Sunday, January 29, 2012

on hiatus, still

Lately, I have been going on some small adventures.

For the first time as an adult in Singapore, last week, I took out Mom's bicycle for a ride around my nice, frenchified neighborhood (the only cyclists ARE French.)
I hit a wall, got some bits of it into my elbow, and bruised my leg. But just feeling the breeze on my neck... and the taste of a little adventure makes me smile inside.

Last Saturday, I organized an event for the first time. It was just a Saturday brunch and I wanted it to be a small cosy outing. I met a girl the previous Saturday and we both arranged to meet at an aussie brunch place where they had vegemite, poached eggs, pancakes and not to mention a stunning view of the city! We ended up going to an obscure art exhibition which was really good, and then having coffee and just connecting for those hours. One of the girls there had a red notebook exactly like my journal, my journal that accompanied me when the going gets rough. I told her I had one exactly like hers and she said a story about it, that it wasn't the brand I was using, but it was made by a couple and she used it as a sketchbook.

Curious, I leafed through it.

In the back pocket, there was a map of a region I wanted to visit, and another map of yonderland! Mystery Guy's country. Of course, I took out my camera and started to snap photos of it. The girl was intrigued at my excitement at, to her, a normal looking map. She asked me why was it important to me. 'Why is this important to you?'

After hearing what I said, she gave me the map. That was the best part of my day! I was filled with joy to receive this map!
Now, I have a map of yonderland that fits exactly into my red notebook.
Sometimes when you go on adventures, you never know what it's going to bring you =)

Monday, January 16, 2012

I needed a hug...

I'm facing a bit of a pessimistic ending to the romance of last year. Mystery Guy seems to be wavering, and as it is, I know I'll miss the way I can be truthful about what I'm feeling to him, miss the way we neurotically enjoy some types of food, the essence of 'us', that seems but an impossible dream.

As always, I urged him to only remember the happy moments.
It was a rainy day, a long day we spent together, from visiting some rentals, to enjoying an exhibition, a little adventure on the luge, and ending with me falling ill with nauseated throwing up. =(

The happiest part of that day was, for me, when, after lunch, we had to traverse the road from the foodcourt to the exhibition...and as it was drizzling, he suddenly whipped out his newspaper and folded a paper hat for me, so that I wouldn't get wet.
I folded one for him too.
And we both wore our paper hats to the MRT toilet and all (knowing there's about 40 cameras watching our every move)... of course, lots of people looked, but we didn't care, we were in our imaginary world, where everyone wore paper hats to protect ourselves from the rain.

I was trying to remember, from Thursday, the best part of my day. I was very sad our happy times had to end when reality bites.

At this time, I was reading John Eldredge/Stasi Eldredge 'Wild at Heart / Captivating', J had lent it to me a month back. I was reading the part where John asked God for a whale (he wanted to see it at the sea) and he saw one, and Stasi asked God for something to show that He loved her, too. And God gave her a small starfish and more. I went, 'wow'... in these sad moments, the thing I wanted most was a hug from God.

So I just said a silent prayer that I wanted to feel a hug from God.

And for the next few days, I received things beyond my imagination... that only God knows I would appreciate! I really did not expect that each day, there would be something to look forward to... and I am overwhelmed.

God knows I love coffee... and there was a barista I knew from a long time ago who was the caterer for an event I attended on Friday. It was lovely of him, and unexpected, that he personally did this coffee for me, as his treat! He was the main key person for this event but he took time off to do it for me. Plus it was perfect - hazelnut + vanilla, not too sweet, milky and strong... =)

I had visited this shopkeeper uncle's shop for many years but never bought anything, it is some sort of retro display and for collectors to buy jukeboxes, old fridges, etc. When he saw me, we had a good chat, and suddenly he excitedly told me he wanted to give me something, he took a bunch of glass animals out... wanted to represent my birthyear, but there wasn't any dog, so he just chose something and pressed it into my hand. It was this tiny glass owl! God really knows why I need an owl =) I was so touched! Of course it is probably inexpensive, etc... but... wow.

Sunday, I had half an hour to wait at ECP, so I just chose a spot near the central beach area, alone, with a myriad of thoughts. As I was getting up to leave I realized that while I was there a super tiny baby coconut had dropped directly in front of me. It was unbelievably cute! It brought a smile on my face... and I'm sure it did to many others on my facebook where I posted it =).

Today, I had spent a long day out touring the city, and there was nothing remotely resembling a hug from God. Ah, I thought, maybe not everyday. In fact, I was aching so much to contact Mystery Guy to tell him random stuff.

I found this postcard for me! Sent by a random japanese... My heart skipped a beat when I saw it. I have received over 80 postcards, but never ever a lop rabbit one! And God knows I hold this rabbit close to my heart. Plus, there was an encouragement written behind...'gan ba rou nippon', telling me not to give up (actually, the true meaning is telling the japanese tsunami victims not to give up)... and if they, who have been through so much suffering, did not give up, how could I?


This story continues... ...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Out of the Darkness, Modern Love

THERE was a time when my wife, Giulia, said “Yes” to almost everything I suggested. But before she consented, there was always an unnatural pause, a pause so small it may have gone unnoticed by others. But it was painfully obvious to me. That pause did not come from her; it came from the antipsychotic medication she had to take.

Two years ago, when Giulia and I were 27 and in our third year of marriage, she suffered a psychotic break. She had no history of mental illness preceding the abrupt arrival of delusions and paranoia. It was a bewildering decline that snowballed from typical work stress to mild depression to sleeplessness to voices speaking to her in the night.

The medicine combated the psychosis by slowing everything down: her metabolism, movements and response time. I didn’t like what the medicine did to her, but I liked even less what her unmedicated self was like and capable of doing, so I gave her the medicine. I observed her as she took it, making sure she did not hide it in her mouth and spit it out later. She still managed to do that a few times anyway.

To try to make sense of why she had to live in this medicated haze, I thought of her condition as being like an old television, the type where you have to turn the dial to change the channels. For some reason, Giulia had become stuck between channels, so all that was broadcasting in her mind was crackly white noise, and it drove her mad, right into the halls of a psychiatric ward.

The medicine was like turning down the volume. It was what had to be done until the channels could work again. And while the volume was turned down, her entire life was on mute. She wasn’t psychotic, she wasn’t delusional, she just kind of wasn’t.

She didn’t communicate much when she was on the medicine. When she did, it was mostly just “Yes” or “No.” More often than not, it was “Yes,” because I think she wanted to make me happy. If we had to go through this hell, she at least wanted to be agreeable. During this time I thought of her as the Great Validator.

The fact that she did not speak much also meant that I spoke a lot, about silly things, things that filled the silence so that I could try to keep her mind here with me, and not adrift in her illness.

But occasionally she spoke on her own, without prompting, and beyond “Yes” or “No.” Those rare moments of self-initiated conversation were always about one of two subjects: suicide or love.

The suicide conversations were never fun. They happened over and over. Out of nowhere, in the midst of one of our agreed-upon dog walks, or while washing the dishes or whatever, often as I talked about something insignificant, Giulia would interrupt and say, “Mark, if someone kills themselves, do they still get a funeral?”

Long pause on my part. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I know that if you kill yourself you go to hell. But does that mean they don’t let you have a funeral? Do you still get a funeral if you’re going to hell?”

“We don’t have to think about that, Giulia, because you’re not going to kill yourself.”


“No ‘maybe’ about it.”

“We’ll see.”

She’d smile. Thoughts of suicide tended to make her smile, like she was a little child being told you can have your ice cream later. It was something to look forward to.

When suicidal thoughts made her happy, I knew it was my cue to remind her of other reasons to feel happy. So I told her I loved her. And that so many other people loved her, too. That she was so strong for holding on. That none of this was her fault. That the feelings would go away. That she just had to keep holding on.

These suicidal conversations could be quick or they could be slow. One time we were biking to yoga together, and we had to pull over and sit on the sidewalk for almost two hours while she sobbed and begged me to let her kill herself. I pleaded with her to just hang on through this moment, and that it would pass, and that she would someday, somehow, start to feel better again.

When the suicidal feelings gripped her tightly, her whole body groaned and wailed over the loss of control of mind and feelings. I would hold her, but I learned that all I could do in those moments was to sit there and let it be, so I did. And then the fog would clear, the suicidal impulses would slip back under the surface, and the muted, agreeable Giulia would return.

“Are you O.K. now, honey?”

Pause. “Yes.”

“Do you know how proud of you I am, and how much I love you?”

Pause. “Yes.”

“Are you ready to get back on the bike and go home?”

Pause. “Yes.”

In our conversations about love, which also would arise unprompted, Giulia would interrupt whatever we were doing to tell me how much she loved me.

Instead of questions like, “Why would God do this to me?” or “Can you agree to let me kill myself in one year if this doesn’t get better?” my lovely, broken, medicated wife would take my hand, look me in the eyes, and say, “Mark, you are the most wonderful person I know. Thank you for helping to save my life. I love you and am staying alive because of you.”

Just like that.

As her spouse and caregiver, one of my biggest struggles was to keep my own emotions in check. She was too fragile to witness how much her delusions, paranoia and depression scared and worried me, so I had to pretend that none of it bothered me.

I became a master at compartmentalizing my worry and anxiety, neatly packaging my feelings into the small, permissible moments when I had the time and space, away from Giulia. For the most part, though, I was her cheerleader, and nothing, no matter how dark or despairing, could shake me.

But when she told me she loved me? That I was saving her life? And that she was staying alive not for herself, but for me?

Those moments always left me stunned, teary-eyed and breathless. I had no defense against those. They left me reaching to her to find my stability, rather than the other way around. How can you shield yourself from the impact of someone saying, “I love you”? And why would you?

Giulia has since gotten better. She no longer takes the medicine. We don’t live in a “Yes” or “No” existence anymore. We now live with bills and iPhones and deadlines.

I’m glad to have left behind the anxiety and unknowns of dealing with a serious mental illness. It was a grueling year for both of us. And yet when I look back on that year, I have to admit there is a part of me that misses it — or, more accurately, a part of it that I miss.

I don’t miss the illness itself, of course. We’re still not sure where the darkness came from, or why it’s behind us, or even what the actual diagnosis was (psychotic depression, maybe). All I know is that it was exhausting to deal with on a daily basis, and so I am glad it is gone.

And I don’t miss Giulia’s sadness, a sadness that seemed to be without limits. Good riddance to that.

BUT I do miss how much we talked about life and love that year. It seemed like all we ever talked about. In one sense we have never communicated less in our relationship and never been in such different mental spaces, yet in another sense we were closer emotionally than we have ever been and more deeply connected. Her mental illness cast such a strange web of paradoxes into our life together.

Nowadays we bicker about things like doing the dishes.

One of us will say, “I cooked dinner, so can you wash the dishes?”

And the other will respond, “Well, I did the laundry today and folded it and put it away, so no.”

“But I walked the dog by myself tonight.”

“But I made the bed.”

Until finally one of us does the dishes.

When Giulia was sick, we did the dishes together because there was nothing else to do. As long as we were together, we could agreeably wait out the disease and show it that we were more patient than it was.

I think that’s what I miss. We weren’t in a rush to do anything else, because there was no certainty of a future. So we defaulted to living in the present, focusing on each moment of our “Yes and No” days. A time when only two things mattered to us: life and love.

Mark Lukach lives in San Francisco and is writing a memoir about taking care of his wife during her struggle with mental illness.