Few talk about the terrible toll marital breakdown can take on men's health. But here, one father reveals: 'The stress of divorce almost killed me'
23:51 GMT, 21 November 2012
One minute I was standing in a hotel foyer holding a cup of coffee, the next a crushing pain spread across my chest as I dropped my drink and fell to the floor.
I couldn’t remember where or who I was: the only thing I felt sure of was that I would be dead within seconds.
‘I’m having a heart attack,’ I gasped, with terrifying certainty.
Happier times: Bob photographed with his wife Devika and daughters Priya and Anya before the divorce.
It turned out I was having a 'vasovagal' attack, where one of the vessels in my heart had stopped functioning, causing it to shut down — a condition my doctor told me later had been brought on by stress.
I knew, when he told me this, that it wasn’t the stress of my demanding career as a property manager that had caused the attack, nor was it the stress of being a single father of two young daughters.
The moment I was diagnosed, I realised with absolute clarity that it had been caused by the stress of my divorce.
Since my wife left me for another man in May 2004, I’d run the gauntlet of emotions, from shock to grief to a stubborn determination to survive. But I’d refused to deal with what I was feeling, and my denial was coming back to haunt me.
So it was with sadness and empathy that I learned that Dragons’ Den businessman Duncan Bannatyne went through a similar experience recently when he collapsed at his London office with pains in his chest.
What he thought was a cardiac arrest turned out to be a stress attack, which sounds uncannily similar to the one I suffered.
Mr Bannatyne, 63, believes it was brought on not by the demands of running his 430 million business empire, but by his acrimonious divorce last year from his second wife.
He said: 'It’s the divorce. Divorce can be very stressful.'
Heart attack: Dragon's Den star, Duncan Bannatyne, had to be treated for a suspected heart attack in the wake of his divorce
Divorced dads club: Jude Law (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (right) both went through traumatic divorces
I know what he means. I believe we’ve ignored the catastrophic impact divorce has on men’s health for far too long. I am 47, and have often felt convinced that the stress of my divorce could have killed me.
I met Devika in 1986, when we were both students at university in London, and we quickly became a couple.
After university we moved to a cottage in Chagford, Devon, where I worked as property manager for the Diocese of Exeter, and she was a health service manager.
We married that December in Mumbai, where Devika still has relatives — a huge wedding with 500 guests and festivities that went on for a fortnight.
Our first daughter, Priya, was born in February 1997, our second, Anya, in April 2000. Devika gave up work to care for the girls, and my life became a hectic juggling act of fatherhood and work.
I’d never been happier — though, looking back, perhaps it was obvious Devika wasn’t as happy as me.
Or maybe the changes in our relationship happened so gradually they were barely perceptible.
She loved martial arts and used to come back buzzing from her sessions with a local instructor. She raved about her teacher.
I never met him, but I didn’t like the sound of him. Maybe I was jealous of the time he spent with my wife while I stayed home to cook dinner and look after the girls.
Devika seemed increasingly uninterested in our home life, and her affection for me waned. I tried to talk to her about our relationship but she deflected my questions, saying I was the one who was always at work. Her attitude made me defensive, and we slowly stopped communicating.
Nonetheless, it was a shock when I arrived home one afternoon in May 2004 to find the girls sitting in our living room in tears, being cared for by a child minder.
My legs buckled when the child minder looked at me and said simply: 'She’s gone.'
My wife had apparently left us to live with another man. I felt sick, but I had to try to be strong for our daughters, who were only seven and four at the time.
Eventually, I went to bed. But in the early hours of the morning, Priya came into my room and found me in tears. 'Mummy’s gone, hasn’t she' she asked.
At that stage, my wife hadn’t returned my calls, and I didn’t know the answer to my tiny daughter’s question. I was in shock.
The next morning, I put on my suit and prepared to leave the house before I realised it was half-term, so I called in sick at work and managed to get through to Devika later that morning.
She said she was in love with another man, and wouldn’t be coming home. She confirmed what I’d suspected — she’d moved in with her martial arts instructor.
Tough: Divorce is especially hard on fathers with young children and a career to hold down
She wouldn’t say how long the affair had been going on, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know.
It’s hard to describe the next few days, other than that I went on to autopilot. I knew that if I broke down, my daughters’ already shattered lives would be ruined.
I was due to start a new job with a private property company the next week, so I took Anya to nursery and Priya to school, and just had to get on with it.
During the day, I managed to block Devika out of my mind. It was only at night, after the children had gone to bed, that I’d call and beg her to come home.
I was never angry with her. Instead, I felt a crippling combination of grief, love and desperation, which robbed me of my dignity. But Devika didn’t want to see me.
I knew the girls would be better off living with me than sharing a home with a man they didn’t know, so two weeks later in June 2004 I started legal proceedings for the children to stay with me.
Then something strange happened. My grief gave way to a determination to survive and, as it became clear I wasn’t going to break down, I began to feel almost superhuman.
I was granted temporary residency for Priya and Anya, and I was excelling at work. It was as if I’d transformed my heartache into some kind of superhuman productivity, spurred on by surging adrenaline.
In spring 2005, my wife filed for divorce. There was too much going on in my life for me to contest her grounds of 'irreconcilable differences'.
Friends and family were surprised by my lack of anger towards her, but I knew the end result would be the same.
In December 2005, I was granted full residency of our daughters. Life seemed manageable.
At home, I was busy ironing uniforms and making packed lunches; at work, I was looking after a major client’s account and my firm was delighted with me. Life seemed enjoyable, even.
But everything changed in June 2006, when I was in Bolton for a business meeting. My presentation had gone well, and I believed myself to be in good health, thanks to regular swimming sessions and a balanced diet.
But then I collapsed in that hotel foyer. I felt sheer terror as I lay on the floor in helpless agony. Within ten minutes, the pain had eased and my awful conviction that I was going to die had passed — but I was completely shattered.
Disorientated and embarrassed, I went to my hotel room. Two hours later, and still not in my right mind, I tried to drive myself to hospital. But I got lost and so, quite irrationally, I drove for eight hours back home.
My mother had been looking after the girls, so she booked me an emergency appointment with my GP the following day.
He took my blood pressure, pulse and temperature, and diagnosed a vasovagal attack caused by 'acute anxiety and panic'.
He prescribed beta-blockers to control the adrenaline surges affecting my heart, referred me for counselling and told me I needed several months off work.
It suddenly became apparent that, despite my bravado, things were far from right in my life. I hadn’t been eating enough, so I’d lost 2st. The house was a mess and the girls were far more upset than I’d admitted to myself.
Underlying everything was the fact I hadn’t addressed the pain caused by my marriage break-up.
Like most men, I 'dealt' with my emotions by pretending they didn’t exist. Suddenly, stuck at home on sick leave, I was forced to reflect.
Filled with regret and self-loathing, I beat myself up for not being charismatic enough to keep my wife, for failing to realise my marriage was unravelling and for not working harder to salvage it.
I didn’t tell Priya or Anya about my attacks because I didn’t want to worry them — I just told them I was working from home.
Of course, they suspected something was wrong. They even made me a 'wife' out of cardboard boxes, with golden wool for hair, to 'stop me feeling lonely'.
I went back to work in October 2006, but two days later I had another attack. I was in a church building when I started feeling numb and collapsed to the floor.
A week later, it happened again, and I decided I had to resign from my job.
Stress: Divorces are tough for both parties but mens' feelings are hardly ever talked about
I had counselling for a year, but I can’t say it helped me much. What did make a difference was setting up my support group for single fathers, OnlyDads, in May 2007, through which I met other divorced men.
I was staggered that the health of so many other men had been affected by divorce. Some had heart attacks, while others had developed mental illness.
Last summer, Duncan Bannatyne claimed his divorce had made him consider taking his own life when he tweeted: 'Suicide is a considered option.'
I never felt that low, but I know many men who have. I was lucky — had I been robbed of contact with my children, as so many men are, the emotional impact would have been far harder.
I had ten major attacks over the following two years, each time convinced I was having a heart attack or a stroke, and that death was imminent.
When I was with the girls and felt an attack coming on, I made excuses so I could be alone, determined not to let them see me in such a fragile state.
All the while, I worked hard to deal with my emotions, and started to express them more.
I came to realise I wasn’t boring or inadequate, and it wasn’t my fault my wife had left.
A year later, I went back to work part-time as a property manager, and made sure I spent plenty of time with the girls.
I took them to the park and out to tea, and helped with their homework. We built a strong new family unit of three.
As I started to come to terms with the divorce, my health improved. The attacks became less frequent and severe, although I will be on beta-blockers for life.
I even started dating. Since my divorce, I’ve had two relationships that lasted several months. Neither of them became serious, but they helped to improve my self-esteem.
I’m still not fully well — I last had an attack five days ago, and sometimes I feel sad.
But I am dealing with the pain, and I can honestly say that instead of killing me, divorce has made me stronger.
Interview by ANTONIA HOYLE; onlydads.org.