My wife is bipolar. Should I leave and take the kids?

She attempted suicide and brandished a knife. How do I protect our children?

Topics: Family, Since You Asked, Mental Illness, Psychology, Suicide,

Dear Cary,

I am married to a woman, whom I love, who has bipolar depression. She tried to kill herself on Christmas last year. As my children and I pulled into our subdivision, they saw the ambulances. My daughter asked me, “Dad, is Mom dead?” The best answer I could muster in my shocked state was, “I don’t know.” As my wife was nearing completion of the treatment that followed, I told her that this was not an acceptable way for our kids to grow up, and that if something like this happened again, I would have no choice but to raise the kids without her. She understood and agreed.

The months that followed included two additional trips to the behavioral health facility. I moved from angry toward accepting, and by last week I was able to let her know that I was there to support her and that I did not judge her for what happened in the past. And I actually meant it.

Yesterday she struggled with making plans to meet another couple for dinner. As my son was playing in his room and my daughter played outside, she attempted to cut her vein with a fairly dull steak knife. I motioned toward the knife, and she threatened to cut me with it if I came any closer. I could not handle this situation, so I called 911. They took her to the behavioral health facility again.

I know that I cannot subject my kids to that again. That’s a given. Giving up on someone you love to protect people who need you is horrible, but for now it’s a necessity.

Here’s the question part: My wife and I own our own home. I’m seriously considering walking away from it, not because I cannot pay the mortgage but because I want to be able to protect my kids from this scary world. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. I don’t want the risk that I will have to go back to this situation because I cannot afford to subsidize two separate residences (I’m the only one working now). I recognize that it may ruin my credit, but it’s the best I have. Please share your thoughts on my situation.

Thanks for your time,

Scared in the Suburbs

Dear Scared in the Suburbs,

I appreciate your writing to me, and apologize for taking so long to get back to you. By this time you may have already taken action. But here are my thoughts.



Your wife has a serious mental illness. Right now it is not under control. There are treatments and medicines that may bring it under control to some degree but it is a dangerous, frightening illness that puts others at risk.

As a result of this illness you have had some traumatic experiences. Naturally, you fear for your children. So you’re thinking of walking away from your house and taking the kids with you to a new location.

I can see why you are thinking of this as a solution. In fact, I am glad you are thinking of doing it, because it shows that you are willing to make significant sacrifices to protect your kids.

But I suspect it is not the best solution. And I speculate — not unkindly, I hope — that the idea arises in part to satisfy certain emotional needs — a need to make sense of things and do something, to respond to a baffling, terrifying and infuriating turn of events in a way that is ethically sound and logically defensible. The phrase “walking away from your house” also has a deep psychic resonance, a mythic or universal dimension: We picture a man whose house has been visited by tragedy; his wife has gone mad; she has been transformed into a devil, brandishing a knife, covering the house in blood; so he takes his kids and walks away from the house. They go to a new house that is safe. The old house where bad things happened is forgotten; it is abandoned. The problem goes away. They are safe. The man has done the right but difficult thing. He is praised by his tribe; he is not condemned, or chastised, or banished for mistreating his wife; nor is he tainted by the disease that has visited his house; he has responded admirably, according to accepted ethical principles.

Such a scenario may be attractive. As is the dream of  justice at work here. You told your wife if this happened again that you would leave her and take the kids. So now it has happened and you are being true to your word.

But in spite of the inescapable feeling that, in view of what has happened, you simply have to leave, you cannot live there anymore, she is a homicidal menace … I really think that “walking away from the house” would create more problems than it solves. It might not make the kids any safer nor help your wife’s course of treatment. She would still want to see them, and they would still want to see her, and probably would; at any visit, it’s possible that her mania might recur. Plus it would put much strain on everyone. To walk away from the house and take the kids has great gut-level appeal; it satisfies our feeling of how things should be; it seems to satisfy our wishes.

It is a wish but it is not a solution.

The actual solution, or set of solutions, must address your two chief problems directly. The two chief problems are how to manage your wife’s disease and how to keep you and your kids safe.  You must first make sure that your wife’s disease is being treated correctly and that she is participating in the treatment and taking whatever medications she is prescribed. You must be vigilant. If you notice she is going off her meds or avoiding her treatments, immediately intervene. Contact her doctors, make arrangements for more help, do what is necessary. If this means changing your schedule, then those changes may have to be made. If this means that she must spend more time in an inpatient facility, then that may be. If help must be hired at times, then, if you have the resources, that is what must be done.

The other thing you have to do is keep your children safe, physically and emotionally. The house needs to be safe for the kids. This may be a combination of having a certain room in your house where the kids are safe, and also having a plan, a place to go where if Mommy gets sick again, the kids know what to do, whom to call. There has to be somebody to come and rescue them. I can’t say exactly what the plan is, because I don’t know how old the kids are or who is around to help out in an emergency. It may involve hiring help at certain times, if they are too young to carry out instructions. But you must have a plan in place.

Meanwhile, you participate in treatment.

Staying in the house and dealing with this situation is barely a solution. It does sound more attractive to just leave.

But leaving the house is not a solution either. She is your wife and she is ill and she needs help. She is also her kids’ mother and they need her in their lives. The house belongs to the kids, too; it is their home, and if their mother must leave for periods of time for treatment, and if arrangements must be made at home to deal with their mother’s illness, then at least they still have their home. Eventually, if she shows no improvement, it may come to pass that the most practical thing is to leave and take the kids. But not yet.

You and others may disagree and decide the best thing is to simply go. But what will become of your wife? She does not disappear. The problem remains. That is what problems do: They remain. They resist our solutions; that is why they are problems; things like cancer and mental illness defy our arts and our psyches; they defy our wishes to cast them in redeeming narrative form. They are formless, anarchic. They rob us of our power. They relegate us to lesser roles. They make us unwitting handmaidens to their havoc. They make us feel less human — because humans solve problems. That’s what we do!

So it is an awful thing, and I understand your wanting to walk away from the house and take the kids somewhere safe. I understand the urge to formulate it succinctly as a problem: If the one you love threatens those you must protect, then you must leave the one you love. That is simple and direct. But what you have been given is something much messier than that. It is an ongoing situation to be managed, not simply an event to be responded to.

And where is the slim ray of hope? It is here: This may be manageable; there is some hope for improvement; you may eventually find some peace with this; your kids may have a mother who is not perfect but who remains their mother; and you may honor to the best of your ability that promise you made to stand by her in sickness and in health.

At least for now.



Bipolar? Know someone who is? See pp. 93 and 233



Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?

 

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>