In “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward,” his internationally bestselling memoir about how a young marriage is redefined by the grips of mental illness, author Mark Lukach details how he fell in love with his wife, Giulia, and battled her three psychotic episodes as her primary caretaker.
Lukach is a Delawarean and spent every summer as a kid living and working in Bethany Beach. He proposed to his wife on the beach in Bethany several years ago, and the Delaware coast plays a big part in his identity. And now, Lukach is returning Bethany Beach to sign his books at Bethany Beach Books on Wednesday, July 26, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Lukach and his wife met as undergraduates at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He said they had an unexpected chemistry that grew into a loving marriage. The couple moved to San Francisco after marrying and faced an unexpected challenge soon after. Giulia — 27 at the time, and with a new job — had a sudden psychotic break that left her hospitalized in a psychiatric ward.
In “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward,” Lukach chronicles his wife’s bipolar diagnosis, which left her hospitalized three times in the years that followed and forced the two of them to redefine their marriage.
“My parents grew up going to Bethany Beach for the summer,” Lukach noted. “They actually met as teens in Bethany. Once they married and had kids, they continued to vacation in Bethany.
“My family has moved a lot in my life, but no matter where we have lived, we have always come back to the beach. This place feels like the closest to a home to me out of anywhere I have lived. There’s something so family-oriented and so charming about the town of Bethany. It feels nostalgic,” he said.
Naturally, when they started dating, Giulia also came to Bethany, he said.
“She would visit me at the beach once a summer. I proposed to her on the beach here. This place is my most reliable constant in my life. And now that I’m a parent, I can see what an amazing place this is to bring a child and a family.”
As her husband described in his book, during her first mental breakdown, Giulia Lukach was convinced she had no reason and no purpose to continue to live.
“She went from a super accomplished, high-functioning woman, to within six weeks, not eating and not sleeping, and it was utterly terrifying. I didn’t know what was happening to her. She became so different that she was almost unrecognizable,” he described.
“We were both so young, at 27, and just starting a family,” he noted. “I felt like, before her episode, we were about to turn a chapter and start really planning our futures together, but I was soon confronted with crisis and survival and grief and fear. It was personally disorienting to me and a sudden jolt to my life’s expectations.”
Lukach transitioned from Giulia’s husband to her mental health caretaker, as she went from wife to patient.
“Caregiving was so consuming and so demanding for me,” he recalled. “I was told by the doctor I needed to keep a close eye on her, and it changed my entire life.
“I’m a teacher, and in an industry that I keep an eye out for children for a living, but I get to go home and relax at the end of the day,” Lukach explained. “But as Giulia’s caregiver, I could never turn it off. I began to consider what the long term might look like for her and what it meant if she did get better.”
That new perspective led Lukach to change how he viewed his life.
“I changed my whole mentality and decided I needed to live in the moment and get through each minute. I thought, ‘If I get through that minute, then I can get through the next one.’ That new motive is what fueled me, as my thoughts of planning for our long-term futures evaporated. It’s natural to think about what’s next in life, and I, essentially, had to shut that off. I had to say ‘What’s now?’ not ‘What’s next?’”
Lukach is a teacher, not a trained writer, and said he had never thought he would write a book. But the challenges of his personal life pushed him to start putting his feelings into words.
“At first, I turned to emails to process what was happening,” he said.
“After Giulia got better from that first episode, we had a clear gulf between us. I had been writing to my parents and to her parents, but I felt like I needed to write to her, so that’s what I did. I wrote out what I had been feeling those last months.
“Then we realized this had potential to turn into something bigger, like a book project. A friend urged me that I should try to have an essay published. So, in 2011, I wrote an essay for submission of the ‘Modern Love’ column in the New York Times. Surprisingly, it wasn’t rejected and was published Thanksgiving weekend! And it was well-received.”
Two years later, he wrote a different essay for Pacific Standard that he said “essentially went viral. To put that into perspective, it had 4 million reads in the first week. And then I thought, ‘OK — there’s definitely an audience that connects to this story.’”
That was a key realization for Lukach, who himself had been yearning for support and connection as he dealt with his wife’s illness and his duties as her caretaker.
“At the time, I felt like no one could connect to me. I was shocked to find a lack of books on what’s it like to love someone with a mental illness,” he explained. “This has been one of the main reasons I’ve wanted to write this publicly — there is an under-served community on the matter. So many peoples’ lives are turned upside-down by mental illness, and my book is about what it means to redefine this.”
Having watched his wife go through her illness and having lived through his experience in taking care of her, Lukach had some words of wisdom to offer both those dealing with mental illness and those who care for them.
“For a person with a mental illness, I would say, ‘Nothing is permanent.’ One of depression’s most unfair tactics is that people feel like these bad feelings are never going to go away, but they are going to go away. There’s always reason to have hope,” he said.
“And for my situation as a caregiver, I would say, ‘Always take care of yourself.’ You have to make time for yourself, because the demands are so real and so high in caregiving for someone else. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can get worn out. If that happens, you are no longer helping the situation. It may feel selfish at the time, but you are doing everyone good by doing so.”
With his Bethany Beach book signing about a week away, Lukach said he was particularly looking forward to returning to his home at the Delaware shore and sharing his story with its residents.
“I’m pumped! My story is about family and about love, and Bethany Beach symbolizes love and family to me,” he said.
Bethany Beach Books will offer the chance to meet Lukach and get signed copies of “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” on Wednesday, July 26, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Bethany Beach Books is located in downtown Bethany Beach, at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Garfield Parkway.