April 12 – Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia

by Martha Graham-Waldon

My memoir, Nothing Like Normal, is about my early years growing up in a “normal” Southern California home. After an idyllic childhood, the strains of adolescence sent my older sister spiraling down into a mental breakdown, leaving our family to cope with the aftermath. In the ensuing years, I learned to face my fears and find my truth while navigating the ups and downs of my own volatile teen years. The following is an excerpt from the beginning of the book.


When your sibling becomes mentally ill, you feel powerless. The adults are making the decisions; there is not much you can do. It’s like being a passenger on a train pummeling towards a certain wreck, witnessing your family plunge into disaster and not being able to step off or change course…

As I stepped over the threshold, the heavy metal door to the psych unit swung shut with a resounding and decisive slam that made me jump. My eyes swept over the drafty expanse of the ward as I searched for her. The faded checkered floor was lit by afternoon shadows. Light spilled into the room like shards of crystals piercing through the tight wires imbedded in the thick shatterproof glass. I looked at my sister Kathy as she walked down the corridor toward me, thinking back on all that had happened to us both. My once fit, athletic sister was now obese. Her dark hair hung stringy down around her face, usually uncombed and dirty. Her teeth and nails were stained brown with nicotine. Suddenly I was caught up short in astonishment. Who was this metamorphosed girl in front of me? Why was she here? Why not me? And I reflected on the past and all that has brought us here…

Kathy Cat and Martha Mouse lived together in a great big house.

It was always the two of us. The “little girls” we were called.
As close as we were, we were far apart, too, different in so many ways. She was brave and outgoing; I was quiet and introverted. She had long, dark hair that she wore down almost always, tucked behind her ears and flung behind her shoulders. She wore hang-ten T-shirts like a uniform, a different one each day. She was dark and beautiful, like an American Indian. Somehow that tiny bit of our Cherokee ancestry was born out in her. In junior high once, a boy signed her yearbook, “To the best Indian girl I know”, and we wondered about that. She was all right till the bump of adolescence sent her careening over the edge. I lost her to a cruel illness that invaded; slowly taking her over her bright mind.

Martha Graham-Waldon is a writer, spiritual entrepreneur and armchair activist who resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California with her family and a menagerie of pets. Her articles have been published locally, internationally and online. Her memoir, published by Black Opal Books, is available on Amazon. Look for her at the Story Circle Network conference in Austin this month.


6 responses to “April 12 – Nothing Like Normal: Surviving a Sibling’s Schizophrenia

  1. Martha, I can relate. My youngest brother was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his final years of high school and has been institutionalized for the past nearly 40 years. He had been so talented as a kid and an excellent athlete who played both basketball and football–in truth he was probably the most gifted of all of my siblings.

    The situation was a tremendous burden and source of heartbreak for my parents. My mother shouldered that burden for many years after my dad died in 1990 and when she died a year and a half ago the legality of conservatorship fell to me. He calls me a lot, but I rarely see him since he is geographically so far from me. I’m not sure where this will all end up in the end, but it’s sad to know that he is wasting away in a facility. Thank goodness he does have that care though as I don’t know who among us siblings would be able to handle him.

    It’s a rough situation to deal with mental illness. Hopefully there will be some kind of cure found someday.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  2. Thanks for sharing, Arlee. You and I have much in common with so many families that must cope with mental illness. I feel that the more we share our stories, the more we can bring down the walls of stigma and alienation and build better support networks for our loved ones and ourselves. We must grieve for the sibling we lost while helping them cope with a new reality. Counting the blessings of care as you have and accepting and loving our siblings while still nurturing ourselves and focusing on our lives is the challenge. I wish you and your family peace.

  3. Sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for sharing this.

    Writer Advice Managing Editor, http://www.writeradvice.com
    Author of YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers & Author of TALENT

  4. This has a familiar ring as I have experienced similar family dynamics with a sister who was bi-polar.

  5. I hear this a lot. There are so many of us and many stories to share and offer support to one another.

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