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'Smacked' Tells Story Of San Diego Attorney's Descent Into Drug Addiction

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Speaker 1: 00:00 What does a drug addict look like despite whatever stereotypes we may have. Addiction doesn't respect class, color or profession can affect just about anyone. Even a successful, wealthy and well-respected San Diego attorney. The story of how addiction created secrets, lies and ultimately tragedy for his family is told in a new book by his former wife. Joining me is journalist Eileen Zimmerman. She's the author of smacked and Eileen, welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. You opened the book with a description of the terrible day back in 2015 when you found your ex husband dead inside his beach house in Del Mar. What made you go searching for him in the first place? He had been acting very bizarrely for a long time before that, probably a year, but things had accelerated in the previous four or five months where he was absent for long periods of time.

Speaker 1: 00:55 He was not at home when he was supposed to be in. My son was still in high school and living there part of the time and in the week before I went up to see him. My children had been there and reported that he was specially sick, so sick. He couldn't get out of bed, couldn't raise his head. He'd been vomiting and I tried to speak to him on the phone and my son said, no, he's going back to bed. You know, he's too sick. So then we could not reach him. Text and phone. And I even tried his secretary at work. We just could not reach him. And my daughter was starting to worry and I was really worried and I had just decided that's it. I'm going up there, I'm going to take him to the hospital and we're going to figure out what's going on.

Speaker 1: 01:33 Tell us about Peter. What was he like? He was a very, very smart man. He had a masters in chemistry. He'd worked in industry for four years and then he went and got the JD and became a lawyer. Graduated top of his class. He was the editor of law review, you know, he was just, he was a very interesting human being, very thoughtful about life and his work. It was just an interesting guy to talk to and be around. I always thought he was very calm and kind of a still waters run deep, but you know, that's fun. In the beginning of our relationship, later on it became clear that he was depressed. He probably had anxiety too. He was never up. He was just always kind of down. And then the chronic stress and the insane hours of being a lawyer at a very prestigious high power firm took its toll on him.

Speaker 1: 02:21 And I think after 15 years of that chronic stress, he just, he really started to change in the book, smacked Eileen, you discover after her Peter's death that he had all the physical signs of an IVA drug user. Can you read to us a little bit from that part of the book? Sure. Would you like me to set it up a little bit please? So I'm going to read from when I'm at Peter's house, I'm in the backyard, the medical examiner and the police are there. And so, um, this is from us in the backyard. Angela says, we actually see a lot of this now wealthy, high powered executives that overdose and die, usually some combination of amphetamines, opioids, and other drugs. I think Peter probably died of an overdose. We won't know until the autopsy, but that's what it looks like. But I say starting to cry.

Speaker 1: 03:11 He had kids. We have kids. They were here. They lived here part of the time. Can't you see how crazy what she's suggesting would be? Are you sure? I say, how do you know there were injection marks on his arms and legs? Angela says, I'm stunned. I was standing over his prone body. I was yelling into his face, shaking his shoulders. I touched his arms, pulled at the right one, trying to move it aside so I could do chest compressions. I didn't see anything at all except that one bloody hole. Thank you. That was Eileen Zimmerman reading from her book smacked. You were totally shocked by this. Yes. Since then, what have you learned about wide color addiction? Well, there are no comprehensive studies of white collar professionals and the drugs they do. There's more studies about alcohol, especially alcohol and lawyers, but I did talk to quite a few of them.

Speaker 1: 04:04 I went to a lot of high end rehabs where white collar professionals will go to get clean and stop using and recover. And one thing that struck me that I heard over and over again from these professionals with that was that they had kind of gotten to the top of their game. A lot of them. And when they got there they sort of said to themselves, this is it. And there was this kind of disquiet and feeling like, well this can't, this can't be it. This isn't that exciting. How do the revelation about Peter's drug use affect you in your children? Well, it was very difficult at first. I mean actually I should say at first there was an enormous relief because suddenly everything made sense. You know? All of a sudden it made perfect sense why he was behaving the way he was behaving.

Speaker 1: 04:47 And it didn't mean he didn't love his kids. It didn't mean he, he was trying to be a bad dad. It meant that he was in the grip of this disease that he had was struggling with addiction. But then afterwards, I think we felt as a family, a lot of shame and guilt that, you know, this man was visibly killing himself in front of all of us and we did not recognize what was happening. And I think for my kids, there was this feeling like this, this is happening in our family, you know, in this, you know, white, you know, well-off, well-educated, overeducated, you know, family. The kids were in private school, you know, and um, and just around people whose families, if they had these problems, they certainly weren't talking about it. What signs did you, do you think you missed? I didn't recognize the, Peter would never wear short sleeves.

Speaker 1: 05:34 That he was sleeping all the time and that he would fall asleep sometimes when he should be awake. Like just sitting in the car. He would just not off. And I just thought, Oh my gosh, he's working so hard. The guy can't even stay awake. The weight loss, you know, he was 20 maybe 25 pounds overweight. When we split up five years later, he was, you know, 50 pounds then. I mean he was losing so much weight and he had all of these reasons for never for not being where he was supposed to be. If he was supposed to pick my son up from school, he'd be two, two and a half hours late and he lived, you know, 25 minutes away at and he'd say, well, I was in a meeting or I left my phone in another room or I, you know, I had an emergency call, all of which seemed plausible but you know, take, get taken together.

Speaker 1: 06:18 I wish I had seen what was really going on. You know, it might be a common reaction to avoid sharing the drug related death of a loved one because of the pain involved. What made you decide to share the story of Peter? Well, two things. I think. One was I really needed to process it and I hadn't told a soul for a year and a half, except I'm very close friends and family. And it felt like when people would ask me, you know, what happened to him? He was only 51. I had to come up with this kind of lie saying like, Oh, well he was living an unhealthy life. And um, and it was really starting to take a toll on me. I felt very depressed and anxious and I felt like his death was sort of meaningless. You know, I thought he died, you know, the firm kind of, you know, took his profile down, packed up his office.

Speaker 1: 07:05 They went on, everybody went on and it felt like this horrible thing happened to us. And I knew it couldn't be just our family having this. And I felt like I needed to make some meaning out of it. And so I originally wrote a story for the New York times about what happened to Peter, but largely focused on the legal profession. And I had such an outpouring of email from that with people sharing their stories that were very similar, some far worse, some a little bit less intense than ours, that I thought, well, this struck a chord and I'm going to, you know, when I talked to my kids and we felt like maybe this was the way to help other people, maybe if we'd had this book back then, we would have seen what was happening. I've been speaking with Eileen Zimmerman. She's the author of smacked a story of white color, ambition, addiction, and tragedy. She'll be speaking about her book in a series of events in San Diego this week, starting tonight at the women's museum of California and Eileen, thank you very much. Thank you so much. Maureen.

In the new book, "Smacked," journalist and author Eilene Zimmerman traces her former husband's struggles with drug addiction and gives readers a window into the world of white-collar drug abuse.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.