Ribavirin turned my husband into a psychotic monster

My husband's treatment for hepatitis C has changed him beyond recognition. Should I leave him?

Published May 25, 2005 7:47PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been together for 16 years. We're both in recovery and have both been to Al-Anon (although it's been a while). In the mid-'90s, he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Not much was known about the disease at that time, but the medical establishment anticipated the worst; the doctor said, "You could be dead in two years; you could be dead in 20; we just don't know."

Interferon was on the market then, and within a few weeks after my husband began taking it, the FDA approved a new drug for Hep C called ribavirin. He immediately began taking both. From what the doctors had told us, we thought he'd die if he didn't take these meds. We'd been warned that interferon tends to cause depression, and that 10 percent of the people who take it become suicidal. That was certainly my husband's experience; he ended up on some heavy-duty antidepressants to counteract the depressive effects of the interferon.

The thing is, ribavirin had just been approved by the FDA and no one knew what it could do. What it did was create nine months of hell for my husband and -- even more -- for me. Now, if you look up that drug on the Internet, you'll find sites saying it can cause violent psychosis. And if you look up both interferon and ribavirin, you'll find warnings that one or both of them can cause permanent psychiatric changes.

I endured the nine months of hell while my husband was on those drugs; I called the police when I had to, and came up with a safety plan that included friends who said they'd take me in at any hour of the day or night, and a suitcase in the car that had three days' worth of clothing, essential toiletries and $5,000 in cash. During those nine months I was always, always aware of the location of my purse and car keys. I slept in the guest room and barricaded the door every night. Yes, he did try to kill me once. I've met a number of other women in the Hep C support groups who had almost exactly the same experience.

The thing is, my husband has never been the same since he took those drugs. His personality has changed drastically. He used to be service-oriented and pretty lighthearted. For the years since he stopped taking those horrible medications for Hep C, he's become angry, tense, intolerant and dogmatic. And his values have changed. When we met, we were both Democrats. We voted for Clinton together twice, and for Gore once. And then, almost overnight, he started spending several hours a day listening to conservative talk radio. He's become a conservative Republican in a very short period of time. And the other night, he told me what a great job Sen. McCarthy did during those hearings in the 1950s. I can barely recognize him when we talk. His brother and friends, who used to love him dearly, can't stand to be around him anymore. Neither can my friends. So we're pretty much on our own.

I fell into a severe clinical depression about six years ago, just after my husband stopped his treatment for Hep C and around the time my grandparents died. I sought help diligently, but lost a law firm partnership, a subsequent job and my house as a result of the depression. It took five years of doctors tinkering with medications (and seven weeks of intensive outpatient treatment) before I finally found a doctor whose instinct told him my problem was with norepinephrine rather than seratonin. He put me on an old drug (a tricyclic); within three weeks I was myself for the first time in five years.

In the meantime, my husband had an attack of bipolar disorder. He's had severe depression off and on for decades, but this was the first full-blown attack of mania. He spent most of our life savings during that period. Now, he's on lots of drugs (for his liver, his bipolar disorder, his depression, his anxiety, a hormone imbalance, etc.).

And this may seem horribly shallow after everything I've related, but even though he's not the man I fell in love with, I'd really like to have sex. I don't want to go outside of the relationship for that, but I may have to. He has absolutely no desire for sex; hasn't for five or six years. And for the five or so years before that, it was pretty sporadic (i.e., rare). So, for the last decade or so, I've been pretty much celibate even though I'm married. He shows no signs of improvement.

I believe in the marriage vows, but I'm wondering if I'm going to have to divorce him just to get on with my life. He's my friend, and I hope that will never change, but I just don't know if I can stand living with him anymore.

My friends, without exception, are telling me to leave him.

If you have any suggestions or even vague and ill-defined thoughts, I'd love to hear them.


Dear Unworkable,

You know, I'm not a religious man. But when confronted with a situation like yours, I just want to sit down and pray. I want to turn away; I want a magical solution; I feel like a child who turns to his mother. Maybe that's what prayer is, it's just the child turning to his mother, or the addict turning to his fix.

I know we are responsible for our fate and we have to make choices. But I cannot handle the difficulty at first; I'm just a writer, not a priest or a doctor; I say to myself, This was not what I signed up for! Let's move on and answer a letter from a student who can't decide on graduate school!

But then I sit with the difficulty. I look at it this way and that way. I think about your words, "I believe in the marriage vows," and wonder: Does that mean that you intend to live by those vows no matter what? Or does it mean you still think the vows are a good idea, but like any good idea, it could be surpassed by an even better idea, like self-preservation in the face of incalculable adversity. It would be so much easier if we weren't responsible for our own actions; then you could become a martyr for the church of staying married; you could become a martyr to mental illness; you could blame your husband and modern medicine for ruining your life.

I'm not trying to give you a hard time; there would be some marginal satisfaction in such a proclamation. But I have taken on this public role of advocating the higher path. So I begin digging through the options, looking for something that doesn't involve murder, suicide or standing on top of a high building screaming at God. I work my way through it.

What would I advise you to do? Is there any light toward which you could turn and begin walking? I would advise you to find that light and begin walking toward it. What light is that? It's the light of what you want. I would advise you to begin seeking what you want and what you need to become happy, without regard for the vows you have made. Shift your focus from the prison of your marriage to the light of what you want. Stop struggling and simply go after the things you think your marriage is preventing you from having.

See what obstacles you encounter. What might being happy mean? Might it mean sleeping with someone not your husband? Why not try doing that and see what obstacles you encounter? Does it mean taking a trip away from him? Does it mean moving out of the house? Do those things and see if they help.

I know it seems backward in a way, to begin doing things outside the marriage before the marriage is over. It may even be wrong; it is a violation of your vows at any rate. But it seems frontward to me, and the only sensible thing to do. That's not surprising; it's one of my tricks to turn things upside down when they seem stuck.

But it's not just the things you can't have, is it? It's also the pain your marriage is bringing you. In that area as well, why not identify the things he is doing to you, and try to eliminate them. If his mere presence is intolerable, then remove yourself. If it is only certain conversations about certain Supreme Court justices and right-wing senators, then refuse to have those conversations with him.

Seek your happiness; do not put conditions on how you obtain it. It may be that if you can find some happiness for yourself, you do not need to divorce your husband. It's worth a try, although I do suspect that if you begin openly seeking happiness in this way, divorce will soon follow.

At least, if divorce does follow, you will know what you are after. You will be walking toward the light of what you want.

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