Excerpt: A Perfect Nightmare: A harrowing tale of business, depression and violence

Wife of a noted Calgary businessman, Karen Gosbee’s life looked perfect, but behind the scenes it was anything but

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Karen Gosbee had it all: a successful husband, three beautiful children, the homes, the cars, the jewelry, the A-list invitations. Her life looked perfect, but behind the scenes it was anything but. In this excerpt from her new book, The Perfect Nightmare: My Glittering Marriage and How it Almost Cost Me My Life, she details how an economic crash sent her homelife with husband George Gosbee, a noted Calgary businessman who died by suicide in 2017, into a downward spiral.

There are certain constraints about intimate-partner violence that apply whether you’re rich or poor. For one, it gets a lot worse when there are financial pressures: job loss, debt, chronic unemployment. In 2015, there was a 40 per cent uptick in reports of abuse after mass layoffs in the Alberta oil patch. In my marriage, the financial crash of 2008 ushered in a new reign of terror.

The year began optimistically. George and his partners had decided to sell Tristone Capital, which they’d built into the world’s largest independent oil-and gas-property acquisition business in less than six years.

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By 2008, Tristone employed more than 160 people, with offices in Calgary, Houston, Denver, London, and Buenos Aires. They were fielding attractive offers, including one from the Australian company Macquarie Group, and others from the Middle East. Because September was the holy month of Ramadan that year, they couldn’t negotiate with the Middle Eastern buyers until month’s end. But on September 15, 2008, the powerful global financial services firm Lehman Brothers tanked, putting into motion a global economic crisis and throwing George into a dark spiral.

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Every day the sky was falling, and while I had no responsibility for the global economy, somehow the fault was often mine

Between the market free fall and the partners not agreeing on the sale, it was constant doom and gloom at home. Tristone was facing major layoffs and might have to close offices. Every day the sky was falling, and while I had no responsibility for the global economy, somehow the fault was often mine.

George couldn’t believe that his wealth — “my wealth,” as he referred to it — had been more than halved. If we’d been worth $50 million — I never knew the exact figures – suddenly we were worth $20 million. I know that doesn’t inspire sympathy, but after a while you can lose perspective as to what is significant and what isn’t.

That was never more apparent than when we travelled to England for our annual shooting trip in October. Compared to the wealth of some of these guys, George and I were hired help. One head of a major international oil company was complaining that he had to give up one of his three jets. George had lost millions, but these guys had lost billions.

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After the crash was when George began binge drinking daily. He’d easily go through two bottles of wine a night. I’d drink two glasses, max, but George would finish the bottle, then another, and start pouring Scotch. It wasn’t uncommon for him to eat nothing during the day, and then doze off at the dinner table. The family was now on high alert, just as my family had been with my mother. The children all recall helping their father from the table to bed. We’d learn to look for signs that he was drinking at work, and figure out how to get him home safely.

Vodka became George’s preferred drink because it wasn’t as detectable. He’d pour it in empty water bottles that he’d leave around the house, in drawers, and jacket pockets. More than once, one of the kids would mistakenly take a swig out of one. I did, too.

George was also mixing vodka with the prescription sleeping drug Ambien, which would create a volatile situation. He was always more confrontational at those times. He’d blame his need for the pills on the amount of travelling he was doing, and having to adjust to new time zones. I found it easier than you might expect to adjust to his new habits. Finding drugs and alcohol hidden around the house also took me back to my childhood.

It’s said that alcoholism is a breaker of relationships, and that was true for us. Leaving aside the personal susceptibilities that had me tolerating more of his abuse than was wise, I’d always clung to the fact that George was a strong parent and that putting up with him was good for our family. George’s drinking now made him an absentee parent. The kids learned not to expect him at their events: Isla’s dance recitals, the boys’ hockey games. John doesn’t remember George being at any of his graduations or big moments. He has one memory of his father taping a hockey stick, before George got frustrated and asked me to do it.

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The children also learned not to speak to their father about work because that only made him more stressed. The year before the crash, George had started experiencing panic attacks that sometimes landed him in the emergency room. And through it all, he was still injecting HGH, which worsened his rages.

The more George felt like a failure at work, the more he raged. He would get a sarcastic smile, as though he could envision how he was going to have some fun being mean. He locked me out of the house at night several times, forcing me to sleep in the car, and mocked me constantly, telling me that I was stupid. Whenever that happened, my response was always the same. Fear would hijack my body: my mind would go blank, my body temperature would drop, and I would start to shiver. I would feel my lips go dry, and lick them. Here George would mimic me, licking his lips too. He’d make fun of me stuttering and not being able to follow a train of thought, which discombobulated me even more …

They say violence begets violence, and this was true of George. The more he did it, the more violent he became. His eyes would narrow, his jaw and neck would tense, and he’d puff his chest as if he was preparing to charge or hurt me. He was getting hostile to me in front of the kids. “I can’t keep doing this, George, you are exhausting me,” I’d tell him.

I have a high pain tolerance. When I was pregnant with Carter, my water broke and we were in the ER with people screaming around us. The nurse sent us away, explaining that I wasn’t in distress and was just taking up space. George insisted she check me. When she did, they discovered I was fully dilated and ready to give birth. Carter was born ten minutes later, with no epidural. One therapist told me, “You’re like a thoroughbred; you’re like the only one who could keep up with him.” It sounds like a compliment but it’s not. My ability to withstand pain without complaining allowed me to put up with far more than I should have.

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Still, I believed our problems were fixable. I bought books, and asked George to go to couples counselling. He wasn’t interested. Instead, he told me that if I could be a better wife — smarter, better organized — we wouldn’t have all the conflict: “What the f***, Karen … if you just tried a little harder. Do you know how hard I work for you to have all this?” It seemed lost on him that he wanted “all this” a lot more than the rest of us did.

George was functional at work, although he was going in later and later in the morning. He’d started missing work and cancelling meetings for trivial reasons — because he was upset with his partners, because he didn’t feel well, because he was upset at me, or just because he could. But he hung in and, towards the end of 2008, he bounced back. He was tapped to be the vice-chairman of the Alberta Investment Management Corp. (AIMCo.), a huge provincially run institutional pension fund that he’d helped found.

Around this same time, my own story took a turn that had ramifications for years to come.

Reprinted with permission from The Sutherland House Inc.

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