“This is,” the author says, “the story of a family that was close and then came apart.”
Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia by Martha Graham-Waldon poses this question on the cover: What if you woke up one day with a family member who had changed into an entirely different person? The two young girls on the cover hold baby chicks in their small hands. The younger child holds one chick tenderly enclosed with both hands and looks at the camera with a sweet smile of happiness shadowed with a smudge of uncertainty. The older girl with darker hair holds one chick securely in each hand and looks down at them with confidence and obvious pleasure. It’s the kind of cover I love, one that gives me, before I even open the book, rich clues to what I’ll find within the pages.
“We had a magical childhood,” Graham-Waldon writes. There were four children: Martha, the youngest, Kathy two years older, and two big brothers, Charlie and John. “Although we lived in the city [in California], our parents fostered in us a love of nature through wilderness adventures from a very young age. Some summers we hiked in the High Sierras, carrying our gear on backpacks and on pack mules in the backcountry near Yosemite, Tuolome Meadows, Silver Dollar Lake…”
Graham-Waldon’s father made their comfortable lifestyle possible with his hard work and their leisure time creative and educational through his love of nature and classical guitar music. Graham-Waldon’s mother also worked equally hard but in a different way; she sought to be all things to all people, as did so many women of her era. As a result, she never achieved her own passions, one of which was to write a book about her research into human behavior.
In 1968, Kathy was on the cusp of adolescence when the family took a cross country trip to historical places in the U.S. and a sudden outburst marked a change in her usually happy personality. “She snapped,” Graham-Waldon writes. From that point forward, Kathy’s angry outbursts escalate as the family enters the terrifying world of schizophrenia. The long and convoluted journey of the next three decades is a powerful portrayal of the life of the family and, in particular, of a sister who deeply loves her bright, mentally ill big sister.
I was drawn to Graham-Waldon’s book, her first, because I have a younger sibling with the same disease, along with borderline intellectual delay. It profoundly affected our family’s functioning. As I read, I was deeply moved by the clear, yet sensitive exploration of the multitude of ways mental illness touches siblings’ lives. Despite my long experience with my younger sister, which continues to this day, I gained new insights through the author’s words.
The author’s wish is that her book “serve as a guide and touchstone for anyone experiencing similar turmoil in their lives. It is a voice for them—the voice that I wish I had had. It is a voice for all siblings and family members who have struggled with mental health issues, to encourage them to reclaim their own lives and inner joy. After all, surviving and thriving while going on with your own life is the best way to honor your sibling as well as yourself.”
I feel Graham-Waldon has well met her goal and highly recommend this well-written, important, and intimate memoir to those who have had mental illness connect with their lives, or others who have not, yet want to learn more about how schizophrenia affects the individuals in a family. I look forward to reading more of Graham-Waldon’s work.
Martha Graham-Waldron describes herself: “I am a writer, spiritual entrepreneur and armchair activist who happily resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California with my family and a menagerie of pets. My articles have been published locally in The Santa Cruz Sentinel, The Metro, and The Press Banner, and internationally in the Canadian Dance Connection as well as in several online journals. I am a winner of the Women’s Memoirs contest for a vignette that will appear in the forthcoming eBook Tales of Our Lives. A member of the National Association of Memoir Writers, I love travel, the outdoors, Jazzercise and music. I am thrilled to be debuting my first book, the memoir Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia with Black Opal Books in 2015.” Visit her website.