My bipolar husband smokes pot on the sly

His doctor says not to but he tokes up anyway.

By Cary Tennis

Published February 10, 2009 11:30AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My husband smokes pot and hides it from me. We've been married for over 20 years, have had a pretty good marriage in general and have a wonderful early-teenage child. I have nothing against marijuana use and personally I wish it would be legalized. I did my fair share of "experimenting" when I was younger, but at some point around age 30 I decided it really was not for me. So I don't partake myself but I know a number of people who do and that's fine with me -- it's their business and doesn't bother me.

My husband, however, should not smoke. He was diagnosed as bipolar a few years prior to us having our child, is on medication and was told around the time of his diagnosis that he must stop using pot to self-medicate.

Since then, in four incidents each several years apart, I have discovered he is sneaking around smoking in the backyard. The first time was only a couple of years after the bipolar diagnosis. I was still sensitive over the fallout from his manic episodes and I flipped out ... read him the riot act ... even spoke to the mutual friend who was supplying him to explain why he was not supposed to do this. He swore he would quit. But eventually came the second and third discoveries, by which time I was less concerned about the bipolar issue, which seemed to be under control, and more concerned about how I think people who have children ought to behave. Each time there was an excuse, something stressful going on that was the reason he started, and against what should have been my better judgment I accepted his pledge to "really quit this time." A couple weeks ago was the fourth time; he didn't hear me arrive home and I walked in on him apparently smoking out back, although he tried to conceal it. The total lameness of his attempt to cover it up and angrily deny that he was doing anything other than just having his occasional cigar was  ridiculous. I found his paraphernalia a day or two later just outside the back door, barely even hidden, and I hid it somewhere else intending to confront him when I had an opportunity.

The problem is we are very rarely alone without our teenager and when we are it's almost always because we are on our way somewhere that involves being with a bunch of other people and is not a good time to have an argument. I don't want to have the discussion in a public place or after our child goes to bed because my husband has quite a temper and I can pretty much guarantee there will be yelling. So because I was waiting for the right time I had a few days to think about this, and I started thinking: How much of a deal-breaker is this, what am I really angry about and what am I going to say to him? Am I angry about the pot, which is illegal and presumably especially bad for him, or am I mainly angry about the sneaking and lying? Other than the pot incidents there have been other betrayals and lies on his part over the course of our marriage -- some relatively trivial and a few more serious.

I just do not trust him anymore and have felt this way for a while, but it took this latest incident for me to admit that to myself. I also feel ... I don't know ... insulted? ... because he obviously thinks that I don't know what is going on and he thinks he is getting away with it. Another thing that annoys me about this is my husband acts as if being lied to is the worst thing that can happen to him, and yet he is lying to me over and over. If our teenager "lies" to him in any sense of the word (for example says there's no homework, then later remembers an assignment) my husband goes ballistic and rants about trust.

If it weren't for having the child I guess I'd have a clear-cut choice: Accept that he's a pot user, tell him to dispense with the deception and just go with the flow; or I could leave him. Because of our child I don't feel like the "accept it" choice is an appropriate one.

So what do I do? Am I overanalyzing -- I mean, does it really matter why I am angry about this? Should I simply confront him and say I'm tired of this stupid game and it's either straighten up or get out? Should I ask him to find a psychiatrist (he hasn't seen one in years -- his medication is monitored by his GP) and get a ruling on whether this stuff really is bad for his mental health or not, and if the doctor says it's bad then insist that he abide by that opinion? Should I make an appointment with a family counselor, tell him why I am going and invite him to go, too? I don't want to just be reactive in the short term and end up letting this go again, which is where I was heading until I had a few days to think it over. I read your column every day and really enjoy it, so I thought I'd write to you and see what your thoughts are on this.


Dear A.,

Some days I go on and on.

Today I am going to give you the executive summary first. Then I am going to go on and on.

The executive summary is that you need to buy and read "Time Management from the Inside Out" and "The Lifelong Activist"; set aside two hours to discuss with him his pot use; set some boundaries around the discussion so that yelling is not allowed; set as a goal that he joins a regular program for bipolar people in which he either attends a group or sees a counselor every week; agree what facts about his bipolar disease you will disclose to your teenager and what facts you will withhold; discuss current literature on the uses of marijuana to treat bipolar disease; agree on a backup plan to deal with any catastrophic re-occurrences or relapses of his bipolar disorder; agree on markers for verifiable improvement or recognizable decline in the disease; and discuss with frankness but compassion (this could get tricky!) under what conditions you, as his wife, might find it impossible to continue in the marriage because of his  use of marijuana and his other perceived betrayals that are alluded to but not spelled out in your letter.

Some of these things are pretty heavy. They should probably be discussed in front of a professional. And a system of accountability needs to be created so that none of this just slips away and never gets done.

This concludes the executive summary. Now I will go on and on:

Your husband has a chronic mental illness that is being held in check, but I don't think that a person with a serious and chronic mental illness should just be put on meds and left to his own devices. Do you? I mean the GP gives him the meds, tells him not to smoke pot and sends him on his way. Isn't it better to have some kind of ongoing program where you monitor stuff and report?

It would be great, don't you think, if he had somebody he could go to and say, "I got anxious last week, I was under stress, so I smoked some pot, and now I feel guilty because I told my wife I would stop." And the person could say, "Did it help?" and he could think about whether it actually helped or whether it was more like a compulsive, secret activity that did not really help. And then they could think together about some way to include you in the process.

Perhaps you can agree that if your husband smokes pot then he tells you about it and you, for your part, promise not to read him the riot act. You promise to accept that as of now, this issue of pot is an unresolved difference of opinion. You let it exist between you, unresolved. You perhaps work toward resolving it. You perhaps pray for insight or you pray for the other person to change and get better and not need it anymore. But you recognize that right now, he seems to need it. He seems to need to do it in secret. And he seems not to be able to stop. So perhaps he can at least learn to admit when he does it and tell you.

The fact that you say you don't have enough time alone together tells us something very important: You don't have enough time alone together! Why not? Usually it's because you don't have a method of time management. That's where the whole time-management thing comes in.

I don't think you are overanalyzing. Your analyzing is good. It is telling you what the problem is. I don't believe there is such a thing as overanalyzing. But there is failure to act. There is failure to reach a conclusion. Failure to reach a conclusion and act renders all the analyzing useless. That doesn't mean the analyzing is bad. It means that action is required. Maybe that's what people mean when they say overanalyzing. They mean under-acting. But you need both analysis and action.

So, anyway, in conclusion -- well, the conclusion is in the executive summary. There's a Web site to look at, two books to read, an appointment with a counselor to make, some boundaries to set, a plan to create, and more stuff to think about.

I humbly submit this proposal and I hope it meets with your approval and the approval of those who may unsuspectingly peruse it. And my heart goes out to all those throughout the world who have this bipolar thing; I wish you the energy and perseverance to continue to look for any and all medicines and treatments, including those that are only now being hinted at in the literature or whose use may be necessarily controversial, such as antioxidant therapy, dark treatment, and cannabis. Who knows? Let's not rule anything out. Let's just try to have a program and stay positive.

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Cary Tennis

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