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

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

By Cary Tennis

Published June 26, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

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?


Cary Tennis

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