"Survivor" rehab

"Survivor" rehab (Daniel Fishel, For The Times)

The day my ex-husband earned a hall pass from rehab to see our children for dinner, I got in my car, drove to the Santa Monica bluffs and screamed and wailed and cried and pounded my fists on my dashboard. Then I went home and made Sloppy Joes and corn.

The idea for the post-divorce dinner certainly wasn't mine. It was conceived by a family therapist on my ex's residential treatment dream team.

At the beginning of our first session, as we avoided each other's rage-filled eyes and sat as far away as possible (I would've preferred video conferencing), the therapist handed us a black-and-white cartoon with a kid in the center of the page, his mother in the upper left corner and his father in the upper right. Each parent was slinging arrows at the other, but the arrows were hitting the kid instead. That was our 10-year-old son, our 12-year-old daughter.

Buried under layers of steaming rubble — my discovery of his secret life as a drug addict, his angry disbelief that I actually filed for divorce — we realized that the kids needed protection. From us.

So, when the therapist suggested weekly "family" dinners, we both knew we owed them as much.

Weeks passed of this new routine: Thursday primal screaming in my car at the bluffs, then turkey tacos, or Hamburger Helper or Crock-Pot chili. At 8 p.m. the doorbell would ring and it would be the handsome man I'd married 15 years prior who'd once lived with me, bore children with me and then eviscerated me. Dinner was served with a smile, though I could barely tolerate the four of us sitting around the dinner table like nothing happened.

Every kind word, loving hug, even the sweet sound of my children's laughter made my blood boil. Didn't they know what he did to me? To us?

"When you're around your children, you have to put those feelings on a high shelf in another room," the therapist advised.

Well, my house had plenty of rooms, and I'm almost 6 feet tall. I left my quiver in the kitchen and suggested we move dinner to the couch in the den. That way we could eat and watch television at the same time — a welcome first for all concerned.

A relatively new show called "Survivor" was starting. Aside from its rugged setting on a remote tropical island, the reality show's features were comforting and familiar. It contained mental and physical challenges, infighting among the castaways, alliances made, promises broken, deceit, manipulation — and usually one good, honest soul. Watching "Survivor" together on Thursday nights became the scaffolding from which we built a post-divorce version of our family.

Over time, I decided to loosen my very tight armor and relax into the reality of whatever-it-was-we-had. I silenced the voices in my head that obsessively suggested, "He's a stranger. He lies. Make him leave." By focusing on what was right in front of me — the genuine love the kids and their father shared — the air in the room softened.

We engaged in lively talks about the budding love affair between Rob and Amber, we cringed when castaways ate live bugs or bird embryos. We rooted, hooted, hollered and high-fived when the Zapatera tribe intentionally lost the water wheel challenge and blindsided Russell. During an archery immunity challenge, I realized that the only flaming arrows in the house were those shot by the Samburu tribe.

Our daughter's first boyfriend came and went, our son's height surpassed my own, and my rescue puppy grew into a dog and wedged himself onto the couch. Throughout years and years and years of change, this is what remained the same: Thursday night dinners. And "Survivor."

I'd like to believe our inviolable time together helped the kids understand that, even though their father and I were no longer married, we'd always be family. I'd love some assurances that the kids escaped the divorce unscathed, but the truth is I'll never get those guarantees.

What I do know is "Survivor" nights morphed from something virtually intolerable into something indefinably precious. And thanks to the family momentum we created, my ex and I attended every school event sitting not across the auditorium from each other, like other divorced parents did, but right next to each other, shoulders touching like genuine friends — sharing some kind of sideways love or shared pain or even, over time, forgiveness.

This September, we'll be delivering our baby boy to college. That's a few weeks before the start of Season 25, Caramoan Islands. I hear the show's going to involve returning players who'd been evacuated from prior episodes because of medical problems. It's sure to be riveting.

But wait. What will remain of our 23 seasons besides a few hardened crumbs between the cushions? As I think about this some more (fat tears brimming in my eyes), I might not even watch. Perhaps the show has served its purpose. Perhaps the tribe has spoken. Perhaps we've learned to survive the madness with faith in our own reality, torches burning bright.

L.A. Affairs chronicles romance and relationships. Past columns are archived at latimes.com/laaffairs. If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at home@latimes.com.