I thought I had a happy marriage to a devoted and honest husband. I did not know, then, that he had a secret life.
The first hint that something was wrong came in 1995, when a physician friend informed me that my husband had taken one of his prescription pads and forged his name on a prescription for pain killers. Had the culprit been someone else, my friend would have reported him to the police.
It soon became apparent that my husband had a serious drug addiction. In spite of having created a substance abuse awareness program as part of my work, I was unaware of the severity of his addiction; I’d missed many of the signs. He was beginning a journey of addiction treatment programs; I was mostly in shock. Still, I was relieved that my family had been spared public disgrace. We had averted a shanda.
In fact, our troubles were only beginning. Months later, my husband told me we were $60,000 in debt and he’d lied about paying the mortgage. Our home was in danger of foreclosure. Fearing a shanda in the eyes of their influential friends, his well-to-do parents quickly paid the debts. I did not tell my parents, sure it would devastate them to know the troubles in my marriage. (Years later, after my mother died, I learned from one of her friends she’d known all along.)
Two interventions had spared shanda from our lives, but the third time we were not so lucky. While our four children and I were away at summer camp (I was on staff), the police arrested my husband for forging prescriptions in several towns. He was placed in a psychiatric program at a local rehab center. The story appeared in our local newspaper. Ashamed and horrified, I cried for two days.
Faced with this shanda and financially strapped, I decided to look for a job far away, so our family could start over. I put our house on the market. For additional cash I sold my engagement ring, wedding china, antiques, and an oriental rug my grandmother had bequeathed to me. Support from the Jewish community kept us afloat. Envelopes full of cash, along with meals, appeared on our doorstep. A fund established through the local Jewish federation paid our mortgage.A dear friend advised, “Write down the name and phone number of everyone who helps you. Looking at the list will give you strength.” I did as she said. It was calming and reassuring to see how many people truly cared about my family.
For moral courage I relied on my mentor, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who taught me that however bad my situation might be, it could be much worse.I would count my blessings—a roof over our heads, healthy children, a passion for my work—and move forward.
The night before a job interview on the other side of the country, my brother called. A pharmacist friend of his, likely checking a watch list of offenders, discovered that my husband had forged a prescription for narcotics. Out of consideration for my brother, the pharmacist did not report the crime to the police. But I was devastated. I knew then that I could not help my husband recover from his addictions, and the truth would come out wherever we went.
I considered divorcing my husband but decided against it. Better, I reasoned, to live with a dysfunctional husband who could at least drive our children where they needed to go. I wasn’t ready to tackle that on top of a full-time job.
I could not imagine that my husband would steal from our family. But while I sat shiva for my father, a year after my mother had passed away, he secretly withdrew thousands of dollars from my father’s bank account to finance a drug-related scam. After shiva, a bank teller asked me to identify the signature on the checks.
The tipping point came in 2000, when my husband overdosed on caffeine pills and had to be carried out of our doctor’s office on a stretcher. Then it hit me: I am sending the wrong message to my children. In making excuses for their “sick” father, I’d thought I was teaching them the value of compassion. But would I want them to be in a relationship like mine? And if they deserved a responsible, functional partner, didn’t I?
This realization empowered me to overcome my shanda complex and divorce my husband.
For the next 10 years, my ex-husband was in and out of prison for various crimes and probation violations. Finally, he got his act together, stayed clean, and began studying to be a drug counselor. He and I have no contact, but our children visit with him, take him out for meals, and watch basketball games together.
When I think of the many years I allowed the shame of shanda to direct my life choices, I feel sad. Yet I have no regrets. This negative event led to a positive consequence. In 2004 I remarried a wonderful man who has a close relationship with my children.
I have also learned valuable life lessons. My inner fear of public humiliation was far greater than the actual reaction of my parents, friends, and community. People were much more understanding and forgiving than I could have imagined. And I have come to realize that I was not a victim, as I had thought, but a survivor who withstood great anguish and hardship to raise wonderful children. I have kept that list of names and phone numbers of people who helped me. Looking at it reminds me of my obligation to help those in my community who are living under the shadow of shanda. I will be there for them, just as the community was there for my family—without questions or judgment.
Anonymous is a synagogue professional at a Reform congregation. Family members asked that her name be withheld.
- JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others provides training and educational programs, referrals, support groups, sober buddies, recovery coaching, retreats, spiritual guidance, and holiday events for Jewish adults and teens. firstname.lastname@example.org
- JFS: Jewish Family Services offers clinical services, information, and referrals. To find one, google “Jewish Family Services” and the nearest city.