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Monday, 31 July 2017

Book review: My Lovely Wife, Mark Lukach (2017)

Subtitled 'A Memoir of Madness and Hope', the book chronicles the three psychotic episodes that the author and his wife, Giulia, managed over the period of about five years. Giulia has had that many episodes in her life, starting in 2009, although in each case the experience was different. That's the "madness" part (the book's title in the US is 'My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward'). The hope comes from knowing that Giulia has a loving, caring husband and a wonderful, energetic son to accompany her on her journey through life. But the book at the end is still bittersweet because they don't know if and when the next episode will strike their small family.

Mark Lukach has done something strange and wonderful in writing this memoir, and it began out of the correspondence he wrote early on in the experience with the illness that he sent to family. "It started with long emails at night to my parents while my wife was very ill, in an attempt to make sense of what was going on," he told me on Twitter on 12 June. "I studied history so I have done a lot of academic writing, but personal writing really started with those emails, and grew from there." We are all the richer for his endeavour.

The book can serve as a helpful guide to people who are just starting out with mental illness, especially with psychosis (because psychosis can be so dramatic, frightening, and life-changing). Mark focalises the narrative through himself as the player of a role in the unfolding drama and so we get to see mental illness especially through the eyes of a carer. Carers have a special role to play when it comes to mental illness, and often need just as much support from doctors, the government, and family and friends, as the person who is living with the disease. One important thing to keep in mind when dealing with psychosis is that it IS an illness and can be treated. Leaving it untreated will likely be catastrophic. In Giulia's case, the hospital stays were followed - after she had demonstrated to the clinicians that she had improved - by a period of therapy while still on strong medications, and then by a relatively normal life of domestic and work responsibilities.

So the book also shows how many manage to live fulfilling lives even though they have a mental illness. With modern medications it is now possible to keep down that 40-hour-a-week job, raise children, maintain a satisfying relationship with a significant other, and also have a mental illness. The episodic nature of mental illness that Lukach shows us in the book means that you are most often "off" and not experiencing paranoid delusions (as happened in Giulia's case). You are merely working in marketing in an office somewhere San Francisco. Then when the illness comes back you go "on" and you might need a short stay in hospital in order to recover from it. Then everything goes back to normal. I think many people might be surprised to learn how this episodic rhythm characterises most people's experience living with mental illness.

Lukach is a skillful writer, and manages to incorporate into the book a lot of technical detail as well as several passages of poetic content, as he struggles with what is to him a very important subject: his wife's wellbeing. He also has his son to think about (Giulia became pregnant after the first episode), and this from time to time causes Mark to confront a dilemma as he matches in the balance the burden of looking after a person with mental illness with the equally serious problem of keeping his child safe and happy. Hence the bittersweet. At the end you are left wondering, along with Mark and Giulia, how long the good times will endure, and whether the next episode (if there is to be one, you never know!) will last.

As a postscript I want to apologise to readers who come to me for book reviews because it has been quite a while since the last review. I had to change my own antipsychotic medication, which meant I was getting less time in bed of an evening with my books. I have gotten through the period of adjustment now so hopefully reviews will be appearing with more regularity in future.

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