My husband is bipolar

In spite of his diagnosis, he continues to drink and smoke pot. What is going to happen to us?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 24, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am married to a man I love very much; we are about to celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary. We have been together five and a half years. We also have a 14-month-old little girl (we did it the old-fashioned way; I got pregnant two weeks after the wedding).

When I was four months pregnant my husband had a psychotic episode, and was later diagnosed as bipolar. He had had one similar episode before I met him that was diagnosed at the time as alcoholism, but after the second event (fueled to some extent by binge drinking), the bipolar conclusion seemed to be pretty logical. After a week in a psych hospital, he worked with a psychiatrist and social worker to get a medication that worked for him, and to deal with the aftereffects of such a life-altering diagnosis. Also at that time my mother (a licensed psychologist) gave him a bunch of research discussing the negative effects of alcohol and drug consumption on people with bipolar disorders, leading to repeated incidents of manic episodes.

I know, I know, my mother, right? Not exactly an unbiased bystander! I admit the research convinced me, and after all, it seems pretty intuitive. Alcohol abuse leads to all kinds of psychological issues, why wouldn't it affect something like bipolar disorder? At the time, my husband was totally convinced of the validity. He came home right after their discussion and threw away all his pipes and paraphernalia. Additionally, he swore that he was going to stop drinking.

Just a few months ago he confessed to me that he had been drinking for more than a month. Then just a few weeks ago he confessed that he had been smoking since shortly after he started drinking (I had started quizzing him about why he was hanging around with one of his old stoner friends). When I ask him why he doesn't believe the evidence he previously found so compelling regarding alcoholism and bipolar disorder, he explains that his bipolar disorder is under control with the medication.

I don't know if he's discussed this with his psychiatrist or not. I do know that he's no longer seeing his social worker because he says they don't have anything to work on.

Sigh. I probably don't even need to tell you that my father was an active alcoholic until I went to college, and has only recently started seeking help with his alcoholic syndromes. I am perfectly well aware of the co-dependent behaviors I learned when I was a wee slip of a girl watching my parents interact, so that means I don't trust any of my natural responses to what's going on.

Yes, we both need to get help. But what else? How can I repair this yawning chasm of fear I feel inside myself these days? I feel doomed. Our sweet little girl is the innocent in all of this; he and I have choices in what we do, she doesn't. I know the scars I have from growing up in an alcoholic family. What are the scars she would have growing up without her darling daddy (if it came to that)?


Dear Help,

You know, I was working on another letter but it was taking me places I didn't want to go, places I didn't know how to navigate, so I turned to your question, which is essentially the same question only a few shades lighter: How do we live with somebody else's problems? In each case the answers are clear: We live with other people's problems by drawing a line in the sand and placing their problems on one side of the line and ours on the other, by naming the problems and notating their etiology in a little book we carry with us all the time, by saying: This problem of yours, however sad and complex, is wholly and completely your problem, beyond my power to heal and beyond my ability to cause; it is something I can only observe with great passionate detachment, and the minute I find myself doing more than observing with passionate detachment, that is the minute I lose myself in your enveloping darkness, and I must not lose myself in your enveloping darkness because I need to be clear-headed and functioning and alive and free not only for me but for you as well, so that I am here when you return from your mysterious and troubling journey. Meanwhile I must honor and protect myself with savage tenacity against the inward predations of my twisted little devil-mind, bequeathed to me by history and chemistry and biology, and so I say: Your devils, your disease, your insanity of the mind, your secretive smoking, your futile rationalizing, all this is yours and not mine; it is all the product of another history, another country, and there is nothing I can do except go on with my life and find strength wherever I can find it.

And where do you find that strength? How do you heal that chasm? You make a phone call and get a meeting schedule and go to groups like Al-Anon and you settle yourself down among the others who've tired of waiting up nights, the other lovers of fuckups, the other children of alcoholics and dabblers in Tarot and aromatherapy and seekers of transcendence through herbs and the Cabala, you put yourself at the mercy of something bigger than yourself, you quiet your brain, you strengthen your body, you pick a meeting and schedule yourself to be there and you stop reading the same old quasi-poetic meanderings of the same old advice columnist who himself is just another of those crazy charming alcoholics who will talk your ear off as long as you'll listen, and make you miss your bus.

So stop reading. Catch your bus. They're waiting for you.

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