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A journalist pieces together the mysteries surrounding her ex-husband’s descent into drug addiction while trying to rebuild a life for her family, taking readers on an intimate journey into the world of white-collar drug abuse.
“A rare combination of journalistic rigor, personal courage, and writerly grace.”—Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man
Something was wrong with Peter. Eilene Zimmerman noticed that her ex-husband looked thin, seemed distracted, and was frequently absent from activities with their children. She thought he looked sick and needed to see a doctor, and indeed, he told her he had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. Yet in many ways, Peter seemed to have it all: a beautiful house by the beach, expensive cars, and other luxuries that came with an affluent life. Eilene assumed his odd behavior was due to stress and overwork—he was a senior partner at a prominent law firm and had been working more than sixty hours a week for the last twenty years.
Although they were divorced, Eilene and Peter had been partners and friends for decades, so when she and her children were unable to reach Peter for several days, Eilene went to his house to see if he was OK.
So begins Smacked, a brilliant and moving memoir of Eilene’s shocking discovery, one that sets her on a journey to find out how a man she knew for nearly thirty years became a drug addict, hiding it so well that neither she nor anyone else in his life suspected what was happening. Eilene discovers that Peter led a secret life, one that started with pills and ended with opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine. He was also addicted to work; the last call Peter ever made was to dial in to a conference call.
Eilene is determined to learn all she can about Peter’s hidden life, and also about drug addiction among ambitious, high-achieving professionals like him. Through extensive research and interviews, she presents a picture of drug dependence today in that moneyed, upwardly mobile world. She also embarks on a journey to re-create her life in the wake of loss, both of the person—and the relationship—that profoundly defined the woman she had become.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Smacked
July 15, 2005
I plug in the code to the gate at Peter’s house and the door swings open to an expansive, rectangular backyard. The grass is mostly brown, the $20,000 fountain in the center no longer burbling, its white stones covered in algae. I go to the front door and put my key in the lock. It’s made of heavy glass and makes a whooshing sound as it opens, like the door to an office building.
There’s a staircase immediately in front of me that leads to the main floor, and to my right is the only room downstairs. It was intended to be a family or rec room, and has a glass wall facing the yard. I always thought it would be a great place for a party. Now it’s been converted to a bedroom for our daughter, Anna, who is home from college for the summer. She stays here at her dad’s house a few nights a week. Down here she has more independence, as well as her own bathroom. The bed is unmade, clothes and a bath towel litter the floor. Anna hasn’t been here in two days. Neither has our son, Evan.
I hate the smell of this house. It’s the smell of Peter, the smell of our divorce and all the heartache that came with it. His affair, his lies, his law career with its enormous pressure and salary and all the expensive things he buys with it. I also smell my own fear—of his relationships with various women, of his family life with our children, a life in which I’m no longer involved. It’s the smell of Southern California and the ocean half a mile away, an expensive, privileged smell, but musty, too, like the inside of a refrigerator that hasn’t been opened in a while.
I always feel like an intruder here. It’s clear this isn’t my house. Mine is a one-floor, mid-century home near the state university.
I call out, “Peter?” No answer, no sounds from upstairs. “Peter, are you here?” I climb the stairs to the main floor. It’s perfectly quiet and still. I take a minute to look around. The house is an architectural trophy, made of steel, wood, and glass, all sharp angles and sunlight. Through the windows I can just make out a white line of sea-foam hitting the beach. I turn toward the kitchen. On the counter immediately to my right, Peter has set up a 25-inch digital frame displaying a series of family photos, him and our children. The images play in an endless, silent loop. There is also a large, nearly empty take-out soda, the kind you get at a convenience store, and some candy wrappers on the counter, piles of work papers, an asthma inhalator.
Peter has been sick for more than a year with some kind of ongoing, low-grade flu, constantly exhausted and weak. He’s lost thirty pounds, maybe more, since we split up five years ago. But in the last six months, it’s gotten worse. My kids say he sleeps the whole weekend when they are here, forgets to grocery shop, never makes meals. He doesn’t seem to be going into the office much. The last time Anna and Evan were here, two days ago, their dad could barely lift his head off the pillow. Evan tried to take him to the hospital, but Peter refused, got angry and snapped at him. Then he vomited onto the bedroom floor, threw a washcloth over it, and went back to bed.
I turn back to survey the loft-like living area, with a kitchen that morphs into a dining area that morphs into a living room, all of it filled with stylish modern furniture. The long table made from one piece of wood, splits and knots included, surrounded by six white leather and metal chairs. A side wall is covered in wallpaper that depicts trees in winter, gray renderings of trunks and branches against a white background.
No one has been able to reach Peter since Thursday morning, when Anna and Evan left to come back to my house. What if they are exaggerating? What if he’s just sleeping? Or not here at all and I’ve just let myself into his house without permission? I have come here to check on him, to make sure he’s okay and take care of him if he isn’t.
I turn down the hallway where the bedrooms are located. “Peter?” I call again. “Peter, I’m coming down the hall to your bedroom, okay?” His bedroom is at the end of the hallway. Its door faces me and it’s open, but I can’t see anything except a corner of the bed and a cluttered night table. I walk past my son’s bedroom, with its one orange wall and IKEA bed, past Anna’s old bedroom, one wall painted deep pink and another wallpapered in a forest of black trees with little blackbirds resting on branches. Someone has cut out a silhouette of a rat and pasted it onto a branch.
I am nearly at his door and start calling his name again in earnest: “Peter? Peter?” I can see into the room. “I’m coming into your room, Peter. I’m here to check on you.” The covers on his bed are drawn back, and I can see the crumpled white sheets. There are a few tissues in the bed, with spots of blood on them. I’m starting to shake badly as I walk into the bedroom.
Peter isn’t in the bed, so I turn toward the master bath. Then I see him, lying faceup on the floor between the bathroom and the bedroom.
I stand there, unable to really understand what I’m seeing. My mind is struggling to comprehend this. That’s him? What’s that on his face? There’s a cardboard box under his head like a pillow. I walk over and kneel down next to him. His right arm is bent at the elbow and resting on his chest, a gesture he often makes, even when he is standing up. He holds his arm that way when he is making a point, pressing his thumb and first two fingers together for emphasis. Our son does the same thing.
I touch Peter’s arms to shake him awake. They are stiff and hard to move. His fingernails are blue. I put my hand on his chest to try and feel his heart. I suddenly remember lying in our bed when we were married, spooning, my chest up against his back, especially when I was cold or couldn’t sleep. I would listen for his heartbeat—so much slower and stronger than mine—and feel safe. Now I feel nothing. His chest is like unfinished wood, stiff, dry. And still. Is he dead? I don’t know what a dead person looks like, so I tell myself that maybe he’s unconscious. Maybe he needs CPR.
Then I look up at his face. There is a dried, black crust over most of it. His mouth is open slightly, the lips pulled back, a clear foamy fluid around the teeth. “Peter?” I say. I am crying, begging. “Peter?” Then I look at his eyes. They are open but something is wrong. At first, I can’t figure it out but then I realize, slowly, what it is. His eyes have risen out of their sockets. No one alive has eyes like that, of this I am sure. I start screaming “ohmygod ohmygod” over and over again while I dig the phone out of my purse.
My hands are shaking so badly that I have to set the phone down on a table and use the speaker. I press 9, 1, 1 and hit the little green button. “I’m at the house of my ex-husband and I think he’s . . . I think he died. Oh my god. I think he is dead.” The woman on the other end sounds unmoved. “Ma’am, we can’t help you if you don’t calm down. Can you give me the address where you are right now?” I go outside and read it off the house because suddenly I can’t remember it. “Ma’am, are you sure he’s dead?” asks the 911 operator. I second-guess myself. What do I know about death? Maybe a person’s eyes can look like that but they can still be saved, defibrillated or CPR-ed back to life? I agree to go back in and start chest compressions.
“I’ll stay on the phone and guide you through it,” the 911 woman says. “Okay, okay,” I say, shaking and shivering. “I can’t look at his face, though, I can’t go near his face.” The operator says, “That’s fine, don’t look at it.” She tells me to move Peter’s hand away from his chest. I pull gently, then harder. “I . . . I can’t. It’s, oh my god,” I sob. “It’s stiff. It’s really stiff.” The operator says, “Okay, don’t worry about it. The police and ambulance will be there in about four minutes.” I ask if she will stay on the line with me until they arrive. As I leave the bathroom I notice a small bloody hole below Peter’s elbow. That’s odd, I think. Then I run downstairs and out the front door to wait for help.
The shock of what is happening is starting to grow roots inside me. I can’t keep still. I am a bundle of live wires—jittery and shooting hysterical sparks—and yet, at the same time, all business. I have the phone pressed to the side of my head, the 911 operator waiting with me for the police. I’m crying. Two boys on skateboards come down the street. They stop and hop down from their boards, one foot off, one foot on. The taller one asks, “Are you okay?”
It is a spectacular summer day, the sky deep blue and cloudless, a slight breeze off the ocean. And these two beautiful blond boys are having fun, just skateboarding down their street like they probably do every Saturday morning in San Diego, the land of endless summers. I want to tell them the whole world changed ten minutes ago, but instead I say, “Something happened to my ex-husband. He lives here. An ambulance is coming.”
Eilene Zimmerman has been a journalist for three decades, covering business, technology, and social issues for a wide array of national magazines and newspapers. She was a columnist for The New York Times Sunday Business section for six years, and since 2004 has been a regular contributor to the newspaper. In 2017, Zimmerman also began pursuing a master’s degree in social work. She lives in New York City.