How did a smart, driven partner at a prestigious California law firm die alone in his beachfront home at the age of 51 from an addiction to opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine? How did those closest to him miss the warning signs? Those are the central questions at the heart of Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, and Tragedy (Random House, 2020), Eilene Zimmerman’s unflinching and poignant memoir about her ex-husband, Peter. (Zimmerman does not include his last name in the book to protect the privacy of their children and his parents.) Zimmerman DC’85 explores the forces that led to Peter’s downfall, examines her own denial, and describes her road to resilience and redemption.
Zimmerman has been a journalist for three decades, covering business, technology, and social issues for a wide array of national magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in social work and lives in New York City. Here, she talks to Robert Lerose about the book and how writing it has helped her heal.
You write in your memoir that “there is no particular type of person that becomes an addict.” Did that surprise you?
I think the big surprise came with thinking that Peter was not somebody who would ever be a drug addict, that my ideas of what someone struggling with an addiction looked like were too narrow. I was probably guided by implicit and explicit biases that I had.
What toll did Peter’s addiction take on your marriage?
We were divorced by the time he was struggling with it. I don’t know that Peter was using drugs when we were married; he certainly wasn’t shooting up. His drug use, as far as I know, began in earnest after we split up.
What was the impact on your kids?
He [had been] a responsible father, [but] once he was in the throes of addiction, his sense of order and responsibility went out the window. He forgot when his nights with his son were, he stopped showing up for [things like] school assemblies, sports events, college counseling sessions. Or to go grocery shopping and make dinner. All the normal things a parent does, Peter could no longer do because of his addiction. Yet because none of us understood what he was struggling with, his kids just felt neglected, rejected, and hurt.
What was the experience of writing this memoir like for you?
It really helped me process my own grief and loss and anger. I came to a place where I felt very healed. Also, a place of deep understanding, which I think helps everything, so I could forgive a lot of the things that I had found unforgivable at one point.
What message do you want readers to come away with?
I hope people understand that when things feel really uncomfortable or really sad or really upsetting in their life that the knee jerk doesn’t have to be to numb themselves. Sometimes it’s okay to think “I feel really uncomfortable or anxious or sad or I’m hurt.” You can just be with those feelings. They don’t all have to be medicated away. Sometimes they do, but sometimes you do feel sad. It’s a part of being human, but there’s such a low tolerance for any kind of discomfort in our culture. I heard from psychologists and psychiatrists that it’s very uniquely American, to “make the pain go away,” and it’s not serving us well.
You say that Peter’s drug abuse and death affected your identity. How so?
When I thought about who I was, it was in terms of what Peter thought of me. After he died, I had to rethink all that and figure out what my motivations were.
What did you learn about yourself?
I learned not to try to be something I wasn’t. I gave myself permission to be the person that I was authentically. It’s led me to go to graduate school to study social work. I’ve always been interested in social justice. I think I let my inclinations be very tempered by what Peter thought was a good thing or not a good thing to do. Now, without him here, I can just get rid of that voice in my head and think for myself.
How would describe your time at Rutgers?
There were a lot of wonderful people there. It was this world-class university and it was affordable for somebody [like me] who had to pay for it by waitressing. Overall it was a really positive experience that had effects for me long after I graduated.