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How mental illness changes a marriage

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Mark Lukach and family
Mark Lukach with his wife Giulia and their son Jonas on a favorite hike in the East Bay hills.
Courtesy Mark Lukach via Pacific Standard

Mark Lukach and his wife were doing what most twenty-something couples are doing a few years into a marriage:  They were building their careers and planning a family.  Until the night he got a glimpse into a future that would be different than the one they'd imagined.

He wrote about it in Pacific Standard

There's no handbook on how to survive your young wife's psychiatric crisis. The person you love is no longer there, replaced by a stranger who's shocking and exotic. Every day I tasted the bittersweet saliva that signals you're about to puke. To keep myself sane I hurled myself at being an excellent psychotic-person's spouse. I kept notes on what made things better and what made things worse. I made Giulia take her medicine as prescribed. Sometime this meant watching her swallow, then checking her mouth to confirm that she hadn't hidden the pills under her tongue. This dynamic led us to become less than equals, which was unsettling. As I did with my students at school, I claimed an authority over Giulia. I told myself that I knew what was better for her than she did. I thought she should bend to my control and act as my well-behaved ward. This didn't happen, of course.

Lukach joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to talk about how his life and relationship changed after his wife's diagnosis. 

Highlights of the conversation

How mental illness affects the whole family

"My whole philosophy is that mental illness is really a shared experience by family members," he said. "That means oftentimes Giulia will go see her psychiatrist and I might be in that meeting as well. It's not because I'm trying to necessarily dictate things, but it's because I'm the one who's going to be with her at home and the psychiatrist might see her only once a month or even once every couple months. To be able to share what I've been experiencing and seeing in addition to what Giulia is experiencing, I think makes it such a better approach for how to manage things."

Balancing roles as husband, father to a 3-year-old

"The emotional space of going from being fun-loving dad to then really patient and empathetic spouse while she's having these delusions or these suicidal impulses, it's really, really tough to do that and still then say, 'How am I feeling through all this because I'm exhausted by all this,'" he said. Lukach said he's better at calling for help from others.

On staying by his wife's side

How he takes care of himself

Lukach said being a caretaker, spouse and dad to his young son often leaves him running ragged. He's found surfing and trail running as useful physical outlets where he can process and reflect on life's stresses. 

Why the 'healthy times' are often the hardest on a marriage

Do you have a partner who is coping with mental illness? Tell us how that has reshaped your relationship in comments below.