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Graphic narrative The Unravelling looks unflinchingly at family caregiving, mental illness

Clem Martini launches his latest book at WordFest 2017

Clem Martini wrote about his family's experiences with the health-care system, and the need for better support for families within the system. Illustrations by Olivier Martini

By Heath McCoy

For 36 years Olivier Martini, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, lived under the care of his mother. His brother Clem believes this arrangement saved his life.

“When he was released from the hospital he was on anti-psychotics, but he was depressed and suicidal,” recalls Clem Martini, an award-winning playwright, novelist and University of Calgary drama professor with the School of Creative and Performing Arts. “I’m not sure he would have survived had he not been able to move in with my mother and father and receive care.”

In the realm of health care, family caregivers are true martyrs and unsung heroes. But what happens when the family caregiving system falls apart and the caregivers can no longer provide their much-needed support?

The Martini family lived through this tragedy in recent years when the family matriarch Catherine fell victim to dementia and was no longer able to care for her schizophrenic son. It sent the family into a terrifying downward spiral from which they’ve only recently recovered.

Mental illness shown through family lens

This is the subject matter of a new book, The Unravelling, was launched Sept. 14, during WordFest 2017. The Unravelling is a graphic narrative, written by Clem and illustrated by his brother, Olivier. It is a followup to the brothers’ 2010 collaboration, Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness, which won the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize.

The Unravelling looks at the phenomenon of mental illness through the lens of a family,” says Clem. “It explores the mechanism of family caregiving and how that mechanism can fall apart.”

When the now departed Catherine began slipping into dementia around 2012 it rocked Olivier’s own stability, says Clem, depriving him of his support system and causing his own mental illness to once again overtake him.  

“He was overwhelmed and depressed and not sleeping well,” Clem says. “She was waking up in the night and often falling. He would wake up to help her. It was traumatic for everybody. We tried to get in home care to help her but there was resistance to that. This caused a lot of struggle and arguments and that impacts the entire family’s health.

“Family caregiving is a very delicate net,” he stresses. “If you break one strand it puts stress on all the other strands.”

'At every juncture, there's a fracture' 

The Unravelling also takes a hard look at the frustrations family caregivers experience in dealing with the health-care system.

“To a large degree our medical institutions don’t understand family caregiving,” says Clem. “You’re in there, but you’re not really there. They talk to you, but they don’t really talk to you. You have responsibilities, but you don’t really have responsibilities. And so, at every juncture, there’s a fracture. It makes everything more complicated than it needs to be for the families. It makes the whole process painful.”

It’s a frustrating and counter-productive system that often comes to a head in dire circumstances.

“I’ve been in emergency rooms I don’t know how many times with both my brother and my mother and each time we were met with resistance: ‘Why are you here? Can you step aside?’ ‘Well, no we can’t because we’re in trouble right now. What can you do to help us?’ And they’ll begin peppering the patient with questions, when often they can’t even communicate.”

“You think to yourself: ‘How smart is this? Why treat me like I’m invisible? How does this produce better care?’”

Clem hopes The Unravelling encourages a better understanding of the crucial role family caregivers play and the need for better support for these families. His greatest desire is that the book might even effect positive change in some way to a flawed system.

After writing Bitter Medicine with his brother, Clem says he received positive feedback from doctors, nurses and others within the health-care system. Furthermore, that book gave a voice to those who have been touched by mental illness.

“I had so many people approach me saying ‘Thank you for writing this. Your story is my story. I felt alienated and dismissed until I read your book.’ That’s a good feeling. I hope that The Unravelling can have a similar impact.”