As told to Nora Zelevansky.
(Due to the sensitive nature of this story, names have been changed.)
When I met my ex-husband, whom we'll call "Norman" after Norman Bates, I was 16 years old.
He was six years older, good looking, funny, engaging and a great storyteller. Within minutes of meeting him on a double date, he had me in tears laughing.
That night, we talked until 3 a.m. and were inseparable from then on.
What I didn't know then was that 23 years later, Norman's actions would lead me to a felony charge, a prison sentence and a lifetime of paying off debt. Let mine be the cautionary tale that keeps you from making the same mistakes.
It Can Happen to Anyone
I decided to introduce Norman to my big, close-knit East Coast family at my grandparents' annual July 4th party, after we had been dating for just four days. He got so nervous that he took too many muscle relaxers and slept for three hours by the pool. When he did wake up, he was warm and personable, so my family and I brushed his bad judgment aside, joking, "He was so nervous that he passed out!"
Norman was jealous, too. Within weeks of dating, he started making overprotective remarks about my clothing being too tight and revealing or my makeup being too heavy. He told me I looked "like a whore" in a pair of new purple suede boots. He also came to pick me up from school every day. At the time, I felt like a hotshot, but I think it was actually that he wanted to know where I was.
After insulting me, Norman would turn around and be charming in the next moment. He was clean cut, gainfully employed and my parents liked him. It was easy to overlook the problems.
I had been so protected growing up — I never had to take initiative to learn how to deal with problems myself. My parents have been happily married for 44 years and both materially and emotionally, I had everything I needed. The more time that passed, the more afraid I became to take on responsibility and stand on my own feet, so I stayed with Norman.
From Insults to Addiction
Norman was getting a bachelor's degree on an extended time frame and I was getting my master's, so we got married when we both finished school in 1997. I was only 24 years old.
He had always been compulsive. When he became interested in martial arts, for instance, he couldn't just go a few times a week. He had to go every day and shoot for a black belt. Any new electronic gadget had to be the best and newest, and he collected objects in multiples, regardless of price, from radios to construction equipment. He seemed to experience a momentary high and self-esteem boost when acquiring these things, which quickly left him feeling just as empty.
When his grandmother passed away, he started getting migraines and became addicted to prescription painkillers. He was a functional addict, who went to work each day, but I found him passed out on the floor or overmedicated frequently enough that the weekend staff at the E.R. knew us by name.
At the time, I was a recruiter making over $100,000 a year. He had a managerial position in construction and was earning about $70,000… and yet we had nothing left at the end of the month. He made frequent excuses for needing cash, so I didn't realize that he was using it to buy prescription pills. Later, I found out that he had even gone to my mother, a nursery school teacher, and said that we couldn't make ends meet. He cashed her paychecks to buy drugs.
Our families and I staged an intervention and sent Norman to rehab. I left him, but got back together with him upon his release, under the condition that he finish the program and continue couples' and individual therapy. He began to pressure me about having children, but I was on the fence. Looking back, I think I wasn't sure I wanted to have a baby with him. But I got pregnant. He then insisted I leave my new health care administration job in the city, so I found part-time work closer to our home in the suburbs.
I took a major pay cut, but Norman was making more money doing construction for a university, where he had good benefits. By now, we had a small amount of savings, were making around $130,000 a year combined and had started a 529 plan for our daughter's education. We were making ends meet. But, as always, Norman wanted more.
The Biggest Mistake
My husband said he had a great idea: He wanted to start a construction site cleaning and security business on the side. He asked to put his mother's name, then mine, on the checks, because he said that having a woman involved gave him minority status and made him eligible for more funding. When I told him I didn't know how to run a construction company, he said, "You just sign the checks."
I'm now ashamed to say I signed the papers without asking any questions.
Meanwhile, Norman started hounding me to quit my part-time job, intimating that I was being a bad parent and, in 2009, I gave in. In 2010, Norman decided to wind down his cleaning and security business for reasons I didn't yet understand and got a new job working at a different university. I was struggling to pay bills and couldn't quite understand why we didn't have enough money, but he kept shooing me away, saying, "Don't worry about it." And I guess I was scared to incur his wrath — while he wasn't physically abusive, his emotional abuse was just as bad.
On April 1, 2011, the police arrived on my doorstep as I readied my daughter for nursery school. They asked if I was familiar with Norman's company and showed me documents, asking if my signature was on them. I told them it was, knowing no reason to say otherwise.
I learned that Norman had stopped doing the work he was being paid for at the first university, but had continued billing to the tune of $2 million. We were both arrested for embezzlement on the spot.
The Price I Paid for Norman's Mistakes
When the police searched our home, they found items I never knew existed, like 75 watches worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I had confronted Norman in the past about spending erratically, but I had no idea how bad it had gotten.
It couldn't be proven whether I knew anything, so since I did technically commit the crimes I was accused of (signing, endorsing and depositing checks for an illegal business) my lawyer encouraged me to accept a plea bargain. If I fought the charges, I would risk going away to jail for up to three years, and I didn't want to be away from my daughter for that long. I was charged with a Class B felony and served four months in a county jail.
The earliest Norman, who got a Class A conviction and was sentenced to 4-12 years in jail, could get out of state prison is July 2015.
I was imprisoned from mid-January to mid-May 2012, and being away from my daughter was the hardest part. We told her the truth about where I was and why. She stayed with my parents (we still live with them), and I didn't speak to her during my entire incarceration — we were so close, and hearing from me upset her too much. At 6 years old, she still worries that I might be gone if I'm not in my bed in the morning.
When I first got out, I was in shock, very depressed and embarrassed. I felt rage at Norman and frustration and anger at myself. How could I have not looked further into what was going on?
I am still scared of him. He is a sociopath and a narcissist. And, as my daughter's father, he will be in my life forever. He speaks to her twice a week, but he is only allowed to contact me through my lawyer, and the last time we spoke is before I went to jail. That is the price I pay for not leaving when I should have; for not reaching out for help before things got so bad. Now I have to pay for the rest of my life: financially, emotionally, psychologically. And so does my daughter, who is an innocent party.
How I'm Rebuilding My Life
In the end, I'm responsible for half of Norman's debt. When I went to jail I lost the house we bought years before. I'll have to declare bankruptcy and work out a situation with the I.R.S. to pay about $1 million in back taxes. I'm also paying $100 each month in restitution to the university's insurance company via the Department of Probation. It's not much, but I do what I can.
As far as employment goes, I've been lucky. The woman who wrote my pre-sentencing report liked my rewrite so much that she hired me. Eventually, her doctor husband hired me away from her to do administrative and marketing work for his practice. I'm making $15 an hour.
I have done things I never thought I'd have to do: I applied for food stamps and waited in line at Social Service for health care benefits. I've relied on online support groups, women's career non-profits and outpatient counseling centers for domestic abuse. I would not have been able to get through any of this without my family, friends and new boyfriend, who is a thoughtful and kind person.
There's a stigma attached to what I experienced and I'm sure I'll be judged. But I learned — in part from a book called "Orange is the New Black," by a former female white collar prisoner who once delivered a suitcase of drug money — that it doesn't matter what we look like, what our backgrounds are, what level of education we have, how big our houses are, or how we worship (or don't). None of us is better than the other. What matters in the end is our integrity and willingness to learn from one another.
Sometimes even I can't believe what happened to me — it sounds like the plot of a Lifetime Original Movie. That's one of the most important lessons I learned from this experience, which landed me in prison and a lifetime of debt: It can happen to you. It can happen to anyone.
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