“We Were Too Young to Give Up Our Sex Life”

When Tom Waters’ diabetes led to erectile dysfunction, it almost cost him his marriage. Here’s how he and his wife got their chemistry back.

Brian Alexander
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Eight weeks after Tom and Frieda Waters met while working at a Florida Holiday Inn, they married. It was “hot chemistry,” they say, virtually in unison, laughing. They were young then, just 19 and 21.

Today Tom is 55, Frieda 56, so you’d think they’d—you know—be over that sort of thing, but the Waters have a way of using phrases like “had to find a hotel room” and “woo-hoo!” that confirms they are not, and have no intention of ever being, over it.

Yet in 1988, when Tom was diagnosed with diabetes, it looked like their sex life might come to an end, and the disease might take their marriage, too. On the day Tom found himself in a hospital emergency room, he’d been driving to work, feeling chest pains. But then “the doctor walked in,” Tom recalls of his ER experience, “and said, ‘Why did you not take your shot today?’ I was like, ‘What shot?’ and he said, ‘Your insulin shot?’ I said, ‘Why would I take an insulin shot? I’m not a diabetic,’ and he said, ‘Well, you are now.’ ”

Trouble in the bedroom
Tom was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which strikes more than 15,000 adults in the U.S. each year, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. With this form of diabetes, your body doesn’t produce insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy. As a result, insulin injections and lifestyle changes are a must. In the beginning, counting carbs, curtailing alcohol and having to monitor his blood sugar depressed and angered Tom, who’d always been fit and athletic. After a few months, though, life went back to normal.

About a year later, Tom started to have trouble in bed. “You know how you see those shows and the guy can’t get it up, and the woman says, ‘Oh, it’s okay,’ and it’s kind of funny?” Tom asks. “Well, it’s not.” Sex had always been a major ingredient in the glue that held Tom and Frieda together and, at only 33, Tom had every reason to think that would be true for a long time.

Now, he didn’t know if he would be able to have an erection or not, so he mostly stopped initiating sex out of fear. Frieda, not wanting to pressure Tom, stopped, too. Suddenly, their love life turned cold, but neither was talking about why. They even stopped holding hands and hugging. 

Tom had always been a pleasant, easy-going guy, but at that point, Frieda recalls, “I had lost my husband. He was very depressed and angry, and he wasn’t sharing any of that with me. He became withdrawn.” Afraid of a confrontation, neither spoke much about Tom’s condition. The lack of communication and intimacy cleaved a wide gap in their relationship. The anger and tension mounted until Frieda began to wonder if she and Tom were headed for a divorce.

April 2013