Jessica Zimmerman’s memoir “Sleeping with a Stranger” reveals how she saved her husband’s life and herself

Jessica Zimmerman’s memoir “Sleeping with a Stranger” reveals how she saved her husband’s life and herself

Jessica Zimmerman’s memoir Sleeping With a Stranger is a thriller that could save your life. It is a shocking, gripping ride and a master class in resilience. When I asked Jessica why she wrote this bracingly honest bestseller, she didn’t hesitate for a minute; “There was this voice inside of me that said, ‘this story happened because you are supposed to share it.’”  

When Jessica married her college sweetheart Brian, they rejected the usual script. They would not settle down, have kids, work the same job into retirement. Instead, Jessica would provide fun, adventure, and a plan to get out of Conway, Arkansas. Brian would figure out the finances and be their rock. What the couple didn’t know was that fate would reject that script and deliver an unimaginable rewrite.

At first, Brian was a dream husband, reliable and supportive. Jessica was a brilliant shooting star, making her high-spirited way through a series of business and personal triumphs and disasters. Then came two pregnancies, one after the other. Surprises, but delights. When they discovered they were expecting twins while parenting a toddler, Jessica allowed herself a few panicked moments lying prone on the bathroom floor. Then she texted every parent of twins that she knew, asking them to share the best part of the experience. She could always find that crack where the light gets in.

Fast forward a year. Jessica is in Kroger’s and it’s not just any grocery run. In her cart: Disney Pull-ups for a potty-training toddler, boxes of Pampers for her twins and packages of Depends for her husband. What in the world happened? Proving that there is a god of bad timing, Brian had developed a devastating illness just when his family needed him most. In a major reversal, Jessica would solely have to rely on Jessica. And so would everybody else.

What follows is a harrowing tale of fighting the medical establishment and blazing one’s own path. Brian had developed a catastrophically inflamed colon. So inflamed, it was practically on fire. However terrible you imagine those symptoms and the ensuing situations, it was worse.

The doctors would take Brian on a terrifying rollercoaster of well-meaning cluelessness that nearly murdered him. Jessica could no longer afford to be the fun one. But the insightful, brilliant, strong, creative, compassionate person she becomes will keep you on the edge of your seat, cheering, crying, and gasping with every twist of this fast-paced story. Prepare, too, to laugh hysterically because this intrepid author has a sense of humor that is not only hilarious but miraculous under the circumstances.

Can Brian recover? Will the marriage survive? Who is the “stranger” in the title? (It’s not just Brian.) Did I mention that Jessica creates a million dollar business to boot? I don’t want to give away too much. I will guarantee that this is memoir at its best. Jessica and Brian’s story is one you won’t hear anywhere else. Jessica kindly spoke with me by phone about her unforgettable journey, and how to thrive when life throws one of its wild curveball pitches

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TELLING A HARD STORY

Teme: Why was it important to tell this very personal story?

Jessica: It’s the only time in my life that I’ve felt truly called to do something. This book was a gamble. It is not a story you really want people to know. It is very embarrassing. It is insanely vulnerable. I’ve never written a book, so I was just going on gut. It felt like a mission.

Of course, I would have never written it without my husband’s approval. At first, there were two parts of the book that I absolutely was not going to put in there – there was a golf course incident and the part about him wanting to commit suicide. He said, “You have to include them for anyone who is going through what I went through.”  

Teme: Did Brian have any hesitation about sharing? Or was he on board right away?

Jessica: He was on board from the very beginning. He was at his worst in spring of 2016. I remember we were laying in bed. He was naked because he didn’t have enough energy to take his clothes on and off every time he had to go to the bathroom. The lights were off except for the glow of my computer screen. We were thirty-three at the time. I remember looking at him and thinking, “He looks like he’s eighty years old. I don’t recognize this person.”  

But he never had hesitation ever. I had more hesitation. I knew for two years that I needed to write about it and I kept putting it off. It was like a heavy conscience. I would think about it twice a day, and then three times a day, and then it was once an hour, twice an hour, then it was every ten minutes. Finally it was like, “The only way I’m going to escape this is if I actually do it.”

Teme: What was your hesitation?

Jessica: I didn’t know if I wanted people to know this story. That’s why it had to be something so much bigger than me to share it. I grew up in a small town. People that knew me would read it. I didn’t know what it would be like to know somebody had read this and then see them at the grocery store. Would it hurt my feelings if I knew they read it and then never said anything to me?  Which was the case in a lot of situations. I had to let go of all the hurt feelings.

FIGHTING FOR FAMILY … AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FRIENDS

Teme: You went from being an uncertain young wife to being a superhero in the way you fought for your family and kept your business going for your employees. What changed in your sense of self?

Jessica: I would love to say that there was some amazing shift, but honestly, you really don’t know what you’re capable of until your back is against the wall and you have a gun pointed at your head, which is exactly what I felt like.

All of the stuff that you would typically overthink and ask opinions, I didn’t do any of that. I had to skip that and just go, “What must I do?” My back was against the wall and I came through. But it wasn’t in the healthiest of manners. I paid for that and had to work on myself and get myself back together.

I’m just now, really, becoming my full true self. It is hard when you realize you are capable of doing it all. We all have our vices in the face of fear or pain. My vice is control because my biggest fear is abandonment or being out of control.

Would it be better for me to not feel the responsibility of everything and to be able to lay some stuff down? Is that the best example for my kids? Would it be better to have a little more help? I spent four years building up heavy walls of just survival. Now I’m taking a sledgehammer to the walls and breaking them down.

Teme: What could you have done differently? You had to take control. If you hadn’t, the doctors were going to take control in a drastic and terrible way. You did everything brilliantly.

Jessica: You’re very kind to say that. People say, “I don’t know how you did that. You’re Superwoman.” I’m genuinely not. I just woke up and did what absolutely had to be done. I had newborn twins. They had to be fed. I would get up and make their bottles and feed them. I had a two-year-old daughter. She had to be dressed. They went to preschool, so I’d pack their bottles and lunch and take them to preschool. That had to be done. I had to go to work. I had to make money. I had to be there for my employees. I had to deal with Brian’s doctors and all of it.

There are things that got put on the back burner. I lost several friends during this time. They just couldn’t understand. I could only spend my energy doing what I had to do to survive and for the other four human beings in my family to survive. That meant not answering phone calls and text messages and not explaining everything, not calling people every single time we were in the hospital. I felt at the end of all of this, people who are really my friends are going to understand. I just didn’t have the bandwidth. It was, “What has to be done next? And let me get it done.”

Teme: How can friends do better?

Jessica: Oh my goodness. I think that’s the true question. I’m so glad you asked it. All anybody wants who is struggling is to be heard. That’s it. The person who is receiving the information is in the most honored position. To have somebody say, “Here are my problems. Here’s how I feel …” They are not coming to you for an answer. They are coming to you to feel heard. My biggest struggle was any time I would share I would be met with advice that I did not solicit.

Teme: Oh, I really hate unsolicited advice.

Jessica: Yeah. I would be met with these suggestions that would have never worked. I wasn’t asking friends for medical advice. I was just sharing what I’m going through. So I think the very best friends are people who listen and just acknowledge your pain. “I’m so sorry you’re going through that. I am here for you, whatever you need.” Don’t pretend you know what they’re going through. Don’t give an example, “Oh, well, I know so-and-so that …”

Teme: That is a fabulous answer. Unsolicited advice is one of my most gigantic pet peeves. Often it’s oversimplified and also, if there were an easy answer, you would have thought of it and pursued it. I don’t know if people realize that unsolicited advice is generally unhelpful.

Jessica: It’s coming from a place of insecurity. I have to remember, “Nope. Don’t give advice unless asked.” It comes from the fear that, “They’re sharing this with me and if I don’t give them something great, they won’t share with me in the future.”

Instead of fully listening and paying attention, we’re halfway listening, but we’re in our brains going, “What am I going to say?” It isn’t a conversation anymore because you’re just waiting for a stopping point so that you can insert something great where somebody will go, “Oh, thank you.” But that’s not the point.

Teme: For all my intolerance of unsolicited advice, I’m guilty of that, too.

Jessica: We all are. We’ve got to unlearn it. I’m still working on it.

HOW TO RISE AND INSPIRE

Teme: How does one avoid feeling like a victim after going through something that could really shake a person?

Jessica: A lot of therapy. I have been in therapy once a week since June 2017. I love it. I think that it’s fascinating to educate yourself about yourself. My therapist has said things that have been incredibly freeing. I’ve lived this huge part of my life living like a victim and feeling like, “You don’t know the life that I’ve lived, the pain that I’ve experienced.”

There came a point for me where a shift happened. It was like, “What if none of this really happened to me? What if it all happened for me?” I also believe that the goal isn’t happiness. The goal is to feel our feelings and have our feeling teach us, guide us, and they eventually lead us to the next step we’re supposed to take. So really, it is all about paying attention. A victim mentality is an easy excuse to not learn from your pain. Pain is a teacher. It’s not going to leave you until it teaches you, so it’s just going to keep coming. At some point, you have to stop and go, “Okay, what is this teaching me?”

I was able to shift and to say, “I’m not a victim who survived. I’m going to be a survivor who inspires. I’m going to share. I’m going to be open and vulnerable. It’s not going to be for everybody, but if it helps some people, then great.”

 WHAT IS RESILIENCY?

Teme: How do you define resiliency?

Jessica: You have to believe in yourself. You have to know that you have a purpose, that you are worthy, that you are capable of absolutely anything. Instead of a fixed mindset that believes, “These are the cards I was dealt and this is the hand I’m going to play,” believe, “You know what? I can switch up my cards, or I can get better cards, or I can learn how to play this game so I can have a better hand.” So much of it stems from self-confidence. If you believe in yourself, it’s ninety-percent of the battle. A big part of believing in yourself is freeing yourself from what you think the world expects of you and starting to just care about what you know to be true.

FINDING THE FUNNY

Teme: I was so delighted with the humor in your book. You’re so funny. How did you maintain your humor through such hard times?

Jessica: When I was in it, there was no humor. But on reflecting, I was able to really see things and go, “Man, that’s kind of funny.” Like that my husband, who is already thin, happens to get a disease that makes him lose sixty pounds in three months right when I’ve given birth to twins! That’s funny! You can’t even make it up.

Teme: Who’s your favorite comedian or humor writer? Who has influenced your sense of humor?

Jessica: I love Gary Janetti. He is an author and television writer. He’s saying all the things that everyone thinks but no one says. When someone can point out the absurdity of reality, to me that is really funny.

JESSICA AND BRIAN TODAY

Teme: How are you and Brian now?

Jessica: We’re okay. We have gone through some really hard times. We’ve gone through major peaks and major valleys. We have been together since we were eighteen, which is a really young age. We have so much love and respect for one another. He and I are family until death do us part, forever and always. But we are different people coming out of everything we’ve gone through. If I’m being totally honest, sometimes I wonder. We have a very open relationship where we feel free and safe to discuss these things. One of the things that Brian gives me, that I don’t know if anyone else ever could, is the incredible gift of feeling completely free to be who I am and to feel safe and secure to know he’s always there.

With that said, sometimes I wonder if we have taught each other and been for each other everything we can. Can we continue to encourage one another to grow? Or are we stifling each other’s growth? So that’s what you work through, and that’s part of life and marriage.

I’m not going to say that I know for certain we’re going to be married the rest of our lives. We may very well be. We may have a 60th wedding anniversary, and I would love that. But I also don’t want to shame myself into thinking that that’s the only acceptable answer. I want to do what is best for him and I both, and what’s best for our family.

Teme: It’s refreshing to hear, “sometimes I wonder.” It sounds like a very natural, universal aspect of marriage.

Jessica: I don’t think it’s discussed enough. People put so much shame around it and say, “Well, I should just be grateful. I just need to ignore this.” The truth is, I have spoken with so many people that feel this way. Feel your feelings. Don’t put shame around them. Feel them and let them guide you to the next decision.

IF YOU’RE FEELING STUCK, JESSICA CAN HELP

Teme: Absolutely anything else we should add?

Jessica: I have a program on jessicazimmerman.com called The Game Plan. It is a step-by-step guide that I do for people who are trying to figure out how to live their true life. I ask questions that I don’t think a lot of people get asked that makes them really start thinking, “Do I actually want to be living the way I’m living, or do I want to do something different?” And it gives them permission to think differently and to question. If anybody is in a place where they feel stuck, it’s a great resource.

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Jessica Zimmerman’s memoir Sleeping With a Stranger is available at independent bookstores and wherever books are sold.

Learn more about Jessica and her creative, inspiring strategies for life and business at jessicazimmerman.com.

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Teme Ring

I’ve been a comedy fan since age four when Moe Howard asked me, “What’s your name, lil’ goil?” Fortuitously somehow by way of Washington, D.C., Poughkeepsie and Jerusalem, I ended up in Chicago, the comedy Mecca of the world where comedians are kind enough to give me their time and where I was lucky enough to meet the great Dobie Maxwell who introduced me to the scene. You can reach me at: temewring@gmail.com. (Please remember the “w” there in the middle.)
I am often very reasonably asked, “How DO you pronounce that?” The spelling is Teme, but it’s pronounced Temmy.

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