mental illness in the family

I’m with Crazy: A Love Story (Ep 16) Dealing with grief: Self-care and living your own life

I don’t know about you, but something’s been feeling a bit “off” for a while. From Thanksgiving until New Year’s, the holiday spirit has eluded me; hence, why no Christmas episode. A call that came to me out of the blue made me realize what was going on with me. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, spinning so many plates, and not being a good caregiver to me. Maybe you can relate? 

It’s also been a challenge sifting through old journals and memories as I write the next book of my memoir. Oh, and January 17 is the anniversary of my little sister’s death, and as much as some people say “get over it” I am and always will be dealing with grief — as is normal. Other than that, nothing else is going on! LOL

Who am I kidding? There’s so much madness in the world right now that if you’re not grieving a personal loss, you are, I would bet, feeling a sense of grief and anxiety and having a dickens of a time finding any kind of magic. If so, I hope you’ll find a bit of comfort in what I have to say here. This episode is all about what it means to get busy living and in doing so, to remember who you are, to be who you are, for yourself and for others. Because that is truly living.

I do wish you your best year yet!



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Hi, and welcome to Madness To Magic, and my podcast, I’m with Crazy: A Love Story. I’m your host, Paolina Milana, author of “The S Word”.

This show is for those of us who find ourselves surrounded by madness and wanting to find the magic within. We’re going to come together here as caregivers to those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Maybe it’s someone in the family we’ve been born into. Maybe it’s someone we love. Maybe it’s someone we work with. Maybe, even, it’s ourselves. Whether we’ve been thrust into this caregiver role or taken it on by choice, this podcast is where we’re going to share our stories and learn to realize the magic in all the madness we may have been experiencing. I promise you, it can be done. So let’s get to it.

Hi there and welcome back to Madness To Magic, and my podcast, I’m with Crazy: A Love Story. It’s been a couple of months since I last hopped onto the mic here. In truth, I actually did record an episode of this podcast for Christmas. I felt as if I HAD to – not that I didn’t WANT to – I wanted to wish everyone their merriest season ever, — and I do hope yours was just that – I also felt I had to because December 2019 marked the one year anniversary of this podcast. Yay! I’m going to give myself a round of applause, even if no one else will!

Now you might have noticed that my Christmas podcast never made it to the masses. There’s a good reason for that: I wasn’t feeling it. Even after I recorded it, I kept listening to it over and over and even though everything I said was true and about how I was feeling, there was something missing – that inspiration or that hope or that spark of magic, it just wasn’t there. I could feel its absence when I recorded the podcast, and I could hear it when I listened back.

So, of course, then I thought: OMG, I’m sooo busy but I HAVE to re-record, I have to put something out. It’s the holidays, and everyone else is, and if I miss this opportunity to wish people Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and whatever else you might be celebrating, it’s gone forever for the last Christmas of this decade and WHAT does that say about me?

I thought about it for a long time. And I almost just published the podcast. But then I remembered what I tell everyone else to remember – Remember who you are. Stop with the shoulda, coulda, woulda…put on your own oxygen mask before everyone else’s.

And with that, then I said those two magic words: FUCK IT!

I realized that somehow I had gotten myself caught up again in my own madness, racing around, juggling so many balls, ticking off my to-do list that with every task I completed, two more would take its place. Sort of like the hairs on my chin – my mother always told me that to pluck one means seven will show up to replace it. Boy, she wasn’t kidding. It got to the point where not only did I want to run away and join the circus, but I’d be a natural for the bearded lady to boot! Silver linings, eh?

All kidding aside, from this past Thanksgiving thru New Years, something has been feeling a bit “off” – and if I’m honest, I’m still “not feeling it” – I don’t think I’m alone in my feelings. Others have said the same. I’m sure it has to do with what’s playing out on the world stage, and, on top of that, in my case, I’m working on the 2nd part of my memoir which means I’m delving into pieces of my past – and for anyone who’s worked on a memoir or even reflected on their past, that can take its toll. So…A lot of moving water for sure.

Now I know one thing for sure: It doesn’t really matter what’s going on externally. What does matter is what’s going on internally. So to that end, it dawned on me that I have been burning the candle on both ends and need a time out. One very long winter’s nap! In other words, the very thing I preach about in this podcast CAREGIVING is the very thing I wasn’t doing — for myself.

Now I didn’t even realize it until the other day when I was interviewed by CBC radio on a piece they’re doing on dealing with grief. The journalist explained that after the Iran plane crash and the ongoing threat of more war, they wanted to do something to help the many people who may be grieving the loss of loved ones and the many more who may be feeling anxious. She came across my name, she said, because of a piece I had written after the death of my little sister, Viny, for the Daily Muse on dealing with grief.

The minute that reporter mentioned it, I took a look at the calendar and it hit me that Friday, January 17 is the six year anniversary of my sibling’s unexpected death. Now it all was starting to make sense. The holidays have always been a bit of a challenge for me, but this year, working on the memoir and this anniversary and all of the hurt and grief that is our world today – it’s impacted me with me too busy – running on fumes – instead of even realizing I need to slow down, address it, and take care of me.

Grief hits you in the oddest of ways. There’s the initial shock, pain, sadness that comes with losing a loved one or the loss of a job or the breakup of a relationship or the letting go of a dream. But then – long after you’ve kind of moved on and are back in your day-to-day life – boom, it can come at you in ways that are pretty forceful, reducing you to tears, or in ways that you don’t even know it’s happening – you just feel a bit “off”.

So often we’re told or we think we should “get over it” – shake it off — but that’s not the best for anyone involved AND it really isn’t possible because we won’t “get over it” nor should we. Grief is a part of life, just as joy is. The experience of it is part of what makes you you. It’s the same with whatever madness we’re experience. We wonder “when will the madness stop” – It won’t. It may change, but we’ll always have madness in our lives. It’s how we deal with it all that matters.

My little sister’s death was a major wake up call. She really taught me that we all have an expiration date. From the moment we’re born, we start dying. As defeatist as that may sound at first blush, it isn’t. It’s actually a great reminder that all we have is THIS MOMENT. We never know when our number’s up. So as someone once said: Get busy living or get busy dying.

In 2014, I made the choice to finish my first memoir The S Word and get it published. So it’s ironic that Viny my sister would show up again when I’m working on the second memoir and procrastinating. Get busy…I think that’s what the message is.

But what does that really mean “get busy”?

In my 54 years, I’ve definitely “gotten busy”: From schooling to career to caregiving to relationships to major highs and major lows and risks and leaps of faith and, well, living…

I’ve done A LOT of it. Did I do everything I could have done? Probably not. Did I do everything the way it should have been done? Probably not. Did I do everything the way – in hindsight – I would have done it if I knew then what I know now? Probably not. But as Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “We did then what we knew how to do, now we know better, so we do better.”

So two things come up for me with “getting busy” = one is to get busy on the stuff that really matters versus letting all the little day-to-day interruptions get in the way. I, too often, let whatever madness is happening distract me. I suffer from “filter failure”. I’m bombarded by so much and it’s easier to do the little things and to feel like I’ve been so productive, but the real things that require more thought, time, devotion – and that matter – they go to the back burner when they should be at the forefront. The second thing that comes up for me is giving myself credit for the stuff I HAVE accomplished.

My brother has asked me if I thought of myself as a success. I usually hem and haw and say “not really” – it so frustrates him. But it’s true. With all that I have accomplished and overcome, I still have moments when I feel like I haven’t done enough, when I think I’m not enough. Those ever-vocal voices in my head keep whispering I should have more, do more, be more AND that the reason I don’t is because in reality I’m just not all that and a bag of chips. Clearly, the voices in my head feel the need to share their opinion that I’m a few French fries short of a happy meal.

But that thinking is faulty. It just isn’t true. Those voices aren’t really real. And we need to practice caregiving for ourselves…and celebrating who we are just by being…and when we can’t do that, we need someone or something else to help us.


My little sister had a pretty rough life. She was bullied as a kid, she battled a mental illness, she struggled with the simplest of tasks – and, yet, she fought to live the life she wanted – I even remember her singing that Gwen Stefani song “It’s my life” when – big sister me would try to tell her how to live hers! She died too soon in my opinion, but you know what? For all of her issues, she experienced one of the sweetest and most loving relationships with her long-time boyfriend that I’ve ever seen to date – how many people die without ever having something like that? So she did live her life, and I thank her for showing me that and reminding me again to live mine.

So “get busy living” — A couple of days ago, I was on the phone with a customer service rep. I wasn’t exactly a happy camper when we started out talking about something that was owed to me. I wasn’t rude, but I was direct and very clear that I wanted what was promised to me. This young man worked on the solution, and in the time it took for him to fill in whatever forms he had to, to get me what I wanted, we chatted. He said something that made me ask him what it was that he wanted to do with his life. He said he wanted to move to Sri Lanka and told me why. I then asked why he didn’t do it. He said because of his family.

Ah! Family. Sometimes such a great thing and sometimes a four-letter word. I know a thing or two about family and living a life of obligation – which was what he was doing.

So I shared my thoughts with this 24-year old about how he needed to live his own life, just like everyone else in his family needed to live there’s – not his. And by the time we were done, he got a little bit choked up, saying he was speechless and didn’t know what to say because quote: “You may have literally just changed my life forever” – endquote.

I think on that conversation today. I was pretty much his same age 25 when my father died, followed by my little sister Viny being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was 26 and me becoming primary caregiver to her and to my mom, also diagnosed with mental illness way earlier. I knew what this young man may have been feeling – no matter what his particular madness may have been.

In my case, I didn’t get out back then – I hadn’t learned yet how to put on my oxygen mask before helping my others with theirs. And I didn’t know how to ask for help. As a result, I spent the next nearly ten years falling further and further into my own despair, and it almost ended quite tragically. Thankfully, some divine intervention in the form of a stranger who would become my mentor put me on the path to reclaiming my own power, getting myself out of the bunny hole I was in, and finding my own magic.

We never know where that lifeline, the very person or thing we may need, will cross our paths. And we never know when we might actually BE that lifeline for someone else.

I recently ran across this picture I had taken that made me laugh out loud when I did and still makes me laugh out loud when seeing it now – The picture is of a sign that hangs on a wall – I’ll describe it to you – three or four slats of wood, painted mint-green, words written on it:

  • Voices in your head…normal;
  • Listening to them…common;
  • Arguing with them…acceptable;
  • Losing the argument…big problem.

So that still makes me laugh. Probably because it’s so true. It’s sort of the definition really of madness. And in revisiting my past, it’s something that’s always been a part of me. It’s still is a part of me. I would guess that’s true for all of us. Everybody listening on this podcast, we’ve all got those voices coming from others, but mostly they’re coming from within. Shoulda, woulda, couldas – not helpful. Distractions and doing more, more, more = it’s madness. Listening to the outsiders or the fear of missing out with what we see on social media = external BS that adds to our cray-cray. I know for sure that no matter what kind of external circumstances we’re battling, the true madness is the one we’re battling internally.

What we say to ourselves – pushing ourselves because we “should” – beating ourselves up – all of it — how we are caregivers for ourselves — is really key to pretty much everything else. I created “madness to magic” and I’ve been working with people who are in whatever madness they’re in and helping them find their own magic – and what I realize is that the madness is never going to go away. We’re never going to be free of crazy. It is going to keep coming and it will find us. IN my case, that’s always been and always will be true.

What I further realize and actually know to be true is that rather than fear the madness or shamefully hide it, when I’ve given it its own voice and actually made friends with it…when I’ve partnered with it…it’s made me even more powerful and that’s when the real magic shows up.

I liken it to the musical Wicked and the story of Elphaba. I’ve maybe shared this before, but since I told you about that sign about a few moments ago, the one about the voices, I want to share where that sign came from because it seems to fit here: that sign was hanging on the back of the bathroom door in my doctor’s office.

Actually, she wasn’t really my doctor. She was another chance meeting – another “divine intervention” as I like to think of them.  Her name was Pat and she was a women’s health nurse practitioner. At the time I met her, I was in a pretty stressful job, an executive role that, quite frankly, I’d been killing myself in. I was working at this nonprofit, a very worthy mission, but unfortunately filled with its own internal dysfunctions including people with their own broken wings, and their own agendas. It was a super unhealthy environment. Something that I realized too late in the game because to not “fix” it and succeed meant I was a failure. So, I soldiered on, as a champion of the charity, a caregiver, the do it all kind of girl, you know, powerful me, but I was getting sick completely physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a little help. Pat was suggested to me and I booked the appointment.

It was like the last appointment of the day I remember, and the administrator of the facility, the one I talked to on the phone, told me that if I took the last appointment of the day, I needed to be okay with sharing a glass of wine with Pat. Huh? I wondered to myself, what kind of a medical place is this? However, since I love my wine, I was like, Okie dokie, no problem there.

When I entered the doors of Pat’s place, the receptionist greeted me. I was racing – I didn’t want to be late – so I didn’t even bother to look at what was all around me. I just took the clip board of paperwork she handed me and went to sit down to fill it in.

It was then that I noticed the décor. On the walls, the furniture, even the floors: It looked as if the characters and the scenery from The Wizard of Oz had decided to make this place home. I looked around, realizing that every chair already was occupied, not by a human being, but by some plush stuffed Wizard of Oz doll. It was sort of bizarre, but at the same time, kinda cool.

Everywhere I looked I saw Dorothy, The Tin Man , The Cowardly lion, the Scarecrow. Even as I looked down at the floor beneath my seat, I chuckled at the site of a pair of stuffed Wicked Witch of the West legs in black and green striped tights sticking out from underneath the nearby closet door.

And hanging from every bare spot on all four walls were quotable quotes and sayings that rivaled the one I would see on the back of that bathroom door. I remember one sign saying something like, “Absolutely no working during drinking hours.” 

Hilarious. And my kind of place!

Pat clearly marched to the beat of her own drum. And I felt at home in her office.

When I was finally called into her back office to see her, I commented on her Wizard of Oz décor. Pat thanked me for noticing and said the Wizard of Oz was her all-time favorite. I asked her why Wizard of Oz? Her response was one I had never thought of it before.

Pat said that to her, the Wizard of Oz was a great story of friendship. What one character lacked, the others had, and together, it made them whole.

Wow. That hit home then. And here it is hitting home for me years later again.

We all experience moments when we need a time out or when we no longer know which way to go. We all feel afraid and alone and discouraged at times. We all grieve and regret and want to run away and join the circus from time to time. We all have way too many plates we’re spinning, but which one can we drop? We all have our own madness we’re navigating, trying to find the magic –

Even Dorothy had her own twist and turns – the tornado, the wicked witch, being thrust into a new environment. She met people along the way – some like the munchkins were nothing like she expected, some like the flying monkeys were to be feared, some – like the actual Wizard she sought – were just smoke and mirrors. Dorothy had a lot of external situations just like we all do. She also had a lot of self-doubt and fears. Like we all do. But one thing Dorothy had that we all do, too, is the power within us – it’s always with us, we just need to tap into it, to trust it, to put one foot in front of the other and walk our own path.

And we each need to see ourselves for who we really are. The lion DID have courage. The Tin Man ALREADY had a heart. The scarecrow HAD a brain.

Those voices outside of us or – more importantly – inside us telling us that we aren’t significant, that we’re lacking something, that we don’t bring value, that we should be over there not here, that whatever we do, it’s never enough…those voices that tell us we missed the boat or we can’t any longer because of whatever reasons – they’re wrong. And when we can’t see that for ourselves, we need “divine intervention” from others to help us see it.

As much as Pat’s “all-time favorite” was the Wizard of Oz, my all-time favorite story is “It’s A Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart starring as George Bailey of Bedford Falls.

If you’ve never seen it, I hope you decide to. It really is wonderful and keeps growing in meaning for me, ever since that first Christmas I watched it with my father, the very first time it aired on TV. I’ve watched it every Christmas since.

That movie has always made me think about myself as George Bailey. George Bailey who as a young man had so many dreams. So many ambitions. He wanted to travel and to build things and he wanted to really make this big difference in people’s lives and in the world. He wanted to make a name for himself and be somebody. When he’s college-aged, he tells Mary – the girl he’ll one day marry – that he has no intention of sticking around town. He says I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…

So many specific plans…but George never does get out of Bedford Falls. Lots of reasons why, just like all of us: Life seems to just happen. And for George, he seems to end up living a life of obligation. Caregiving for everybody else other than himself.

At one point, he finds himself in serious financial trouble. Even though it’s due to no fault of his own, he chooses to take on the blame and responsibility.  He can lose it all – his family, his home – and he can go to jail. He tries to figure a way out on his own, but he can’t, and he becomes discouraged, and desperate, and he considers taking his life. He feels like such a failure because the voices in his head focus on what he hasn’t achieved instead of all that he has, and they whisper words of shame so that George doesn’t feel as if there is anyone he can lean on or ask for help.

By the time the story ends, however, a bit of divine intervention in the form of Clarence the angel trying to get his wings shows up and shows George that he actually did build things — He built an entire town that would have been completely different had he not been there. He built a community filled with people who cared for one another. He built a family that loved him. And his self-less actions helped save the lives of countless others he never even knew because – as Clarence says – one man’s life touches so many others.

It’s interesting because here’s the guy who was the strongest among them,  caregiver, the guy who did do it all, the one who had all the answers, the one who got it done and kept it together. Yet, at the moment when it starts to fall apart, and he needs help, others ARE there and step in. AND they give George a whole different perspective on who he is, how important he’s been to them, how his just being has made all the difference in the world, and just what a wonderful life he really has – and others have because of him.

Remembering who you are, being who you are is all that we need to be. Trying to be something you think you’re supposed to be or something other than who or where you are – THAT is when we fail.

So on this anniversary of my little sister’s death, I thank her again for the reminder to get busy living my own life, to not get caught up in my own shoulda, woulda, couldas, to be a compassionate caregiver to me when I need it, and to tell those non-stop voices in my head to just chill. I wish this, too, for all of you, dear listeners. And welcome your stories and comments, too.

Happy 2020. Until we connect here again!

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