The HGTV star spoke exclusively to PEOPLE about revisiting the drama-filled day in 2016 and its aftermath in his new book, 'Flip Your Life'
Tarek El Moussa is revisiting the darkest chapter of his life after seven years.
In Flip Your Life: How to Find Opportunity in Distress — in Real Estate, Business and Life (out Feb 6), the HGTV star, 42, tells his side of the story of his highly publicized split from his ex wife and Flip or Flop co-star Christina Hall, 40, for the first time — including the harrowing 2016 incident involving a gun that led to their divorce.
When the pair's split became public in December 2016, it was revealed that they'd actually secretly separated seven months earlier during an altercation in which El Moussa fled into a nature area with a pistol after what he called a "blowup" fight with Hall.
She called 911, police flooded the park and as quickly as it had devolved, it was over — the incident and their seven-year marriage.
Tarek tells the story of that day from his point of view in Flip Your Life, and opens up about it exclusively to PEOPLE in this week's issue.
In his book, he writes that after a heated argument, he "went out to our backyard in Yorba Linda and hopped over the fence." On that much the exes agree. But his explanation as to why differs. He says rather than fleeing, he was craving exercise and wanted to scout the trails near the house after having recently purchased some new mountain bikes.
The neighboring Chino Hills State Park is a habitat for wildlife including mountain lions and bobcats, so he brought along what he calls an "insurance policy," a .38-caliber pistol. He says he'd received his California concealed-carry license a few weeks prior.
When a helicopter appeared overhead, he recalls he thought there was an emergency, possibly a wildfire, but he quickly realized it was for him.
"A police officer leaning out of the helicopter pointed a rifle at me. Dust swirled around me from the spin of the blades, and a loudspeaker crackled, 'Get your hands in the air!'" he writes. More police in off-road vehicles swarmed.
The officer in the helicopter miraculously recognized him. "I heard an officer shout, 'Tarek?' I screamed back, 'Yes! I’m the guy from TV! What are you guys doing?'” he says.
They lowered their weapons and tensions eased, but it was the beginning of a downward spiral for El Moussa.
“For the next several hours, I sat on a cooler on my driveway, handcuffed,” he writes of the aftermath. “That was the very last time we were together as a family: with Christina walking down the driveway, crying, and me sitting there in handcuffs, asking myself, What in the world is going on?”
Speaking about the book to PEOPLE, he describes the weeks immediately after the split as “physical and emotional hell,” and writes of hiding out on his boat, drinking himself unconscious and going through extreme withdrawal from the testosterone he’d been taking until friends stepped in to get him to a rehab facility.
In the wake of the separation, he says, “Everybody gave up on me: the magazines, the outlets, the network, nobody believed in me.”
He receded from the spotlight for months. Living in what he describes as “a halfway house,” he found the will to fight for what he thought at the time would be the reunification of his family. (He and Hall share daughter Taylor and son Brayden, now 13 and 8, respectively.)
He says he realized that wasn’t in the cards “when I found out that she had moved on.” Hall began dating her second husband Ant Anstead in the fall of 2017. “I would say devastating would be an understatement,” he recalls of how that realization hit him.
Seven years on, however, both he and Hall have healed considerably.
“I hold nothing against Christina. I understand why she did what she did. We had a lot of hard years through my sicknesses and my mental health struggles from the testosterone.” He takes a long pause. “I've never said any of this, ever.”
The exes continued to film their show together for several years, which made it difficult for El Moussa to move on, but today he says their relationship is “better than it's been ever since the separation. We all communicate well, even [Tarek’s wife] Heather [El Moussa] and Christina. We really focus on the kids."
Meeting Heather at a Fourth of July party in 2019 was “my breakthrough moment,” he says. “Ever since that day, I just haven't looked back and I'm just so happy and excited about the family I have today.”
He and Heather welcomed their son Tristan in January 2023. Christina has also remarried, first to Anstead, from whom she split less than two years later after welcoming son Hudson, 4, and then to Josh Hall in 2022.
That’s the lesson of the book, he says: “I never gave up. Through a lot of hard work, pain and just dreaming, I was able to get to where I am today.”
Flip Your Life: How to Find Opportunity in Distress — in Real Estate, Business and Life is out Feb. 6 and available for pre-order now.
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