Mali Ponday experienced the unthinkable when she discovered her husband was leading a double life. Then, she did something unexpected. She investigated her own role, digging into the trauma of her past and discovering her “emotional need to disappear,” as she writes in her new book, Quiet Little Mouse: How My Lying, Cheating Husband Awakened My Inner Warrior.
On Author Hour today, Mali shares the story not only of her betrayal but also of the transformation that followed and that led her to a life she loves.
Jane Borden: Hi Author Hour listeners, I’m Jane Borden and I’m here today with Mali Ponday, author of Quiet Little Mouse: How My Lying, Cheating Husband Awakened My Inner Warrior. Mali, thank you so much for being with us today.
Mali Ponday: Thank you for having me.
Jane Borden: First of all, I want to congratulate you on the bravery behind writing this book and that it took to embark on your journey. Can you start by telling listeners just a little bit of your story?
Mali Ponday: Sure, well, I am a single mom–a mother of three beautiful, amazing teenage boys now. I’m a nurse. Basically, for many years, I worked in hospitals and worked med surge nursing, I worked in cardiac nursing, I worked with ventilator patients, dialysis, I did float pool nursing where I would go wherever they might have been short staffed like mother/baby nursing and even psychiatric nursing.
Then, I had a family, and I took about 10 years off to raise my kids until early to mid-elementary school. Then I found myself single again and needing to dust off my resume and go back to work. I was very fortunate to get a job where I could work from home and still use my skills and be here for my children in a different way as a working mom, as a single mom, and yet still do the things that I want to do for my children because they have always been my why and my priority. So, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years or so.
Jane Borden: This was after overcoming some significant trauma, both in your youth and as an adult with your husband, as referenced in the title. Is it correct to say that this book is about overcoming that?
Mali Ponday: Absolutely. I feel positive and hopeful, and I wrote this story to really just share and connect with people and show that if I can do it, others can do it. Every morning that I wake up, I’m just glad. I’m just happy–I’m happy to be alive and I’m happy to be who I am and healthy and see the sun shining outside.
So, yeah, there was definitely trauma in my youth and then in my marriage, and I could talk about the marriage part, the few years that led up to my divorce that prompted me to write this book if that’s okay?
Well, it was about 2015 that I found out that my husband of 20 years, whom I loved very much had been cheating and lying for basically our entire marriage. I found a text message on my son’s iPad actually that was linked through family sharing to my husband’s iPad, and it was a conversation between him and a prostitute in Arizona that he had been seeing for many, many years. I could tell they were very familiar and that just unraveled everything.
It was about two and a half years of hell until I actually left. I discovered that he had been basically leading a double life and had dozens and dozens of women all over the US and the world. He was a traveler for work, which is so cliché. He traveled and he cheated and I uncovered so much that it was mind-boggling and so devastating because he would also bad mouth me to friends and say derogatory things about me, B word and C word, and anything you could imagine. That I was basically a mouth to feed and a mooch and a leech and just there and he had to tolerate me.
The thing that was so devastating is that he was my friend, and we actually got along really well and he was always so kind to me and kind to my face. I didn’t suffer from abuse, even verbal abuse. He was wonderful in so many ways, very generous, very hard working, we were a good team, we had a nice home and a nice community.
I was a stay-at-home mom, I thought he was supportive of that. I’d go on field trips, PTA meetings, take care of the kids, the household, the budget, and he worked, and we would have fun together. We’d laugh together, we’d drink wine and eat nachos and watch, back in the day, The Sopranos, and binge-watch movies and he would compliment me in public to his friends and always called me a 10–he was like, “Oh gosh, I married a 10.”
He was just very nice. Birthday cards, we’d write little notes to each other and spend good time writing really detailed, cute things to each other about things that had happened in the previous year, inside jokes and all. So, to find out, it was such a betrayal that in that two and a half years, I actually felt like I was having an out-of-body experience where I didn’t even feel like a real person. I would look at my hands and look at my feet and say, “Am I really here? Am I real?” Because I would think, “Well gosh, if I got this so wrong then are my children real, is anything real?” I was spiraling pretty badly from that experience.
I started to go to therapy, and I still loved him. I always supported him and tried to understand him. He had trauma in his childhood too and I understood that and I loved him for it but this was beyond any of that. We had an army of therapists and we would go and talk about our marriage and I still thought we could save our marriage. I could not imagine being divorced even though I didn’t even want to be in the same room as him.
It was confusing because he was still so nice and saying, “We’re going through this trauma, I’m so glad you know about the cheating,” and he would cry and he would say, “I’m under so much pressure,” and it slowly, I started to see that it was all about him. It took outside help from friends and family and really, beyond therapy. With therapy, I don’t think they understood fully how much of a liar he was. He was a compulsive liar, so he was able to charm his way with people. Very slick, very poised man. He’s in sales and marketing and he does very well.
So, I discovered YouTube and I just was desperate. I didn’t know what to do, so I basically googled words like narcissism and compulsive lying and confusion and my marriage, what’s happening in my marriage–I was opened up to this whole world of people who had similar stories. There were hundreds if not thousands of people with similar stories and YouTube channels where people actually helped and educated people and shared their experiences. It changed everything for me, and it helped me save myself.
I Do Matter
Jane Borden: You include some footnotes throughout the book with information from research or quotes from experts about narcissism and other helpful psychological research. Tell me about that decision and how those kinds of diagnoses or information played into your story?
Mali Ponday: Yeah, sure. Well, first of all, I’m not a therapist and I’m not qualified to diagnose anyone, so this is really just my own anecdotal experience. I got answers that I wasn’t getting in therapy and these came from what is under the hat of narcissism, or it’s called cluster-B personalities, it’s an umbrella of narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality, and histrionic.
I don’t know to this day whether he would be diagnosed as one or not but that really doesn’t matter at this point. Whatever it is, it is. I do know for sure that he’s a compulsive liar and a cheater and I would shout that from the rooftops but anything beyond that, I’m not qualified.
It’s the experience of people who were with people of this type of personality such as narcissism, had the same experiences that I had and it was confusion and your words don’t match your actions and who are you and my own feelings of worthlessness, and feeling unloved and undesired and rejected.
It was so stupid–how could I be so dumb? Looking back and somebody listening could think, “Gosh, obviously, he’s a liar and a cheater,” but when you’re in it and you have skin in the game. I’ve got three children and a whole life and a man I still loved. I wish you could flip a switch and not love somebody, but it takes time.
I had to then wrestle with my own feelings of inferiority and realize that I did matter, and I did count.
Jane Borden: This new understanding of yourself dates, or rather the old understanding of yourself, dates to your childhood. You open the book with your mother’s suicide. Tell us about how your relationship with her connects to the larger story?
Mali Ponday: Yeah, well, my mother was lovely in many ways. She was beautiful, she was fun, she was a great cook, she could sing like an angel, she loved to get dressed up and throw big parties. We had a nice–I would say, middle class, maybe upper-middle-class upbringing, we went to good schools, my parents valued education. We’re Asian/Indian-Americans so we were always part of the Indian community.
My mother was a social butterfly and very pleasant, very charming, and yet she was also clinically depressed, and then she was eventually diagnosed with narcissism from the head of psychiatry in one of our university medical centers where we lived.
She was a perfectionist, and nothing was ever her fault. We had to walk around on eggshells and every weekend on Saturday morning, I would wake up and feel the air and say, “What kind of mood is mom in because that will determine what kind of day we have?”
She attempted suicide several times when I was a child. I remember–I think I was around 12–taking garden tools out of her hand when she was trying to cut herself and hurt herself and calling my father. She was institutionalized twice for about a week or so on a psychiatric ward because she was threatening self-harm and that was very hard to see. My beautiful mother, sitting in a psych ward, medicated. I loved her very much, but I also was so angry at her and not really able to just be a kid.
I felt very worthless and very insecure. I really thought I had worked through so much of that. I had gone to therapy. I felt stronger, I knew I had some low self-esteem issues, but I could function. I had a great husband, three kids, friends, and life and everything was great.
Jane Borden: You learned a coping mechanism, which you’ve just hinted at. You write that you had an emotional need to disappear. What does it mean to live like a quiet little mouse?
Mali Ponday: Yeah, well, that is how I did realize that it was safer to live by being as small and quiet as I could be because I didn’t want my mother’s attention to turn towards me because then I would be in trouble, and it was usually my poor father who was in trouble. If I ever needed anything that went outside the needs of just basic food and clothing, it was a problem.
For example, I wrote in the book how I needed books for a project once at school. Back then there was no Internet, so we actually had to go to the library to get books and my parents valued education very much, which is ironic because I could not ask my mother to take me to the library. I knew that she would not directly say, “No, I can’t take you,” she would just kind of collapse into herself and get very upset, and then I would back away, and then two days later, she would be in her bed and she would be fighting with my father.
I would hear it from a closed door about how demanding I was and how much I needed, and she couldn’t handle it and my father was not helping enough. I knew asking for anything as simple as books from the library was just too much.
So, I didn’t need anything, I would make stuff up and then I did actually get library books at one point and she did take me and then I kept the books because I couldn’t return them, and they became overdue. They became so overdue that we owed a lot of money to the library, and I would hide and not know what to do about it and I would definitely not ask her, “Mom, can you take me to the library to return these books?” So, it’s those kinds of things that made me into a quiet little mouse.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Jane Borden: You say that your rock-bottom in relation to what you are just describing is not when you learned about your husband’s double life but when you were forced to make a decision, what were you going to do about it.
Mali Ponday: Yes, exactly, because once I really was trying, you know, grasping what he was all about, I really had to turn the attention onto myself and say, “Who am I and how did I get here? How did I go so wrong in my life and what am I going to do about it? I know what’s happening now.” Even though I was still confused because he was still lying and telling me he wanted to stay married and playing games–dating other women and asking to renew our wedding vows at the same time.
It was so confusing, and I was so vulnerable that I wanted those things, and yet I kind of knew, “Okay, I need a plan B.” So, I just sat in a parking lot for hours one day, by Best Buy in Party City I still remember, and I stared at myself in the rearview mirror and I said, “Girl, you’ve got to get a job and become independent and become a single mother. Your dream of having a nice happy family, and breaking the cycle of the way I grew up is no longer and what are you going to do about it?”
I looked at myself and said, “You’re a coward, you can’t do it,” because I was actually, well, I had a lot of anxiety around work for some reason. I was a very competent nurse, very safe but again, I always tried to disappear, and I tried to stay small, and I just would have this anxiety that I almost couldn’t work. At that point, I didn’t think I could work a minimum wage job. I said, “Nobody is going to hire me. I can’t function.” I felt pretty low.
I thought, “Well, no wonder he doesn’t want to be married to me. Who would want to be married to me?” So, that was the lowest. Yeah, it makes me get emotional thinking about it but from that day, I put one foot in front of the other, and I made it out.
I started submitting my resume everywhere and I got a great job, and I don’t even recognize that girl anymore. I am totally fine. I have a wonderful career and I am on my own, and I think, a good mother. I always have room for improvement, but I think that is the one thing I’m really good at, partly because I see if I ever veer off-course, I just course-correct and I learn and I grow. I have a growth mindset when it comes to parenting. I don’t have a big ego so I am willing to change but I can handle life now, and it took that brutal honesty to get me there and I’m grateful for it.
Jane Borden: Thank you for sharing all of this. I’m also really inspired by something you wrote about forgiveness. It’s in the context of forgiving your husband and I believe this might have been one of the early times, not one of the last straws, but you say, “I don’t regret my forgiveness. Once I calmed down, I understood that my forgiveness was wasted on him, but it was not wasted on me. I restored my faith in myself.”
Mali Ponday: Yes, he had cheated on me. I found out when I was actually pregnant with my twins and I had a little toddler at my ankles, and I got a call from my OB-GYN’s office. They did a routine test and said, “Oh, you’ve got a positive exposure to an STD,” and I just kind of fell apart. I said, “There’s no way, how could that happen?” It turns out, I confronted my husband, and of course, he denied it, denied it, denied it, and then he finally admitted he had been with two prostitutes and it had been like once or twice.
He said, “I just don’t know why I did it.” And that was a long time ago, so fool me once and you fooled me twice, but we did so much work. I had to really decide at that point. First of all, I said, “I’m going to have these children.” I am going to, I had so much more than sickness and high-risk pregnancy and I just was worried about my children. I said, “I’m not going to make any decisions until after I have them.”
And it was gut-wrenching then. I was in hallowing pain, I was so devastated and when you’re pregnant it is a very vulnerable time. You feel very fat, and you feel unattractive as it is in some cases, and then to find out my husband did that, it was so eviscerating. I was very angry and after giving birth when the dust settled, I said, “Well, I have three choices. I can either forgive him completely or I can stay with him and hold it over his head and be horrible to him for the rest of our lives.”
My mom treated my dad poorly, and I was not going to treat my husband poorly. I’d rather leave him than do that to him or divorce him and go and live out on my own and get a job and be a single mom of two infants and a toddler. Knowing I had so much anxiety over going to work, I thought I would fail, fail, fail, fail. Fail at my job, fail at being a mother, which my dream was to be a good mother and so I said, “Well, there’s forgiveness then.”
If I wasn’t able to forgive him, I do know that I would have left him just like I did later, and I would have gotten a job and done the best I could, but I was able to completely forgive him, and he was so good. He answered all my questions, he did all the textbook things that they say you’re supposed to do when you go through infidelity. He lost a lot of weight in a short period of time. He was so stressed out. He would sleep on the floor next to my son’s bed and hold his hand. He was so tender. He never said sorry, which I realize now, but he was so good–he talked about his feelings. He went to therapy and I forgave him. In fact, I loved him even more and I had no thoughts of these other women and all the jealousies and all the terrible feelings you have when you’re betrayed.
I found out years later that it was all a lie. He had been sleeping around for years and he was using no protection. I mean everything he told me was a lie. I realize that now. At the time I thought he was just amazing. I forgave him and I know that I have the ability to forgive after someone has done something like that. He didn’t deserve it, but I can do it and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of that.
Jane Borden: You should be. You write that you can handle anything now and that sounds about right.
Mali Ponday: Yeah, I think so. It’s an ongoing journey with a little social anxiety and getting out there. It always takes me a minute, a deep breath, and then I push myself and then I go out and I keep trying. I’ll never stop trying and I’ve come so far, so I know I can, but things still scare me. Being a parent is always challenging.
Jane Borden: What’s next for Mali?
Mali Ponday: That’s a really good question and I ask myself that too. This is a big deal for me, writing a book and publishing it. I am doing this anonymously, meaning I am not using my real name because this is about my children’s father and they have a good relationship with him and the last thing I want to do is blow that up. This is my story and I wanted to tell it, but I wanted to protect their privacy, mine as well because it’s so personal.
I would love to do something with, you know, keep my day job but do something with children at some point, I’m not sure, helping with parenting. Dr. Shefali Tsabary has these great books, Conscious Parenting and Awakened Parent. Dr. Brene Brown talks about shame and all of these things and how to break the cycle and raise kids in a way that’s not about you, where you’re able to recognize your own limitations and issues and not put that on your kids because that’s where it all starts.
Jane Borden: That’s good advice. Mali, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and congratulations again on the book and how far you’ve come. Again, listeners, the book is Quiet Little Mouse: How My Lying Cheating Husband Awakened My Inner Warrior. Mali, in addition to reading the book, is there anywhere listeners can go to learn more about this work or your journey?
Mali Ponday: Yeah, email me at [email protected]. Also, Mali Ponday on Facebook and Twitter.
Jane Borden: Okay, thank you so much.
Mali Ponday: Thank you so much, Jane, it’s been a pleasure.