14 min read

how tomatoes saved my marriage

People are complicated, our ability to see reality is limited, our lives are interleaved, and time is long - so it's impossible to tease out all the moments that have led me from the bottom of that dark place to the light place, full of love, I find myself in today.
how tomatoes saved my marriage
thank you, tomatoes

where i have been

My wife didn't recognize me when I returned home from Afghanistan in 2012. Partly because I'd gained 40lbs (lifting twice a day for 11 months straight took me from 190 to 230), but mostly because I was out of my fucking mind.

A bunch of shit had gone down over there and it was going to fuck her world up. I wish I could go back and warn her.

You see, for months my mind had been pickling itself in cortisol, collapsing into itself like a black hole. Ever since the day my friend Mohammed died. The whirlpool of shit that happened that day will stay with me forever.

Traumas piled on traumas. Sometimes in war bad things happen, and there are many veterans like me who carry the weight of those things on them because if we don't shoulder them, who will?

So I carried that day, alone, but it was too much for me. I was too alone in it.

Desolation numbed me - like a baby crying out for a mother who never comes.

My affect flattened and I went into pure survival mode.

I'm sure there's some clinical terminology for this, but it felt like my brain was in microwave. It was just static and confusion and fear and deep, deep sadness and totalizing shame.

My eyelid started twitching. It didn't stop for months. (This still happens to me, even to this day, when my mind begins to slide back into the dark place.)

And I guarded all this pain with rage.
And I channeled this rage, at first, into the weight room. Hence the 40lb swing in my body weight over that deployment.

But I resolved not to bring this broken version of myself home.

I would pack it all up inside and put it away never to bring it back out. Like the scene from Indiana Jones where they put the Arc of the Covenant in a crate to be lost forever in a warehouse.

just bury that shit away young dave, i'm sure it'll never come back to bite you

I couldn't bring this home because I didn't want my wife to see this side of me.

Today, looking back at my 27yo dumbass self, I recognize that more than anything I felt entirely unworthy of love. And I thought that if my wife knew too much there was no way she could still love me.

So I made up my mind to never talk about it, ever. And to avoid every person, place, or thing that reminded me of it.

This was a stupid idea that would very nearly cost me my marriage and - probably - my life.

and then I got home

For the first few months back I felt like I kept a pretty good lid on things. My wife had moved us to San Diego from Virginia while I'd been overseas, so I had a new job and a new home and a new life to acclimatize to.

So many distractions from the cracks spreading in my foundation.

But at some point the inevitable happened and I began to break down again. First a little, and then all at once.

I lost myself in a weeks-long rage-blackout. Anger and guilt and shame masked by rage. I was not there anymore. I felt nothing but darkness.

I don't remember much of it now.
Honestly, I didn't remember much of it at the time either. I would hear about fucked up things I'd said and done the day before and not have the slightest recollection of it.

I probably owe a lot of people a lot of apologies I'm unaware I even owe.

I was a raw nerve. 230lbs of brainless meat screaming at the top of my lungs, smashing weights in the middle of the night through uncontrollable streams of tears in an effort to exorcise myself.

I was collapsing into myself and, for all my strength, I was powerless to stop it.

It was in the middle of this implosion that my wife gave birth to our first child.

he deserved much more than i could give him then

He was not born into the calm, loving home he deserved.

I was out of my mind and could feel nothing but guilt and shame and fear and anger and the emptiness. I was fighting so hard I could not see him.

I was there, but I missed it.

And my poor wife - here she was caught between caring for a newborn and trying to save the father of her child. I cannot imagine how hard this was on her and I know that, no matter how good a husband I am from this moment until the day I die, I won't be able to make this up to her.

Some debts are unpayable. If there is a god, I hope he's a fraction as strong and forgiving as my wife has been.

She should have left me to rot, but she did not. I was a terrible husband and nothing resembling a "father" at this point.

When you hate yourself you can't really love anyone else.

Not in a way that counts.

I'm not going to catalog my sins exhaustively here. Just know they were numerous and predictable and egregious.

But, I have to say this, I never laid my hands on my wife or son in anger. Even from at the bottom of the dark place.

I don't know what broke me, but one night I found myself in the gym at the command at like 2am kneeling on the rubber floor mats unable to see the weights through tears and I surrendered.

"Okay," I sobbed as I replayed my wife's pleas for me to get help.


And I stopped fighting.

the path up

People are complicated, our ability to see reality is limited, our lives are interleaved, and time is long - so it's impossible to tease out all the moments that have led me from the bottom of that dark place to the light place, full of love, I find myself in today.

the light place, full of love

I'd like to tell you about a few of the moments that helped me regain this life, but I need this to be clear:

Every single step I've taken from that dark place to this light place has been underpinned by my wife's strength and love. Without her I'd either be dead or floating in a sailboat somewhere by myself.

That said, I want to tell you how tomatoes and meditation helped me save my marriage (and probably my life).

first, the tomatoes

If you're into podcasts and tired of reading, I actually talked about the tomatoes with Jack and Dave on The Team House.

Also, Posterity Ciderworks is making a cider infused with green almonds and tomato leaves based on this story. Not a sponsorship or anything, just a kind gesture by generous friends.

Right around the time our first son was born, we also bought a house. It was small, but had a big deck that opened to a terraced canyon and looked out over Balboa Park. On an aesthetic lark we decided that we should turn one of the terraces into a garden.

We built some raised beds and planted some vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, etc.

And I would go out into the backyard every day after work to check on things and tend to the plants.

And one day, as I inspected the tomatoes for hornworms and pinched off the side shoots, the fresh, herbal smell of the tomato plant hit me right between the eyes.

All of a sudden I could breathe - like someone had been sitting on my chest, suffocating me with a pillow and now they were gone.

I breathed deeply and slowly for a minute and I looked around.

I've never had a "psychedelic" experience, but when people talk about the clarity of vision and depth of color and feeling of tranquility I know what they're talking about. Because the smell of that tomato plant put me there.

The peace and the euphoria didn't last, but they were profound and they showed me there was another mode of existence in the world - a way to live that didn't feel like a fight the whole time.

My mind opened. I needed to make this way of living my normal. And I had a lead already.

You see, the SEAL Teams had their own psychiatrist, Dr. Sargent, and he'd played a central role in my initial turnaround from crying-on-the-gym-floor to tending-tomatoes-after-work.

The medications, he said, were only a temporary measure. That was the only reason I agreed to them at all - they were like a cast, immobilizing a break just long enough for it to heal. And then you take the cast off.

And he'd been trying to get me to open my mind to healing my break in less conventional ways. "Mindfulness" he said.

"That's some bullshit and I'm not fuckin' doing it" I told him every time.

Well, when the tomato plants showed me that I didn't know shit, it became immediately clear that I should expand my search. I needed to find that clarity and peace every day all the time, not just occasionally in the garden.

I wanted to breathe again.

Obviously, I should give the good doctor's 'bullshit' recommendations some consideration. So I did.

then, the meditation

Doc Sargent gave me the contact for a program at the hospital. 8 weeks, 1 hour/week. Why not try it.

The first day of the program I sat down and we started to go around the room, talking about why we were there and what we hoped to get out of the training.

I had expected Marines dealing with combat trauma. Real shit. What I heard was...not that.

  • There was a kid from a ship who got sent there because he was too afraid to shower on the ship and was becoming a hygiene risk.
  • There was an old man who was there because he hoped it would help him with his diabetes and hypertension.
  • There was a girl who had just gone through a bad breakup.

Fuck that noise. I left before it even got to me.

No offense to these people: I'm glad they were getting help. But I couldn't sit next to a guy who was scared to shower and pretend our problems were the same. I would lose my shit and get in their way.

I didn't want to associate my problems with theirs. And if people were recommending these kind of people to this program, it was clearly not meant for me.

It wasn't until a couple months later when I was reading Sam Harris's book Waking Up that I reconsidered meditation at all.

You see, he said he'd been "meditating" for a year before he did his first silent retreat, and it wasn't until that retreat that he realized he hadn't been meditating at all. He'd just been sitting, thinking quietly.

I held this observation up and looked at it in conjunction with this fundamental fact about me:

I am fundamentally incapable of half-measures.

  • When a 16yo Dave believed in God, he didn't just go to church. He started preparing for the seminary. (Another story for another day.)
  • When a 21yo Dave wanted to do something hard to test himself and make himself more capable, he didn't just do an obstacle course or run a marathon. He became a Navy SEAL.

So when a 30yo Dave realized he needed to break through to himself, he didn't just try meditating at home for a few minutes (like everyone suggested), he signed up for a 10-day Silent Vipassana retreat.

The first time I ever meditated was at this 10-day Silent Retreat.

To give you some context of how things were going in our lives at this point: we had two little boys (3yo and 18mo) and my wife was 8 months pregnant with our daughter.
But when I told her I was thinking about going into the desert to sit quietly for a week and half, her response was not "are you crazy? I need you here!"
She said "sign up and go immediately and don't come back early."
It's hard, looking back, to see how oblivious I was to everything around me. I'd thought things were doing "okay" but my wife clearly had a different perspective.

So I went to the desert to sit quietly and focus on my breath and it was horrible but also one of the smartest things I've ever done.

The retreats are free. The place I went was right next to Joshua Tree, but they have them all over.

You can't even donate until after you've completed your first retreat because they don't want the financial contribution to give you any feeling of entitlement. They want you to come in with an empty bowl, like a beggar, with no expectations.

Try it for 10 days and, if you don't like it, throw it out and never do anything like it again. But for 10 days, you place your trust in the process. They disarm you. There is nothing to fight.

You can't talk for most of the 10 days - not until the last day.

The last day where you can talk is important because it helps you start to integrate your experiences among people who are all trying to find the right words.

But for the first 9 days, you don't talk. You can't write either.

This part feels like bullshit until you realize that the whole point is that words are the map, and the map is not the territory.

So if we stop trying to put every little fucking thing to words it gives our minds the freedom to really see things. To experience things. Sometimes words get in the way, actually.

The only thing for you to read is the course schedule - which is incredibly clear. And your day is segmented by the sound of a Burmese gong, so no matter how deep your focus, you never miss your next thing.

There are guided meditations every day in the meditation hall, silent meditation time to practice the day's guidance, meals, and discretionary time built in so you can shower and/or take a walk etc.

The vegan meals are surprisingly good (I swear), which is really important because after 5 or 6 days you're pretty miserable and a good meal is the highlight of your day.

There's a normal-sized breakfast, a large lunch, and no dinner. You can have tea at dinnertime. Or some lemon water. But essentially you end up doing intermittent fasting.

It's not super fun going to bed hungry, but honestly if you're going to a 10-Day Silent Retreat for fun, you're going to be really fucking disappointed.

Over the first three or four days the competing voices in my head faded away and things got quiet.

It turned out that many of what I thought were my thoughts were actually echos of things I was hearing or reading or seeing - they weren't actually my thoughts at all.

I think you can get much of that benefit from just going camping or backpacking for a few days. But then things got weird in a way that differs pretty dramatically from anything I've experienced elsewhere.

By day three the selfishness of my being there - having left my pregnant wife alone to manage two energetic boys by herself - was really weighing on me.

I wanted to leave. Sitting there seemed stupid and pointless and lame and selfish and a waste of time. My mind was reacting, fighting, against the silence.

The nightly "dhamma talks" were just a low-quality video recording of the talks S.N. Goenka gave while he was alive and running the retreats himself. They give off a slightly cultish vibe, but more than once this odd, long-dead, man said something that helped me understand what I'd experienced that day.

And one of the themes of the talks is that doing this 10-day retreat was like doing surgery on your mind. And that your mind will recoil from these things, it will fight to avoid the discomfort and the insight.

And my mind was fighting for real:
For most of the time during those 10 days I was absolutely certain that when I drove back to my house my wife would be gone and would have taken my children with her.

And I would be alone in the world.

I knew that if I wasn't there to distract her from the inevitable conclusion, my wife would surely realize I was unredeemable and leave.

I sat with this excruciating knowledge for days, and did the only thing I could do: I focused on my breath.

I did the work even though the work seemed frivolous.

And at some point as I breathed I understood that my selfishness was far more consuming than I'd realized.

The only pure thing I could do for my family was love them. And nobody could stop me from loving them. Even if they left, I could still love them. I could love them from right there in the meditation hall.

And everything else beyond that was me expecting or needing something FROM them. It was me expecting them to want to be around me. And my expectations were about me and what I wanted more than about them.

It all sounds trite and cliche, but there's a difference between reading/understanding the words and instinctually realizing something.

A few days after I registered this shift inside me, something really weird happened.

The guided meditations and dhamma talks sometimes mentioned that emotional or psychological scar tissue would sometimes manifest as physical pain or discomfort, and that you should just sit with it. "Pay attention to it with neither craving nor aversion."

It happened to me: a pain started to build in my chest, right in the middle. It got stronger and more uncomfortable and I braced against it.

Then I remembered the cheesy video and instead of tensing against the pain I softened. I stopped fighting it. I sat with it and paid attention to it.

And then, as though it was a huge knot I'd been pulling tight by fighting, it began untying itself in my chest. It loosened and then dissolved and I tasted it.

Like, in my mouth, I physically tasted it.

It tasted like shame.

I don't know how I knew that or why or what shame tastes like. All I know is that I was certain, in that moment, that what I tasted was shame.

A huge ball of shame in me dissolved and I tasted it as it disappeared.

I know it seems fucking strange and woo and I get that. I don't have an explanation for you other than to acknowledge that I simply don't know everything but that this is a thing that I experienced.

When the 10 days were over I couldn't tell if I was any different, really. The things I realized during the retreat seemed so obvious in retrospect that I didn't feel different.

As I drove home I wondered was that all just a waste of time? I did notice that I was happy to drive the speed limit on the way home and was confused by the angry drivers all around me. I wasn't fighting anything - not time or traffic or anything.

Being too close to it, I didn't realize how fundamental a change that was.

The real test would be when I got home. Would anyone be there? Or had they left? I didn't have a plan or anything - I was still struggling to understand all the things I'd experienced.

When I got home, to my great relief, my family was still there.

My wife turned on The Lorax for the boys to watch so we could talk, and we sat down on the couch.

About 5 minutes into our conversation she held her hand up and stopped me.

This is it, I thought, she's gonna tell me she wants me out. I didn't fight it, I just sat with it.

"These past 10 days were really hard," as she gestured to everything, "but I can already tell, just from the past few minutes, that it was totally worth it."

The floor fell out from beneath me.

"I can almost see the man I married in there again." And there was a guarded relief on her face.

We're always the last ones to know things about ourselves.

But my wife could tell immediately that something enormous had shifted underneath it all, something that had been deeply unbalanced for years.

I wish I could tell you that the smell of a tomato plant and a single meditation retreat will solve all of your life's problems.

They won't.
They didn't solve ours either.
They were just steps from there to here, and there is still work to be done. There always will be.

We're all out here just taking steps, hoping most of them are in the right direction. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to plant a tomato or two - just in case.

doesn't have to be a tomato either