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A Widow, Not A Wife: 'Smacked' Explores An Ex-Husband's Secret Addiction

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Writer Eilene Zimmerman and her ex-husband Peter had been separated for several years when Peter, a wealthy, high-powered attorney, began acting erratically. Days would go by and Zimmerman would hear nothing from him. Peter forgot to prepare meals for the kids and missed cross-country meets and school pickups.

Then, when the kids were 16 and 18, Zimmerman drove to check in on her former spouse, who had been exhibiting alarming flu-like symptoms. She was shocked to find him dead on the floor.

"I tried to listen for a heartbeat and I couldn't hear one. ... I ran out of the house because I was afraid," Zimmerman says.

When the police and EMTs arrived, they identified drugs and drug paraphernalia among Peter's possessions. In the days and weeks that followed, Zimmerman learned that Peter had been addicted to cocaine and opioids, and that his death had been caused by infective endocarditis, an infection that is sometimes linked to intravenous drug use.

"The worst part was telling my kids [why he died] and having to see their reaction," she says. "There was a certain level of shame and guilt that we had that this had happened in front of us and we hadn't recognized it."

After Peter's death, Zimmerman reached out to other lawyers in an attempt to better understand substance abuse within the profession. Her new memoir, Smacked: A Story of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy, traces the trajectory of Peter's addiction as well as her own grief following his death — including her decision to pursue a master's degree in social work.

"I wanted to focus on end-of-life issues because I thought the way Peter died seemed really sad and lonely and scary," she says. "For a long time I felt so depressed and sad and just hopeless, and that has changed, and I do feel ready to embrace life and really appreciate — as cliche as it sounds — every day I have here."

Interview highlights

On feeling like a widow after Peter's death — despite not being his wife

I felt like everybody was looking to me to make the plans to get everybody through the grief and to make the memorial service plans. I was also settling the estate and in a way, I kind of became his wife again. I spoke at his funeral and I kind of arranged the whole thing and I paid for it. I picked up his ashes from the crematorium and, I have to say, if you don't feel like a wife after that, I don't know what else does.

On Peter's erratic behavior

Peter would say things like, "I'm going to run out and get us dinner." And there's a taco place half a mile away. And my son would be waiting and waiting for hours, and Peter wouldn't come back and he couldn't be reached. So my son would just make something from what was in the house, and often there was no food in the house, just candy and alcohol. ... Then Peter would come back like five hours later and say, "Oh, I forgot to get dinner." ...

Or he would be really late to pick my son up from school, and then when he'd finally get him home, he had no plan the way a parent does — like there was no plan for dinner and homework and what's going on at school. They would get home and Peter would retreat to his bedroom. ...

Peter would get big packages from Amazon that contained lots of medical supplies, and he seemed to think it was really important that they keep a stash of these medical supplies in the home in case something happened. It was bandages and alcohol wipes and wound cleanser and things like that. My son did not understand what was going on, but also didn't question his father.

On why she struggled to confront Peter about his behavior

There was something about Peter that I was afraid of, and it's a hard thing to name. But he had so much power in my life. He had all the economic power. I was a writer. He was a lawyer. ... I had no regular paycheck. I worked really hard, but there was no comparing our incomes. ... It was very clear whenever I pushed back about anything — even if it was something like support was late — he would remind me that I better be careful, because I needed him.

And, so, when all of this was happening and he had these explanations — "I'm sorry. I was in a meeting and I left my phone in my office. That's why you couldn't reach me." Or, "We had a client emergency and I was at the client's office. I couldn't get out" — they all seemed plausible. And so, as a mother, I'm saying to him, "How come you've missed every cross-country meet?" Or "How come you take two hours to pick up our son who's 30 minutes from your office?" And he always had what seemed like a plausible reason. And I felt really like I was being gaslit. I thought I was crazy to question him.

On telling her son and daughter the truth about what happened

I was sitting in the backyard and my daughter and son were in what had been my daughter's bedroom with grief counselors and some police officers. And I was sitting outside with the medical examiner and I asked her, "Are you a mother?" And she said, "Yes." And I said, "What would you do?" I didn't know what to do. ... And I felt like I didn't want to do the wrong thing. ... She suggested I tell them [the truth]. She thought it would relieve them of a lot of guilt. And I decided that I thought that was the right thing to do. And so I did tell them. And it was the right thing to do, because they could see that it had already gone so far, that even if they'd brought him to the hospital [when he seemed to be suffering from the flu], chances are he wouldn't have survived. They also understood why he didn't want to go and why it was so hard for them to convince him to go.

On why she wanted to look through Peter's cell phone after he died

I felt like I needed to understand what was going on for him. I could not understand why he went down this road, and so I thought the phone would give me some clues. ... I wanted to see if the evidence on his phone corresponded with what I knew to be true about his behavior with our children. ... I learned that when he told my son he was going out to get a soda, he was not. He was going out to about four different ATM machines to try to get between $2,000 and 3,000 in cash so that he could meet a dealer. ... I found that the nights when he was absent, he was generally getting money for drugs, meeting dealers or getting high.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for Shots.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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