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 bi-polar 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 Bi-Polar Luciano had: That I was terrible; that everything I did — and as a matter of fact 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; I was a terrible mother — 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 touched 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’s 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 bi-polar 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: 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 — 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 talk about it.