How Did We Get Here?

Jeff AllenBy Jeff Allen19 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Are We There Yet?: My Journey from a Messed Up to Meaningful Life by Jeff Allen


Chapter 1
How Did We Get Here?

“So, do you want to get married?”

That was it. That was how I popped the question to the woman who would become my wife.

Not only did I overwhelm her with my words, I chose the most romantic setting imaginable to propose marriage: the airport baggage claim in Cleveland, Ohio. Right there amidst the blaring luggage arrival alarms, tumbling suitcases, and the occasional disembodied voice reminding me not to park in front of the terminal, I made my move.

And she could not have been more impressed.

“What?” she said.

I knew she was just blown away by my romantic technique, so I repeated the question to help her recover from her overwhelming surge of joy. I mean, what single mother of a two-year-old, greeting a comedian she had met at a performance just a few months earlier, wouldn’t be overjoyed at the idea of marriage? After all, I had played dad for a week in Los Angeles since then and felt I could do this marriage-and-parenting thing. No problem.

“I love you, Tami, and I love Aaron. Do you want to get married?”

I inhaled confidently as I reached for my luggage, already a little concerned that she might not be able to contain her joy. I had decided I wanted to marry her on that flight from L.A. to Cleveland in between a nap and a bag of peanuts. (This was back in the 1980s, before everyone was allergic to everything.)

“You know … you and me.” I wanted to clarify the situation in case she didn’t know who the players were.

There I was, with no plan and no ring. (By the way, if you are a young single man reading this, for the love of God, have a plan and a ring.) I did smuggle a bag of peanuts off the plane, so in a pinch I thought I could offer her those instead of a ring, but I was pretty confident I wouldn’t need to. (Obviously, romance courses through every vein in my body.)

I didn’t know what to expect in the form of a response, never having asked anyone that question before. But I have seen movies—and Tami’s reaction to my inquiry, I have to admit, was a tad perplexing.

“Yeah, I guess, if that’s what you want.”

That’s what she said. Direct quote. And she said it so matter-of-factly, as if I had asked her if she wanted to eat breakfast at McDonalds. That’s how excited she was at the prospect of spending the rest of her life with me.

You wanna get married and raise a family with me, until death do us part?

I guess, if that’s what you want. No difference. OK, cool, I guess.

I gave her a hug and a kiss, and we were officially engaged. The luggage came and we headed out to McDonalds for breakfast. I can tell you this: Tami had no idea how much baggage she actually picked up that day. Turns out I was quite the catch!

Fast-forward eight years, and I found myself once again meeting her at a baggage claim. But this airport was in Phoenix, Arizona, and things felt really different.

As Tami walked toward me to retrieve her bags, there was no smile. Her face was red and her eyes were swollen. Tears left trails on her face; she wiped them away with one hand and reached for her luggage with the other. All I could do was put my arms around her and kiss her on the cheek.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “We can get through this if we want.”

“That’s it?” she asked, tilting her face toward mine. I imagined we were attracting numerous looks from other passengers, but I didn’t care. I avoided her gaze and reached for her suitcase.

“That’s all I got left,” I confessed. “I am exhausted, baby.”

Two days earlier, I had dropped her off at that airport so she could “visit a friend in California.” But when I awoke the next morning, something didn’t feel right. On a whim I called American Express and asked if my credit card was being used, and where.

That’s how I found out my wife was in a hotel room somewhere in Southern California with another man. I actually called the room, and she answered the phone.

Tami and I had been planning to get a divorce for quite some time, but we had never gotten around to actually signing the papers. Instead, I had tossed them into a junk drawer, and we’d been sleeping in different rooms for most of the eighteen months since then.

So while I shouldn’t have been totally shocked that this was the turn events had taken, I was. And I was livid.

Tami couldn’t arrange a flight until 8 a.m. the next day, so I had twenty-four hours to marinate in my fury. Finally, after eight painful years of marriage in which I had felt like a complete failure, she was finally the bad guy! Had she come home that night, we would not be married today. I am sure of it.

Even though I had no relationship with God at the time, I believe it was His plan to visit me that night and take me through a long-overdue soul searching. Every time I thought, How could she?! another memory of a time I had shamed, humiliated, or treated Tami as inferior surfaced.

• Remember the time in Boston when you did that…?
• Remember the time in New Jersey when you said this…?
• Remember the night in Phoenix when you didn’t say what you knew you should have?

The more I remembered, the less angry I became. Try as I might to stay angry, I couldn’t. It was odd, because anger was the one emotion I knew well. As Tami often said, anger was my “gift to the world.” I had a close personal relationship with it.

But that night, I just couldn’t stay angry. That night was a history lesson that taught me the kind of husband I had been to my wife. And it wasn’t pretty.

As I lay there staring at the ceiling, slowly I stopped asking, How could she? and began realizing, How could she not?

So … Where Are We Going?

I’ve got to tell you: I really had no expectations of what marriage was going to be or what it even should be. I just figured that somehow, some way, everything would work out—roses and daisies would always bloom around us, every dream would come true, and we would all live happily ever after. Again, I will repeat, I just wasn’t clear on where, when, or how exactly that would happen.

Prior to getting married, I never thought or planned anything, I did whatever my impulse drove me to do. It is a sad way to live, but if it’s all you know then it’s how you exist. I certainly wasn’t living. Someone once told me there is no smaller package than a man wrapped up in himself, and living to just feed all my compulsions made me about as small a man as I ever want to be.

Truthfully, if I thought at all about my future, it was only in terms of something that I would get to later. I always assumed that as I got older, I’d figure things out—that life would just sort of come together and the answers to the deep questions about meaning and purpose would somehow magically materialize for me.

All of it was supposed to arrive someday. But it seemed like someday kept getting stuck in traffic or something, because I found myself constantly looking around and asking, Why am I not there yet?

Maybe you’ve felt that way at times. Maybe you’re a guy who set off on a career path thinking that if you just put in the time and sacrificed to climb the ladder of success, you would get “there.” Truth be told, you thought you would have arrived somewhere or discovered something by now that would make it feel like life made sense—and yet here you are, feeling empty and unfulfilled. And you’re angry about it.

Here’s a question for you, one for which I challenge you to actually listen for the answer at the gut level: How healthy is your marriage? I mean, how happy are you in your marriage? How happy is your spouse? I mean really, truly happy.

I ask because I know what it’s like to begin marriage with the best intentions of loving someone until death do you part (I mean, who can top the baggage claim for romance?), and then grow more disconnected by the day. So maybe your marriage is struggling big time, even if you haven’t brought yourself to admit it yet and no one else knows. But you know it’s not good.

Maybe you’ve even begun to try to deaden the pain, numbing it with alcohol, drugs, porn, or other addictions that get you through the day. (Believe me, I’ve been there, done that.) You stumble through life, disenchanted with it all, but think that as long as you keep moving, no one will know how empty you feel inside, how meaningless this thing called life really feels. It’s not that you don’t care about the people in your life. You do, but you wish you cared more and somehow didn’t manage to hurt all of them so often when your deep-seated frustrations sneak out.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, You know, Jeff, for a comedian, this isn’t a very funny book so far. I mean, aren’t comedians supposed to make us laugh so we can forget all our troubles?

In a word, no. But I get what you’re saying. That’s what I used to think, too. Just get people to laugh about this crappy experience called life and it will help ease everyone’s pain. But that didn’t work for me. After the laughter faded away, I didn’t feel any better about my life. In fact, I felt worse. Is this all there is? Just a few laughs and then we die?

An Angry and Confused Piece of Play-Doh

That’s where the anger came in. I desperately wanted there to be a “there” at which I could arrive someday, but I sure couldn’t find it. Isn’t that the promise of Wall Street? “Get this or that and you will arrive.” They never mention where that arrival is because they assume the consumer knows. Truth is, I had no clue; I just knew it wasn’t where I was sitting at the moment. I was frustrated because I thought everyone else got it, just not me.

It made me become a person I didn’t even like. Perhaps that is why, underneath the rhythms of life, there was always a deep undercurrent of anger within me, fueled by my frustrating and failing pursuit of something, anything, that would give my life meaning and purpose.

As I said, I’m a comedian by profession, and have been performing on stages since 1978 in just about every setting imaginable. But to be candid, for many years my anger shaped my comedy. My gigs became an exercise in anger management—just without much management. For example, I would do bits on stage that were really just thinly veiled passive-aggressive attacks on my wife. All the other frustrated, hopeless men in the clubs would roar with laughter, but few others would—and Tami would leave in tears, asking why I hated her.

A fellow comedian once told me that the people who laugh the hardest at a show are the ones who most identify with you. They reflect who you are. Well, the people who came up to me after my shows for many years—the ones who told me they loved it—were angry men wearing wife-beaters who were either drunk or high. So what did that say about me?

When my friend told me that, I realized I needed to change—but I didn’t. Or couldn’t. Or so I thought.

No, instead I did all sorts of stupid stuff, like getting so drunk I drove the wrong way on a Boston expressway in the early-morning hours and somehow made it home. Or the time I got busted for using cocaine right outside a comedy club after a performance. Or the time I got so angry I stood on a stool and screamed at Tami until she let me “win” the argument. Or, God help me, the time I got so angry I spanked my son—and scared myself in realizing the damage I was capable of inflicting.

And the list goes on . . . (I know what you’re thinking: How could his wife have stayed with him as long as she did!?!) Believe me, I hated every minute of the times I acted out that way. But I felt I couldn’t help it. I didn’t understand how to change. I just kept asking myself: When will it get easier? When will I feel happy and fulfilled? Why am I not there yet?

Here I was, someone who had made tens of thousands of people laugh on thousands of stages nationwide, but inside I was dying, my soul shriveling and hardening like a piece of Play-Doh left on the table of life. Over time, I guess I simply resigned myself to believing that there was no there there.

Until I had an encounter with the Living God.

Order your copy of Are We There Yet?: My Journey from a Messed Up to Meaningful Life by Jeff Allen