When Robert Imbeault began writing what would ultimately become his memoir, Before I Leave You, he had a very different purpose in mind. His intention was to end his life once the document was written. At the time, Robert was in the midst of a five-year, suicidal drug and alcohol binge in response to unearthing repressed memories that had surfaced from his childhood.
What Robert didn’t expect to find was healing in the process of telling his story. In this book, Robert shares his story and a message of hope. I’m very happy to welcome him to Author Hour today.
Nikki Van Noy: Robert, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your new book, Before I Leave You.
Robert Imbeault: Thank you for having me.
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s start by talking about why you wanted to write this book initially?
Robert Imbeault: I didn’t really set out to write a book. What I was starting to write was kind of a secret goodbye to all my loved ones. And it was kind of an explanation where my mindset was and why I felt that ending my life was a good idea. But in writing, I found solace and it was a form of therapy. I just kept it up.
It turned into a giant apology and when I ended up sharing it with people close to me, they really encouraged me. First, they were shocked because they didn’t know. But second, they really encouraged me to share my story because they felt it could help other people and that’s when it became a network project.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow. Writing this book literally, not only changed your life but saved your life it sounds like.
Robert Imbeault: It really did. Even the title from the beginning, Before I Leave You. It’s kind of like dark humor because I wrote down the things I wanted to get done, and silly things like finish business things but also, make sure my passwords got to the right people, my partners, my ex, you know, that sort of thing. In writing, it definitely healed me.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m assuming the passwords were extracted from the final published copy?
Robert Imbeault: Yeah. They were. They were.
Nikki Van Noy: Good editing right there. Talk to me about, first of all, how long did you actually spend writing this?
Robert Imbeault: I guess over the course of about four years. That first chapter I wrote in the thick of it and I was very serious about my endeavor. When it became a network project, I was married to my then girlfriend and we started traveling. She gave me time every day, I said gave me time in every day, because we had a toddler, so I had a few hours every day to write it.
Nikki Van Noy: That is a generous gift. And it’s hard to find time with a toddler.
Robert Imbeault: Yes, yeah, very much so. I get to the gym and get a couple of hours of writing in almost every day.
Nikki Van Noy: Was it after that first chapter that you realized that this document, I suppose at the time was not initially what you thought it was, which was essentially a goodbye?
Robert Imbeault: Yeah. It was very much a therapeutic journal and I was able to be vulnerable because it wasn’t my intention to share it with anyone. When I eventually did seek out therapy, that became a part of it and I was encouraged to keep a journal.
I was able to just be raw and honest and authentic and just put it out on paper. And you know, there’s a famous quote that says, “I’ll tell you what I’m thinking when I can write it down.” It’s really true. Once you write it down, you’re sometimes surprised yourself with what you’re thinking and where you’re going.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s so true. And I feel like, especially as far as memoirs go, your position certainly was not optimal, I think the memoirs that hit the hardest are the ones where you aren’t thinking about the reader at all and you’re free to just be vulnerable and just really share your truth and be fully human rather than editing or polishing or in any other way thinking about how readers are going to perceive you.
Robert Imbeault: Yeah, I definitely wasn’t thinking that but I’ve always loved writing, I wrote a lot when I was in my teenage years. I actually spent time editing my own thoughts just to make sure that I got the language right and making sure that I articulated my feelings properly if that makes sense. And really, that brought about insights that I didn’t know I had, or I discovered as I was writing.
Nikki Van Noy: What important or pivotal things did you figure out about yourself or life as you were in the process of writing this, what really stands out to you?
Robert Imbeault: There’s so much. I had an editor. My wife gifted me a memoir writing class and the teacher and I hit it off. I shared with her my work and she was instrumental and said, “I think we can work together. This would be a beautiful book.”
After working on it, handing it over, there was a lot of red ink, let’s say, digital red ink that she prepared me for, and it happened over the course of months and months. But there’s one part–she’s an award-winning author herself–there’s one comment I remember reading and she said, “If I read you describing women in this way again, I’m going to scream.”
That caught me off guard for a few reasons. Part of it is being a novice writer for sure, but part of it was asking myself, “Is this how I view women?” I need to know this because I have two daughters. I had one daughter then, I have two daughters now, and I had to step back and realize that maybe I did objectify a little bit.
Even the sense of that I have daughters that I should protect. Well, I think that’s a form of objectification. I have daughters that I need to empower. I need daughters to be confident and be self-aware and have a strong sense of self.
I wrote in my acknowledgments that my editor made me a better person as well as a better writer. That was one big thing, and I’m not sure if that was what you were looking for but that was one big shock in writing, it is how I think and then how I can fix that.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that. It’s sort of like holding up a mirror to yourself, it sounds like.
Robert Imbeault: Yeah, especially the way I wrote because I originally wrote not to share it. I wanted to be raw and honest and so I had to take a lot of long looks at myself throughout the process.
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s shift a little bit to talk about what was happening in your life at the time? You say in your book that you wrote this as you were in the midst of a five-year suicidal drug and alcohol binge. Can you take me back to that period of your life and where you’re at and what living like that was like for you?
Robert Imbeault: It was a very real prospect. There were a couple of suicide attempts that I didn’t succeed, thankfully. Think Leaving Las Vegas–I wanted to spend all my money. I wanted to just be lost in that escape with drugs and alcohol. I brought down friends with me. And it was only when I was looking to heal when I really shared the book, and it turned around and it became something of a network project like I said.
In the midst of it, it wasn’t like I was partying and coming back and writing about it. I think I had written about it and said, “You know what? I’m going to leave this on the shelf for some time.” And then got on to some rock bottoms and it was only after I had received therapy and there was a bunch of other catalysts that helped me heal that included the writing.
Nikki Van Noy: Were you dealing with addiction on an ongoing basis or did that enter your life during this period where you’re basically deciding whether to live or die?
Robert Imbeault: I didn’t see it as addiction back then in the thick of it to be perfectly honest. I mean, my drug of choice was ecstasy and some complementary drugs. It was a party drug, so we went out Thursday night and generally, the party wouldn’t stop till Monday or Tuesday in the worst of it. Three or four days, three or four nights rather of being constantly high, it was continuous and it had a big impact.
And of course, I’m building this startup that has now become a very large company and I think I’m hiding it really well. But at one point, I realized how ineffective I was growing. I was going from speaking to college graduates to not being able to hold the meeting because my confidence was lost and I didn’t know what was real.
Nikki Van Noy: You know, you speak to something there that I feel like intellectually, we all know this is the case, but I think it’s part of being human where it sounds like, by all appearances, you were a successful person. We just tend to assume that people who are successful have it all together and they’re not in pain. What was that like?
Robert Imbeault: That’s something that’s really coming back at me right now as I did the pre-release. I sent out about 180 copies to friends and family. And they really thought I was living my best life, right? I had this fancy car. I had all the things and a lot of travel to Vegas and all these fancy places and I always partying and always paying, and I was always in a good mood. But that was on ecstasy. I think that was helping.
I was always surrounded by good people and wanting to have fun. We did amass some good, authentic friendships out of it and some not so authentic, I’m sure you can realize. They really thought I was living my best life at the time, so when I shared my story, they’re all coming back with, “I didn’t know, I wish I could have helped, or I wish I would have known.”
So many people of the 180 or so that I’ve sent out, 130 of them read the book in the first three days, they couldn’t stop. Granted, this is friends and family and friends and families are going to be like that. But still, they were reading it really fast and sending me all this love and all these encouragements.
Nikki Van Noy: How does that feel?
Robert Imbeault: That’s in itself, is a little difficult–people calling me brave and courageous. I’m still figuring out how to integrate that, you know? I’ve worked so hard to integrate the bad stuff, the previous trauma that’s caused all this, that my therapist says, “It’s okay to integrate the good stuff.”
Right now, I’m just receiving with pure gratitude. That’s how I live my life, grateful for every single moment of joy and there’s a lot of it now.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, you know, I think it can be so much more difficult to share writing like this with friends and family than the public at large because the public’s anonymous, these are people who actually know you and are part of your life and it’s just extra vulnerable.
Robert Imbeault: Yeah, it’s definitely nerve-wracking leading up to this because we have friends and family and there are stories about my history in there. How does that affect my mother’s perspective? My father’s perspective? They have to learn about all this stuff, at a very intimate level.
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s address that a little bit because this was the trigger for the bingeing and the suicidal thoughts, correct? The experience that happened to you when you were a child?
Robert Imbeault: Yes, yeah.
Nikki Van Noy: Can you share what that was and also, how that resurfaced for you?
Robert Imbeault: It was in the early stages of building this company and I was probably at a great time in my life, from the outside looking in. I was married to someone I loved and I was just reading in bed. I was reading Christopher Hitchens’, God Is Not Great. He talks about the stoning of a woman for speaking with another man under sharia law.
I was really saddened by it. I was like, “I can’t believe that someone would do that to a little boy,” and then the memory just sort of came back to me. I knew that there was part of a memory because it tormented me my entire life. I knew something happened in that room when I was eight years old. But it went from a blurry photograph to a full-length 4k motion picture and it wouldn’t leave my mind. I got the entire play-by-play of me being raped when I was eight years old. I just looked at my wife and I ran to the washroom and I sat there catatonic for about 24 hours.
Nikki Van Noy: How old were you when this came back to you?
Robert Imbeault: I was 38.
Nikki Van Noy: For 30 years, that was there vaguely under the surface and then it came up?
Robert Imbeault: Yeah. I know repressed memory is an interesting topic in itself. But I knew that something had happened that informed how I behaved. That informed who I became–it was lot of acting out as a kid, a lot of sometimes violence as a kid.
I used work as a distraction. It was my own addiction for so many years, and it turned out that work made me monetarily successful. But the distraction took away from looking within and looking to those dark corners. That was the book really shedding a light on those dark corners.
Nikki Van Noy: The human mind is just so amazing to me that it can hold so much in it. To an extent, it’s almost like our own lives are a mystery in some ways.
Robert Imbeault: It’s amazing how resilient it can be. It was for me and that’s what it was, it was resilient for an eight-year-old boy who couldn’t process what was going on. He put it away. I didn’t tell my mother. I didn’t tell anyone. I have all my report cards from my childhood, and it was all attentive, participating, happy kid and then it all just fell off–daydreaming, gone, doesn’t participate. You can read it in the cards, it’s amazing.
Nikki Van Noy: The picture for listeners who are not looking at this cover, the cover of your book is so powerful. It’s a picture of you in present-day is an adult in the forefront and then a picture of you as a little boy in the background wearing a Robert t-shirt, which is so heartbreaking, such a sweet little picture.
Robert Imbeault: Yeah, we had a good cry on that one. The designer of the publisher really encouraged me to have my photo on there and I was kind of reluctant. I’m not really a celebrity. She said, “This is your story, this is your truth.” And then I came across that picture and asked, “How about this?” She loved it and my mom still kisses the book cover every time she sees it.
Nikki Van Noy: I mean, obviously in my line of work, I look at a lot of book covers, and this is a really powerful book cover.
Robert Imbeault: Definitely, when you know the story, I think it tells it nicely on the cover. It was really lucky.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. With all of this in mind, you could have very well gone on this writing journey, done it as a form of therapy and healing and just telling your own story to yourself without sharing it at large. I am curious why it is that you want to put this out there and share it with the public?
Robert Imbeault: I think in sharing it I have already helped people. I am blown away by that. There have already been donations to the center where I am dedicating the proceeds and that’s actually happening now. And it is a part of my healing too. I think a lot of the people that have read the book and responded, there was a decent segment that shared their trauma with me. So, in my being vulnerable for them, they were able to be vulnerable with me and told me things that they haven’t told anyone.
And so that is part of the journey. I am in a men’s group now. I did so, not only for my healing, but I can learn how to provide a safe space for other people’s sharing. There’s actually a back story here. I reached out when I realize that I was going to be writing a memoir, I had researched all the best memoirs and I came across another memoir from Theo Fleury. He is one of the NHL best hockey players of all time and I’m Canadian.
He is a whistleblower and he was raped 150 times by his coach. He came out and sent shockwaves through the country really and he’s now become a really big advocate. I found on his website that he does personal mentoring. So, I reached out and we had a two-hour conversation and he told me lots of things. He said, “Okay well, get ready for people to share and it is going to come in different packages.”
“It is going to come in people being vulnerable. It is going to be people coming in and asking for help, some people might even blame. But be prepared and furthermore, be prepared that you can’t help everyone, but that’s okay.” Help as many people as you can and realize that wave is going to send maybe a bit of sadness your way, but you can deal with it. So, I am really, really happy he did that because even early in the process people are sharing. I am able to thank them for sharing and provide a safe space.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s incredible. Over what sort of time period has this whole journey taken place from the moment when you read the book and everything came flooding back until now, here is a published author?
A Study in Contrast
Robert Imbeault: Well I am 47 now so I guess about eight years, nine years.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow! That is one hell of a decade.
Robert Imbeault: I joke about when I finally went to the men’s group, my therapist wanted me to go for about seven years and I said, “Okay, it took me seven years to get here but I am here now.” I had an awkward experience with the men’s group in San Francisco. I wrote about it in the book and I didn’t look back, but it became less about me and more about a safe space for people sharing.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes sense. So, your life sounds like such an interesting study in contrast. There had been these highly traumatic experiences and then so much success on the other end. There is a line here in your bio that says you have gone from sleeping on the street to building startups and even meeting the Queen, something not many people can say. What do you think it is about you that has given you so much resilience to go from one extreme to the other?
Robert Imbeault: I believe we have an intrinsic knowledge that in the worst of times we know it is not the right thing. That eight-year-old knew that wasn’t right. If I was mistreated, I knew that wasn’t right. I, for some reason, wanted to make it right. I have that chance now with being a father and breaking the cycle, being that transition person and leading with love and providing a safe space. I didn’t know that was there for me, but I think I always wanted to be happy.
Even now if I get a little irritable because I am human, something sets me off and I say, “You know what? I don’t want to feel shitty, so why am I feeling shitty?” And I’ll look inside, and I’ll stop feeling shitty or I’ll work it out somehow.
Nikki Van Noy: Presumably someday your daughters will read this. What do you hope that they take away from it?
Robert Imbeault: I really hope first, that I can frame it properly for them. I want to be honest with them and this is something that has happened. This is something that does happen, and I regret not telling anyone. In the end, I don’t think there was a safe space for me to do so and I want to have that dialogue. And also, if they see something that doesn’t gel to come and talk to us, even with their friends, that we want to know. We just want to communicate, “Our family does this. This is how our family behaves.”
Nikki Van Noy: You know you said just a minute ago and that answer about how you regret not saying something at the time. I feel like the world has just changed so much since then. This would have happened in the 80s, correct? I am a child of the 80s myself and it is just stunning to me when I look back at the way we looked at trauma and mental health and all of those things. It really was a different world in that way 30 years ago.
Robert Imbeault: It really, really was. I did a lot of research just because I wanted to understand a repressed memory. I wanted to understand trauma and complex trauma. And in Canada and in the US, there is still a disconnect between diagnosis of complex trauma, treating symptoms, and treating the actual trauma. The treatment itself is encouraging that there are many awesome treatments that are coming out. But there is no accepted diagnosis of incest trauma and the child of sexual abuse trauma because all the diction goes back to trauma.
If we can treat the trauma, we can heal the addiction. So, it is amazing in this research that I am doing, and it is coming out now. I say this–with a greater context–this is the best time of our species existence.
If you look at what happened in the past, because we have been able to solve a lot, but what that does is shine light on these new things that we didn’t look at before. These childhood sexual abuse or childhood abuse that we may just have shrugged our shoulders or turned a blind eye or said that is not possible and let’s keep it in the family, that sort of thing, I think that is becoming less and less acceptable. Look at MeToo. I think MeToo is kind of a cousin of childhood abuse. It is one group treating the other group with impunity, like Joaquin Phoenix says. I think it is very, very related and topical now.
Treat the Trauma
Nikki Van Noy: So, you brought up an interesting point there that there is still not one accepted, agreed-upon way of dealing with trauma and helping people work through this specific sexual trauma or incest. Just out of curiosity, was there a specific sort of therapy you took that personally worked for you? Was it talk therapy, EMDR, you know what I mean?
Robert Imbeault: You hit the nail on the head. It is very unique to the individual experience. What worked for me at home, meditation was a big one I think that taught me self-love and gratitude. But the treatment itself, yeah, EMDR was the foremost that kicks my ass every time. I am still doing it. Neurofeedback didn’t really take for me. I tried it in different ways, but I don’t think I did it for long. I only did 14 sessions.
EMDR, you do it in one session. And it takes me two or three days to work through and then it’s enveloped, it’s integrated, and I can move onto the next thing.
Nikki Van Noy: The reason I am curious about that is I have actually done EMDR myself and I agree with you. It’s like, “Whoa,” and then your world is rocked upside down for a couple of days. Yeah. But I also know other people who it hasn’t worked at all for. Other things worked for them. So, it is fascinating, not surprising maybe, but fascinating how different all of our minds and nervous systems work together.
Robert Imbeault: Yeah, our brains are amazing things and some neuro pathways are stronger than others. Yeah, if I am doing an EMDR session, I definitely reserve the rest of the night to eat crappy food like cake. I definitely indulge in some silly things just to say, “You know, I am going to indulge.” And if you know me, I am actually super healthy. I don’t really eat that much junk but after an EMDR session I say, “All bets are off.”
Nikki Van Noy: Robert, you are a man after my own heart. I agree that pizza is the correct–well you didn’t say pizza, but for me, pizza is the move after it. I am realizing that for listeners we should probably explain EMDR. I don’t know if I can explain it very well. Do you have an explanation that can sort of hold water here?
Robert Imbeault: It is eye movement and some other scientific words. It’s based on bilateral stimulation and it could be either through your eyes or your ears or through your touch. And so, through your ears, you put on earphones, and it would beep on one side and beep on the next side and you float back to the memories that cause you distress and you re-live them. You dig a bit deeper, while this bilateral stimulation is happening.
What it does, I am not entirely sure physiologically. I know it marries the right and left brain. It is amazing that it actually brings out more memories and you start asking yourself questions and that’s it. You go through that. I do 20 to 40 minutes and you allow your body to be in distress during those 20 to 40 minutes. You really look at what is bothering you and why and you address all different senses.
It was described to me that if you are thinking of your neural pathways as sleds in the snow, going through EMDR is like a new snowfall and you are creating new sleds in your neural pathways, leaving your tracks in your snow, if you will. That is the way it was explained to me.
Nikki Van Noy: I like that. It is, at least in my experience, it is such an interesting thing because I know that it works. I had it work many, many times now. But every time I go in there, I do it holding tappers in my hand, which seemed like such silly things. I’m like, “This is not going to work,” and every time two minutes later I am like whoosh and there it is, my world getting rocked upside down in a good way.
Robert Imbeault: That’s true, my last one was with the hand ones too and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was gripping onto those things so tightly. I looked down and there were these imprints in my hand, and I had no idea that I was doing that going through these memories, but it’s so true.
Nikki Van Noy: Totally. Thank you for walking along that side road with me. But I think it is interesting that people have different experiences with therapies, for others who are listening at least just a starting point. As you mentioned, what works for one person might not work for another person, but it is just interesting to hear about some of the options out there.
Robert Imbeault: If you are looking to get therapy, I would suggest interviewing therapists because you are about to be vulnerable with that person. I describe that in the book where I went in and I was just full of shit with a lot of these people and I went through six different ones until I found this woman with two Ph.D.’s who not only saw through my bullshit she didn’t put up with it. She’s like, “If you are going to waste my time just get out,” and I kept her.
Nikki Van Noy: There is so much chemistry to it, you’re right. And honestly people get lucky the first time I am like, “Wow, that is really amazing that you were able to find your person the first time out the gate.”
Robert Imbeault: That therapist has since retired, and I just did a lot of research and I found one that I like right off the bat on the second time. So, it has actually really worked out well and she was certified with EMDR and other treatments.
Nikki Van Noy: I would like you to take a moment to speak to people who might stumble upon this podcast who are perhaps dealing with some of the things that you dealt with, with drug and alcohol binging, with the traumatic experience that they have not yet processed, suicidal thoughts, what would you like to say to them?
Robert Imbeault: I think the one thing to remember is the one thing we count on is change. So, everything is going to change. There is famous Buddhist saying, “This too shall pass.” So, you hold onto that because things will change whether you start them or not. So, things will get better. When things do get better, ride that momentum. You can actually take charge and make them even better and that’s what I did.
And even if you stumble, like I describe my journey as one step forward four steps back, and then getting up and one more step forward and then maybe only three steps back until I have some momentum. It is a few steps forward and now it’s only forward.
One thing to remember is to treat yourself as you would treat someone you loved most, and I think sometimes that’s lost. If your daughter had dropped some milk, would you start screaming at her? But if you do yourself, you’re like, “Oh you idiot,” you know? Treat yourself with kindness.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that realistic take on it, that it is not working through this and then stepping into the magical world of unicorns and rainbows where everything is perfect now.
Robert Imbeault: So true, yeah it is very true. And forgiving yourself. You step back and say, “Oh, it turns out I am human. Oh, that’s right, I am human, but I can still do this. I can still go forward.”
Nikki Van Noy: Robert thank you so much first of all for writing this book and second of all for joining me today. I really appreciate talking to you. Again, it’s Robert Imbeault and the book is called Before I Leave You: A Memoir on Suicide, Addiction and Healing. Robert, where else can listeners find you?
Robert Imbeault: On my website, it’s Rob Imbeault but I bought the URL beforeileaveyou.com as well, so you can find me there. I am on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t do Instagram. It gives me too much anxiety.
Nikki Van Noy: All right, Robert. Thank you so much for joining us today. Best of luck with the book.
Robert Imbeault: Thank you so much for having me. It was a great conversation.