Bitter Medicine is the book chosen for this year's Common Reading Program.
Michael Issakidis/the Gauntlet

A taste of Bitter Medicine

Clem and Olivier Martini's graphic novel explores how we view mental illnesses

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Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness is essentially what its title suggests — the impact it has on those who read it, however, expands far beyond the book’s pages. The deeply personal graphic novel tells the true story of a family struggling with the harsh realities of schizophrenia. By chronicling the family’s 30-year experience with the schizophrenia that struck Olivier and Ben Martini, Clem Martini, award winning playwright and head of the University of Calgary drama department, challenges the stigma of mental health that has become too prevalent in society. The beautiful drawings and comic-like sequences of Olivier Martini, artist and ACAD graduate, bring to life the rocky journey he had coping with schizophrenia and the flawed Canadian health care system.

A dialogue emerges between concise words and stark images that portray frustration, heartbreak, discontent, community and love — Olivier speaks through his own experiences and Clem through frustrations with a society that continually fails his family. The Martinis face obstacles that are told in a straightforward, simple manner. Clem’s words portray his experience in an almost emotionless way, which is a striking contrast to his heartbreaking experiences. The pictures are just as minimalist, and both Clem and Olivier’s narratives fittingly strip the issues down to their bare bones.

“I think what is missing from literature — not always — is the experience with the disorder, how to cope with that, how that changes the dynamic of a family and what kind of changes have to occur for a family to survive,” says Clem. “There is lots of collateral damage that occurs with a disorder and it really turns everything upside down.”

As part of the Common Reading Program, all first-year U of C students have received Bitter Medicine. Clem and Olivier will present the book during Frosh week, and it has been adapted into a play by Patrick Finn, professor of drama at the U of C. University is the perfect place to create discourse, and Bitter Medicine successfully challenges readers to change their ideas about mental health.

“It’s such an amazing thing that the Common Reading Program would pick this book,” says Finn. “It’s just a great indication of how well put together our student body is right now that they are willing to look at an issue that is so important, but at the same time could be somewhat sensitive.”

Finn says he was mesmerized and profoundly touched by Bitter Medicine. He started reading it and just couldn’t put it down — turning it into a play was the only logical step. The play will be shown throughout the year at the Taylor Family Digital Library. It takes seven aspects of the book — family, schizophrenia, communication, hospitals, work, community and living — and transforms them into 60–90 second performances. Finn takes issues like stigma that are pervasive through the book further by making them more personal through live performance.

“I am very interested in the way we can approach and engage with books in the 21st century, in a new way,” he says. “What I’ve done is taken components of the book and expanded them with virtual reality.”

Bitter Medicine is a story about facing all odds. The most poignant point throughout the book is how marginalized the mental health care system is — and how that’s not okay. Clem and Olivier successfully challenge frequently misunderstood notions of mental illness and call on the community to raise its voice against stigma.

The mental health system has been underfunded for decades, says Clem.

“More has to be done in terms of supporting and integrating those people that are diagnosed, there has to be more money spent.”

Clem mentions in the book that the life expectancy of those who are diagnosed with a major mental illness has actually diminished over the last 20 years.

“That’s appalling,” he says. “If that were true of any other medical disorder, there would be outrage. The expectation should be that there is an improvement, that people live longer and better, and that hasn’t happened.”

A tragic state of the current mental health system is the “institutionalization of the mentally ill,” says Clem. Mental illnesses are rampant among people who are homeless, and a significant portion of those illnesses are undiagnosed.

“It becomes a trajectory for moving from a place of homelessness into being treated in the prison system and through either desperation or delusion break the law and end up in the prison system,” he says. “It may be the first time in your life that you’re diagnosed and treated, but what an appalling statement.”

The first thing students can do is break the silence and start talking openly about mental health. With Bitter Medicine so readily available at the U of C, the university community is on common ground to speak out and solicit support for mental health awareness.

“Looking at mental illness as an illness and not as a shameful act has ended the silence that has been so pervasive that families feel isolated and trapped because of the shame attached to it. [Mental health] isn’t given the same kind of support by the government because it doesn’t feel that kind of pressure,” says Clem. “The perception that mental illness isn’t a genuine illness — that it’s a make believe illness — can only happen if people are silent.”

Despite the continual frustration of the Martini family in Bitter Medicine, the book is also about perseverance and shows how things can ultimately work out. In the final scene of the novel, Clem and Olivier are walking together in the snow humming Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” You really “can’t start a fire without a spark,” but maybe, like Clem suggests, the current generation can spark further and more rapid change of mental health care in Canada.