When Mental Illness Touches Your Life…


“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.


About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me to a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I found so many opportunities to grow: 10 year facilitator for an online writing circle of women writers across the country; thirteen year editor of the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal; a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site; program chair for two Stories from the Heart national conferences in Austin, T. Presently I'm teaching Women's Life-Writing and Older Women's Legacy workshops in my part of the world in Central Virginia and facilitating the ongoing Circle of Memories Writing Circle (formerly an OWL workshop that continued on) at the Crozet Public Library. I am blessed with three wonderful children, a son and two daughters; a small, huge-hearted family; dear friends; my beagle Addie and cat Button. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. All these years later, I'm scheduled to publish my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life, in 2018.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Childhood, Family, Health, Mental Illness, Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When Mental Illness Touches Your Life…

  1. Sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Mary Jo!


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