Jeff Zuckerman Q&A

June 7, 2021
Jeff Zuckerman writes about supporting a partner through a mental-health crisis.

“Humor is absolutely necessary in this kind of book. Who wants to read 300 pages of gloom and despair? Humor is important in terms of loving someone coping with a mental illness. Each meeting of the NAMI support groups Leah and I attended, we would say as a principle of support: ‘We embrace humor as healthy.’ I could not have survived the last six years without a sense of humor.”

You’ve spoken about not finding many books about what it’s like to be a partner to someone going through a mental health crisis. Was the writing therapeutic for you?

The easy answer is no. What was therapeutic for me was that after four years my wife’s psychiatrist finally figured out the right cocktail of meds so I could get off the bipolar roller-coaster. But here’s an example more to the point of your question: Three times I relived some of the trauma I experienced when Leah was severely manic. When I went through it, when my therapist led me in a session of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which you should definitely not try at home), and then when I wrote about EMDR in the memoir. It took a lot of work not only to pace the storytelling correctly but to not curl up in the fetal position again as I relived the experience. Now I can reread those pages without getting weepy. Time, knowledge, and love have helped heal me more than anything.

You kept copious notes of your wife’s crisis and shared text messages and emails with the reader. Did you instinctively feel that was the right choice?

I’d read other writers who used primary notes like that effectively, and I took a class at the Loft that helped somewhat. Psychologically, it was brutal to reread those emails and texts. As a writer, the hard thing was cutting them to the bone so that they were purposeful, loving, and respectful. My wife had final approval. Funny story: I owned a really crummy Android phone the summer my wife first went manic. There was one important text message, for sure more than 800 characters long, when she was screaming at me in all caps and swearing at me about what a swearing swear word I was. That phone broke, and I took it to a shop in Blaine where they were able to get it working, but all the text messages had vanished. AT&T told me the only way to rescue them was to have the FBI subpoena them. Something like that. OK. So instead I created a word cloud in the book that pretty much illustrated the content of that text.

You managed to include humor in the book, which as you explain was also an element in the story. You even named one of the people in the book Jack Lemmon because he resembled the actor. How important is humor to you?

I’ve written and performed funny stuff my entire life. That’s just my Jewish writerly voice going even further back than a humor column I wrote for the Minnesota Daily in the 1980s called “What’s the Deal?” Humor is absolutely necessary in this kind of book. Who wants to read 300 pages of gloom and despair? But humor is important in terms of loving someone coping with a mental illness. Each meeting of the NAMI support groups I, and Leah, attend, we say as a principle of support: “We embrace humor as healthy.” I could not have survived the last six years without a sense of humor about what I’ve gone through.

How important is it to find a support group when caring for a loved one in crisis? Did you ever feel your own stability slipping?

Second question first. Yes! The title Unglued refers primarily to me as the caregiver, in addition to our marriage and Leah’s mental health. NAMI support groups have flat-out saved my neck. I consciously never wanted to burn out my friends, children, and extended family with what I was going through. I’ve learned so much and gotten so much support, and I’ve done my best to give support to many other family members who attend our groups.

You had been attending a NAMI support group for three years and had accumulated four journals of notes. When did you decide to write a book?

Here’s what happened. I met a friend in publishing for dinner and said I wanted to write a book about what spouses experience when a loved one has a mental illness because no other book zeroed in on the caregiving spouse’s story. I pictured interviewing these people I knew from my support group and even wondered if I should organize the book thematically or by person. My friend said, “Why don’t you start by interviewing yourself?” About nine months later I had a draft about 800,000 pages long, which was a pretty long interview. By the way, I was resigned for a while to writing a book without a happy ending, because a mental illness never ends and it’s rarely happy. I was so, so delighted that ending number four was pretty doggone happy.

What advice do you give people who are keeping their illness secret, which may be preventing them from receiving support?

That is such an important, evocative question. We all—and especially men—have got to open ourselves up and learn how to be vulnerable and trust and love others so we can heal from the pain and grief we experience and learn how to trust and love ourselves. But that’s fodder for a whole book, not a blog post.

What has the feedback been to the book?

I’m glad that readers have found it to be funny. But a lot of readers have told me they cried their way through it, which I appreciate even though that sounds terrible to say. I’m glad it’s striking people at an emotional level. Best of all is when other spouses and even those with a mental illness tell me how helpful the book is to them in their own situations. Something else related to feedback: I wasn’t sure how to write candidly about mental illness without further stigmatizing it. Well, readers, and most importantly Leah, have told me I succeeded.

What’s next for you?

What’s next is that I love speaking to groups about our family’s experience and, particularly with so many people being affected by the pandemic, caregivers’ mental health in general. And, sure, I hope to peddle a few more books along the way.

— Photo by Paul Erdahl Studios.