My husband is bipolar and I'm the caretaker

My background makes me the one who does everything ... and now he's becoming abusive

By Cary Tennis

Published August 2, 2011 12:50AM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

I write to you not quite knowing how to put so much into a concise and condensed letter. Chances are, I may or may not send this, but if I do, you are welcome to edit/delete/add clarity. In my early 20s, I moved to New York City from a small city down South. My mother passed when I was young and both before and after her passing, I grew up with my siblings in a violent and abusive household. We were and are the stereotypical dysfunctional Southern family and there was violence, verbal and sexual abuse.

I wouldn't say so much that I was running from that past, but rather that I was running toward something. Something I wanted to become or someone I felt I was. Within a month or so of moving I met a man several years older than me who was nearing the end of his medical residency. He was (and is) charming, outrageous, intelligent, beautiful and full of life. In my mind, if he liked me, there must have been some redeeming qualities to my looks or my personality. I felt honored and worthy to have his love and used it to build my own esteem. I adopted him and his family and fell into their routine as the right and only way. There were things about him at that time that seemed unusual, but to me, who was I to judge? He gave me unconditional love, he was exciting and he wanted to be with me all of the time (which, for me, was great ... I needed to be loved, I needed to be wanted, and I needed to have someone with me). Within four years of our meeting (and a year or two after we married), my drinking got out of control. We had always partied together, enjoying all that the city has to offer in terms of friends, music, food and all-nighters, but somehow drinking got the best of me. I joined AA and stayed clean and sober for over 10 years. (He also stopped drinking, but swore it was for me, not because of any underlying drinking problem he had.) Both during that time and after, there were many instances of his rage. He could and would "go off" -- on me, on them, on anyone who challenged him, whose stupidity confused him or who disagreed with his long and tangential thoughts. About six years ago, I discovered that he had been having an emotional relationship with another woman. The relationship he had developed occurred on the heels of my having gotten a job that required me to be out of the household and in contact with others ... lots of others: celebrities; news stations; producers, etc. I discovered he was writing her love letters, calling her multiple times a day and was generally obsessed. She was coy and while I don't know her motivation, I do believe that toward the end of their relationship, she became nervous and unconformable with his attention. When I discovered the relationship, he told me that he wanted to meet her one last time to end things properly and I agreed. He went to the designated area and she arrived and unexpectedly to my husband, she had brought her boyfriend. My husband quickly called me and told me to meet him at the restaurant/bar (one that he had chosen for his own symbolic reasons), that everything would be "OK" and that it was all a misunderstanding. When I arrived, he was shaking both from the sheer fear and sheer excitement; she was clinking a wine glass and saying, "We all make our choices and we live with them" and her boyfriend was whispering in my husband's ear that "You're scaring her. Stay away." Within a few weeks of that encounter, it became evident that something was very wrong with my husband. He was crying, he was excited and excitable, he was not making sense. I urged him to see a doctor and he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has since seen many doctors, from the top institutions, and they all offer the same diagnosis. I began therapy soon after he did. In my mind, being the dutiful and wonderful wife, I wanted us to move forward as a team -- build our lives and learn to work around this diagnosis. While I scoured books and the Internet for more information, I also fought to change myself, assuming and believing that I was the problem. If only I were prettier or more talented or more this or that, he would not have wanted the first dalliance (or any others that followed). My life had and did continue to revolve around him. He was cooked three meals a day, his clothes and house were cleaned, I attended every family event, I listened to them argue and kept my mouth closed. I worried about him. I obsessed over him. I prayed. I consulted horoscopes. You name it, I did it. We also, after the first year of his diagnosis, talked of having children. And we did. I am now a mother to two of the most amazing, wonderful, intelligent, bright little toddler beings in the world. I have taken to motherhood well and I am in awe. My children feed me and I feel indebted to them, but I feel that even now, even knowing that I am a good mom and good woman, my husband still continues to take and bleed me dry. And here comes another problem ... when I was pregnant with our son, I found out that not only had my husband continued to try to reach the woman with whom he had his first emotional affair, he had created others. I would go to the gym and then I would discover that my husband had been texting and e-mailing the check-in girl. I would see a patient of his and later find out that she and he had been carrying on with suggestive e-mails and text messages. It's odd to me, but I don't believe he ever crossed the "sexual" line. Part of that may have been because he had some sexual dysfunction due to the medications. I discovered that he was taking pictures of women, hundreds of pictures, both of patients and those he saw and who captured his attention on the street.

So here we are ... In terms of career, I am good at what I do, but I am one of those that hide behind others ... the great ghostwriter, the woman who makes sure dinner is prepared, clothes are cleaned, who obsesses over our home, whose children look beautiful and are happy and are sweet and lovely. The woman who minimizes her accomplishments because someone else surely deserves the credit more.

So, tonight, after months of creating projects for my husband -- a website, articles that I wrote in his name, videographers I have hired to film and edit him providing medical segments because he wants to be in media, he called me a name -- again. I handle our household; our correspondence and communication with our accountants and bookkeepers; a product line we have launched; our children; our homes; his business; his marketing for his practice; I attend Harvard; I am desperately attempting to work on my own business projects because even I -- in this strange state -- recognize that I will not be able to sustain this craziness for much longer. So, he called me a name and I snapped -- again. I realize that no matter what I do, what I am, how I am, he will not be the he I want him to be. I oscillate between believing I can be and do many things without him and worried that the world and road ahead is hard. When he was diagnosed six years ago, our financial livelihood became dependent on his family. His sister is the primary financial support for our family. The deal is that I protect and care for him and she cares for and protects our children and me. I had promised myself that I would work for one year with him to establish him in media, but I realize I cannot even do that. I cannot make it a year. I have reached the tipping point. Funny thing is, if he came to me tomorrow and said he was sorry and he loved me, I would be there. But instead, he told me tonight that I could not attend a marketing meeting with drug reps (a few of whom he is interested in) because "they must have heard you are a bitch." My children curse now, because they are so used to his words. My daughter and son say things to me like, "Why is daddy so mad at you?" and yet they adore and love him to pieces.

So here I am, desperately trying to believe in myself. Desperately trying to convince myself that I can walk out of this marriage with two children, no money and a career I have spent building his. I don't know what I am asking, but is there a chance to build a happy life for myself and my children starting again at ground zero? My therapist says that I am the one in control of the relationship, but I don't believe it. She says I am the one who keeps him going and keeps him grounded, but I somehow turned my power over to him. I know what I do not want. I know that I do not want my children to suffer for this. And I have begun to drink again. Secretively, to handle the stress. So I got a sponsor but even with that, I know he's taking me down and I want to live for them ... those sweet little toddlers who deserve more than this.

Lost at Ground Zero

Dear Lost at Ground Zero,

However hard this is, however cruel he is, this is your family and you have your place in it. There is a story playing out here. There is a way forward. This story does not end with you walking out on your family. I don't think so. I don't think that's who you are. I think you are the one who bears the burdens and makes adjustments. You do not fall apart or walk away. That won't work for you. You are the one who goes into the fire and grabs the baby. Being this character is not easy and some would say it is not wise but it's too late to choose who you are  so what you do is learn your breaking points and tender spots. You go over them carefully with a feather touch in the night when you are alone. You see quickly, without much trouble, that being called names can send you into a spin.

This is to be expected. There was a lot of that in your childhood home. But you can't flee this. I don't see it that way. Instead, this is the crucible in which you learn and heal. You either learn and heal or you keep finding new abusers. They will always surprise you if you pretend that you are not seeking out new abusers. You must see the deeper reality here, the one that is invisible; it is invisible and yet you know it is there, moving you to the left and right, shoving you off balance when you are called a name, revving you up to perform more, fix more, create more, be brilliant more.

No, I don't see you leaving but I see you gradually withdrawing as his chief caretaker. This deal you have made with his family needs to be renegotiated. My guess is it was never negotiated in the first place. Not really. It happened. It came about. He needs more care. He needs someone else he can abuse. A therapist, for instance, who can guide him to fully experience this rage he is wrongly directing at you. It's real rage. It's OK for him to feel it. But it's not about you. He needs help that you can't give him.

Everyone can survive this. You will have to let go of some of your power. Yes, your therapist is right: You did hand your power over to him. But it's not that simple. It never is. Handing your power over to him gave you the exalted status of the abused. It gave you the keys to the martyr's fortress from which you hurl javelins in the dark. They seem to fall from the sky. But they're from you. I don't blame you for this. What choice did you have? I know this well. I did not discover what a martyr I was until quite late in life. But once I realized it, it made many other things clear. I want to suffer. It gives me license. I know this now.

You will have to give up part of your martyr's cloak. Not all of it. We don't give up all of any of our archetypes. But we must hush them from time to time, when one takes over, or when they all clamor at once. I know you haven't made a spectacle of being a martyr but it is there on the edges, offering to enclose all your sorrows in its dark embrace. The martyr is the wounded soul but wields great power. This is how it wields its power: by suffering. It lies in wait for lachrymose moments; it sees an opening on center stage to cry in the spotlights. It's glorious and warm there, crying in the spotlight. It is exquisite. It is almost as good as parental love -- but then, who would know what that's really like?

I know the lure of weeping in the spotlight. But I soldier on. My mother is dead. No one hears my tears. It's good to know this out loud. There's no shame in it.

Your husband needs more help than you can give him. Find more care for him. Slowly move out of that role. Fill it with professionals. As you do this, let him shift some of his emotional attachment from you to others. This will feel wrong but it will be right. It will create jealousy. Let it. He may have emotional affairs. Let him. Things may get ugly and rocky. Let them. That may be necessary. It may be a necessary accident of his adjustment that he finds brief, passionate attachment to others. That doesn't mean he doesn't love you and need you. It doesn't mean that you should divorce. He will always come back to you. You are the one. This rockiness, the turmoil that is in the future, these things simply represent the course of his illness and the path you have chosen.It's the stuff you're going to have to go through. It is infinitely preferable to leaving.

This is your family. It makes no sense to leave. It is, of course, a natural wish -- to be done with all this unpleasantness that brings back so much of your childhood's torment. I feel for you. That is no joke, what you went through. But you got through it and you can get through this. You can stop drinking and start building your fortress. This is your family. It is your life. It is what you have chosen. I do not think it is your story to simply leave. In this story, you see it through. You set boundaries. You marshall the family's abundant resources in different proportions so that you are not exploited and drained by your duties. You orchestrate. You raise your kids.

Your kids are going to grow fast. Shield them but keep them. Keep your husband. Keep them all. Weather it. It is what you have chosen.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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