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."
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.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Like a lot of people, my guest Eilene Zimmerman had certain preconceptions of who becomes addicted to drugs, and it did not include her ex-husband Peter. He was a wealthy lawyer, a partner in a prominent law firm, a workaholic - lots of responsibilities. Her teenage children divided their time between her home and Peter's. Peter had started behaving erratically, and it was upsetting their children. He was always late or failed to show up for their children's events and occasions. He seemed to have a flu that lingered for months. He was exhausted and losing weight. But he always had an explanation.
One day, six years after the divorce, Eilene's son returned from Peter's home and told her Peter was very sick but refused to go to the hospital. There was no response when she tried to reach him. So she went to his home to find out what was going on and found him dead. The police and coroner found his drugs and paraphernalia. Zimmerman has written a new memoir called Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, And Tragedy." It's about her ex-husband's secret addiction, how he hid it, the mix of guilt, grief and anger she experienced after his death and how it led her to rethink her preconceptions about addiction and rethink her life.
Eilene Zimmerman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in the book, you wonder why did you miss all the signs that your ex-husband was addicted to drugs. In retrospect, why do you think you were so clueless? And what stereotypes did you have about addicts? What stereotypes do you have about people addicted to drugs, stereotypes that your husband didn't fit?
EILENE ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think I had stereotypes in mind I wasn't really aware of. That's often called implicit bias, where we have these biases based on stereotypes, but we're not really aware of them. And I think my limited experience with people that were struggling with addiction was people that were homeless, Vietnam veterans, poor people, people that were also mentally ill and living on the streets. That's what I saw as a drug user. I definitely didn't think somebody with, you know, two advanced degrees and a really big bank account and a gorgeous house by the beach.
Like, to me, I couldn't understand why someone like that would start, you know, using drugs to the point that they'd become addicted and really sick because it seemed like, you know, their lives are really great, whereas people at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are people that are suffering from mental illness and untreated or homeless. I thought, well, I can understand - their lives are really bleak; maybe this is a way to numb that pain or escape it. I couldn't really understand that the other end, what someone would be trying to escape or numb. I was very wrong.
GROSS: Did Peter get introduced to opioids through a prescription for pain?
ZIMMERMAN: It's possible that that's how it happened. I don't know for sure. I do know that when we were married, he often had chronic back pain. A lot of it was from poor posture. He was a little bit bow-legged. He was at a desk, you know, 12 to 15 hours a day. And so occasionally, he'd have problems and spasms or pain. He'd go to the doctor, and there might be a very limited prescription for Vicodin or something like that.
Same with dental pain - I know he did have a broken tooth at one point, and he was on some Percocet for that. And I had some dental work. And I can't take those medications. They make me really sick. But he would always take them and say, well, I'm going to use it for my back when my back hurts. And I figured, like, OK, you know, he doesn't seem like he has a problem. Of course, he'll just use it when his back hurts.
GROSS: Before he died, his behavior was really erratic. He wasn't showing up for things he promised to be there for, like events that were important in your teenage children's lives. He was missing deadlines. He always seemed to have the flu, a flu that was just, like, lingering and lingering for months. He told you he had Hashimoto's disease when you were pressing him, like, what is wrong? And that's a disorder of the thyroid. And you looked it up and found that although he was losing weight, a main symptom of Hashimoto's is that you gain weight. So you were really skeptical of that.
What were some of the things that your children were telling you about what they observed when they spent nights with him? Because they spent part of their time living at his home.
ZIMMERMAN: For our children, they described the most bizarre behavior. It just didn't make sense, thinking about the type of person Peter used to be, which was, you know, a responsible lawyer who worked all the time but, you know, generally, made it to things for our kids, like cross country meets or talent shows - things like that. He might be a little bit late. I would always save him a seat. But he'd make it. But when they would stay with him - especially my son saw the worst of it because my daughter was at college for most of the year. But my son was there every week.
And 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. There was a lot of that. And then Peter would come back, like, five hours later and say, oh, I forgot to get dinner. You know, and just - you know, not even realize, like, it's been five hours.
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, you know, what's going on at school? It was just - they'd get home, and Peter would retreat to his bedroom. Or there is one scene in the book and - that my son described to me, that 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. And so it was bandages and alcohol wipes and wound cleanser and things like that. And my son did not understand what was going on but also didn't question his father.
And I think a lot of it was - there was also - my son was learning to drive for a period of time. He was 15 1/2 and had his permit. And he said his father would routinely fall asleep on the freeway while he was driving to school in the morning. And he should not have been driving without some supervision. I mean, he was really scared. The freeways in Southern California are five and six lanes wide, and they're - people go very fast. And he said his dad would just - as soon as they'd pull out of the driveway, he'd fall asleep, and he would sleep the entire way to school. And my son was terrified. But he figured his father just had a lot of faith in him and his ability to drive, you know.
Or we're both pretty sure that Peter drove him while Peter was really high. He would drive super fast all the time. He lost his patience constantly. He had increasing amounts of road rage to the point where my daughter was afraid to drive with him because if anybody cut him off or didn't move out of the lane fast enough, apparently Peter would start cursing and yelling and just erratically driving and changing lanes. So things like that that were alarming, but you could explain it away with stress or lack of sleep or, you know, too much work.
GROSS: Or things like you started to think maybe he's bipolar. Maybe he has some kind of other mental disorder. Maybe he's reaching a state of psychosis.
GROSS: You really didn't know what to make of it. But you are the mother of your children; he is the father of your children, and Peter's behavior was becoming very risky to your children. So you had to decide whether you were going to intervene or not. Can you talk about what went through your mind about how you, as the mother of your children, should be approaching or not approaching your ex about his behavior, his inattentiveness, his not showing up, his sleeping, his - like, everything was going wrong.
ZIMMERMAN: No. I mean, that's a great question and a very appropriate question. And I will say, 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. He knew our family was really dependent on him.
GROSS: You were a freelance writer (laughter).
ZIMMERMAN: I was a freelance writer, right. So I didn't - I mean, I was self-insuring. I was - I had no regular paycheck. I worked really hard, but, you know, there was no comparing our incomes. I could not have been living in San Diego with the life that he had built - which was largely a life that he wanted - without his help, and he knew it. And so it was very clear, whenever I pushed back about anything - even if it was something, Terry, 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 was - had these explanations - you know, I was in a meeting; you know, 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, you know, 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 would just - he always had what seemed like a plausible reason. And I felt really like I was being gaslit. Like, I thought I was crazy to question him. I would even say to my friends, do you think I'm being crazy? Am I right to be alarmed about this? I would ask other mothers. And they would say, you know, yeah, this is, like - this isn't normal behavior.
But - so to answer the question, I did ask him often, why are you late? What's going on with you? Why are you sick? Especially when our kids would be up there for the weekend, and he was insistent that he have time with them, that they come up, and then he would disappear all weekend into his bedroom. And he would somehow make me feel bad for asking about it because he would say things like, look - I'm really sick. I'm sorry. I'm trying to get better. I was resting all weekend. I can't shake this flu. But, you know, it's important to me that they're up there, that they're up here with me.
So I felt like I was in between a rock and a hard place. I wanted them to have time with their father, obviously, and I wanted Peter to have time with them, but he wasn't actually spending any time with them; he was just sick the whole time and leaving them to their own devices. And they felt really rejected and, you know, unloved.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Eilene Zimmerman, and her new memoir is called "Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, And Tragedy." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Eilene Zimmerman, author of the new memoir "Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, And Tragedy." It's about discovering, after her ex-husband died, that he was addicted to opioids and cocaine. They'd been divorced six years. In this next part of the interview, we talk about how upsetting it was to find his dead body.
So we were talking about all the psychological and physical problems that your ex-husband Peter was having and all the bad behavior in front of your teenage children, who stayed with him several nights a week. And then one day, your son, your teenage son came home very upset because Peter was very sick, and your son couldn't convince him to go to the hospital. And he was - you know, he was throwing up. He was really sick. And you didn't know what to do. So you tried calling him, and it was like - for a day or two, you couldn't reach him. So you decided to go over to his house. And this is how your memoir opens, with you going to his house. And the first thing you do is describe what that house looked like, and I'd like you to describe it for us.
ZIMMERMAN: Sure. He had bought a house that was very beautiful and modern right by the beach, which was really where he always wanted to be. We had...
GROSS: This is after you separated (laughter).
ZIMMERMAN: After, yeah. He had had two places he rented by the beach and then, ultimately, bought this house. And he had owned it, I believe, three years when he died. And I decided to go up there and check on him. And the house was located, I would say, maybe half a mile from a beautiful state beach in the town of Del Mar, which is in Southern California and in San Diego County. And it was built by a well-known architect in San Diego, and it was all kind of dark wood, metal and glass - very geometric. Everything was kind of squares sort of stacked on each other.
It was on a hill. It had a rooftop deck that wasn't finished yet, but you could see the beach, and you could see a beautiful lagoon that was also part of the state park. And I walked in, and it was kind of like - it kind of smelled like an office building. It had a heavy door, and you - and everything was glass. And you'd walk upstairs to the main room, and it was just this enormous room with windows on all sides, with sun pouring in through the windows. And there were these beautiful honey-colored bamboo floors. So it was a really beautiful, clean, spare, modern space.
GROSS: And expensive - very, very expensive.
ZIMMERMAN: Very expensive, yes. It had cost a little bit over $2 million.
GROSS: So describe how you found him.
ZIMMERMAN: I went up there thinking - it's funny what your mind does. In the face of all of this evidence that he was very, very sick - as you say, the two nights before my son and daughter had been up there, and he yelled at them and told them to, like, leave his room. My son had gone into his bedroom, and he watched his father vomit onto the floor, throw a washcloth down over it and lay back down in bed. And my son said that he told his father, I'm taking you to the hospital. And that's when his father said, no, you're not. You're like your mother; you're always nagging me. That's what's making me sick. And my son was terrified and so hurt. So he went downstairs to his sister's room - my son - and said, we have to take dad to the hospital. We have to call an ambulance. And my daughter was also so hurt. She just said, he's not going to go. We're never going to be able to make him go. And as you can imagine, you're 16 and 18 years old. How do you get your father who, even in his weakened state, in your mind is still a very powerful man to the hospital in an ambulance? It just, I think it seemed to her, out of the question. It wasn't going to happen.
So my son let it go. He went to sleep. And the next morning, he was on the phone with me. And I heard Peter mumbling in the background. My son later told me that Peter was sitting at the counter in a chair trying to read a piece of mail that he had opened. And he fell asleep while reading it. And I thought, you know, what is going on?
So then we couldn't reach him for two days. And my daughter said, you know, I can't reach Dad, and we had some stuff to do with his car. And I just said, you know what? I'm going up there today. I'm taking him to the hospital. So I packed my bag, you know, full of stuff you would need in an ER, you know, and went up there fully expecting to just call an ambulance, to take him to the hospital and, you know, end this already and figure out what was wrong with him.
GROSS: And then you found his body...
ZIMMERMAN: I did.
GROSS: ...But you'd never seen a dead body before, somebody who had unexpectedly died. You never walked in on that before. So you really didn't know if he was dead or not. So what did you see? And how did you try to figure out what you were supposed to do?
ZIMMERMAN: I didn't know what I was seeing. He was lying down, his head was on a cardboard box and he was only in his underwear and socks. So his face had some black substance on it. And for a split second I thought, did he collapse while doing some kind of facial? I couldn't figure out what it was. I just - I didn't still think he was dead. So then I got closer, and I just started screaming his name trying to wake him up. I just - I did not recognize that it was death that I was seeing. I couldn't imagine it.
And I noticed that his arms were very stiff - was warm, but his extremities were cold. And I tried to move his arm, and I couldn't move it. I tried to listen for a heartbeat, and I couldn't hear one. And then I looked up at his face, and his eyes did not look right. They looked not like the eyes of someone alive. And I realized then that he might be dead. And then I ran out of the house because I was afraid.
GROSS: And then what happened?
ZIMMERMAN: And I called 911. And the operator convinced me to go back in and try to do chest compressions because I thought, well, what do I know? Maybe he's not dead. Maybe that's what you look like when you're unconscious or you've just had a heart attack, which is what I assumed had happened. So I went back into the house, and I tried to pull Peter's arm away from his chest so that I could do chest compressions.
But he'd already - his body had already begun the process of rigor mortis where it stiffens up. And I couldn't move his arm. And that's when I realized that he really was dead. And so I got up and the operator said, we're sending, you know, the ambulance, and the police are on their way. And so I went down to the front of the house to just wait there for them. I didn't want to be in the house with his body.
GROSS: So Peter didn't die of a drug overdose per se...
GROSS: ...He'd died of an infection throughout his body that was spread - that was introduced - an infection that was introduced by the intravenous drug use, you know, by shooting up.
ZIMMERMAN: That's right. It's a very, very common - it's a very common infection that comes from intravenous drug abuse. It's called infective endocarditis. So it's an infection that generally starts in the heart. And then if it's not treated, it spreads throughout the body.
GROSS: So you had to decide what were you going to tell your children. They were feeling really guilty that they couldn't get him to the hospital. Now they're going to find out that their father's dead. You had to decide whether to tell them the truth about the fact that he was a drug addict and that was the cause of his death. How did you decide what to tell them?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, I was sitting in the backyard. And my daughter and son were in my daughter's - 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 just - I didn't know what to do. You asked before, like, what do you do when someone has died if you have no experience with that? And the answer is, I don't know.
I did not know what to do. And I felt like I didn't want to do the wrong thing. I think when I think back about that day, you would think the most traumatic part was Peter's body, which in many ways it is very traumatic. But the worst part was telling my kids and having to see their reaction. That was by far so hard. So they - she suggested I tell them. 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, chances are he wouldn't have survived. And they also understood why he didn't want to go and why it was so hard for them to convince him to go.
GROSS: My guest is Eilene Zimmerman, author of the new memoir "Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction And Tragedy." After a break, we'll talk about keeping her ex-husband's cellphone, looking for clues about his life and death and getting texts from his drug dealers.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Eilene Zimmerman, author of the new memoir "Smacked", a story of white-collar ambition, addiction and tragedy. It's about her relationship with her ex-husband Peter, a partner in a prominent law firm and the father of her two children. He'd been behaving erratically and feeling ill, but it was only after she found his dead body in his home that she learned that he was addicted to opioids and cocaine. They'd been divorced six years.
You don't write much about Peter's parents - he was adopted after spending four months in foster care. And his parents are evangelical Christians. You write in the book that they didn't know the full truth. They didn't know that his death was really caused by his addiction. They just knew that it was an infection. How come they didn't know the truth?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, I think we were all still in shock and trying to figure out what we should say, what we shouldn't say. And Peter's siblings decided it would be best for their parents whose - who were older and their health wasn't terrific - to just tell them that Peter died of an infection in his heart and, you know, that it was one of these kind of fluky things, and he died. So that's what they were told. But I can tell you that I wrote about this for The New York Times in 2017, and they still didn't know the real reason why Peter had died. And so I decided to call Peter's mother and tell her because I knew the story was going to run, and I didn't want her to find out that way. And when I told her, she said she was really glad I did because she said her - she and her husband - they could not figure out what piece of the story they were missing. Like, it just didn't make sense to them. And so she was actually very grateful that I told her the truth because I think it set her mind at ease. Now she understood, even if it was very hard for her to hear what actually was going on with her son.
GROSS: One of the things you write in your book after Peter died was, I will have to be the widow, even if I am no longer the wife. Can you talk about what you mean there?
ZIMMERMAN: That I really felt that after he died, you know, it felt like everybody was looking to me to make the plans, to get everybody through the grief, and to make the memorial service plans. And, you know, I was also settling the estate. And in a way, I kind of became his wife again. You know, I spoke at his funeral, and I kind of arranged the whole thing, and I paid for it. And I - you know, I picked up his ashes from the crematorium. And I have to say, if you don't feel like a wife after that again, I don't know what else does. You know, I brought them home and kind of get emotional thinking about it.
But I remember thinking it had been so chaotic in the year and a half before he died that I put this very heavy box in the office where I worked in my home and it was really sunny, and I could kind of see, like, the dust motes from the sunshine all around the box. And I remember saying out loud, like, everything is OK now. You're OK. You know, you're not in pain, you're safe. Like, it really felt like I was going to wrap things up for him and make it OK. And in a way, you know, I was grieving the loss of this friend and this partner, and I felt like a widow and a wife again. You know, sort of like burying your husband - you know, I wasn't going to bury him, but I had his ashes and his kids were going to spread them, and I was going to be there to record it.
GROSS: One of the things you took after Peter died was his cell phone. Why did you want to take it?
ZIMMERMAN: 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. And I also - I was so angry that I wanted to figure out who his dealers were. And I think in my mind, I thought I would somehow, you know, I would - they would get punished. You know, I would tell the police. The police would want to know, you know? And a good friend of mine that was a lawyer talked me out of that and said, you don't want them to know you're trying to track them down.
So - but I did want to know, who did he call? Who was he texting? What was he saying to these drug dealers? You know, part of me was thinking, how did he know where to get drugs? Like, how did he know how to talk to them? I mean, I was, like, a person in college where everybody was, like, smoking weed, and I'd think, where do you get it? Like, I just - I don't know. I don't have any savvy when it comes to that, and I didn't think he did, either. But he did, you know, so I wanted to see who he was talking to. And I wanted to also see if he was out getting high or buying drugs when he was supposed to be with our kids. And they would report that they got there and no one was there, and they couldn't reach him for hours, or he would leave and not come back for many hours. I wanted to see if those kind of timed up - if the evidence on his phone corresponded with what I knew to be true about his behavior with our children.
GROSS: So what did you learn from his cellphone?
ZIMMERMAN: 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 dollars in cash so that he could meet a dealer who, by the way, lived in a suburb and had a baby he didn't want to wake up, to meet somewhere to get drugs with names that I did not understand, like Blondie or Gogo or - trying to think a bunch of other ones. They would - he would talk about them by the names of the colors of the pills - pink ones and blue ones and green ones. And so I found that the nights when he was absent, he was generally getting money for drugs, meeting dealers or getting high. So those, a lot of the times, is where he was when he was not at home with our son where he was supposed to be.
GROSS: The dealers didn't know that he was dead, so they were still texting him. What was it like for you to get the texts of the drug dealers who were dealing to your now-deceased ex-husband?
ZIMMERMAN: It was this combination of being terrified - I was so scared. The whole idea of needles and drugs, and dealers was really, really frightening to me. It just - it felt like I was in some - somebody else's movie. Like, it just felt like it wasn't real. And I was really, really angry. I was angry at Peter for ditching us and leaving us this way. I was angry at these people for selling him the stuff. And so when I got the texts, I was both terrified of them, and at the same time I wanted to say - text back and say, who are you? You know, this is what you did. This guy died because of you, you know? I didn't do either thing. I just read them and recorded them and thought, you know, I'll do something with this later. I'll write about it. I'll figure it out. I'll process it in some way, but right now I just need to take a picture of it and have it.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eilene Zimmerman. She is a journalist who's written a new memoir about her ex-husband. It's called "Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, And Tragedy." And what - it's really about what it was like for her and her two children to learn that her ex-husband had become addicted to drugs and then died of complications related to those drugs. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Eilene Zimmerman. Her new book is a memoir called "Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, And Tragedy," and it focuses on her relationship and her children's relationship with her husband, who she separated from six years before he died of a drug-related death. After they had separated, he became addicted to cocaine and opioids. And she and her children didn't associate all the symptoms he was having with drug addiction, and she was really shocked when she found out.
Your book opens with a poem. It's a poem by Marie Howe, a poet I like a lot, too. And the poem is called "What The Living Do." It was written a few years after her younger brother John died of AIDS-related complications in 1989. The poem's about living after someone you love has died. And she told me when I interviewed her, when he died, it was a terrible loss to all of us. As everybody knows, you think, my life has changed so utterly I don't know how to live it anymore, and then you find a way. Why did you want to open your book with this poem?
ZIMMERMAN: That's exactly - those are exactly the reasons. And also, she - the part of the poem I quote, she talks about catching a glimpse of herself in the window of a store and realizing that, you know, in all of her imperfections - her chapped lips, her blowing hair in the wind - that she is alive and that she can be alive, and she can remember her brother, and she's still going to live her life. And I think it really resonated for me because for a long time after Peter died, I would have panic attacks, and when I would have them, I used to think to myself, I am OK; I am alive. Like, I would just think that - sorry.
I would think that over and over again just because I would think, you know, I'm lucky. Like, this is a hard thing. But, you know, I'm here. I'm alive. I'm OK. My kids are OK. And I really related to that in the poem, the way she thought - she's sort of shocked by the fact of her aliveness. You know, I spent so much time dealing with Peter's death and everything that kind of died in its wake, especially for my kids - you know, all the hopes they had that, you know, he'd be at their wedding and college graduations and someday with their children - you know, all of that is gone. You know, there's not going to be a dad to celebrate any of that, you know. And I'm not going to be able to be two parents for one, you know. You don't get two for the price of one. It doesn't work that way.
So that poem to me just kind of summed up the ability we have to still live full lives, while always remembering the things that are gone.
GROSS: Marie Howe was a guest on our show a few years ago, and she read this poem. So I thought we could play her reading of it.
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, that's lovely. Thank you.
GROSS: So this is an excerpt that's slightly longer than the excerpt of the poem that you open your book with. So this is Marie Howe reading her poem "What The Living Do."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MARIE HOWE: (Reading) I've been thinking, this is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve, I thought it again and again later when buying a hairbrush. This is it - parking, slamming the car door shut in the cold - what you called that yearning, what you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss. We want more and more and then more of it. But there are moments walking when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass - say the window of the corner video store - and I am gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless. I am living. I remember you.
GROSS: That's Marie Howe reading her poem "What The Living Do." So do you feel like you're at the point where you can embrace life?
ZIMMERMAN: I feel like I am. I do. I mean, I feel like, you know, we've all been changed by this, but I also feel like, what's the option? You know, I could - you know, 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, you know, as cliche as it sounds, every day I have here.
GROSS: You had to recreate yourself, in a way, after his death. You write about how you had difficulty functioning after his death, that you'd always measured yourself against his expectations. And you'd moved to where he needed to be for graduate school. You moved again to where he wanted to be to have a law practice. You wanted his approval for things. He helped you make big decisions because it was hard for you to make those decisions. And then after you divorced, you still kind of measured yourself against his expectations and wanted his approval or wanted to prove that you didn't need his approval. But even wanting to prove you didn't need his approval was still about him.
GROSS: So when he was, like, no longer there, what was the transition, like, to - into figuring out how to function without thinking about what Peter would think about what you said or did or the decision you made?
ZIMMERMAN: It was like jumping into a black hole. I just - I thought, well, what motivates me now? I mean, it sounds - you know, I feel almost embarrassed saying it, but the truth is, I used to think, like, everything I did, in the back of my mind, was sort of like, now I'll show him. You know, I really am a good writer. Or look what a good mother I am. Look what I did. I - you know, I'm doing all this stuff for the kids. Or I went above and beyond on this, or I'm still managing to, you know, write my column for The Times, and I'm - you know, I'm the teen mom for soccer, you know (laughter). Like, I just - I thought at some point, I just wanted Peter to be proud of me or say, yeah, you know, you are pretty smart, or you are pretty great.
And you know he didn't say it the whole time we were married, and he didn't say it the whole time he was alive when we were divorced. I don't know why I kept expecting it, but I did. And it motivated me to keep proving this thing to him. I so badly wanted his validation, and I wasn't going to get it. And then after he died, I did - I thought, well, you know, what am I going to do now? Like, what's the point of everything? And it took me a while to figure out that, you know, that motivation was not healthy and not a good thing for me. And I wound up really kind of looking inward to figure out what my motivation really should be and what it probably was all along inside. I just didn't really see it or acknowledge it.
And it has taken a while, but I have come to see that, you know, there are much more positive and healthy ways to be motivated. And I do think they were always there. I mean, I did things like volunteer work and stuff that Peter didn't know much about and didn't really care much about. Not that he wasn't charitable; he was. But it just - it wasn't - it didn't have anything to do with him, and it wasn't particularly important to him. So I think I just had to kind of tap into the fact that I was a person that was motivated to do things; everything didn't have to be for Peter, to prove something to Peter or prove something to anyone else, finally.
GROSS: How did you change what you wanted to do professionally and how you wanted to live your life? And I should imagine at this point, your children were grown. They were both in college.
ZIMMERMAN: Well, I decided to go back to school to get a master's in social work, which I'm nearing the tail end of (laughter). I've been doing part time while writing. And focus - I thought I wanted to focus on end-of-life issues because I thought the way Peter died seemed really sad and lonely and scary, and the thought of him alone at the end of his life like that is really heartbreaking for me. Like, I would like to have been there. Even if I couldn't have saved him, I could have just kept him company. I could have made him not feel afraid maybe, just knowing that I was there - those kinds of things. And so I thought, well, that's what I'll do.
And so I'm currently doing that now, thinking I'd like to work in social work, and I'd like to write, continue to write, but more about those kinds of issues - issues of what it means to be human and faulted and, you know, addicted and not addicted and, you know, write about justice and injustice - things like that; just things that are different than what I was writing about before.
GROSS: Well, Eilene Zimmerman, thank you so much for talking with us.
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Eilene Zimmerman is the author of the new memoir "Smacked: A Story Of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, And Tragedy."
After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new nonfiction book "The Third Rainbow Girl," about questions surrounding the murder of two female hitchhikers in 1980. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIN JONES' "ANTHROPOLOGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.