Grief and Addiction: Our Story: Ron and Nan Deal
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Nan DealNan Deal is the co-founder of Connor's Song, a non-profit organization that she and her husband founded in honor of their son Connor Lee Deal who died at the age of 12 in 2009. In cooperation with the Touch A Life Foundation, Connor's Song run Connor Creative Art Center in Ghana, West Africa, a facility that provides hope and healing through art therapy for almost 100 trafficked children rescued from the fishing industry in Ghana. Nan, a school teacher, and her husband, Ron, live in Little Rock,...more
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
On FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson host Ron & Nan Deal, who began their marriage with issues that spiraled after the loss of their 12-year-old. Hear their story of grief, addiction, & the road to hope.
Grief and Addiction: Our Story: Ron and Nan Deal
Nan: I would look at myself in the mirror, and say, “You’re a mess!” I would just think about: “What’s happened to you? Who are you? I know my heart is as black as coal; I know it's as hard as a stone, God. I don't even know if You would take me back at this point or if You could even create a clean heart in me. I have no clue.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: I think every marriage carries quiet, silent hurts.
Ann: —and disappointment.
Dave: Yes; I mean, we don't always talk about them; but I know I was disappointed, and I carried around hurt that I never verbalized. I had no idea—I actually thought you were good, because I'm such an amazing husband [Laughter]—that you're carrying around, for decades, hurts.
Ann: —just wounds from the past, not feeling worthy and not realizing—because we get so busy in our marriages and our lives, and many of us are parents or we have blended families, and we're just trying to get through the day—not realizing some of those disappointments, pain, and hurts are being hidden or pushed down; and they're affecting every part of our lives.
Dave: And when they come out, it can go one of two ways:
- It can split the marriage up.
- Or it can bring a bond that's deeper than it ever would have gotten to if it was always hidden.
Ann: But it's hard to get there.
Dave: Yes; we're going to jump back in with Ron and Nan Deal—with their story that we began yesterday—but again, I'll say, “Welcome back.”
Ron: Thank you; it's always good to be here.
Nan: Thank you; good to be back.
Dave: I mean, you guys went places yesterday—I think our listeners—I mean, we ended; we're like, “Well, we're not even”—I don't know; how far were we?—halfway, not even halfway through your story.
Ann: But if you didn't hear it, please go back and hear the beginning; because you’ll want to hear the whole thing.
You guys, we love your honesty; thank you for sharing this. I think we all need to hear it, because we're all living in places that it hasn't been easy. And in the church, sometimes, we don't always say that.
Dave: Yes; and in FamilyLife, I mean, Ron, you're known as the director of FamilyLife Blended® and—
Ron: —that means I'm perfect.
Dave: —that means you’re perfect.
Ann: We all have you on a pedestal.
Ron: Yes; “perfect marriage.”
Dave: In some ways, that’s what people think—
Ron: Yes, it is.
Dave: —even though you never said that—but because there’s a mic, or because you're on stage, or you wrote a book, people think: “Well, your marriage has struggles; but nothing like ours.” No, yours was really struggling.
Ron: That’s right.
Dave: Again, I'd say: “Listen to yesterday.”
Okay, so here we are—I'm guessing you're married/I don't know how many years—you've got three boys. You're living sort of separate lives: I mean, Ron's killing it in ministry. Nan, you're at home, stuffing away and feeling unseen. Take us from there.
Ann: —and yet, you still love one another.
Nan: We do.
Ann: But you are angry, Nan.
Nan: And I think there were seasons, where Ron would really try. I would go to some conference; or I would be in some Bible study, trying so hard: "I want to be better for him”; and I'd always get back into that same rut; like I said: “We had this ugly dance.”
Ron: Yes; and likewise, I felt convicted, doing the work that I was doing, constantly looking at myself, going, “Okay, I need to alter this/change this.” I would say, you know, first ten years, I was really blind to me. The next five years, I was: “Oh, wow; I got work to do. I need to start recognizing some things that I've come out of my family with: ‘Why do I think that?’ ‘Where's that coming from?’”—doing a lot of self-analyses.
But we never really kind of put all the pieces together. I don't think I ever really owned my pride, and just how much I was driven—and how that became, you know, the other woman, so to speak—was my work and my drive.
Nan: We moved to Amarillo—and same thing: going and blowing, going and blowing, even harder—and I, you know,—
Ron: And we had financial demands,—
Ron: —so I felt like I had to travel/work harder.
Nan: —even more. And the boys are on the cusp of preteen. I remember going to another one of those conferences—a ladies’ conference—and feeling convicted to say something to him again: “Maybe, he'll hear me this time: ‘Ron, this is too much. We're here.’” I'd always get that: “I'm doing this for God; what do you mean?”
But this weekend was different. I had packed a bag. I waited until the boys were asleep, and I said, “It's you or me, buddy. It's you or me; I'm not doing this anymore.” He fell to his knees and said, “I'll do whatever it takes.”
He calls a friend, Terry, in town; but he's got a two-year waiting list. I said, “I don't care; you or me.” He calls him; and the next day, we're in his office. That is God's grace and mercy.
Ron: Absolutely. We are evidence of God's grace, over and over; and that was one of those moments.
Nan: Because this is two years before our son passes away.
We go in—and that first session—I looked at Ron and I looked at Terry. Because Ron picked him out, I said, “Okay, we're going to go in here; but no funny business between the two of you: [Laughter] layman's terms/layman's terms.”
It was a beautiful thing, because Terry nailed Ron’s patootie to the wall during that first session; it was so beautiful to watch.
Ann: What did he say? What do you mean by that? What happened?
Ron: May l tell that?
Nan: Please do.
Ron: We walked in the first session. Nan started talking; and for 20 minutes, talked about how lonely she was—she laid it out—I sat and listened. Even then, in my head, I was doing that: “Yes, but…” defensiveness that I'm so good at.
Terry just looked at her and did a simple little reflective statement:
- Number one: he pinpointed Nan's deepest bruise: abandonment.
- Number two: he showed me how arrogant I was.
He just simply said, “So Nan, what you're telling me is the reason Ron threw you under the bus”—abandonment—"is because God told him to.”
And instantly, I was cut to the heart; because I knew, in that moment, God would never tell me to do that; but that's what I've been claiming, and I am really wrong. I don't even know/begin to know how I’ve got to wrestle with this whole thing. That led me down a road of studying pride and humility, which is something we still talk about every single day of our lives. I was deeply convicted; I had no idea where to go at that moment.
Nan: And you cried that session, hard. I had been so hurt—that you would think that that would have melted my heart—and I just sat there and, in my pride, thought, “Good; now, you're getting yours.”
Nan: —“finally.” But that was the beginning of Ron's humbling.
Ann: Did you apologize, Ron?
Ron: Oh, yes; over, and over, and over again. But you know, even—I mean, fast forward another 15/20 years from that moment—and I still apologize, like I still am finding those parts of me—
Nan: I think we both are.
Ron: —that I'm like, “Oh man, there it is again;”—like—"you know, it's not over; this journey's not over. God’s still sanctifying us.”
Dave: But I mean, the story isn't: “Okay, that one session did it.”
Ron: Well, it was a healing moment; and it began to turn a corner—and/but we still had trust issues—we still had hurt, and anger, and resentment, and a lot.
Nan: Two years Terry worked with us. He looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Nan, this brokenness/this woundedness—this family of origin—this/these wounds that you have: if you would allow God to heal that, it will be the most beautiful part of you.” I sat there and I said, “What are you saying?!”
And then, two years later, our son, Connor, passes away. [Emotion in voice] The bottom drops out; I've never felt more abandoned in my life—by God. I've got a truckload—I mean, I really feel like it was the straw that broke the camel's back for me—it was a truckload of abandonment on abandonment. [Emotion in voice] And I mean, we did everything right—this is the son that I'm connected to; this is our life here—I'd never known such pain; I'd never known such anguish; I've never known such heartache; and “I didn't know how to do it.”
Ann: So you went from: “My family's abandoned me,” “My husband's abandoned me”; but now, “God has abandoned me.”
Nan: —and “You've taken something so sacred, something that I was really good at, and something that brought me so much joy.” I would cry out to Him, and I'd hear nothing; I'd feel nothing. There were times when I wanted to take my life; you know, it's just one of those heartaches like none other.
At the beginning, we grieved together—we were thrust together—and for four years, we were just like together. It was like/I felt like I, in some ways, had gotten my husband back.
Ron: I want to add: think about the significance of that. Again, in hindsight, we’re reeling from the loss of our 12-year-old son—and with the gap between us had been closing—but now, out of pure survival, it had to close; it had to just completely close. Everything else in the world stopped mattering.
You know, we talked about how—
Nan: Ron didn’t want to travel.
Ron: —yes, how grief recalibrates you. It's like all the things that we kind of selfishly pursued in the world, all of a sudden, seems stupid and dumb at that point in time. It sort of like pushed everything in the world away from us and thrust us together; and for four years, we grieved together.
Nan: We were saying the same things; we were feeling the same things. I just felt like I had a partner in this.
But I also need to say that we'd had some very well-intentioned friends that had left alcohol in our home after the funeral, and said, “Hey, if you ever need to just take the edge off, we left you something.” We weren't teetotalers—but maybe an anniversary or birthday—but you know, one glass; but it wasn't a regular thing for us.
What started out as a—“I think that might help; I want to try that,”—because the pain was so intense. And prescription medication—to help sleep, help the anxiety, help the depression—became a full-blown addiction for me and an abuse of all of those substances. What started out, very innocent, was a 12-year numbing problem for me.
Ann: Ron, did you have any idea?
Ron: Yes and no: yes, I knew she would have a glass of wine before going to bed at night; no, I didn't know, after I went to sleep, she'd get up and have three more.
Nan: He didn't know the extent of all the medication I was taking on top of that.
Ron: And we didn’t know—neither one of us knew—the drug interaction between the alcohol and the prescription meds, and that was a really toxic sort of thing.
Nan: I mean, if anybody that has dealt with substance abuse, knows—once you do a certain amount, you have to up the ante; because it—once you get to a certain level,—
Nan: —the tolerance is there. Unbeknownst to me—I didn't know that alcohol, and these prescription drugs, and other things that I was trying to take to sleep—is causing that vicious cycle of you can't sleep: your anxiety is worse; your depression is worse.
Honestly, after four years, our grief journeys took a turn: Ron went another way, and I was still ruminating and circling in my grief and angry. And there was a day/one day when Ron just said, “Babe,”—
Ron: — “I don't know what to do.”
Nan: Yes; “I don't know what to do with this. You keep going/you've got to not keep doing this.” I heard—
Ron: —“You're doing it wrong.”
Nan: —“You're doing it wrong.”
Ron: —which is what I said to her for years, and years, and years, early in our/so it sounded very much like the exact same thing.
Let me run this by you, Nan; I think how our grief separated was—I don't know; this seems a little simplistic—but I was trying to figure out how to move toward God—
Nan: Yes, you were.
Ron: —at that/after year five or so in the grief and sadness.
You were resentful and angry, and felt abandoned by Him, and so He was unsafe: “So why move toward Him?”
Ron: And so that just inherently put us in very different places—where we kept trying to close that gap, and love on each other and serve each other well—there became antagonisms, in the midst of that; and challenges; and then, the escalation of behavior.
Nan: Well, to be perfectly frank, he took the job here [at FamilyLife], which was a huge platform/a big stage. Everybody loved him; he's the expert. And [I’m]: “Don't wake that dragon,”—because, you know Terry had kind of calmed that down, and I started to see Ron change; and then, he was at my side at a very heartbreaking time—and then, it's: “You're not doing grief right,” and “I've got a platform, and everybody in this building loves me.”
And let me just tell you: it got ugly. The drinking got worse, and the bitterness and the anger; and really, I had my hand up to God—I didn't want to hear Scripture; I didn't want to hear songs—I didn't/I closed myself off to everything that had any light in it. And I believe that's the season when the enemy took a foothold—not just a foothold—he took up residency—because anything Ron said/anything that was done—inside of me, I am just angry.
Ann: Tell me: “What was going on in your head?”—like—“What were the thoughts that would come to your head?”
Nan: “If only you all knew—
Ron: —"what he had done/—
Nan: —"what he had done,—
Ron: —"what he's capable of.”
Nan: —"what he's capable of/how he's hurt me.”
Ann: And what were the thoughts that you were feeling about yourself?
Nan: “You're a mess!” I mean, there are a couple of times that I tried to quit; and I had so much withdrawal, I thought, “Okay, great Nan. Your husband's got this huge platform/this big ministry. He's this—I mean, everyone loves him, and you're going to have to go to rehab—you'll ruin his career; you'll ruin his name.”
Ron: And ironically—I just have to add—you know, earlier in our marriage, I would have been so angry and devastated about that; because it would have reflected, negatively, on me, I think. That's the way I graded myself; right? But ironically, at this season of our marriage, I could care less; I wasn't worried about any of that; and yet, we couldn't come together around what was needed for her and for us.
Dave: Did you know it didn't matter to him at that point?
Dave: Because you kept it quiet.
Nan: Right. And you know, my boys—I'm empty nest—my/I've got one that's moved off and one that's in college. If he did travel, I'm at home with the dog. I can drink as much as I want, or I can just numb.
Ann: —totally hiding.
Nan: —totally hiding/totally hiding.
I would look at myself in the mirror, and say, “You're a mess! You need a mental hospital; you need rehab.” I would just think about: “What's happened to you? Who are you?”
It was about 2019 when I was white-knuckling it to work; I was just like, “I know my heart is as black as coal; I know it's as hard as a stone, God. I don't even know if You would take me back at this point or if You could even create a clean heart in me. I have no clue.” I was spiraling in 2019; it got ugly. You know, it's just the amount that I was drinking and taking was awful; I wasn't eating a whole lot, and I know I just wasn't/I just felt like I was just a toxic mess.
There were times when I wanted to say something to Ron, but I just didn't even know—I felt so ashamed; I hated myself; I hated myself for thinking those things/saying those things in my head; ruminating over those things—and it's like I couldn't unhook from the pain; I felt it 24/7 of the grief, and the loss, the abandonment. [Emotion in voice] I mean, I felt like I had made a mess of my life. I didn't know how to stop—I tried a couple of times—and I didn't know how to stop. I didn't know who to turn to for help.
Ron: On my side, I was wrestling constantly with: “How do I love her? How do I serve her? What can I do?” and “I don't want to be near this person; I don't like her at all.”
Nan: I could feel that.
Ron: I loved her. I've told her I never stopped loving her, even in the worst of those moments—but I didn't like her—and I didn't know what to do.
Ann: And you didn't know there was an addiction?
Ron: No, I didn't know there was that drug interaction thing that was going on. I just knew she wasn't sleeping well—and memory loss—like there were things she was doing that she didn't have conscious awareness of because of the drug interaction.
Nan: I was an angry person, yes.
Ron: Neither one of us were really keen to all that was going on below the surface in this period of time. And then, something great happened.
Ron goes on a five-day trip; he prefaced—which I took it wrong, of course—he prefaced: “Hey, I'm going on this five-day trip. I've got this, this, and this; I'm not going to be very much available to you.”
Ron: That was me trying to serve her and let her know what was coming.
Nan: And all I hear is: “So hey, I'm not going to be available; because I’ve got to serve all these other people and do my wonderful stuff.”
Ann: “You're not as important.”
Ron: That’s what she heard.
Nan: And that day, he leaves, I get sent home from school—and I'm good at what I do; I love teaching, and I'm really good at what I do—and I get sent home. When Ron travels, I get all of my dinners set up, and I get all of my people lined up so that I'm not alone; because Nan can't be alone with herself, because she can't trust herself.
Everybody's canceling on me because of this COVID thing: “Well, I can't come to dinner,” “No, I can't come this weekend,” My sister can't come; a friend can't come; and I am left alone—and he is unavailable—and I go on the biggest bender; I am bottoming out. He calls me, at one point, on one night; and we get about five minutes: “Well, I'm in between things.” I put a hole in the wall that night.
And like he alluded to earlier, there were things that I was taking and amounts that I was drinking that would cause me to not remember certain things that I would do; so I'm calling him multiple times, leaving messages—calling him over, and over, and over as he's trying—like 51 times at one point. I'm calling my boys; I'm threatening to hurt myself.
Ron: I’m getting a call from one of our sons, saying, “Mom’s scaring me to death.”
Nan: My daughter-in-law is saying, “You need to go up there and take care of your mom.” I'm totally unaware of all of it.
Then I wake up that Sunday morning, and the boys are calling me. I totally have tortured my family all weekend long. Ron comes home from that trip. The look he gave me was—
Ron: —"I don't know who you are.”
Nan: [Emotion in voice] I thought it was over. I knew, myself, it was over; I just didn't know what to do. I just hit bottom.
Shelby: You're listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron and Nan Deal on FamilyLife Today. When life seems almost unbearable, I can feel like what Nan was saying, “I have no idea what to do.”
Well, we want to live with honesty in those impossible times; but we also want to have hope. David Robbins, the president of FamilyLife and Meg Robbins want to help steer us toward that hope and how we can help other people find that hope as well. Let's hear their thoughts.
David: You know, Meg and I both know that some of the best learning times have occurred while the fires of life are raging.
Meg: It’s so true. And when things are getting harder and harder, and it begins to feel impossible, oddly enough, those are the memories we end up cherishing the most; it's so crazy. But here's the thing—in those tough days, God was faithful—and we love Him for it.
David: And make no mistake: “He is faithful to you, too, even when the heat feels unbearable.” And the reality is: “Right now, there are men and women—husbands and wives/moms and dads—who do not know His faithfulness.” When you give, right now, your gift will stretch twice as far to these families. And here's the best part: God will use your gift to speak into the life of someone, who's feeling the heat in the crucible right now and trying to crawl out.
Shelby: Yes, crawling out can feel impossible; and it's amazing that something as simple as giving can tangibly aid that person, who’s hurting out, of the crucible and into the hope of the gospel. And you could partner with us, right now, by giving to FamilyLife. And when you do, your gift will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $2 million. You can give today at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can also give us a call at 800-358-6329; that's 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, diving deep can hurt; but it could also be healing. You can dive deeper on this topic with Ron and Nan by joining them on Valentine's week for FamilyLife’s Empowered to Love beach resort getaway in Sandestin, Florida. It's happening from February 13-17 next year in 2023. Head over to FamilyLifeToday.com for more details.
So you might be wondering: “Where is God in your grief and your dark past?” Well, tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson will finish their time with Ron and Nan Deal. They're going to share their story about how God answered them more clearly than they ever thought was possible; that's tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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