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Family Business

By Jeff Kraemer
Network, Fall 2007

About 10 years ago, Janice McLaughlin’s* husband signed a lease on a luxury condo without consulting her. He liquidated RRSPs and handed out twenty dollar bills to homeless people he passed on the street. Alison Weiss’s* husband blew so much on spending sprees a few years ago that she still feels anxiety when she opens the monthly credit card bill.

Planning for the future generally becomes more difficult when your symptoms, or your partner’s, may lead to financial insecurity.”

Their stories are strikingly similar, and at the core of their common experiences is their husbands’ bipolar disorder. People with the disorder cycle between periods of depression and mania, and those in manic phases often have poor impulse control. So, while families with mental illness face particular strains, and all families face financial strains, McLaughlin and Weiss (*not their real names) and their husbands had to deal with the point where those strains get tangled together.

Essentially, manic symptoms and credit cards are a bad combination.

“My husband would go way beyond the maximum of the credit cards,” McLaughlin says. “I would get so angry with the credit card companies for repeatedly increasing his spending limit.”

But there were greater costs than credit card debt. During one manic phase, her husband left home and leased a condo just after they had moved into their first house and started paying a mortgage. McLaughlin had covered the extra rent when he had left home during manic phases in the past, but couldn’t afford mortgage payments on her own income. Now she had a few weeks to sell their new home and rent a place on her own. And she did. She was a motivated seller. She sold it at a loss.

“I remember walking through the house with the real estate agent, crying,” she adds.

In time, his manic phase ended, he returned to his wife — who helped him break the lease on the condo — and his recovery began. But the credit card debt and unpaid taxes didn’t go away when his symptoms did; they amounted to around $60,000, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy.

“The bankruptcy process was complicated because we were living together,” McLaughlin says. “I don’t even recall how we did it, but we did; he declared bankruptcy in such a way that it didn’t affect my assets.”

“The process is so onerous; you have to detail every cent. And my husband was in recovery and couldn’t manage the process, so I did.”

Weiss was the manager of her husband’s finances, too, during that year or so between the period when his symptoms first appeared and when his treatment took effect. They had been together for 11 years before he started showing symptoms.

“The minute he got ill, I knew that there was something seriously wrong,” Weiss says. “And one of his major symptoms was spending money. And in an extreme way, a really scary way, actually.”

But Weiss’s husband took an extraordinary step for someone experiencing mania, one that saved the couple an enormous amount of money and trouble. He ended his control over their joint bank account and opened his own account, so he was spending only his own money. He left the household assets untouched.

“At the time I think I took it personally — ‘Why do you want your own bank account?’ In retrospect he tried to tell me, ‘I did it because I knew not to touch any of the household [assets]’…. But still, a lot of money was blown.”

Their household income took a double hit when Weiss’s husband first became ill, because she had to quit her job to care for her husband. It was, she says, “a huge financial upheaval.” Still, they had income from his business — they have since started a second — and, Weiss adds with a laugh, “My husband was lucky enough to have a nice wife who made sure that all of his bills were paid, [which protected] his credit. But a lot of people don’t have that.”

“I would say that we’re among the fortunate ones,” Weiss adds. “He sought treatment early and had some insight that he was ill, so even now if he gets ill, he knows to trust me to say, ‘Hand over your credit cards.’ He’ll warn me, actually; he’ll say, ‘I have the urge to [spend] all the money on the line of credit.’ And my response to that will be, ‘Is that a warning sign to me?'”

There can be longer-term effects on finances, too. McLaughlin’s husband found his credit rating was ruined. Over the course of several years, he got a high-paying job and in time the McLaughlins were ready to take on another mortgage. To do that, though, they had to explain his past financial troubles, which meant disclosing details of his bipolar disorder.

The McLaughlins now have a financial adviser who urges them to get life insurance. But, given his medical history, McLaughlin says her husband won’t qualify.

In fact, planning for the future generally becomes more difficult when your symptoms may lead to financial insecurity. “We could plan [only] a couple of months ahead,” says McLaughlin. “You don’t plan on vacations. You stop thinking about the distant future. It becomes overwhelming.”

Weiss says she and her husband don’t feel as free to invest in everyday items as they used to. “We’re concerned that he may get sick again and not be able to work,” she says, “or that his access to money should be limited at all times due to the fact that, if his illness does act up, his impulses do increase. They may not be completely out of control for months on end, but might be out of control for a week.”

“Everything is done with a lot of caution,” Weiss adds. “Financially, [my husband] might have moments of impulsivity. But nothing we’ve been concerned about for a while — nothing major. I would know how to maneuver if I saw signs of his illness; I wouldn’t be sitting back as much [as I did when he first got ill]. I would take control of the situation, try to get him to stop spending and take his credit card away. It’s set up so he gives me his paycheques from the one business so I can pay his expenses, his fixed costs. And then his income from the other business is his disposable income, so he’s free to do what he chooses with that, so he feels he has independence as well. I guess it’s working out a budget of what a household can afford to make sure all their expenses are taken care of, and then whatever’s left over, you can work with that. That’s how we’re handling it right now.”

What advice would they give others in their position?

McLaughlin says it depends on what stage of recovery one’s loved one is at. “If the family member is participating fully in his or her recovery and taking responsibility for it, they should be willing to work as a team member around managing financial resources.” In fact, she adds, “Managing money becomes part of managing one’s recovery, because it’s tied to personal security.”

And ask for help when you need it, McLaughlin says. Lawyers, bank managers, accountants and financial advisors can offer strategies families can use to protect themselves — but be prepared to educate them about the illness.

Weiss has considered talking to financial professionals about planning for another manic phase, but she worries that they’ll discriminate against her and her husband and refuse to do business with them.

Her advice to others is simple: protect yourself. The Weisses had a lawyer draw up a document assigning power of attorney to her if he became ill, so that she could control all the finances. Yet even that had complications.

“I don’t know if you know anything about mania,” Weiss says with a rueful laugh, “but the first thing a person would do when they’re manic, of course, is revoke the document that was put in place” limiting their financial control. Luckily, her husband didn’t spend much that time, but they learned their lesson: add a clause that if either party revokes the document, the revocation will not take effect for a certain period of time, perhaps a month. That requires a lot of trust, Weiss points out.

The solution the Weisses settled upon is the same the McLaughlins have used, and that most couples use for whatever challenges they face: work as a team.

Weiss’s husband is “very comfortable with the idea of working as a team, and having restricted access at times,” she says, and “he’s also relayed this message to close friends and families. Because they misunderstand. He gets ill and they just think he’s taking his wife for a ride,” she adds with a laugh. “So when his insight was restored and all that damage had been done, he told them, ‘If I go out of control, you guys have permission to pull rank to prevent me from spending.'”

Managing spending when a partner has bipolar disorder, she says, means being cautious. And “the average person has difficulty doing that on a regular day. It’s just much more intensified when somebody has this kind of illness.”

“We manage the finances jointly as much as possible,” McLaughlin says. “And he’s got to the point where he doesn’t resent it — much. And I understood how he found it emasculating and controlling, but I simply couldn’t risk my own financial security again by not doing it. It was a line in the sand I had to draw. But we’re working on it as a team now, and we’re doing much better. We’re even working on a retirement plan!”

“I’m learning to trust him, and he’s learning to appreciate the checks and balances I provide, so we’re working together on our joint security,” McLaughlin adds. “We’ve met in the middle, as couples managing conflict so often do.”

Jeff Kraemer is the e-content developer at CMHA, Ontario.

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