This Is Your Marriage On Drugs
A memoir about marriage, methamphetamine and mental illness
By Stephanie Rosenfeld and Luciano Colonna
This happened the other night — we were talking about this project:
LUCIANO: We need to have another word for “bipolar.”
LUCIANO: Well, I don’t really have classic bipolar — the mania, all that stuff that goes along with it. And the downs — the big, huge — What? Why are you looking at me like that?
LUCIANO: Oh God, I know! I know! Fuck me! But it’s so hard to talk about! We need a secret word.
STEPHANIE: Secret word? Like what?
LUCIANO: You know, like, my father had a secret word to make me shut up, when I was a little kid. For when we were around other people and I was talking too much.
STEPHANIE: He did? What a jerk! What was it?
LUCIANO: What was what?
STEPHANIE: The secret word!
LUCIANO: I don’t know. I can’t remember. It was, like, “scaciama,” or something.
LUCIANO: I don’t know, Stephanie! I don’t remember! It was like, you know: Secret code. Something like, On Sunday morning the postman brings ice.
STEPHANIE: On Sunday morning the postman brings ice? That’s nothing likescaciama. And besides, it’s got a few logical inconsistencies. I mean, first of all, the postman doesn’t come on Sunday. And if he did, he wouldn’t be bringing ice. That’d be the iceman, I guess — and anyway, who says “postman”? Are you maybe making a subconscious movie reference? Or conflating a few different ones — well, one was a play, I guess: The Iceman Cometh. And The Postman Always Rings Twice? But what’s the Sunday part about?
LUCIANO: You’re exhausting.
STEPHANIE: I’m exhausting?
I figured out pretty quickly that Luciano’s brain works differently than other people’s. It’s part of what makes him interesting. But it can also be frustrating — to both of us. His thoughts race, so conversations can be disjointed. I know that inside his head, there’s some inner dialogue going on that has continuity and makes sense, but sometimes I get frustrated, and he gets frustrated at my frustration, at not being able to figure out how the non sequiturs connect.
He uses different metaphors to describe how it feels inside his head — none of which sound pleasant: “My brain feels like an explosion in a paint factory.” “Draw my brain as one of those lottery machines. With the balls coming out of my mouth.”
I think Luciano made his illness work for him, for a long time. The story of himself that he built around it: His outrageous impulsivity and fearlessness; the outlandish adventures that sad, old “ordinary” people like you and me would never have; his skill at being able to Houdini his way out of any financial straits; the benefits he’d managed to reap from his lying and criminal activity — he recounted these all as strengths, as the story of a rich, fully-lived life. I don’t think it was a front, exactly — I think he was always the one he was trying hardest to convince.
Also, the chaotic lifestyle he’d cultivated as a junkie, a subculture-dweller, a nomad, a rolling stone probably served to distract attention from the real issues at the core of so many of his problems. Luciano’s life is, was, and always has been a constant string of emergencies, leaving no time to think about why everything he touches turns into a disaster. This dynamic, I learned after starting to talk to other family members of bipolar people, is not uncommon.
The way he lived, from the way he describes it, also kept him from ever getting close enough to anyone that they might start to put together the picture of the illness under the facade. Though he had good friends, he was always leaving them, blowing them off, disappearing from them for years at a time. He’d tell me about how important certain people were to him, but brush off my suggestions that he visit them, or give them a call if he had plans to be in their town; and he never introduced me to any of them.
Another reason that his self-story — He wasn’t ill! He was Luciano! — worked for so long was that I was its sole witness. His magnetic, engaging, upbeat personality, his high energy, laugh-a-minute delivery only started to look a little off if you saw the other side of it, which nobody else ever did, because it took place exclusively behind the closed doors of our house: The tantrumming and raging and verbal abuse; the relentless, high-volume psychological eviscerations; the property damage; the troubling lack of empathy; his implacability in what should have been ordinary domestic spats; the unexplained and increasingly burdensome credit card debt.
I knew when I was in the presence of Luciano raging that it wasn’t ordinary anger. I could see that he was in altered state of reality, in the throes of something that didn’t have anything to do with me — which never made it any easier to take. His episodes actually looked like demonic possession. He’d go from zero to yelling in a half-second flat, at any small offense — a sideways look, a negative tone, any criticism or irritation on my part. He’d storm out of the room and down into the basement and lie down on his bed with his arms folded, shut his eyes tight and start bellowing at the top of his lungs. He’d jump up, pace the room, slash at the air; his face would go red; he’d foam at the mouth. It didn’t matter if I talked or didn’t talk, raised my voice or stayed quiet, beseeched him to calm down or told him he was being an asshole, objected to or agreed with what he was saying. His rage would gather force, and soon, no matter what the instigation for this, or any, particular “fight” had been, it would turn into the larger beef that Bipolar Luciano had: That I was terrible; that everything I did — and everything I’d ever done in the entire time we’d been together — was terrible; and I was the cause not only of the unhappiness he was experiencing at that moment, but of all the unhappiness in his life. Everything would be fine, if not for me. Being with me was torture. He hated me; his friends hated me; my friends hated me; my daughter hated me — it would go on and on.
If I raised my voice to argue, he’d become even more infuriated. “NOW YOU’RE YELLING AT ME!” he’d scream. If I tried to defuse the situation by touching him, he’d recoil as if I’d poked him with a cattle prod, screaming, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”; if I asked him to look at me, he’d clench his eyes shut; if I tried to reason with him, he’d start chanting in a loud sing-song voice, “I’M NOT LISTENING TO YOU! I’M NOT LISTENING TO YOU!” Sooner or later, I’d start to cry, which would increase his viciousness: He’d accuse me of being manipulative, and just yell louder. If I gave up and turned to leave the room, he’d scream, “OH, RIGHT! NOW YOU’RE LEAVING!”
He’d yank lamps out of sockets and throw them at the wall, overturn furniture, wreck his room. “IF YOU DON’T GET OUT OF HERE, I’LL BREAK EVERYTHING IN THIS HOUSE!” he’d scream — and that threat usually worked — because I knew he would, and we couldn’t afford to replace the fixtures and walls and windows and computers and small appliances after every rampage. His lack of empathy, during these fits of rage, was striking and troubling: It was something I’d never seen before, and I couldn’t fit a narrative to it. It made no sense in any context I was familiar with. It was one of the ways I knew, actually, that what I was seeing was some form of extreme aberrance.
We mis-treated the problem with traditional couples counseling. My frustration and resentment grew, as therapist after therapist ignored my insistence that we had a special problem — that there was something really not normal about his anger — and gave us standard behavioral modification techniques to work on.
Homework was particularly dangerous. This isn’t going to work, I’d think; I’d sit there listening to whatever therapist it was tell us the ground rules, dreading the coming week, knowing that as soon as we were out of the office, all hell would break lose –- because rules don’t mean shit to bipolar disorder.
Luciano called what we were doing during his bouts of monstrous raging “fighting,” though I never agreed with that — the rage had a force of its own, and didn’t need an opponent. Though it always sought one out: Each time the cycle came around again, I could feel it shimmering around him — the mood, the unhappiness, whatever it was, building; then, every time, eventually coming after me like a heat-seeking missile, looking for something to attach itself to. And the rages would go on for days — momentarily abating but not really gone, the monster lying in wait for the next eye-roll or sigh or exasperated shrug or whatever I was going to do wrong, next.
Despite knowing that something about all of this was really off, I still didn’t make the leap to “mental illness.” Instead, I tried to apply my natural framework of thinking to the situation — that any problem we had ought to be able to be untangled, examined, and solved by talking about it. I racked my brain: If I could only understand what was happening, find the rational explanation behind all of this, I could figure out how to fix it.
I became a careful watcher of Luciano, a detective of his moods, his every facial expression and inflection and tone of voice. I’d listen carefully to the words he’d spew wildly during his rages, trying to discern what was crazy-talk and what was real, whether any of his ravings had legitimacy, trying to uncover the basis of whatever problem he was having so that maybe, if I could get him to calm down, we could talk about it.
There were times, before Stephanie, when I would try to have a serious relationship with a woman I thought or wished that I loved, but those times always ended up with my screaming and threatening and then breaking things off between us forever. I would somehow manage to forget ever having done this with a woman until the next time it happened. I dated women who lived in other cities or counties. I went through a phase of only going out with women who had boyfriends. I had a few relationships with women I had little to nothing in common with. I was involved with one of my best friend’s step-mother shortly after his father died. I also lived with a series of sex workers for a number of years.
I had no understanding of the inner-workings of the family when I entered into one with Callie and Stephanie. At first, I felt like a guest at a bed-and-breakfast. I had a hard time picking up on the social cues. I knew that there was a unique rhythm to every family, similar to a finger print, something I personally could not understand, so I faked it, like I’ve done with most things in my life.
Life with the two of them was wonderful. I played “rough games” with Callie, we wrote songs together and we had a slew of imaginary friends. I learned to cook. There was lots of teasing and jokes and laughing. We played games. I played piano and guitar and flute with Callie: She was too young to know that I wasn’t a very good musician but I was good enough for her, and that was all I cared about. Callie and Stephanie spoke a secret language, literally, that I never could figure out. I walked Callie to school every morning and Stephanie and I ate dinner by candlelight every night. Stephanie wrote and published books, Callie got good at the bass and started her first band, Cosmetic Rebellion; and I got to walk on the moon.
When Stephanie and I first got together she told me that she “wasn’t easy,” and that if I was looking for someone who was, I was going to be disappointed. I found out quickly: Stephanie’s anger can be hurtful. It would come out of nowhere, sometimes, surprising me. Things were good, but never easy. She’s difficult. So am I.
I started emotionally stalking Stephanie soon after we moved into our first place. I had decided that her moods would dictate how I felt about myself, our family and the world. I became hyper-aware of her sighs, coughs, and under-the-breath comments. I couldn’t let anything go. I began to feel betrayed by her unhappiness. I was outraged by her silence. I was soon tantrumming. I can’t remember much about what it was like for us then. All I know was that it was nothing compared to what would come later — and that meth would make it look like a day at the beach.
I am only now beginning to understand how hard it must be to live with someone who has undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Along with my highs came a level of hubris second to none. I felt smart. I was funny, brave, exciting and dangerous. I worked all the time. I spent whatever I had and borrowed to spend more. Crashing dropped me into despair and isolation. I became paranoid and self-destructive. I was suicidal one minute and putting on a one-man show the next, the lows and highs coming together and exploding into waves of ecstatic misery.
I abused Stephanie while begging her for help. I held my head and cried. I raged until I lost my voice. I cried and yelled. I would leave, saying that I would never return, and then return, saying that everything was okay and demanding that she agree. The longer we were together the sicker I became.
My bipolar rages contain more overpowering negative emotions than I can handle. They play out like carpet bombings in my brain. Here’s how it would typically unfold: Something would happen — Stephanie would do something that pissed me off, say something nasty. I’d get angry and leave the room, go down into my room in the basement. She’d want to talk, so she’d follow me down. I wouldn’t want to talk. I’d prefer to sit in the dark, mumbling nasty, angry things about Stephanie or, just as often, about myself. She’d refuse to leave. I would slowly raise my voice until I was verbally abusing, then intimidating her and yelling at her. I would sometimes scream, on and off, for hours. I would cover my ears and eyes and rock back and forth. I’d cry.
I’d start throwing things across the room. Anything. A lamp, laptop, glasses, or a vase. Then I would intentionally begin breaking things. Doing all of these things would make me feel better: While I wasn’t sure who I was fighting with, at least I was fighting.
I would pack a bag and try to leave, saying I wasn’t ever going to come home. If she got in my way, I’d push her away, or grab her tight around her arms or wrists to make her move. Then, when she started to cry or ask me what she could do to help me, try to get through to me, tell me that I wasn’t okay and that I needed help, I would make faces and laugh at her. I’d chant nonsense to drown out her voice. This would often go on into the early morning. I’d end up sitting in a chair, rocking back and forth and begging her to forgive me, ashamed, wishing I was dead, and unable to make sense of what had happened. Then I would pass out, and have a hard time remembering what had happened when I woke up.
I can’t give you an explanation as to why any of this happened. I would never blame it on my background, and associating with bi-polar disorder sounds like a weak defense. What it did to Stephanie can’t be repaired. It’s not going to be okay because my doctors call it bi-polar rage rather than spousal abuse. The drugs have arrested the raging and the mania for the time being. The depression is still there.
Many times over the course of my fifteen-year relationship with Luciano, the few friends who knew the real story, who’d seen me after one of the more harrowing episodes of abuse, and knew how difficult it was behind the scenes, would ask me why I stayed. It was hard for me to be completely honest, and still is: There are reasons I’m not proud of. I don’t like being alone. I think I’m hard to love, and suspect that’s made me more tolerant of bad treatment than I should have been. There were things in my upbringing that acclimated me to dysfunction — domestic unease feels normal, baseline, to me. I’ve never been sure about the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior between family members. I define myself in part by my ability to live through shit.
There are answers I’m not ashamed to say, though, too. Luciano’s mental illness wasn’t the whole picture of who he was, and the rages weren’t the whole picture of our life. The rage was a “monster” — which was my uninformed metaphor, for so long, for his mental illness — that took the Luciano I loved — my friend and partner — from me for longer and longer periods of time, until our life together consisted of little else but pain and trauma and tension and emergency. But, to me, the “real” Luciano was the one who, back in his right mind once again after a four-day rage binge, would cry and apologize and be sorry beyond measure, and vow sincerely that he would never yell at me again and say that he didn’t want to be that guy; and tell me how important I was, and our family was, to him; and that all he wanted to do was learn how to be a better man and a better husband and have a good life with me and Callie — have fun and do normal things and not fight and be happy and grow old together.
Despite how terrible things got, that was the Luciano I always believed in (or, that I believed in right up until he started doing meth, but that’s a story for another chapter.)
And despite it all, I stayed. There was neither magnanimity nor masochism involved. Because the truth is, when you love a mentally ill person, it’s just like loving anyone else — only harder. Your love binds you; and if you become family with them, your personal feelings and values about family and commitment guide you. Loving a bi-polar mate is complicated, not easily understood from the outside; decisions to stay or go made in a different framework than in a marriage where no one is ill. It’s very hard for someone who hasn’t experienced it to understand.