Jeffrey Zuckerman starts out his memoir like any Minnesotan would: describing the weather.
“The January blues are hardly uncommon in the Upper Midwest, where my wife Leah and I have frozen, like human Popsicles for nearly four decades,” the Bryn Mawr resident writes in the preface to his book, “Unglued: A Bipolar Love Story.” “Over the years, the weight of wintertime was particularly punishing to Leah.”
Five years ago, Zuckerman’s wife, called Leah in the book, was diagnosed with late-onset bipolar disorder 30 years into their marriage. Following her fluctuating moods of mania and depression and her subsequent diagnosis, Zuckerman traces the course of their marriage amid her sometimes debilitating illness. Between bouts of manic energy and lethargic depression, tumultuous fights and breakdowns, Zuckerman shows the complexities of navigating self-care and loving someone who feels as if their “brain is broken.”
Zuckerman writes with humor and honesty. Including notes from various email chains and text messages that his wife and other loved ones sent to him, along with his own journal entries, Zuckerman pushes back against not only the stigmatization of mental illness but also the assumption that it is impossible to love someone with a mental disorder.
Writing the book was difficult, Zuckerman said, as it forced him to relive some of the most intense emotional experiences of his life. In the two-year drafting process, his ending changed three times as his wife’s health changed and ultimately improved.
In the memoir, several other names of friends and family are changed; one friend is referred to as Jack Lemmon because he resembles the actor.
Through sharing his story, Zuckerman said, he wants to show people they are not alone and highlight the perspective of spouses loving someone with mental illness — a group whose story is not often told.
“How do you hold that much responsibility and [make] those kinds of moral decisions? How do you maintain your own well-being in doing so?” he said. “I never expected in my 60s to encounter so difficult an experience.”
Since it was published in July, Zuckerman said, he’s been happy to see that his book fosters a conversation about mental health.
His wife, too, has been his biggest fan, he said. She proofread three drafts of the book and continues to encourage his work.
“I’m so heartened that people are talking about this health condition that’s been so packed away and hidden,” he said. “And from what they’ve told me, they’ve been benefiting and becoming more hopeful based on my experience.”
Zuckerman and his wife have been involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for several years now. The grassroots advocacy group is the largest in the nation and provides support for people with mental illnesses and their loved ones. He also attends and co-facilitates a group in South Minneapolis for partners and spouses of someone with a mental illness, which has since been operating via Zoom during the pandemic.
“Mental illness never goes away, but it’s managed,” he said. “Our marriage was tested in a way that neither of us thought would be tested after 30 years, and we’ve both come out healthier and more loving than ever.”