Monday, April 6, 2015

The Man Who Wasn't There and the Man Who Was

Hitherto I have resisted writing this entry.  I know that this story of managing the disorder cannot continue without an account of my third divorce--yes, third--and assuredly my final marriage.  But I wasn't certain how to proceed, for two reasons.  First, this entry cannot descend into a case of payback.  Second, there is my daughter Chloe, who is now three years old.  One of the truly damaging experiences of my childhood was listening to my mother assassinate the characters of numerous relatives, including my father.  I cannot let that happen to Chloe.  And so in telling this story I have decided to tell it, as much as possible, from the point of view of Katherine, her mother.

A couple of months into the divorce process (which from start to finish took seventeen months), I took a notebook, sat down with Katherine, asked her to explain her reasons for wanting to leave the marriage, and wrote down her response.  I didn't argue back.  I just needed to understand. Reduced to essentials, the story was simple:

Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd go away.

That may sound harsh.  But imagine yourself being perfectly miserable, and moreover having an infant and being convinced that the other parent was incompetent and therefore that the infant was in danger.  If I myself believed my daughter were in danger, and the occasion demanded it, I would stop at nothing to protect her.  Just so with Katherine.  And over the months I have come to take comfort in the knowledge that Chloe's mother would indeed stop at nothing. Not all parents are like that, and it is possibly the worst failing a parent can have.

Katherine and I have since become allies of a kind, by which I mean that although our life objectives have now diverged, we have a common commitment to Chloe. She and I communicate almost daily about Chloe's welfare and we trade stories of her amazing development as a person.  Once a month we meet at a coffee house and spend about two hours discussing Chloe's welfare at length.  On one occasion our relationship was so tense that I figured the meeting would be little more than a two-hour tirade.  Instead it was one of the most productive we have had, and it was and is remarkable to see Katherine's laser-like focus on our daughter.

We trade agenda items prior to each meeting and the tone is businesslike  (Even in the throes of the divorce, we let our lawyers do all the hooking and jabbing and almost never spoke to one another about the divorce.)  A couple of months ago one agenda item was my intention to return to this blog and my recognition that, in order for this account to be of any real use, honesty required a discussion of the relationship between the divorce and my bipolar disorder.  Katherine did not object; she simply observed that the divorce was essentially a private matter.  I replied that our affidavits are now a matter of public record.  Any interested party has the right to request them and read them.  She acknowledged that this was the case.  So I will try to confine this entry to a discussion of the affidavits. (Even the quote above about "the man who wasn't there" simply puts in different words a statement that appeared in Katherine's affidavit.)

 Here is the essence of Katherine's position:
I intend to move to Cincinnati [Katherine's home town, where her family and support system are mainly concentrated, and where her place of employment is physically located--during our marriage she telecommuted via phone and laptop] on or around Friday, March 8, 2013 [a week after we submitted our affidavits] . . . . I firmly believe that the relocation to Cincinnati is both necessary and, overall, more beneficial to Chloe than the present arrangement [co-parenting in the Columbus area.]  Professionally, the move is a necessary one for me. [This was followed by an extensive and convincing recounting of the support system Katherine would enjoy and that, implicitly, would involve a network of people who would share Katherine's concern for Chloe's welfare and assist her in raising Chloe,] . . .. I am a positive person overall and it has been incredibly difficult to prepare these materials. I do not wish to tear Mark down.  That is certainly not my goal, and I take no pleasure in that aspect of this endeavor.  I believe in my heart of hearts that Mark knows that Chloe staying with him in Columbus is the wrong thing for Chloe. . . . I believe that Mark desperately wants to be Chloe's primary parent.  This is, for better or worse (and it is worse, unfortunately), who he is, with all of the struggles that accompany his condition.
The affidavit proper was only five double-spaced pages in length, but to make the case about my struggles Katherine incorporated two appendices totaling fourteen single-spaced pages.  I will describe them in reverse order because I think it better conveys her concerns.  The appendix that addressed my bipolar disorder argued that I managed the disorder not nearly as well as I claimed.  This emphasis on the disorder is of course the principal reason for discussing the divorce as an episode in the theme of this blog, "a personal account of managing bipolar disorder."
My overriding concern in this divorce remains the extensive and persistent evidence that Mark does not have the psychological, social, or emotional capacity to care for Chloe adequately over extended periods of time or when she is unwell.  His long history of mental illness is accompanied by ample evidence that he does not manage it nearly as well as he claims and that he has great difficulty functioning in a healthy manner.  Furthermore, Mark has demonstrated persistent inability to maintain social and familial connections over time.
Some of her assertions I would characterize as merely "Jeepers, Mark really does have bipolar disorder," but although I do not agree with all of them, the balance were fairly reasonable.  For instance, she asserted that I had many more depressions than I made out, and detailed twenty-one episodes she characterized as depressions.  Also, while I believed that my depressions never extended to two weeks--the threshold for clinical depression as defined by the American Psychiatric Association--she cited this blog to document an instance in 2009 where an episode lasted fourteen days (at least that was Katherine's counting, since the number was placed in brackets rather than given as a direct quote).  She also provided several instances in which I failed to notice the connection between adverse circumstances, such as unpleasant encounters with colleagues, and the onset of depressions--in short, the connection between life events and biochemistry. Further, "I observed him mostly to adhere to his medication schedule but periodically to forget to take his medications and then to plunge quickly into depressions."  She substantiated this claim by stating that on a weekend trip I forgot to bring my medications with me.

The appendix was divided into sections:  "Relationship Overview,"  "A Long History of Mental Illness," "Irregular Self-Care," "A Pattern of Checking Out," "Family History," "A Failed Career," "Case Study of an Anxiety Attack," and "Difficulty Managing Normal Activities."  The other appendix addressed in detail my failure to have led a normal life, and because it did not explicitly touch upon bipolar disorder isn't directly relevant to the purpose of the blog.  But it implicitly drew a picture of a penumbra of personal inadequacy loosely relating to my mental illness, and although it preceded the other appendix I think it makes more sense to reverse the order.

If this sounds like a scorched earth approach, it was.  But I've talked to several attorneys who are acquaintances of mine and this strategy did not at all surprise them.  They had seen it a number of times.   And before you judge, bear in mind that Katherine was trying to protect Chloe.

My own affidavit was a lot simpler, although it still ran to 19 double-spaced pages.  It basically consisted of a summary of my extensive curriculum vitae (an academic resume) and thus evidence that I was a high-functioning individual; an explication of a child's need for a father, buttressed with key specifics about the importance of that role; the prediction that Katherine's affidavit would likely attempt to exploit the stigma attached to mental illness; a proposed shared parenting schedule that contemplated equal parenting time; and the statement that "I believe that Katherine is a good mother and that Chloe needs to have a strong bond with both parents."

Katherine "lost" the case--a verb I do not like but which, given the adversarial nature of the divorce, is inevitable. By that I mean that the judge handed down a decision which made relocation to Cincinnati so unpalatable that Katherine chose to remain in Columbus, and one that gave Katherine eight days of parenting time out of every fourteen-day period and myself, of course, the remaining six.

One highly experienced attorney cautioned me that people who lose custody cases (although technically we always had joint custody and this was really a dispute over parenting arrangements) are usually enraged and vindictive and warned me that Katherine might one day make another bid to take Chloe. It's the chief reason I'm a little scared to write this entry.  But I would imagine that mental illness gets deployed a lot in domestic relations cases, that readers with bipolar disorder would therefore have to negotiate it, that persons who might find themselves in my position would have fears about it, and consequently that it would be cowardly to pass over it.  Moreover, I cannot really compose future entries without reference to the fact that our marriage failed and that Katherine and I parent Chloe together and will continue to do so until one of us dies.

I have so far seen no evidence of rage or vindictiveness from Katherine.  On the contrary, I think she has handled the situation with remarkable grace, and in a way I am actually proud of her.  She is not just a good mother but a gifted mother:  devoted to Chloe, insightful with regard to Chloe's development, consistent in efforts to expose Chloe to the world around her, and devoid of any effort to undermine me as Chloe's father.  She is also an appealing and highly intelligent person, one of the most skilled organizers I have ever seen, and just as she claimed in her affidavit, "a positive person overall."  I will say in passing that she has found a new relationship, that it is thriving, that the man is equally devoted to Chloe, and that he makes it his business to be as supportive of me as Chloe's father as he is of Katherine as Chloe's mother.

There's a quotation I like, to the effect that the most important thing a father can do for a child is to love her mother.  Love is not exactly applicable here, but respect is, and my respect for Katherine is great.

This actually has implications for my ability to manage bipolar disorder.  I never worry for a moment that Chloe is in anything less than excellent care, I don't have to deal with a lot of strife, and consequently our relationship does not contain circumstantial elements that might trigger depressions.  On the contrary, I have come to like Katherine and, taken on the whole, our relationship is a positive aspect of my life.  As for the divorce thing, I have come to regard it as evidence that Katherine will, when she thinks it necessary, protect Chloe, and let it go at that.

So what are the final takeaways that I can offer?  First, I think the outcome illustrates the benefit of treating the disorder matter-of-factly and not try to hide it, because this actually pays dividends.  In the nature of the case, a spouse gets to knows a lot about the way one manages the disorder, is bound to place it in a bad light, and if one has hidden the disorder from others there is a shortage of countervailing evidence.  Second, it is important to utilize every available tool for managing the disorder:  psychiatrist, therapist, compliance with medication, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle.  A rival attorney will stand the use of mental health specialists on its head--so-and-so cannot function without an incredible scaffolding of support--but I highly doubt a judge would buy it.  Quite the contrary, it is surely a point in one's favor.

Third, whatever the attitude of one's spouse, avoid emotionalism.  During the divorce I kept two quotations on my smart phone:  "I shall do nothing in malice.  What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing" (Abraham Lincoln); and "Of all manifestations of power, the quality that most impresses men is restraint" (Thucydides).  If you get emotional, it will  play into the narrative that you can't handle the disorder, that you're erratic or manic.

Fourth, where children are involved, focus on them--which is fairly obvious--and show respect for one's spouse with no expectation of reciprocity.  Do it exclusively for the sake of the children.  A show of continued respect for one's spouse (which in my case was easy because my spouse actually deserved respect) also plays against the "crazy" stereotype.

Fifth, never forget that if you have bipolar disorder there's a chance your child will ultimately have to deal with it too. In our case, during the pregnancy a genetic counselor estimated the likelihood at 17 percent--not incredibly high but nonetheless seventeen times the incidence of the disorder among the general population.  In such an event, how you handle the disorder will influence how your child handles it.

Sixth, win, lose, or draw, you have an obligation to fight for your children as hard as you can.  Even if I actually believed, as Katherine averred, that in my heart of hearts I could not be a good father to Chloe, that would most likely be the artifact of a mistaken belief that having bipolar disorder somehow makes you a broken person.  It is a lie you tell yourself. And what view of men would Chloe adopt if her own father essentially just let her go? What lifelong pain would result from that?  I would have spent every dime I had and lived under a bridge rather than inflict that on Chloe.

Seventh, do not despair of success.  That is especially true if you are a man.  We live in a different world than the one depicted in Kramer Versus Kramer, where, if I understand correctly, joint custody did not yet exist as a legal concept and the default mode was to award custody to the mother.  Judges in Domestic Relations courts are increasingly aware of the substantial evidence that has emerged which strongly maintains that a solid relationship with both parents is of enormous importance. The default mode now favors joint parenting on a more or less equal basis, and even such things as alcohol addiction are frequently overridden by the priority of a child having two parents.  The case was therefore not really Katherine's to win.  It was mine to lose.

All that said, this case is a data point of one, and thus I want to expand my knowledge of the relationship between mental illness and domestic relations cases. To that end a former judge who handled domestic relations has agreed to discuss this with me, and I will report his observations in a future post.

I am loath to close without repeating a statement I have already made: Katherine is a good person and a great mother.  It is, taken on the whole, a privilege to be her co-parent.  And I'll tell you something else, because I despise people who will not own up to their own role in the failure of a relationship.  There is something to be said for the idea that I wasn't really there for Katherine.  I'm more present now than I was then.

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