ASK MOM - Husband's mental illness wears out his wife

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Dear Mom:

My husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago.

The only reason we found out that he had this mental illness was because (the kids don't know this) I was threatening to divorce him at the time, unless he went to get help.

When we discovered this,he said he would change and never be 'that person' again, but he hasn't been able to follow through.

He refuses to take medication, as he hates how it makes him feel. He won't go to therapy, as he hates therapists. Currently, he pretty much lives on the couch and watches TV.

He's always required a little more care throughout the years. Some would call him "difficult" and tell me what a saint I am for not letting his moodiness get to me.

I guess I've always been a big believer in focusing on the positive. I've tried to notice his good qualities, because I wanted the kids to see the best that is in their Dad, to be able to take pride in him, to feel stronger rather than weaker because of him.

But lately, seeing my glass as half full is becoming more difficult. My husband throws temper tantrums if the kids don't jump at his command. He pouts if they don't agree with everything he says. I try to explain to him that they are teenagers (12 and 14) and that they aren't the little kids who once thought he could do no wrong.

Teenagers notice things little kids do not. And sadly, my kids are noticing that their Dad has some serious problems.

Part of me wishes they could focus on the positive, see him for the amazing cook and obsessive gardener he is.

He is their biggest fan at sporting events. When he's good, he loves adventure, is curious about the world, and is charming on a dime. But he's unpredictable.

The saddest part for me about his illness is how his own pain seems to make him incapable of imagining the pain of anyone else, namely our children. He's sort of childlike in that way.

In the past I was almost envious of what I once mistook to be his eternally youthful spirit. But as our kids have matured, I've come to see how in many ways they are now, in their early teen years, more mature than he.

As a result of their functionality, I find myself asking more of them, rather than of him, so as to keep peace in the house. I'm thinking this probably isn't good, but it's so much easier to tell a relatively good kid to make a concession (be nice to Dad -- you know rolling your eyes sets him off for hours -- and I'll take you to the mall later), than to ask my husband to be reasonable. The kids are flexible. Dad breaks, and they bend.

Guilt courses through me as a write this. I fear I'm asking too much of the children. They are such good kids.

-- Worn out Wife in Walla Walla



Dear Worn Out:

I'm so glad you wrote. Having a family member who is mentally ill is deeply challenging.

From the sounds of it, you are a rise-to-the-occasion sort of person and in the past have found ways to effectively cope with your husband's disorder. This was probably a little bit easier when your kids were younger and weren't able to really see what was going on with their Dad. But, now that they're maturing, they are able to put two and two together.

Your family is at a crossroad. The children's growing insight seems to be calling into question your primary manner of coping with your husband's illness, that being denial. Denial is a powerful and necessary survival tool -- we all use it to some extent. But pretending something doesn't exist greatly interferes with a kid's emerging ability to trust her gut. I can see you don't want your children to lose the ability to take stock in their own perceptions.

One critical thing families with a mentally ill member can do is seek help for themselves. Educate yourself and your children about bipolar disorder. Many communities offer support groups for individuals and family member suffering from mental illness. The important thing to remember now is that you are in a "coming out" stage with what has been going on in your family. Your letter shows me that maintaining the family secret has certainly taken its toll on you. But as is the case with many good people, it took you noticing the toll the secret had on your children for you to reach out for help. In this way. your children have guided you to what you know is true. Your husband is not a bad person, but the truth is, he's not well, you can't fix this problem alone.

Ask Mom is a weekly feature in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. If you have a question you would like to submit to the Ask Mom panel, send it to catherinehicks@wwub.com. This week's column was written by Patrice Janda, MSW therapist with Cocoon Project SAFE. Cocoon Project SAFE serves Walla Walla parents of teens. For free consultation and support, call 1-877-339-4179.

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