As Gabi Coatsworth’s son’s bipolar disorder gave way to full-blown manic episodes, she watched her husband slip deeper into drink and detachment.
“You never really liked him, did you?” I wailed. My husband, Jay, and I were standing in our kitchen having the same argument we’d had so many times since we’d married 10 years before. Jay was Jason’s stepfather, and their mutual resentment had often been a thorn in the bed of roses I had expected our marriage to be.
“He could’ve been a nice kid, but you weren’t tough enough with him,” said Jay, as he topped off his vodka and tonic, mainly with vodka.
Now I was really angry. How dare he say that I was a bad mother? I took another giant cookie off the counter and bit savagely into it.
“He was fine until I married you and moved to this godforsaken town,” I said.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it …” And we were off, ostensibly rowing over my son, Jason. When Jay and I wanted to fight, we had two things to fight over—Jason and politics. And basically it was the same fight. I was too liberal and Jay was too right wing, not just politically, but in the way we viewed the world, and the way we brought up our kids.
When I married Jay, Jason had been 14, and he, his sister, and I had moved from bustling Evanston, Illinois, to backcountry Fairfield—not exactly godforsaken, to be sure, but five miles from town. There were many things that Jason and Helenka hated about that move. They didn’t want to leave their friends and everything familiar to live with a man who was the love of my life, but the bane of theirs. I’d been divorced for 10 years and the children and I had carved out a life where I worked and their street smarts made up for me not being there all day. I gave them a fair amount of leeway—maybe too much, but as a working mother it was hard to cover all the bases.
Jay had been married before, too. His two lovely girls were well behaved, studied hard, and never caused a moment’s worry for their parents. I knew my kids weren’t like that, and knew they never would be.
What I didn’t know was that, at the age of 13, Jason had started self-medicating his depression—his first symptom of bipolar disorder—which would finally come to a crisis when he was 33. Jay was convinced we had a drug addict on our hands. I was hoping it was just a phase, but eventually I agreed to give Jason an ultimatum—quit or leave. Jason decided to leave. In my grief, I blamed Jay for the loss of my son.
I wondered, sometimes, why on earth Jay and I had married each other. We were such opposites, and neither of us was prepared to change anytime soon. What had I seen in him? And then I remembered. Jay just didn’t quit. When the chips were down, Jay would always do the right thing.
When my sister died in England aged 41, Jay hadn’t hesitated when I told him her boys, 5 and 8, needed a home. “Of course we’ll take them,” he said, and they came to live with us. He’d always wanted a son, and Jason certainly hadn’t come up to the mark. Now he could try again. But losing a sister and having two new children to take care of, exactly 20 years younger than my own, had made me tired and depressed, with almost no energy left to be a wife.
Five years later, Jason had his first full-blown manic episode and I went into in-charge-mom mode. Jay said nothing, but I read between the silences. “Jason might have been OK—if I hadn’t been such a bad mother.”
So when I had to choose between Jason and his unpredictable crises and the two needy little boys or Jay, Jay lost out. The boys really couldn’t cope without me—Jay could. Still, he hung in there, though the same old arguments continued. When I was too tired to smile, or just plain weepy, Jay would blame Jason.
“I don’t hate Jason,” he said, “but I hate that he makes you upset.”
“He doesn’t,” I lied. “But he’s the one who needs me right now.”
Jay’s jaw tightened and he said nothing. But I could read his mind by now. He was pissed that I worried more about Jason than him.
Actually, I was concerned about Jay too, but in a more chronic way. He was working longer and longer hours; he was drinking more but it was relaxing him less. When I was finding life hard, he became withdrawn, as though becoming entangled in the problems of family life was too much for him. He began to spend more time at our weekend place in New Hampshire, while I stayed in Connecticut, keeping an eye on Jason.
I knew I couldn’t do much about Jay’s drinking, but I could get help for Jason, and I did. Over the next six or seven years, as one manic episode succeeded another, Jay cautiously became a little more involved. He visited Jason in the hospital a couple of times, and was startled to hear Jason telling the hospital staff that Jay was the head of the CIA and would bring the hospital to its knees if it didn’t let Jason go—right now.
Even so, the strain was beginning to tell on me. I’d been a mother for nearly 40 years, and a wife for 25, and the constant push and pull between Jay and Jason was taking its toll. I was already taking two antidepressants, but I was feeling more and more depressed. By the Christmas of 2007 I needed a third.
Jason went into the hospital twice in 2008, and Jay finally began to understand that being bipolar wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was an incurable condition. He became less judgmental, and when, not long after our 25th wedding anniversary, he quit drinking, that helped too. Finally, I felt that I wasn’t the referee between my husband and my son, and I began to relax. When Jason was admitted to hospital in Vermont last fall, Jay didn’t complain when I drove the two and a half hours three times a week to visit him. Jason was there for six weeks this time, but when he came out, Jay was there to help him get his life back on track. Jay’s encouragement meant as much to Jason as any practical help, though that, too, was forthcoming.
For the first time, I felt that Jay and I were on the same side. In fact, to my amazement, and maybe even his, Jay voted for Obama. We still don’t discuss politics, though, just in case.
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