Fitness as Therapy: A Q&A with Writer Mark Lukach
May 24, 2017 — health, inspiration, mindfulness, Myles Men
In his new international best-selling memoir "My Lovely Wife In The Psych Ward," writer Mark Lukach shares how he managed one of the most difficult experiences anyone could imagine after his wife, Giulia, suffered a sudden psychotic break three years into their marriage. In the book, Lukach credits family, faith, and the therapeutic power of exercise getting him through the darkest period of his life. We talked with him about the respite found on late-night beach runs and the importance of self-care in the face of tremendous adversity:
People often focus on the physical benefits of exercise, but you write a lot about the mental benefits in your memoir. What is it about fitness that's therapeutic for you?
I'm gonna tackle this question from a quote from the movie "Endless Summer II." In one scene, the pro surfers are talking to a brand new surfer from South Africa, and he says, "When I'm out in the water, I have problems, but I'm not thinking about my problems. I'm waiting for the waves."
That to me is a pretty nice summary of what exercise feels like for me. To start, it empties my mind. The first few minutes of a workout are always a transition, and in that transition, you tend to focus on the discomfort, the stretching—in short, the pain. That's all you're thinking about. All those other problems? They're gone.
But then even better, once I get into the groove of things, and I got the endorphins pumping through me, and those problems seep back into my head, I'm in a totally different mindspace to think about them. Chemically, I'm high on endorphins. I'm usually out in nature on a trail run, so it's a different geographic space, too. The net effect is that while I'm out running, the things that felt daunting when I was behind my laptop, don't feel so overwhelming anymore.
You describe fitness as "moving meditation" in your book. Can you talk more about that concept?
I am a huge supporter of the theory of meditating. But I'm also one of the most fidgety, hyper people I know. I'm a high school teacher and my students often joke about how hyper I am. In my house at my office, I don't just work at a standing desk—I work on an Indoboard while at a standing desk. I've got fidgety toys all over my office and my classroom. Sitting still is a beautiful thing, but it's not for everyone. So instead, I feel like I'm practicing moving meditation while I work out. I'm not really paying attention to my pace, or calories burned, or any of those stats. I'm instead just moving the way my body wants me to—really paying attention to how I'm feeling, pushing myself to the degree that feels challenging but still enjoyable.
Do you practice any other meditation techniques?
Not especially. I grew up Catholic, and I do sometimes dabble in some of the approaches to spirituality and prayer that I've learned over the years, which look quite a bit like meditation, but being active really is my main approach to being mindful.
Besides exercise, were there any other habits you developed to help you handle stress while your wife was in the hospital?
Writing. I had never really been a writer before. In college and grad school I wrote a ton of academic papers, because I studied history and lit, but I never really blogged or anything like that. But when Giulia got sick, and especially when she was home and taking heavy medication which put her to sleep by 7 or 8pm, I often turned on the laptop and wrote long, sprawling emails to my parents or her parents to try and make sense of the day. They were incredibly therapeutic. In order to make a sensible narrative for them, I had to make one for myself. I think the writing was a really important lesson to me that I was still the narrator of my own story. What was happening to Giulia was terrifying and completely out of my control, but I still did have a degree of control in how I explained the situation to myself. That was huge insight that helped me remain hopeful.
You work full-time as a teacher and you have a son. How did you manage the time to write a memoir?
It wasn't easy, for sure. I got a book deal in February 2015 after an article I wrote in Pacific Standard Magazine "went viral." I explained to the publisher that I'm a teacher, I love to teach and didn't want to leave my job, and they were patient enough to give me a two-year timeline to write the book. Which meant I had summers off to write, which were amazing, and also spring break. But for the most sake, it was a lot of really late nights: teach all day, be a dad and husband until bed time, and then head to the office to write. A lot of nights I wasn't up for it, because the material is so emotionally draining. But bit by bit, I got through it.
People often struggle to talk about mental illness but you to describe your family's experience in-depth and honestly. Why did you decide to share this story?
I wanted to share our story because when Giulia was first hospitalized, I felt completely alone. I am a historian and so I like to research and find answers, and I tried to make sense of what was happening to Giulia. I found a lot of possible answers in my research. But I was surprised to find so little that could help explain my situation to myself. I had no idea what might lie ahead, because I couldn't find anyone talking about my side of the equation. Once Giulia recovered from her first episode, and I had grown to love writing as a form of therapy, we talked about the idea of me writing something like a book, and the idea grew from there. And I gotta say, it's been totally validating. I have received some very powerful emails from people who are also in my situation, and they have said how they feel less alone knowing that someone else out there has gone through what they're going through. I can't overstate how incredible that feels.
What do you think is the most common misconception about mental illness?
I think there are a lot of common misconceptions, but some of the most concerning are that taking care of yourself—whether it's through therapy, medication, or setting up a lifestyle that supports your health—is somehow a sign of weakness and that you need to "gut it out." When Giulia first started to express anxiety about her job, we both fell into that mindset. I think that our culture tends to glorify being busy, and working as hard as you can and as long as you can, but doesn't celebrate people who say no to things because they aren't healthy for them, or building in a 90-minute break during the day to go and run (which is something I build into almost every work day. It's the reason I tend to be up late working—the trade-off is totally worth it.)
Who are writers you admire?
Oh, tons. Off the top of my head, I love David Foster Wallace the most. Huge fan of Haruki Murakami, Dave Eggers, Faulkner, Dostoevsky. And then there are the writers who are also people I've gotten to meet, which makes me admire them even more: Jaimal Yogis, Liz Weil, Dan Duane, Matt Warshaw. Amazing folks who create beautiful writing and are just good people as well.
What is the book you've read that changed your behavior the most?
"What I Talk About when I Talk About Running" by Haruki Murakami. I've read a fair amount of his fiction and had been meaning to read this book, the closest thing he has to a memoir, for a while. When I got a book deal I did a ton of memoir research, and finally read this book. It changed my whole outlook on writing and being active. To be honest, a lot of how I incorporate activity and exercise into my life feels empowered by how Murakami lives. For him, running isn't some additional luxury, it's an essential part of writing, being alive, and being his best self. I feel the same way. I can be a better husband, father, teacher, and writer if I make time in my day to be alone, outdoors, working up a sweat.
Mark Lukach's powerful memoir "My Lovely Wife In The Psych Ward" is now available. Grab a copy here.