By Leslie Lindsay
An honest and unflinching view of what it’s like to be the caregiver of someone with a serious mental illness, told with compassion and rawness.
When I stumbled across MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD (Harper Wave, May 2017), I knew I had to read it. Not only does the author/husband share his name with my dad, but the strikingly similar story of a woman in the prime of her life suddenly falling victim to a strange and disorienting psychosis also rang true. Very true.
My own mother suffered a similar fate at 29, almost the very age Giulia was when psychoses came hunting her. I watched, as a child as my mother spewed delusion after delusion, her fingers blanched as she gripped the car door in protest, and then, as she attempted to exit the moving vehicle on the way to the hospital. I saw too, her mangled mind and tortured thoughts.
The difference is, I was a child. Mark is very much an adult.
I am so, so honored to have Mark on the blog couch today. The entire month of May has been Mental Health Awareness Month. We’re at the tail-end, I realize but that doesn’t negate it’s seriousness. Most everyone will come in contact with someone who has a mental illness—whether it’s a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, and awareness is key.
Leslie Lindsay: Mark, thank you so much for popping over. I’m so in awe with this story. Not only did it take a terrible amount of courage to write, but the similarities with my mother are striking. Before we get into all of that, I’m curious what your inspiration was for writing this story? Was it really the ‘Modern Love’ column in the New York Times?
I’d say that the motivation to write about this was two-fold: the first is personal, the second more universal.
On the personal front, after Giulia’s first episode, she and I were worlds apart. She was finally feeling better after almost a year of a mental health crisis, and she wanted nothing more than to just enjoy herself. Meanwhile, I was completely and totally wiped out by the caregiving experience, and so I slipped into my own depression a bit. She wanted to feel joyful and worry-free, and here I am dumping all of my pent-up anxiety and sadness on her. We tried talking about this, on our own and even in couple’s therapy, but we never really got anywhere and butted heads a lot.
So instead, I turned to writing. I had done so much writing over the year, almost entirely in email form to keep our families updated on what was going on, and I found the writing to be extremely helpful for me to process. So instead of write emails to our parents, I tried to reconstruct the year, in book form, Giulia as the sole audience. I needed her to be able to understand me a bit more, and as it turns out, the writing, reading, and subsequent discussions turned out to play a huge role in our ability to reconnect as a couple.
The further I got into writing, the more I suspected that I might have something that was worth publishing, and so the Modern Love column was my way to try and get the book idea out there. That gets to the universal reason to write. As you say in your intro, mental health struggles come with surprisingly universal themes, but when Giulia was hospitalized, I felt more lonely than I’ve ever felt. It was like I was the first person to ever have to do this. I’m a history teacher, so I went online to try and find resources and narratives that could help me make sense of my experience, but I couldn’t find any, which made the loneliness even worse. I knew there were others out there like me, I just couldn’t find them, and that this book might be able to speak to people. It took us a while to decide to go for a fully published book, and in fact, it didn’t happen until well after the Modern Love column and Giulia’s subsequent hospitalizations, as well as the birth of our son, but the motivation really became about trying to help people.
L.L.: And now the similarities. My mom was 29 when this happened to her; Giulia was 27. My mom heard voices of God and the devil speaking to her. She did not want to go the hospital. She tried jumping out of a moving car. At one point, she was discharged AMA (against medical advice). It happened again and again. My dad—also named Mark—is an avid athlete. He competed in marathons and triathlons; but we were land-locked in Missouri, so no surfing. There are differences, though. I think what this comes down to is the universality of mental illness. Can you talk about that, please?
Mark Lukach: I am constantly shocked by just how common these things are. I’ve received a humbling amount of email from readers over the years, due to the Modern Love column and also a magazine article I wrote in Pacific Standard, and at times I almost feel like I’m reading from myself. I remember speaking with one of the social workers during Giulia’s first hospitalization, and of the 30 or so people who were on the psych ward at that time with Giulia, there were several others with religious delusions that looked almost the exact same as Giulia’s. It’s remarkable. Although I have to say Leslie, your parents’ story seems to be the most similar from anyone else I’ve met. It’s so cool that we connected.
But what does this all mean? I’m not really sure. I do think it means that mental illness is more prevalent than we let on. I understand why people are hesitant to talk about it. It’s such a terrifying thing to experience, whether it’s happening to you, or to someone you love, and we don’t go around telling everyone about life’s biggest struggles. But if we could look inside the homes of all of our neighbors and coworkers, I think we’d be shocked about how many of us suffer in similar ways.
Sometimes I go the way of Yossarian from Catch-22 when I think about this stuff—it’s a crazy world, so the only reasonable response is to go crazy as well, and maybe that’s why mental illness is so prevalent. The world does seem to get more and more pressured and impersonal, so maybe that’s part of it. But I only sometimes think that way. My most go-to answer is in a mantra that we say a lot in our family—“We’re all in this together.” We say it before dinner, sort of like our version of grace, and the more I connect with people about mental illness, the more I’m convinced that it’s true. We’re all in this together—in our joys and also in our struggles.
L.L.: The biggest difference in MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD and my mom’s mental illness is my parents divorced. I’m not entirely sure if it was the illness that tore them apart, or the symptoms and after-effects; or if there were issues all along. What this speaks to is the tenacity to love someone in sickness and in health. That includes mental health. I can’t imagine how challenging this must be (has been). Can you share a bit of your coping skills and marriage maintenance tips?
Mark Lukach: This really is what the book is about at its core. Giulia and I were thrown this curve ball of a major mental illness, and we responded in desperation and in survival mode. Once the dust settled, we had to re-evaluate who we were, and what our relationship looked like, so that we could continue to stay together. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Crises forced us to take a close look at our relationship, and neither of us necessarily liked what we saw all the time.
But we had this shared history of falling in love so young, and basically growing into adulthood together, and also a belief that we could make it work, so we tried to find ways to reconnect. I think one of the core things that we both had to learn to do better was to listen. I did a lot of talking at Giulia while she was sick, and acting on her behalf. I essentially managed her life for her when she was sick, because I worried so much about what she might do on her own, like hurt herself. In all of that, I didn’t really listen to her that much. What she said was so heartbreaking to her, that I ended up trying to talk her out of her feelings. It took me a while to realize this. I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to comfort her when she felt suicidal, but I realized I was actually, in a small way, denying her experience by trying to talk her out of how she felt.
Similarly, Giulia had to learn to listen to just how difficult it was for me to support her, which as I said above, we largely accomplished through the writing process. I realize looking back just how desperate I was for validation that my struggles were being acknowledged.
We try to take this lesson of listening to heart every day in our marriage. Of course, not every day is a mental health crisis, and it’s so easy to get busy multi-tasking your way into half-listening, or to shut down things that you don’t like to hear, and I think those can be so damaging to a relationship. We still make mistakes to each other, but we have this anchor now that we always return to—when things are going bad, we try and remind each other how important it is to listen, and that ends up being the first step toward reconciliation.
L.L.: In MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSCYCH WARD, it’s mentioned that Giulia did not have a family history for mental illness, yet so many mental illnesses have genetic roots; they often run in families. I’m curious if you all did any more digging into her family history to find any sort of suggested mental illness?
Mark Lukach: We did do a lot of digging and asking, but Giulia is from Italy, where the conversations around mental illness are much different than they are in the US. I talked to her parents a lot about this, and they certainly didn’t know about any family members with mental illness, but over time they both admitted that just because they didn’t know about them [family members with mental illness], it didn’t mean that they didn’t exist. It just meant that they didn’t know, since this type of thing is basically never talked about over there.
L.L.: And you have a son together. How my heart broke as I read about little Jonas and his elephant costume, his mother away in psych ward, his insisting that there were monsters in the house. How is he doing? What are some of his passions? And most importantly, can you reiterate the advice you received from your pediatrician about protecting kids in situations like this?
Mark Lukach: Jonas is the light of our lives. I’ve wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember, and I feel like we won the lottery with Jonas. He’s an active, curious, kind-hearted little boy. He’s just so much fun to be around. He loves books, sports, especially baseball and hockey, Star Wars, Harry Potter, legos. He’s very spiritual, and asks a lot of questions about the bigger questions in life, which I can’t help but to wonder if it’s connected somehow to his mom being hospitalized for delusions twice in his life. But I think his most telling trait is that Jonas likes to be together as a family. It seems like as long as we’re together as a family, he is up for anything. I’m hanging onto these days as tightly as I can, because I know that at some point, he’s going to grow away from always wanting his parents nearby, so I’m trying to treasure it now.
When Giulia was hospitalized for the third time, Jonas was 2 ½ years old, and his pediatrician told me that there might come a situation where I would have to choose to either protect Giulia or Jonas. For example, I knew that Giulia was really anxious to come home, and it felt like she might end up being discharged before she was ready to be around Jonas again. Jonas’ pediatrician was adamant: you have to protect your child first. He was so young, and didn’t have the words to process what he was experiencing, so I had to keep him safe and happy at all costs. Even if that meant rejecting the doctor’s recommendation that Giulia could come home, which can you imagine what that would do to my relationship with Giulia? Thankfully we didn’t have this sort of confrontation, because when Giulia came home, she was the one to realize she probably needed a few days to settle in at home before Jonas was home as well, so he stayed with my parents during that time.
When I became a parent, I never imagined that I would have to at some point make a choice between my wife or my child. I didn’t know that came with part of the territory. But it’s something I think all parents have to confront at some point or another, and I honestly don’t know if there’s a harder position to be in.
L.L.: And Giulia? How does she feel about this story being out for public consumption? I ask because in the book there’s a line that says something like, “It might be your illness, but it affects us all.”
Mark Lukach: Giulia has been incredible about this. I knew that it took a lot of courage for her to share this story, but I didn’t actually realize just how much courage. Whenever you Google her name, this book comes up. She is the lovely wife, the one whose medical history is shared for anyone to read about. And she’s up for it because she thinks this book can help people, and I find that amazing.
We’ve been doing book readings here in the Bay Area, and Giulia always comes and we do a Q&A together with the audience after I’ve read some passages, and I am so blown away by how she does with the questions. I think it’s the most empowered I’ve ever seen her. It really is incredible. I have always loved and admired Giulia, but that has only grown to see her be so gracious through all of this.
L.L.: What was the last thing you Googled?
Mark Lukach: Ha, I like this question. The last thing I Googled was for techniques to manage poison oak. I got a really bad case of the rash recently, which comes with the lifestyle of how much time I spend out on trails running and mountain biking. So I usually get poison oak a few times each year—it’s unavoidable. But I went hiking recently and saw this vine climbing up a tree, and I tried to climb up it, not realizing the vine was poison oak. The leaves were way up in the tree, so I couldn’t identify the plant, and I got the worst case of poison oak I think I’ve ever gotten. All over my face, arms, chest, everywhere. It is the worst. When I get poison oak, I race to the internet to find ways to cope with it. Granted, I already have like 50 techniques, but I hope that maybe some new trick has been discovered, and so I have been spending a lot of time trying to Google my way to some new solution that will somehow speed up the healing process. But I think I’m just stuck with it for the next two weeks, no matter how much I Google.
L.L.: What should I have asked but may have forgotten?
Mark Lukach: I’d love to talk about artistic inspiration for the book. I am an avid reader but even more than that, a fan of music, and I think that music inspired this book more than anything. I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ album “Carrie and Lowell” on repeat for much of the writing process, and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. I would literally listen to the album 4 or 5 times a day while writing. The album is Sufjan’s way of mourning his mother, who battled mental illness as well, and I found the album helped me fully reconnect with the emotions that I wanted to embed into the book.
L.L.: Mark, thank you so very much for your words. MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD is an important read and so courageous. I applaud you for telling your story.
Mark Lukach: I really appreciate your interest in having me on your site, and for the support for the book. I’m a high school history teacher, and it’s so flattering to be included with such an impressive assortment of writers.
For more information about MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD, to connect with Mark via social media, or to purchase your own copy, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Lukach is a teacher and freelance writer. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Wired, and other publications. He is currently the ninth grade dean at The Athenian School, where he also teaches history. He lives with his wife, Giulia, and their son in the San Francisco Bay area.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media sites:
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Harper Wave and used with permission. Lukach family photo retrieved from Pacific Standard article/author’s personal archives. Catch-22 image retrieved from Wikipedia, “Carrie and Lowell” album cover retrieved from Wiki.en, all on 5.25.17]