Martini brothers share family’s mental health struggles
Graphic memoir depicts family’s struggle with mental illness, health system
She wanted to stay involved, but ultimately, we had to say ‘You can’t anymore. You’re not providing help. You’re needing help.
Many people with mental illness rely on a family member to remind them to take their medicine, to take them to the doctor, and keep them safe and on track.
But when that family caregiver is no longer able to provide support, what happens?
That’s where Calgary’s Martini family found themselves a few years ago.
For almost four decades, their mother, Catherine, had been taking care of her son Olivier, who has schizophrenia.
But then she developed dementia, and everything changed. “Suddenly everything we’d been doing for 36 years fell into disarray,” Clem Martini says.
“It was messy. It was frightening, and it was dangerous.”
To cope with the changes, Clem (a renowned playwright, novelist and University of Calgary professor) and his artist brother Olivier Martini decided to create a book about their experiences.
The new graphic memoir, The Unravelling, has been published this fall by Freehand Books. Written by Clem and illustrated by Olivier, it addresses the struggles they went through and the way their lives had to change.
While the book is a very personal look at what the brothers faced, it’s also something many people can relate to: aging parents, mental illness, dementia and dealing with assisted living and the long-termcare system.
For the Martinis, Irene Catherine Martini had been the rock of the family for decades. The proud mother of four boys, she moved to Canada from Berlin in 1952, settling in what was then the small town of Bowness. She was soon elected as a trustee to the Bowness Public School Board, and then, after the City of Calgary annexed Bowness, continued as a trustee until 1980. She was a strong supporter of English as a second language programs and French immersion, as well as kindergarten, at a time when few schools offered early-childhood education. “She was a very strong person, a person with a mission,” who spoke several languages and who fiercely supported her children, Clem says.
Dementia was particularly tough because for so long, she knew her role as the glue that kept everyone together. “She wanted to stay involved, but ultimately, we had to say ‘ You can’t anymore. You’re not providing help. You’re needing help,’ ” Clem says.
“That’s a hard conversation … There were lots of conflicts in those last years.”
Catherine died on Dec. 31, 2016, at the age of 91.
Before she died, Clem and Olivier had told their mother they were working together on a new project, but Clem says he isn’t sure if she understood everything they talked about. “Her dementia was pretty advanced at that point,” he says. “It’s hard to say what she remembered or how long she remembered it.”
Working on the book became a cathartic experience for the broth- ers, a way to deal with their feelings and fears about the future.
Not even a year after her death, Clem says, they are doing OK, each dealing with their grief the best they can. Olivier now lives on his own in the apartment he shared for so many years with their mother. The brothers talk every day, and they see each other a few times a week, visits that often include their eldest brother, Nic, a software expert in Calgary.
Because schizophrenia never goes away, professional caregivers come by to help fill Catherine’s shoes, ensuring Olivier is taking his medicine morning and night.
“It’s always a bit of a challenge,” Clem says. “But I think we’re doing all right.”
In addition to the launch of The Unravelling, Clem and Olivier are both working on new creative projects. Olivier is a mental-health advocate and artist who sells and shows his work around town. Clem has a new novel to be published with University of Calgary Press in February 2018, and he’s writing an opera — his second — which will be presented by Calgary Opera in 2019.
The Unravelling is the third book the brothers have worked on together. Their first graphic novel, Bitter Medicine, was released in 2010 and told the story of their brother Ben’s suicide. It won the W.O. Mitchell Book Prize and the attention it gathered “was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” Clem says.
“People would come up and say, ‘This book is so important because your story is my story.’”
Like their first book did seven years ago, Clem says they’re hoping that their new book will help others who find themselves in similar situations.
“It has been a useful mechanism for us,” he says. “And ultimately, hopefully, it will be a useful book for others, to let them know they are not alone.”
Clem Martini told their mother he and his brother were working on a new project, but “it’s hard to say what she remembered,” he says.
Olivier Martini provided the illustrations for the book he created with Clem. It was a cathartic experience for the brothers.
Clem Martini, illustrations by Olivier Martini Freehand Books