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. Mark first wrote about Giulia in a New York Times “Modern Love” column and again in a piece for Pacific Standard Magazine, which was the magazine’s most-read article in 2015.
“The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing,” an interview with Mark Lukach
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Jacqueline Aguilar. Of the process she said, “Mark Lukach’s memoir My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward is a compelling read that shows empathy and perseverance in dealing with mental illness. His memoir is chronologically ordered, describing three of his wife’s psychotic episodes, and exerts a sense of hope to times of struggle. I was happy to ask about his healing journey through writing and specific scenes that altered moments of personal beliefs.” In this interview Mark Lukach talks about the positive impact the novel had on him and others, his own struggle with maintaining his identity in times of crisis, and the process of writing alongside his wife.
Superstition Review: Thank you for doing this interview. I really admire the strength you and your family have displayed in managing the situation of mental illness. In your memoir, you mention your frustration and at times increasing doubts about the mental health system. What do you want your readers to take from your experience with the mental health system?
Mark Lukach: I believe that the mental health workers in this country are doing the best they can in a system that is over-stretched, under-funded, and as a result, is often about short-term stabilization rather than long-term, inclusive care. When my wife was first hospitalized, I had no idea how the system worked, and I fully anticipated that she would be coming home "fixed." Instead, after 23 days, she was barely stabilized. They put her in an outpatient program, but that was only 3 hours a day, 3 days a week, and so the large bulk of her in-person support fell to me. We were fortunate in that I could take an extended time off work and be there for that care, but I know that many people do not have similar opportunities. So who is supposed to be there and help? I also have found that the system tends to deal primarily with the individuals who are diagnosed, at the exclusion of the web of family and friends who love and want to support the person who is struggling. As a result, the caregivers can be left out of conversations about how to move forward, and can go neglected and cared for themselves.
SR: There were various passages where you describe your health deteriorating to the point of depression, especially your description of your bike trip. I really appreciated these reflections. It seemed that writing about it gave you some comfort. What did writing these moments of your own helplessness give back to you?
ML: I found myself turning to writing during the throes of Giulia's crisis. She was heavily medicated, and falling asleep early each night, so I found myself in our apartment with my thoughts and feelings tangled in knots, and nowhere to go. So I wrote emails, mostly to my parents and her parents. I found that to be tremendously helpful. In order to explain what was going on to family, I needed to be able to explain it to myself. These emails reminded me that we are all narrators to our own lives. Giulia's illness was terrifying and traumatizing, and our lives felt totally out of control as a result. But if I could talk to myself about the experience in a different way, in a way that emphasized hope and progress, then I could somehow regain a bit of control.
Then, after Giulia stabilized, the two of us had a hard time of sorting through our different experiences. Whenever it came up in conversation, we tended to get cagey and defensive, because we were still so wounded by what had happened, and although we had been through it together, we had pretty different experiences. So, I thought why not give writing a try? I could make sure that my thoughts and feelings were polished, and Giulia could read them at her own time and pace. That process was transformative for the two of us. I feel like I got to double-dip in the therapeutic benefits of writing--for me, and also for my marriage.
SR: There is a point in your memoir where you describe the Giants winning the championship “meat ball” game, which acted as a foil for your feelings about Giulia’s relapse. Why did you choose to highlight that memory in the memoir?
ML: Giulia's third episode was when our son was 2 1/2. Toddlers are amazing balls of energy and joy, and me and my son are both huge baseball fans. Our favorite team was heading to the world series. Hard to think of a more fun moment between father and son. But at the same time, Giulia was spiraling into a psychotic episode. As fun as the world series is...that's how scary psychosis is. One of the themes of Giulia's later episodes was how much I felt torn between being a parent, and being a husband, and that baseball series felt like the most poignant of them all.
SR: You mention in your memoir the importance of having Jonas baptized, so that he can have “a devout sense of faith.” In the memoir the mention of religious affiliations appear most notably in Jonas’ baptism scene and with Giulia’s psychotic breakdowns. Has religious faith had any part in your family’s healing journey? Could you discuss more about how your own spirituality and religious beliefs affected your choices in the moment and in the memoir?
ML: I was raised Catholic, and my sense of my faith and spiritual practice has always been that if I'm going to do it, I want it to be meaningful. As a result, my relationship with my faith tends to come and go: there are times when I'm feeling meaningful around it, and other times when my heart isn't into it. Before Giulia was hospitalized for the first time, I was in a pretty strong place, and I think my sense of spiritual awareness was a grounding force for me. However, Giulia's delusions were religious, and quite scary. Again, I feel like I'm back to the theme of feeling torn in two directions. On the one hand, faith kept me hopeful. On the other, the mechanics of religion were at the heart of Giulia's greatest fears. In the time since, we a family have drifted quite far from formal religion, but I think our sense of spirituality is still very strong. It's a lot less structured, and more open-ended, but it's important for all of us, including our son.
SR: I like how the memoir ended with Giulia saying “we’ll be back” towards the love tree, a new sacred place for your family. How did you want this ending with the love tree to be interpreted?
ML: At the time when I wrote the book, Giulia's third episode was just barely in the past. The third episode felt different to us. We were more empowered, more of a team, and less afraid. But it had happened regardless. It was important to me to end the book on an optimistic note, because I wanted the book to project the hope that we feel, but also a realistic one, one that acknowledged that bipolar is a lifelong condition, and that a relapse for Giulia is definitely possible. So the "we'll be back" keeps that open: we will be back to a place where we re-center our family in love, but also, we will have to face challenges as a family, that there is no happily-ever-after, but that we were going to be ok.
SR: How has the publication of My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward expanded your ability to talk about mental health to others?
ML: I've been humbled and thrilled by the reception the book has gotten. I'm a high school history teacher--the fact that I wrote a book that people are reading, let alone one that was reviewed by the New York Times and found its way onto the Today Show, is just surreal. And through this exposure, I've had incredible opportunities to speak to readers, business communities, healthcare providers, schools, all to talk about mental illness, vulnerability, family, and love. It's been pretty amazing.
SR: What is your advice to those who first encounter the mental health system with the idea of everything is going to be “fixed”?
ML: My advice to anyone first encountering the mental health system is to embrace what feels like two conflicting approaches: be trusting, but also be deeply skeptical. Meaning, trust that the professionals who are there to help have the best intentions in mind, and that they do the work they do for altruistic reasons and by are large are very kind people. But also be skeptical of a system that doesn’t have any short-term fixes, involves a lot of educated guessing, and is often working for the goal of stabilization, but not necessarily full restoration. It’s hard to hold both of those feelings simultaneously, but that is how I have best learned to navigate the mental health system in this country.
SR: I also agree that writing can be a very transformative experience. Do you plan on writing more memoirs as you continue onto different stages in life? Do you have other writing projects in mind?
ML: I’m not really sure what my next writing endeavor would be. I guess what I’d say most of all is that I’m in no rush. I love writing and would love to find a new project that I put my heart into, but I know that in order for it to be any good, that commitment will have to be authentic. so I guess I’m waiting for life to continue for a bit longer. I do suspect, however, that if I was to write something in the future, it would be about fatherhood. Of the many things that I identify as: a caregiver, a teacher, a husband, a writer, a father, fatherhood feels like my deepest vocation. In fact, my wife Giulia just gave birth to our second son in mid March, and I’m going to be taking next year off to be the stay-at-home dad with him. I don’t have any concrete plans, but I suspect I’ll be doing some writing along the way.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
ML: I'm a very kinesthetic person, so I have a standing desk in my office. But I think it would be more appropriate to call it a dancing desk, because I'm almost always listening to music when I write and dancing around the room. I also use a balance board in my office, and stand on it when I'm doing the really hard stuff. I find that engaging my body helps me to fully engage my mind. Otherwise, we live in a place with a lot of trees, so I look at my window and see redwood trees, which is pretty incredible. Beyond that, it's lots of books in here, because a great way to get into a good writing space is to read some beautiful writing, and then pictures of my family, since so much of my writing tends to be about my family.
SR: I love how your writing space is very attuned to your active personality. What books do you have in your writing space that inspire you the most?
ML: One of my mentors advised that whenever I need to write a particularly hard passage, to read a writer that I love, just a few pages, to get the juices flowing. I think that’s great advice, and so my office is full of books. For my memoir, I often read memoirs that were heartfelt and about family, like “The Glass Castle,” “beautiful boy,” and “the fog unseen.” But beyond that, I loved loved loved reading Haruki Murakami’s book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” I feel like he was speaking directly to me with advice for how to be a writer. other books I love to read for their style and tone as inspiration are the Bible, the Koran, anything by David Foster Wallace, and Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being.