Love, 21st-century style: Mental illness has not marred their marriage
By Lou Fancher
In a sweet, sorrowful and at times terrifying or angry tale, “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” tells a 21st-century love story.
Lafayette-based writer Mark Lukach’s long journey with his wife, Giulia, as she moved in and out of mental health crises, rings with raw truthfulness. Lukach, 34, first wrote about their experience with her bipolar disorder in a 2011 New York Times “Modern Love” column. A subsequent Pacific Standard Magazine article in 2015 resulted in his receiving more than 100 emails daily for a month.
Lukach,the ninth-grade dean and history teacher at The Athenian School in Danville, says that 95 percent of the responders were people thanking him for telling his and Giulia’s story. “The hardest to read were from people whose spouses had died or people first hospitalized and terrified or who had a family member hospitalized for the twelfth time, and they were exhausted,” he recalls, during an interview at his home.
Giulia had her first psychotic episode three years into their marriage. Lukach took her to an emergency room, expecting to leave with a diagnosis and perhaps medication. Instead, a 23-day stay in a psych ward and a frightening prognosis became their reality: Ninety percent of the time, psychosis recurs; medications have serious side effects and varying efficacy. Over the long term, families are forced to “play doctor,” determining for their loved ones the best course of action in the murky swill of the mental-health care system and the pain of enduring the social stigma.
Lukach, a self-described “sentimental, hyper, happy-go-lucky guy,” found himself playing extinguisher to Giulia’s fire, especially in public. “I had to act quickly every time the feelings surfaced, lest the warning sparks grow into a destructive inferno,” he writes.
In the next five years, Giulia had two more breakdowns. Lukach remembers the exhaustion, relieved momentarily but never entirely by surfing, running, the birth of their “man-in-motion” son, Jonas, and inevitably, writing.
The memoir began as two manuscripts: a 90,000-word account written after Giulia’s first episode and a 40,000-word condensed version he wrote after the Pacific Standard article published. “I then wrote on index cards each anecdote I wanted to include. Giulia did that, too. We compared and had about 80 percent overlap.”
With the help of editors and other advisors, Lukach determined a chronological approach was best. A dual writing mode—performed at a standing desk, balanced on a wobble board to ease his fidgety physicality — had Lukach writing from 10 p.m. to midnight during the school year and in blissful two-hour writing, two-hour editing stretches during spring and summer vacations.
As reference, he drew upon his obsession with books. “My favorite childhood toy was ‘The Three LIttle Pigs.’ By kindergarden, I was reading Beverly Cleary chapter books. In high school, my way of slacking off was bringing a book into class and subversively reading Steinbeck in my lap.”
Lukach got hooked on writing when he abandoned the formal, five-paragraph analytical writing he teaches his students. “I realized you could break out of the mold. I wrote an op ed about being a nondrinker in college and having a vibrant social life.”
Most difficult to write in the memoir was a chapter about missing his son’s appearance as an elephant in a school Halloween parade. “Seeing Jonas in that costume, knowing I was going to take Giulia to the hospital,” he says, tears threatening to spill and his voice constricted, “I felt like I was breaking a promise. There was the extremity of the situation compounded with letting my son down.”
A second scene describing a time the couple were deciding if they would stay married, he says, required 30 iterations before the language felt true to their remembered conversation. His attempts to add wit or wisecracks that he admires in others’ books were unsuccessful. “This is an intense book. I’m glad to have had editors who pushed me to explore my discomfort, anger, guilt,” he says.
More instinctive is what he calls the book’s mythological tone about their marriage. “That felt right. We weren’t star-crossed lovers, but we were fated to be together,” he insists. Left-handedness, mothers with a shared birthday, time living abroad during their childhoods and other examples of overlapping histories fill the book’s first chapter that describes their meant-to-be-forever love.
“My Lovely Wife” includes the extended families’ role during the challenges and blessings of their experience. Sharing early proofs of the book with siblings and parents, Lukach says his goal beyond writing with frank, sometimes painful honesty, was that they would never doubt his love. “It was amazing. They expressed sadness they’d bottled up. I heard stories I didn’t know about because I was too busy living my experience.”
Giulia, an online marketer for a Bay Area retail company who leaves a first impression of radiance, says her husband uses words powerfully and that she was a “grueling editor” throughout the process. “It was a collaboration, even though his name is alone on the cover,” she says.
Asked if she might one day tell her story, she says, “I’m intimidated by the thought, but I haven’t closed the door on writing. When I was in the hospital, and I was manic, I wrote my most powerful and beautiful poem.”
Since 2014, when the memoir ends, Giulia continues to take Lithium and has not had a breakdown. “But it’s a clock in my head,” she says. “This coming fall either continues the trend of every three years I break — or I brake the cycle. Being bipolar is my struggle in life. There’s such stigma with mental illness. With my story, we are trying to break those walls: I’m bipolar, and we’re not ashamed of it.”