Jimmy and Jennifer – A Beautiful Rowdy Love Story

This is the most painfully honest and transparent piece of writing I’ve done and is the most difficult chapter of my life to share. My marriage has been the source of the greatest heartache and disappointment as well as the greatest joy in my life. I suppose that’s not so unusual as many couples can probably say the same thing, but Jimmy and I together are kinda peculiar, and nobody is more delightfully aware of it than we are. It’s a long story, so you’re really going to have to care in order to get through it. I included some pictures to up the entertainment value.  

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I don’t usually tend to think in terms of God planning out every detail of a person’s life or that there was ever “THE ONE” out there for me or anybody else. I don’t pretend to know how God works out an individual’s free will versus His sovereignty nor do I think I have a shot at understanding it in this lifetime, but I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion when it came to me and Jimmy that He did indeed decide it was an absurdly good idea for us to be together and used some remarkable circumstances not only to get us together but to keep us that way…just a suspicion.

We don’t make sense on paper. Jimmy is not only an out-of-the-box kind of thinker, the box doesn’t even exist as far as he’s concerned. To him the world is a limitless expanse of possibilities to explore, in which to take risks and find adventure. Want to drive him crazy? Force him into a mindless routine.  Me? I love the box. Gimme the box. The box is safe, defined, peaceful and predictable. Want to make me happy? Gimme a mindless routine. We’re both also on the lowest end of the spectrum on empathy and touchy-feeliness or what the assessors on a personality test called “low emotional intelligence.” (We’ve had way too much fun with that label, it obviously didn’t hurt our feeling). It’s easy to see where the tension in our relationship lies; my strong, strong desire for safety and security and his strong, strong desire to dream and take risks towards reaching a grand goal, and neither one of us naturally tuned in to anyone’s feelings and wants besides our own. So how did such an unlikely match happen? Once upon a time…

GRIZZLY HUNTING

In the spring of 1990 Jimmy and I were both attending Pt. Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. The campus is AMAZINGLY beautiful, every evening a front row seat to a sunset on the water, gorgeous venues everywhere, just add college kids and you have a recipe for a LOT of hooking up. As most of my friends were trying to get in on the dating frenzy, I was purposely avoiding it. I was still working through personal grief from events that had occurred several months earlier, and a romantic relationship was the last thing that interested me or seemed appropriate at the time. I had 3 incredible roommates freshman year who had stood by me through that tragic time and provided welcome relief and distraction. As hard as that year was, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. One night when half the girls in our unit were piled into our room (of course we were talking about boys) someone started playfully giving me a hard time about not having been out on a date. I told them I could if I wanted to, just didn’t want to. Don’t remember the details anymore, but the gist was I got challenged to prove it by getting someone to ask me out. I didn’t have anybody in mind so I told my roomies to pick somebody. The girls decided my target would be Grizzly Adams, AKA Jimmy Dickenson. Jimmy stood out, WAY out, from the Ned Nazarenes as he was rockin’ the 80s hair band look. Though I had seen him quite a bit before (he was hard to miss) we had only just recently met in a class we had together. Grizzly Adams seemed a perfect target if the goal was just a date and not a relationship. He was really cute but not somebody I’d normally be interested in and nothing about this could possibly be taken seriously…so what the heck, I was in the mood to take a vacation from being reasonable, step out of character, and live a little.


Turned out Grizzly hunting was pretty easy. Didn’t take much more than sitting by him in class, making conversation, giving a little extra attention to how I dressed, and with the help of a half dozen girlfriend conspirators, knowing when he’d be at the library, cafeteria, etc. so I would “just happen” to be there too. Maybe two weeks into the operation, I got my date. Jimmy knew nothing about me, I knew nothing about him. He had no idea what I had experienced in the last year. He had no idea the entire time we were at dinner and a movie I was feeling twinges of guilt and second-guessing as to whether even this innocent date was too much too soon. As he brought me back to my dorm that night I had decided ahead of time to give a quick “thanks, I had fun” and jump out of the car to avoid turning down what any normal guy would be expecting at the end of a date. I had my hand on the door handle ready to go when Jimmy just flat out asked if he could kiss me. It’s going to sound ridiculous, but this is the truth of what happened in my head in that split second. As I was taking a breath to say “no” in the nicest way possible, another voice in my head said loud and clear, “If you say no, you will regret it” along with a gut feeling that somehow I knew that was the truth. So, despite common sense, despite what anybody else who knew my story would think, despite the fact that this boy had no idea of the significance of this kiss to me, I said “yes”. After we kissed (a VERY good one by the way), as he looked at me and smiled his gorgeous dimpled smile, that same voice in my head said, “You are going to marry him.”

Jimmy drove off back to his dorm, I’m sure thinking “Wooohoo!” As soon as he drove out of sight (at exactly the same location where I had said a fateful goodbye and had a last kiss months earlier) I sat down on the curb and bawled my eyes out. The conflicting emotions were overwhelming. Thank God for those girls waiting back in the dorm who knew and understood it all. Long after the fact I asked Jimmy what would have happened if I had said no. He said that probably would have been the end of our story.

YOUNG AND STUPID 

If you read Exodus From Church World: Chapter 1 you’d see that at this point in life I had been experiencing a crisis of faith, doubting whether the Christian God I’d grown up with my whole life was real. The events earlier in the year had shaken me out of my doubt about God’s existence, but this certainly didn’t translate into love and trust on my part. In my shocked, numb state I came to the conclusion that God was going to do whatever God was going to do, no matter what I did. I was back to seeing no point in trying to pursue and maintain a relationship with God. Besides, all focus was on Jimmy now through rose colored glasses and I was still very much enjoying my vacation from reason and just going with whatever felt good and made me happy. I was aware I had flipped the switch off, I just didn’t want to care any more. It didn’t take long for the both of us to be stupid in love…really stupid.  After only 7 months, a big chunk of which we weren’t even together over the summer, we got engaged. My poor family and friends back home didn’t know what to think. They didn’t know this guy. I didn’t honestly know this guy, and at 19 years old I didn’t even know who I was yet. My poor mom was completely blind sided and not feeling good about the situation in the least, but to her credit, she didn’t try to talk me out of it but supported us and got to work planning a wedding. Looking back now, knowing my mom, knowing how crazy quick and thoughtless we were, the fact that she didn’t try to talk me out of it or beat me over the head with a heavy object to knock some sense into me is a miracle in and of itself.

Six months out from our official wedding we jumped in the car with our closest friends and former roomies and headed to Vegas, and on my 20th birthday we secretly got married. Why? Coudn’t tell ya, other than it seemed like a fun, tacky thing to do at the time. I went back to my dorm to finish out the rest of the school year and then back home for the summer before the “real” wedding.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

When my daughter Kathryn hears these stories, she says in disbelief, “That just doesn’t sound like you, Mom.” Exactly. I was in love with someone who didn’t have a playbook, plan (or box) to live by. I was willing to go along with whatever he wanted, however he wanted because we were in love. Even though I was willing to act out of character so much in our dating and engagement year (yes just one, in fact less than one if you count Vegas), I carried an extremely naive (stupid) notion that once we were (really) married we would instantly start to function as the secure, stable, responsible, balanced couple that had been modeled to me by my own parents and grandparents, that we would work hard for the first few years and then start making some babies and I’d be living my dream of being a wife and mother. Might have helped if we’d had even one discussion about our expectations of marriage. I really didn’t see the need. That picture of marriage and family was all I knew and I figured it would just happen automatically. It was a most crucial and unfortunate time for both of us as individuals to have turned away from God and give in completely to what was making us happy for the moment, even if it was something as wonderful as intense, romantic love.  

September 1, 1991, we were “officially” married in a nice, respectable ceremony. I look at our wedding album of lovely pictures now and can’t really be very nostalgic. While anybody else probably sees a fairytale looking couple, I see two ignorant, selfish idiots who had no clue of the hell they were about to go through.

The let down was immediate. Consistent with Jimmy’s personality, dreaming about and achieving the goal of GETTING married was exciting and kept his focus; maintaining and enriching something already achieved, not so much. BEING married was all about maintenance and I was very much looking forward to settling in. Disappointment set in quickly as Jimmy switched gears and focus to his job as a restaurant manager. The business was 40 minutes away from our apartment. He left early in the morning and came home late at night and eventually even stopped taking any days off. I was finishing up my last 2 years of college and also working some part time jobs. I was lonely and miserable but convinced myself things would change once I graduated or once Jimmy had built the business up enough to scale back his hours so we’d have time for each other. 

To say I was naive would be the understatement of the century. Looking back now, it was blatantly obvious, but at the time I had no clue that my husband was using methamphetamine to enable him to work incessantly. I couldn’t conceive of being with someone where drug use would even be a possibility. It was nowhere on my radar. Strange behavior and odd things found were always explained away and I was naturally inclined to trust him. There were even nights when he didn’t come home at all with no answers to my frantic pages and phone calls. If it wasn’t so sad it would be laughable what I was willing to believe. I knew things were terribly, terribly dark and wrong but didn’t know why, and pride kept me from talking about any of my disappointment or doubts to friends or family.  Upon graduation, turning to family and friends was no longer even an option. Every friend moved out of state, as did my entire family; parents, sisters, and grandparents. My social circle and support network was suddenly at zero and Jimmy’s now consisted of an odd group of troubled kids that he’d met through work.

Everything came to a head when I found a note from a girl to Jimmy that was alarmingly inappropriate. When I confronted him, to my shock he started spilling about his meth use. Maybe that was to deflect my questioning of his relationship to this girl. If so, it worked. Suddenly whether or not he had fooled around on me was just one part of a huge web of deception and betrayal. It was all lies, it was all infidelity – it was all devastating. All I could think to say was “You have to stop or I have to leave,” to which he coldly said, “Then I guess you have to go.” Then came the screaming, kicking, punching, biting (all me). Had I known anything, I wouldn’t have risked physically attacking a meth head as they are notoriously violent. Thankfully he had enough control not to hurt me back. Over the next few days a closet door and a car window wouldn’t be so lucky. 

ROCK BOTTOM

If there had been anywhere to go that didn’t require a plane ticket and a LOT of explaining, I would have been out of there in a heartbeat, but at that point admitting to my family that I was married to a lying, cheating meth addict seemed worse than staying put until I could figure out what to do. Jimmy lost his job and took off with our only car. I had no idea where he’d gone or if he’d be back. For two days I stayed locked up in the apartment, lying on the floor, paralyzed and completely cried out. All I could do was question over and over, “How did I get here? How did this happen?” The only thing I had ever really wanted out of life was to be a wife and mother. At the ripe old age of 22 I had to accept that my dreams and my marriage were dead. I thought about the safety, security and love of my family and my childhood and couldn’t believe how far away I had gotten and how fast. I thought back to the purest and most honest moment of my life – a little girl sitting in the sunshine making daisy chains asking Jesus to come into her heart. Oh God, what happened to her? I desperately needed to be that little girl again. The 6-year-old me had a far better handle on life and faith than the 22-year-old me.

The telephone rang and I probably jumped a foot off the floor. I figured it was Jimmy calling to tell me where he was. Nope.

“Hello?”

“Jen, it’s Mom.” (Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap…should I tell her everything? If I do I’ll have a plane ticket in hand by tomorrow and this can all be over).

“Hi mom, what’s up?”

“Are you OK?”

“Sure, I’m fine, why?” (How I pulled that off without breaking I’ll never know)

“You’ve been incredibly heavy on my heart all day and I just can’t shake the feeling of needing to urgently pray for you. Are you sure you’re okay?”

I don’t remember any of the rest of the conversation, but somehow I got out of it having convinced my mother everything was fine. I just knew now was not the time to pull the plug. (Mom, I’m going to assume you’re reading this. I can never say I love you enough or too often. You didn’t know it, but you were instrumental in saving our family).

I hung up the phone and hit the floor again, this time feeling as though I’d been shocked back to life. That phone call from my mom was God confirming to me He was there. I was not alone. There was hope. It was going to be OK even if Jimmy never came back. At that moment I wasn’t even thinking about Jimmy. I was having a long overdue reunion with my Father who adored me even as I had spent years stubbornly running and pushing Him away. The second I made the slightest honest move back in His direction, He ran the rest of the way to catch me in His arms. I am the prodigal child.

DO OVER

Later that day Jimmy walked through the door and said, “It’s over.” I thought, “Alright, let’s make it official. What’s today’s date so I can call the time of death?”  Jimmy could tell what I thought he meant, “No, I’m done with the drugs, done with this place. Let’s go to Blythe.” Apparently Jimmy’s best friend from back in the day had recently become a Christian. He’d heard through the rumor mill the trouble Jimmy was in and gave his brother a call. He told Jimmy to drop everything and come back to his home town in the middle of the desert where he’d give us a place to live rent free until we could get back on our feet.

Also true to Jimmy’s character, there was no transitioning when it came to coming off the drugs. He knew what he had to do and did it, cold turkey. It was done. A week later we drove through the desert in the middle of the night in stunned silence, our little Ford Escort stuffed to the roof with everything we owned. We were leaving one of the most beautiful cities where we had experienced personal hell and escaping to a little town that most people equate with hell to start over. The irony was never lost on us.

First weeks were hard, but nothing compared to what we had just come from. I was too shell shocked to be anything but stunned and grateful for another shot. I still didn’t know if Jimmy and I were going to ultimately make it, there were still selfish indulgences to work through, but I did know my crisis of faith was over for good. We started attending the little Nazarene church Jimmy had grown up in. It took Jimmy probably six more months before he honestly and wholeheartedly turned around and had his own tearful reunion with his Father. Now it was time for the prodigals’ welcome home party!


All those personality traits (for both of us) that worked together to create such a mess when we were operating out of our selfishness were now our greatest strengths when operating in submission to God. The 8 years we spent in that hellishly hot little town in the middle of nowhere were some of the happiest of our lives. I had a husband who put all his passion and energy into living with integrity and providing for his wife and family. My dream of being a mother became a blissful reality with Kathryn and Ryan. Jimmy acknowledged his calling to be a minister. He was a few years off track, but remember that no box thing? He and God have that in common. That little bitty church in that little bitty town was the beginning of some big stuff.  Reveling in a genuinely happy and healthy marriage and two incredible little humans we’d brought into the world, I didn’t care to ever remember or dwell on how we had started. On the occasion I would think back, it was all I could do to keep from falling on my face and thanking God for bringing us out of it. I remember finding it remarkable that I didn’t struggle with harboring resentment towards Jimmy. I was too busy being happy and content with what I had.

MID LIFE CRISIS

Fast forward a few years to a time when my comfort and security were shaken, and the scars from the past started to show. We had taken a big leap of faith and left a secure career and house in Blythe to move to L.A. for Jimmy to go into full time ministry. Within the first two months of moving, the situation we thought we were getting ourselves into completely disintegrated and became something we had never anticipated. Now working a full time job, trying to afford housing, ensuring our kids’ well being, and the constant underlying current of stress and instability in the church situation left me feeling anything but safe and content. At the height of the stress I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (see I Heart Crohn’s Disease for the details of that saga). None of this is what I had pictured for myself in my early 30s. I found myself wanting to escape by reminiscing about earlier, carefree times when I was in my 20s…wait a minute, there weren’t any. I had given up the typical fun 20-something single experience to be married. Well, at least that trade off was worth it…wait a minute, no it wasn’t! My newlywed experience was thoroughly dreadful. I felt cheated out of a chunk of life and youth that I could never go back to reclaim. Even though Jimmy was now an incredibly strong, trustworthy, godly man, being hitched to this guy and the way he was wired, especially the life of a pastor, was going to mean a lifetime of instability and uncertainty – a statement that those who have been in ministry can truly appreciate.

I knew it was irrational, I knew it was wrong, but it was at that point years after the fact that I found myself struggling with resentment towards Jimmy. There was no way I was going to tell him. He was, and had been for years, choosing to be the kind of man every woman should be so blessed to have as a husband, working hard, being supportive of me in my struggles while maintaining integrity in the face of immense personal stress of his own.

I had a lot of hours in the day in my own head working alone at home while kids were at school and Jimmy was at work. I was stuck in life circumstances that were very unpleasant, I had pain and resentment in my present and past and I was convinced there was no pleasure to look forward to in the future.  To compensate and escape, I started spending time in my head in a fantasy, one that explored what life would have been like if I had never married Jimmy. I took it a step farther and imagined what life would have been like had I married another man, someone who represented security and stability. I was lusting after pleasure I felt I’d been denied. Though it wasn’t overtly sexual, it was lusting just the same, longing for something that was outside the confines of my marriage. The fact that it took place entirely in my head didn’t make it any less of an infidelity. I only deliberately indulged the fantasy for a short time. I knew what a monster it could grow into that would inevitably break out and wreak havoc in my real world if I kept feeding on it. But in that short time, my brain had hardwired a quick and easy path that led there and it was most appealing in times of stress and discomfort. I’d have spurts when it wasn’t anywhere on the radar and other days 20 times in a day I’d have to force my brain to switch gears and tune it out. “Jen, come hang out with me, just for a minute. I miss you and I know you miss me.”

The next phase in our life was our move to Visalia in 2005. Coming out of the pressure cooker experience, life suddenly smoothed out and came together on every level.  I even started to entertain whether or not we should have more kids, something I’d wanted for a long time but with the insanity of the previous years was a dream I’d let go of. My evil brain buddy wasn’t as persuasive and loud, but it still hung out in the background calling to me. One day (while working) I let my brain indulge, not in fantasizing about life with another man but in remembering the worst moments of betrayal and abandonment from our early life together. As I was feeling the hurt and anger, two thoughts dawned on me.

1). I’d been married to Jimmy for 14 years and still didn’t know for sure if he had cheated on me. I’d just always assumed it.

2). He’d never directly apologized to me.

I was aware of that unanswered question and lack of an apology in the beginning, I just didn’t think I needed it or that knowing or hearing those words would have made any difference at that time. The only thing I wanted then was proof of love in action, and Jimmy came through for me brilliantly in that regard.  Now, so many years later, I realized I did need those words.

Crap.

I knew how hard having this discussion was going to be on Jimmy. His thoughts only go one direction; forward. The past, no matter how good, bad or dramatic, just doesn’t factor in to his thinking. He’s always focused on what he needs to do to get to what’s next. So drudging up the past and me laying out in detail all the complicated mess that had roiled around inside me for so long made for a rough, emotional day for the both of us. I got an honest, one-word answer to my question (which really was all I needed) and a heartfelt, if somewhat bewildered, apology from my sweet husband.

The years since we had that discussion have been transformative for our family and our relationship in every way. We obviously decided to go for more kids (best and craziest decision we ever made aside from getting married in the first place). Jimmy and I are truly together in every sense of the word. Our individual personalities have smoothed out and are continually morphing more and more into a single oneness. That sounds kinda kooky metaphysical, but that’s the best way I can describe it.  I honestly think we are living up to the fullness of what God intended for marriage, although it’s an active process and not a destination.

And guess what I’ve found as we continue to press forward to live up to what God intended for us? Safety, security and contentment; the things I’m wired to crave. It’s not found in life’s circumstances by any means. Just when I think there’s no way to juggle another plate, another one comes flying in. Planting Four Creeks Church has been an experience marked by uncertainty and intense hardship, yet it’s the lessons learned through trial by fire over the years that have prepared us to move forward to do this impossible thing together

As for evil brain buddy, he’s still there. Like I said, it’s a permanent hardwired connection. You can’t un-think a thought once you’ve thunk it. He’s just not even remotely attractive to me anymore. He’s a sad, weak little troll. On the rare occasion that I notice him, it makes for another opportunity to fall on my face and thank God all over again for loving His prodigal girl. My welcome home party has been, and continues to be, quite the lavish affair.

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6 thoughts on “Jimmy and Jennifer – A Beautiful Rowdy Love Story

  1. Hey there Jimmy, this is Karen Nelson(Graves). Remember us in Blythe I was your pastor’s wife with DeAnn and Jason. How are your folks, we live in Fresno Ca. Would like to talk to u.

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