Wedding cake © Mike Kemp,Jupiterimages

I will never forget the moment that my soon-to-be ex-husband and I sat in our mediator's office as he illustrated our finances on a chalkboard.

"There really aren't any assets," he told us. But there was $4 million of debt -- from bad investments, lawsuits and failed business deals that I knew nothing about.

I left the room sobbing, feeling like I'd been punched in the stomach. How could I not have known that we owed so much? How -- over the 14 years that we'd been together, and through the birth of two sons -- had I been so unaware?

Financially blind -- over love

I met my ex-husband when I was just 25 years old. He walked into a New York City gallery where I was working, and I recognized him immediately: He was a famous comedian (I can't disclose his name for legal reasons) who was then at the peak of his career.

My life changed overnight: We went hot-air ballooning in Italy, on a safari in Africa and out every night in his limousine for extravagant dinners. You name it, we did it. And when he decided to move to Aspen a few years into our relationship, I gave up my job to join him.

But our romance had one caveat: I would never have a say in the finances. Since I believed we would be forever, it was never an issue. Plus, he didn't handle the money, either. His businesspeople did, while he spent whatever he pleased. He had monthly meetings with his business manager, who'd offer advice, but then my ex would just go down his own path. He refused to listen to anything about saving or budgeting, figuring that since he was earning the money, no one was going to tell him what to do with it.

We didn't marry for 12 years, but as soon as we did, things began to go south -- primarily because of finances.

My ex had extreme control issues around money that stemmed from a rough childhood. His parents were poor, and he helped to support them from a young age. Because of this, he always needed to "feel rich." For him, this meant eating out constantly and carrying around rolls of $100 bills. On a trip to Florence, he once took me into a high-end clothing store and said, "You have 15 minutes to get anything you want." I remember standing in the dressing room as a clerk threw clothing over the door for me to try on as fast as possible.

How we reached the breaking point

As my ex-husband got older, his career started to level off -- he was headlining fewer shows and bringing in less money. We'd scaled back the way we lived to some degree, but then the credit cards started being declined. I'd call our business manager and hear things like, "Hopefully there will be money next month."

After enough of these calls, I finally woke up to the fact that I was in my late 30s -- with two small children, no savings, no retirement plan and a husband whose career was clearly going downhill. I started to freak out and ask questions: How were we providing for our sons? Did we have retirement accounts? I broke the rule and insisted on being involved in our finances. Not only did he refuse to discuss it, but he also refused any kind of counseling.

When I left, he felt personally betrayed, which translated into a very contentious divorce. I got a minimal amount of child support, plus alimony for one year, since we were technically married for only two. There were no assets, and due to the unmanageable debt, both of us were urged to declare bankruptcy. Because California law splits a couple's assets and debts 50-50, I inherited a decade's worth of debt after just a little over a year of marriage. I remember my ex's creditors constantly calling before I filed, looking for payments I couldn't afford.

I went from a life of excess to saving every penny I earned from selling my own artwork. When my sons were bored, I said, "No movies, but we can make a cool fort out of cardboard boxes!"

At the same time, I was trying to recover from declaring bankruptcy. Luckily, I'd rented my new home before the filing went through. And thank goodness I also had a car because my destroyed credit made it impossible to get a loan or a credit card with a reasonable rate. I never wanted to use them again anyway. (My credit is now in the low 700's, and it took years to build back up to that number.)

Though I had a place to live, I had no resources to furnish it -- or replace all of the things that were full of memories from my marriage. I didn't want to sleep on the sheets we'd shared, but I couldn't afford to replace them. So I dyed them to make them look "new."

One day, I happened to dye a piece of suede, which turned out beautiful. I borrowed $100 from my parents, bought and dyed pieces of suede from the local leather shop, and then hand-stitched them together to make shawls. When a friend who owned a shop in a mall saw them, she said, "These aren't shawls -- you're making skirts, and I'd like two dozen for the store."

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