Mark Lukach and his wife, Giulia, were living the life of their dreams when she suffered a terrifying psychotic break that seemed to come from nowhere. Mark has now written an honest and hopeful book that explores what happened when their lives exploded and how they have learnt to live with their new reality. He tells his story to Cathy Rentzenbrink
Giulia and I met very early in college. I was only 18 and I was immediately struck by how beautiful she was. I thought I was going to have a crush on her from afar, as I didn’t have the courage to go up to her. A month later, we met at a party and talked all night. I gave her a kiss when I dropped her off at her dorm and that was it. We were both blown away by how amazing it feels to love someone and be loved back. We felt like a couple who were meant to be together.
Giulia knew what path she wanted. She was so driven. Within the first few hours of talking to her, I knew she was a smart, capable woman, who was ambitious and would work hard to make things happen.
When we graduated, I moved to Baltimore to teach and Giulia moved to New York to work in fashion. After a year, we didn’t want to be apart any more and I proposed. We were the first of our friends to get married and everyone said it was a really heartfelt occasion. At the end of the night, all our guests were dancing in a circle around us. It was incredible.
We moved to San Francisco and I felt I was living the life of my dreams. I’d kiss Giulia goodbye in the morning and then I’d go off to teach high school and she’d scooter across the city to her job in online marketing for a fashion company. We’d get home, cook dinner together and then put on music and dance our way through cleaning up. It was truly idyllic and life was carefree. We were saving money, because we wanted to buy a house and look after our future. It was a good time.
In 2008, the economy was hit pretty hard and, at the time, Giulia was working in a beauty start-up. Things dried up almost immediately and the business closed. Giulia had always been so successful and she took it pretty hard.
She saw a psychiatrist, who said she was depressed and suggested medication, but we both thought then that medication was for weak people
She got a new job and that became the turning point. They hired her because they really liked her. She’d applied for one position that they’d already filled, so they created a role for her. This was a hard set-up for Giulia, with her perfectionist tendencies. She really wanted to exceed expectations, but the expectations were not clearly defined. This began the tidal shift for us.
Giulia started the job when I was on my summer break and, when she came home, I’d ask how her day was. There was a hesitation and lack of confidence about her that I’d never seen before. Then she started calling me during the day, asking for help because she was stuck writing emails and wanted me to read them first. I assumed it would be a complex or delicate situation, but instead it was really basic stuff – just two sentences. She’d tell me she’d worked on this for an hour, and I’d say, “It’s good; you should send it,” but she’d spend another hour on it. She felt she was getting behind and work became really hard really quickly. She’d never been in that situation before, because she’s such a hard worker. She’d always succeeded.
I’d cook the dinner and she wouldn’t really eat it and she’d take a long time to go to sleep because her mind was racing about work. Her anxiety kept escalating and she began to call in sick. She saw a psychiatrist, who said she was depressed and suggested medication, but we both thought then that medication was for weak people. We had what I would call a mainstream view about mental health, which is that people take Prozac or Xanax because they are stressed and don’t want to handle the stress. Of course, we know now that medication can be life-saving and is incredibly essential support for people who need it.
Although Giulia didn’t want to take the depression medication, she started fixating on using it to overdose. I was really shocked by how serious the situation was becoming. Her parents flew out, but that didn’t help. She’d stopped sleeping and would stay up all night. In the morning, she’d have these religious insights to share with me. It got to the point where she was having conversations with God and the devil. God would tell her things would be OK, then the devil would say she was the source of all evil and that she had to go away in order to save the world. It was terrifying.
Eventually, Giulia’s father and I took her to accident and emergency. Because I was so uninformed, I thought mental-health problems were like physical-health problems – they give you treatment and it goes away. I thought they’d see her, know what was wrong, give her the right pills and she’d be fine. Instead, they talked about symptoms, trying to piece together the symptoms to create a diagnosis. Her primary symptom was psychosis. There’s a batch of illnesses that have psychosis as a symptom, so they said they would treat the psychosis and see if they could come up with a diagnosis afterwards.
Giulia was in hospital for 23 days, which was a really long time in our healthcare system. They struggled to diagnose her because she had gone from absolutely no warning signs to a deep unshakeable psychotic episode, which is like going from zero to 60 miles per hour without even having a car.
When Giulia came home, she was in an out-patients programme but, apart from that, I had to stay by her side pretty much all of the time. It was really scary and I felt so much pressure to keep an eye on her. She was so traumatised by the hospital. She was heavily medicated, so she was slow moving and thinking, and she felt so much pain about having lost her mind. The things she experienced at the hospital were mostly delusions, rather than reality, but that doesn’t matter. It was still her experience. She would say, “I can’t ever come back from what happened in there. I’m never going to be able to live after it.”
It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life, because I wasn’t doing anything else besides trying to be with Giulia. She was so wounded, so fragile, so absent. She was so fixated on what she had gone through and so medicated that it was a one-sided experience. I’d talk to her to try to keep her in the room where I was, rather than have her floating away to her depressed thoughts. The loneliness was the hardest part of that whole thing.
When Giulia got better, she wanted to go back to our fun, carefree, charmed life, but that’s not what I needed. All the fear, worry and frustration that I’d bottled up started to come out
The turning point came when they figured out the right medication for her. What had been essential to subduing the psychosis may have contributed to deepening and prolonging her depression. Only three days after starting on new pills, she wasn’t feeling so slowed down and was more able to physically engage with the world. It was if she’d been under water and was now up for fresh air. She was completely transformed.
When Giulia got better, she wanted to go back to our fun, carefree, charmed life, but that’s not what I needed. All the fear, worry and frustration that I’d bottled up started to come out. There was a huge divide between us. Both of our needs made sense, but they were so different. The marriage at that point became quite strained. We were on edge with each other. It was heartbreaking, because we’d made it through this terrible crisis and we were fighting like cat and dog. It made me question if the best of our relationship had blinded us to some fundamental differences. We had been so wrapped up in being a fairytale couple that we had ignored who we actually were. There was some really hard questioning to go through, individually and together.
We did get through, but it was another long slow process. We took a world trip, where we needed to depend on each other. We showed each other that we cared by day-to-day small efforts. A relationship isn’t just grand, romantic gestures, but hundreds of small things. Giulia told me she appreciated me and that is so much what I needed. I wanted to feel appreciated and valued for all the sacrifices I had made.
We’d always wanted to have children. We were very cautious and we consulted multiple doctors. We knew that 90 per cent of people who experience psychosis will go through it again, but the doctors were optimistic that we were in the 10 per cent. We went ahead and decided to get pregnant and we had Jonas. My life transformed instantaneously. I found that my true deepest vocation in life is parenthood. When Jonas was born, it was, boom, this is what I’ve been waiting for.
The plan was that Giulia was going to go back to work and I was going to be the stay-at-home dad but, when Jonas was five months old, Giulia had her second psychotic break.
This second episode was so disorienting for me, because I couldn’t just focus on Giulia – I had to look after Jonas and make sure he was well and safe.
The first episode was earth-shattering for us, because our vision of life popped. Once we got out of it, we thought we could have that life back but, when the second episode happened, we thought this is pretty much it for ever. We are always going to have to pay attention to this.
Jonas was five months old during Giulia’s second episode and two and a half during the third. Now, he is almost five. He and I have an incredibly special relationship. We’ve talked about when his mum is sick, when sometimes she doesn’t feel good. I’m not quite sure what his understanding or processing of it is. Giulia and Jonas also have a really great relationship and they have so much fun together. I love when they are doing things together, just the two of them. Last night, I was cooking dinner and they were out in the sun. We just got this hammock and they were playing in it together. I loved that – it’s the best thing.
I think we both feel a lot less scared about the future. Obviously, we 100 per cent hope that it never happens again. They have all happened in the fall. If Giulia makes it through this fall, then it will be the longest she’s gone since getting her diagnosis.
Her diagnosis is bipolar disorder but, over the years, the diagnosis has become less important, almost unimportant. I’ve grown to realise that a broken arm is not the same thing as a broken mind. The mind is complicated. There is only one Giulia and only one Giulia’s mind. What she needs for her health is a combination of medication and things like time management, lifestyle choices and having a therapist she can turn to. It took a long time for Giulia to be able to say without shame what her diagnosis is, but now she is totally unashamed of it and that’s amazing and empowering.
This book has been such a healing process for us. That was really my primary motivation for doing it. I could have just written letters to Giulia, but I’ve published articles before and the response has been so overwhelming and humbling. A guy wrote to me from the waiting room. He’d found our story by googling “psychotic wife”. He said it made him feel less lonely and I just wish I’d had that when I was sitting at the hospital, back in 2009.
It’s hard for Giulia at times, because she’s the one who has the disease that’s stigmatised. I don’t have the label issue to worry about. Obviously, I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been comfortable with it. Giulia described it to someone as a big love letter. What matters most to me is that when she reads the book she knows that I love her. That’s the most important thing.
My Lovely Wife by Mark Lukach is published by Bluebird.