consistent. Even though most of his behaviors were dedicated to stopping his pain, which in the end only resulted in more pain, he would have moments when he would realize that his behavior wasn’t working and that you were the exception in his life. He realized that what he had with you was different, and he would tell you that.

Linda: Then the hidden bottles started to show up, along with the periods of time unaccounted for. He would say, “I love you, but Carol has the booze.” Another mixed message.

Greg: Not mixed. Just a realization of what the truth was. He was saying, “You have the Real Love I really need — what I’ve needed all my life — but I don’t know how to accept that. I don’t know how to relax and just take in what you offer. So when my pain becomes unbearable, I turn to what is familiar to me. I turn to Imitation Love, because even though it fails me every single time eventually, it is predictable in the short term. I know I can go out and find it, buy it, earn it, and trade for it almost every time.” And he did. He used every form of Imitation Love he could find. He simply couldn’t understand that unconditional love is free. It’s God’s love. But it can’t be felt until we let go and quit buying all the other stuff.

Pain, Pain, Pain

Linda: The one weekend he came home for a visit from rehab, he cried all night with horrible memories. His crazy grandmother chasing him when he was four to throw him down the well. He remembered hiding under the house with the chickens. Tom had a horrible childhood and then was sent to Viet Nam, where he really got into drugs and alcohol, habits that he continued after getting out of the Navy. He was very proud that he had kicked the habits and found me.

Greg: See how consistent his life was? Pain, pain, pain, and then he did what he could to eliminate it. And he just couldn’t figure out that what he did to eliminate the pain only caused more pain.

Linda: So what happened? Carol and the booze are only symptoms. I think Tom had a long term case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that he couldn't control any longer.

Greg: That is exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying that virtually the entire planet suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But what people don’t understand is that the precipitating trauma causing their disorder is not war or some other obvious form of physical distress. They simply lack the most essential element in their emotional and spiritual lives. They don’t feel loved.

Not Bad

Linda: He told me many times that he was ready to die. I found him three times sitting on the side of the bed with a gun in his hand. He said his belief in God and the fact the he felt suicide was a sin was all that kept him from pulling the trigger. I think he committed suicide by bottle. It breaks my heart to think about what he was and what he became, but there was always a streak of . . . for lack of a better word . . . bad in Tom. I feel so sorry for him and his state of mind.

Greg: Tom wasn’t bad. He was filled with pain and confusion and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness and not knowing what he could do to diminish his endless pain. Even though better choices were right in front of him, he couldn’t make them consistently enough to feel loved — unconditionally loved — long enough to give up his old patterns of behavior. I’ve seen him feel genuinely happy for moments, but then the old pain would return, and he’d go back to what was familiar, and then he was doomed.

Linda: So did he love me? There are days even now when everything I see reminds me of the Good Tom, and I spend many hours in tears. Other days, just few minutes in tears but they are still there.

Greg: You weep because you still see the Bad Tom, and because you’re confused. He wasn’t bad, and he didn’t betray you. He was lost and confused and in pain, and he did the best he could to eliminate his pain, even though his choices hurt himself and others, including you. If he had been correctly taught and loved from childhood, I am convinced that none of this would have happened. How, then, could there be such a thing as a “Bad Tom?” Now you won’t feel angry at him, or even confused. You’ll feel only sad that he had to endure that pain and will resolve to be more understanding of everyone around us who suffers pain similar to his. There are plenty like him.

Pain Makes Us Selfish

Linda: Since Tom died, it has been Hell in my mind: sadness, grief, anger and all the unanswered questions and confusion.

Greg: It’s hard for us to understand how someone could be as selfish as Tom has been, but when we see their pain, it all becomes clear. Pain makes us selfish. When we’re in pain, we are not considerate of other people. In the moment that a truck runs over your foot, your pain becomes the center of the universe. You do not think of anyone or anything else.

Linda: I think of his death as Suicide by Bottle.

Greg: He wasn’t intentionally trying to kill himself, although obviously that was the end result. He was just trying to get rid of the pain. He felt so bad. He felt alone. And that was not your fault. You really need to hear this, because your guilt is a large source of your anguish. You tried to love him, and you loved him better than anyone ever did in his entire life, but the kind of love you offered — more unconditional than he had ever experienced — was strange to him. He just couldn’t feel it. Just as most people simply can’t feel God’s love. They really can’t do it, even though God offers it freely and in great abundance. That doesn’t mean God’s love isn’t there. Tom was so wounded and so used to trading with people in Imitation Love — earning it, buying it, and so on — that he could only feel that kind of love. But Imitation Love always comes and goes. It fades, so he was always searching for the next “hit,” so to speak. And, eventually, nothing worked. He went straight to the literal bottle, and that killed him.

Linda: For months, I would pray for a sign from him, just to feel his presence to reassure me that he cared but that hasn't happened. Then I think that maybe that is a sign that he really hated me.

Greg: Hated you? Are you joking? He didn’t hate you. He simply didn’t know what to do with you. He was in so much pain that he was thinking only of himself. He wasn’t thinking of you much at all, only occasionally in those relatively sane moments when he realized that you brought something special into his life. Remember those moments, my dear.

Loss of Friends

Linda: Another issue. I had two friends. One of them was Christine. Her husband was the minister who married Tom and me. I gave them their 25th anniversary party, helped them move, and many other things that you do for friends. But since Tom died, I have not even had a phone call from her! Am I so awful a person that my friend would ignore me like that? My other friend has ignored me too.

Greg: You have to remember that when a truly terrible thing happens in someone’s life, most people simply don’t know what to do. They feel helpless and stupid. They know they’re supposed to do something, but they don’t know what it is, and they don’t want to look and feel stupid, so they choose to do nothing at all. They avoid the situation entirely. Their failure to contact you isn’t about you. It’s about their fear of looking and feeling foolish.

Linda: So for nine months I have tried to be a controlled mess with a head swirling with questions and thoughts.

The day after our email above, Linda wrote again and said, “Today is the most peaceful day I have had in 9 months. I have not one time ‘wondered’ about anything. I have had a normal day. I know that all days will not be perfect but I can handle that. I don't think my feeble mind will keep replaying the same tape it has been playing for so long. My brain is so grateful. It was really tired.”

We simply hate confusion. We hate wondering what went wrong, why people behaved as they did, what we could have done differently. We become exhausted as we play scenarios in our heads, over and over again. Once we understand the pivotal need we all have to be unconditionally loved, human behavior becomes much more understandable, and our confusion begins to lift like a fog before the rays of the sun. This is the power of understanding Real Love.


Recover from your negative habits and beliefs!


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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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