College sweethearts get married, move to the West Coast, get great jobs, and plan for kids. It’s a picture-perfect vision of adulthood— life as scripted by the producers of House Hunters, complete with man cave and walk-in closet. But writer Mark Lukach, 34, and his wife Giulia, also 34, would have more to worry over then replacing outdated parquet flooring. Three years into their fledgling marriage, and entirely without warning, Giulia had a prolonged psychotic episode, which resulted in her being placed in a psych ward. With the aid of medication and therapy, she recovered, only to relapse a few years later shortly after their son, Jonas, was born, and then again when he was a toddler. Eventually diagnosed as bipolar, Giulia now controls her illness with lithium and hasn’t had a relapse in more than two years.
If Mark and Giulia’s love story has been more HBO then HGTV, so be it. It’s made them better, stronger more loving partners.
“Things are as good as they’ve ever been for us, as far as feeling a really deep connection and having worked through a lot of the issues: processing Giulia’s health challenges and how that redefined our marriage,” says Mark, who has grappled with many of those issues publicly. In 2011, he wrote a Modern Love column about the way in which mental illness affected their relationship. Later, he wrote a longer piece about it for The Pacific Standard, the epic response to which earned him a book deal. His new memoir, My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward (Viking) records the couple’s journey from teenage lovers to clear-eyed thirty-something partners and parents.
Mark and Giulia talk to FLARE about grownup love and the “gift” of mental illness.
It’s common to write about trouble in relationships after the fact, but what’s the challenge of writing about a still vital marriage under strain?
Mark: I think there’s two distinct challenges. The first was just mustering up the willpower to go and revisit some of these really difficult memories, and to then try and convey them in an emotionally relatable way for an audience. It’s exhausting and some times I wasn’t up for it. The other challenge was to write in a way that honoured the fact that I love Giulia very much and want her to be received by anybody that read this with dignity, but also to acknowledge that she’s not perfect and I’m not perfect and our relationship is not perfect, so walking that fine line was hard.
I would write a chapter and then email it to Giulia and the next night she’d send me the chapter [with her notes]. We had a lot of discussions and sometimes they were really tough discussions about the tone of something or the inclusion of some detail or not including some detail. These challenges were very real but were a worthwhile endeavour and really good for the marriage ultimately. It helped me process and make peace with the trauma of the past and confronting those imperfections in each other and our dynamic have made us a lot more aware of how to be good partners to each other.
Giulia, how did it feel to read Mark’s story, which so closely involves you. Does it feel like your story too?
Giulia: From the beginning I was very protective of this and how it came across because for Mark it was very much from the caregiver perspective. But at the same time he was giving a voice to us and to me, the person that’s sick, and that [speaks for] everyone that’s bipolar or has any other mental illness, and I wanted to protect them. It was always our memoir; that’s always as I’ve seen it, even though I didn’t write it. I was very much involved in each chapter and in the way that he portrayed me. In the end, my hope in all of this was to break down the stigma around mental illness and talk about it in a loving, collaborative, open way
Giulia, your mental illness caught everyone in your life by surprise. Did it surprise you, too, or did you have any sense of what was happening?
My episodes were all pretty surprising, especially the first one. I was completely blown away by my feelings of psychosis, and having these really deep delusions that things were real [and yet] they weren’t real. I had no history of depression, no pills. I thought it was a weakness—to take medication to heal your brain. So, when I got sick at 27 it was very much a whirlwind, I stopped sleeping, I stopped eating, I wanted to end my life, which is the first time I’d ever had these dark, very scary thoughts, and so yeah, they were all new feelings for me that I’d never experienced.
A few months after you had your son, Jonas, Giulia experienced her third episode. How did that additional challenge shape your experience of fatherhood?
Mark: The aspect of parenting is a tough one. I have looked forward to being a dad for a very long time. Our plan was that Giulia was going to return to work and I was going to be the stay-at-home dad. Then when Giulia was hospitalized there was a necessity for me to have a special relationship with our child. The paediatrician told me that kids are super-resilient and can weather the storm if a parent goes through a health situation as long as one of the two parents is predictable and reliable and stable. So I took that very seriously and really tried to wrap Jonas in a cocoon of love and positivity, and even more then I was doing beforehand. While I was the most emotionally stable as far as what was happening to Giulia, I was incredibly distraught maybe more than I had ever had been [during previous episodes] because of what Jonas was going through—the fact that while Giulia was starting to be psychotic, Jonas was a little scared of her.
What about you Giulia? How was your experience of motherhood different from what you’d expected?
Giulia: When I met Mark at 18, we always knew we wanted to have a big family and that we were going to be young parents. When I first got sick and hospitalized, I was so lost in my mind, in my world, and I remember my mom visiting me and me telling her, Mom, I’m never going to get to be a mom, I’m crazy. And she was like, ‘Giulia, yes you are.’ I feel like Mark and I have dreamed about Jonas long before he was even an idea and I feel so lucky to get to be his mom.
What I love about the book is that it shows that life—and love—is not a plot you can control.
Mark: To me, it’s definitely a love story. It’s about learning to grow up and how to love in a way that’s more grownup. Giulia and I were children when we met each other. Legally adults, but we were so young and clueless. In many ways we entered adulthood together, and parenthood together, and then we entered crisis together. I think it’s really about how to grow up as a partner.
Giulia: To me the book is Mark’s testament to his love for me, and that’s such a beautiful thing So many people could just pick up and leave this situation, and it’s not to put judgment on [those that do] it doesn’t make them weak, it’s just the fact that Mark was here and he never doubted that I would survive and thrive in this life.
Mark: The first half of the story is so fairytale like and the second half is so dark and the whole point is that it’s both. The Giulia I met at 18 was this girl I thought I would always have a crush on but never have the courage to go and talk to, instead I would just pine for her throughout college. She still is that person—that’s the point. But she’s also the person that’s been hospitalized and who has had to face these really scary losses of her own control of mind. That whole picture is where I have found so much more richness of understanding who I am and who she is.
Giulia: I love that. I think within each of us there is this light and this darkness and we have to embrace both and we have to accept both. When I was first hospitalized I was so ashamed to share what had happened to me because it made no sense. I was so embarrassed because society says that having mental illness is bad and a person who has mental illness is a bad person, and that is not what this story is about. For me, my bipolar was a gift to me. It has opened up my life and my relationships, which after my illness are so much more meaningful, so much deeper then they ever were. Before our love story was at the surface, we never had to dive this deep and face our demons and we have learnt to face our demons and I feel like even if another hospitalization happens I’m not as scared anymore. I’m ready to face it.