Eilene Zimmerman had been divorced from her husband, Peter, for several years when she began to notice something wasn’t right. She had stayed in touch with her ex because they had two children together and needed to coordinate schedules, and they had also remained friends.
Not only had Peter’s appearance changed – he lost weight, his hair was thinning and he seemed to be aging rapidly– but his behavior had become erratic, he missed work and left rambling voice mail messages that didn’t make sense. He also stopped wearing short-sleeved shirts.
Zimmerman was worried about Peter and thought about taking him to a hospital. That was what she had in mind when she hadn’t heard from her ex for a couple of days in July 2015, and she drove to his Del Mar home to check on him.
She found Peter on his bathroom floor, dead from what turned out to be a bacterial infection common among intravenous drug users. Police later found syringes, drug paraphernalia and pill bottles throughout the bedroom and bathroom.
Peter, a lawyer with a high-powered Silicon Valley law firm with offices in San Diego, had apparently been shooting up a mixture of opioids and cocaine for more than a year, and had likely been taking pills before that. He had managed to hide his addiction from those closest to him, including Zimmerman and his colleagues at work.
At first, said Zimmerman, “I thought he died of a heart attack from working too hard.” To the best of her knowledge, no one knew of the true reason behind Peter’s changes in appearance and behavior. “He was very good at hiding it.”
Zimmerman, a veteran business journalist who has written extensively for the New York Times and other publications, decided to research Peter’s death to determine what led to his addiction, how he was able to conceal it and how pervasive the problem might be in the legal profession.
The result was an article published in the Times, which she later expanded into a book by broadening the inquiry to examine drug addiction across a range of white-collar professions, from medicine to finance to technology. Through research and interviews, she learned that many professionals turn to drugs to cope with competitive pressures, and deal with anxiety and depression.
Any reluctance she felt at sharing such a personal family tragedy was outweighed by her desire to shed light on a problem plaguing professionals across the U.S.
“This story is just too alarming and inconceivable for me not to share,” Zimmerman said, because her ex-husband, whom she had known for 30 years, was a smart, talented, athletic person who seemed unlikely to develop a drug addiction. “I needed people to know this had happened to me and my family and it could be happening to other families, too.”
Zimmerman’s book, her first, is titled, “Smacked – A Story of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy.” The book is being published by Random House, and will be available online and at bookstores on Feb. 4.
One connection Zimmerman found was that many white-collar professionals were addicted to work before they abused drugs or alcohol, as if long hours at work were a kind of gateway drug. In Peter’s case, she said, he had been working more than 60 hours a week for 20 years, stretching all the way from law school through his job as a partner in the intellectual property practice of a prominent Silicon Valley law firm.
Peter, who was 51 at the time of his death, earned about a million dollars a year. In his house, Zimmerman found electronics, furniture, clothing and sporting equipment, much of which he had never used.
“He had more stuff than he would ever need and still it didn’t make him happy,” she said.
While Zimmerman doesn’t profess to have all the answers of why white-collar drug abuse occurs or how to prevent it, she said she hopes her book prompts conversations about the problem, which would be a start.
If people are struggling with depression and/or substance abuse, they should be able to ask for help, or accept assistance from someone who has noticed their difficulties.
“It needs to be okay for someone to be able to go to his or her boss and say I’m struggling and I need help and I don’t want to lose my job,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman, who now lives in New York, has gone back to school to earn a master’s degree in social work, and she hopes to continue writing while also practicing as a social worker.
Zimmerman will give a presentation and sign copies of her book at an event scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, sponsored by Adventures by the Book, at 9540 Towne Centre Dr., Suite 150, in the UTC area. Books can also be ordered on her web site at eilenezimmerman.com.