mental illness in the family

I’m with Crazy: A Love Story (Ep5) The Gift of Change

I wonder, how often do we set expectations of others, of experiences, of ourselves? How many times do we romanticize scenarios, places, people, our histories? How many times do we suffer because we’re wishing that things were different? We’re not accepting what is, especially when there’s nothing that you can do to change what is. My birthday, that old picture of what once was, my relationship with my sister, my relationship with myself, my trip to Iowa, my visit with my old friend, nothing gold can stay. Change is the only constant. Home is wherever we are, as long as we understand that home is within us. And just as our external circumstances are constantly changing for better or for worse, so too are we internally constantly changing. We’re either changing for the better or we’re changing for the worst. We’re never staying status quo.


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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.

Hello, and here we are again. Thanks for joining me and listening in today, which actually happens to be my birthday February 12, 1965, my mom told me that my dad had brought her a giant heart-shaped box of chocolates because she was still in the hospital with me on Valentine’s Day, two full days after I was born. Funny how times change. Today, major surgeries seem to be done as outpatient procedures, and delivering a healthy baby, correct me if I’m wrong, but it never seems to include a two day hospital stay. From what I’ve seen with my friends, it’s more like a stop at the drive-through. You’re in and you’re out.

I happened to stumble upon an old photo of mine. I couldn’t have been more than three years old. I’m standing on a chair at our white formica kitchen table. I swear that table lasted for decades. I’m leaning over it, the table, with a knife in my hand. Yes, I know, three years old, knife in my hand, it was more like one of those cake cutter kind of knives, and I’m actually cutting into my birthday cake. I’m sure it was a cannoli cake. That’s all that we got, and I still love them. I’m still trying to find a good one.

My mom is smiling, and her lips are beautifully colored with her signature blood red lipstick. Her long black hair is twisted into a bun on top of her head, and my mom looks so happy. She’s sitting right to my left, and she’s holding on her lap my baby sister. She’s holding her with one of hands and then she has the other hand on my back. I’m assuming she’s trying to keep me steady. My other sister, who’s five years my senior, she’s standing to the left of our mom. And I wish you all could see this photo because how she’s posed, it always just makes me laugh because she’s there with her right elbow and it’s kind of propped up our mom’s shoulder and she’s leaning over a bit with her head resting on her own hand and it’s sort of like this ho-hum kind of stance. She has her left hand on her hip and she’s sporting a bit of a tude, so to speak. And from how she’s got her lips twisted, her mouth, and her whole face is kind of scrunched up, you can just tell she is not loving this moment.

Me, on the other hand, I’m in full celebration mode. The look on my face is clearly screaming out, “Cake,” and not much has changed. Cake and I are fast friends, always and forever. Anyway, that picture was taken long before my mom got sick. When things seemed simple and happy and normal. And that’s what we were. We were just your average, hardworking immigrant Italian family. We were the ones whose children always behaved, whose mom made our clothes, whose cooking filled the neighborhood with aroma that, no joke, sometimes strangers would just kind of appear, knock on our door, and ask us what the heck smells so good.

Again, funny how things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, and you never know what’s on the horizon, do you? That whole whatever kind of stance my older sister had going on in that picture, honestly, has been part of her personality ever since, well, ever since I’ve known her. My sister was always fierce, always seemingly fearless. She was always a bit of a I can’t be bothered kind of person. And because she was the first born, well, she always had to go first. So in our family and during that era, she had to fight for simple things, to go to college. She had to fight to get her driver’s license. She had to fight to go out with a boy. I remember once, she complained, actually she complained quite a bit, about needing an electric typewriter in order to do schoolwork. Right? It seems pretty simple, pretty logical. But we didn’t have a lot of money.

And my parents, an electric typewriter is very, very foreign to them. They didn’t know why. And I’m not excusing anything, but when they finally broke down and bought one, I remember my mom crossing the room, slapping my sister across the face, and basically saying, here, are you happy now? Here’s your typewriter. Now shut up. Not exactly best practices for parenting 101. But I bring this up because, like I said, she had to fight a lot for things that a kid shouldn’t have had to fight for. And my sister and I used to be pretty tight. When I was 18, or when I was turning 18, I remember she even threw me a surprise birthday party. My dad had driven me home from the part-time job I had then, and instead of parking the car in the garage, he just kind of parked it outside the front door. And I didn’t think there was anything odd about that. I do remember thinking, “Well, why the heck are the living room drapes kind of drawn shut?” But didn’t give it really a whole lot of thought.

I opened up the front door, and there in the living room all my friends, my family, everybody shouted, “Surprise.” I was truly taken aback and seriously wowed that my sister would do that for me. I still have a bunch of handwritten letters that she wrote to me when I went away to Iowa State University for a year. She was left home with my mom, who at that point was full-blown paranoid schizophrenic, and her letters just kind of tell what was going on, right, while I was at school, completely separate from it all. And nobody knew at school what was going on at home. When I reread those letters, and I relive what life was like dealing with our mom’s mental illness from my sister’s perspective, the me of today realizes that she was doing the best she could at that time, just as we all were. And hindsight always being 2020, I think I expected a lot from her, maybe a lot more than she or anyone could deliver. And in a lot of ways, I think she was just trying to survive and protect herself and be a caregiver for herself. That’s what took priority today.

Today, the me of today thinks sometimes that between the two of us, maybe she had it right all along. She was the smart one. Whatever we experienced, however, we each navigated the madness of our respective lives. The fact is that today, my older sister and I don’t speak. It’s her choice and I no longer try to change her mind. As I said, things change for better or for worse. And whether or not we see that change as better or worse has everything to do with whether or not we’re even aware of the change and how much we ourselves have actually changed, for better or worse. I know, I can hear myself talking, I know that I sound like I’m maybe talking in riddles and that’s because I sort of am.

So remember that this is Madness to Magic, right? And blurred boundaries are given. Perspective is powerful and a major driver when it comes to change. This whole thing about change really kind of hit me full on just about a week or so ago. I braved the polar vortex, traveling in record cold and snow from my home in Southern California, all the way back to old stomping grounds in the wintry Midwest. Shelly, she’s a longtime friend of mine, we met as college students at Iowa State University, and she invited me to come visit her and see the new home she bought in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Now, Shelly was born and raised in Iowa. We met by chance in a media law class at ISU. I was just about to turn 21, whereas Shelly had celebrated that milestone year about a year prior. She was a local blue-collar farm girl who ran a bit on the wild side.

And what I remember so much about her is that she lived life as if every moment was her last. No apologies, no regrets. At least that’s how I viewed her, and in many ways maybe even envied her. I’m guessing the envy was due to me being first generation Sicilian, raised to be a good Catholic girl, always responsible, forever guilty, even if I didn’t warrant it. That’s probably what I’m guessing. And as opposite as we were alike, Shelly and I, we were instantly connected. One reason is we shared a similar body type. We were both the plus-size girls. But unlike me, Shelly embraced her figure. And at that time, she brought to life everything I never knew existed. She was the first big, beautiful, confident, sexy girl I had ever encountered. And throughout the years following college, Shelly left her hometown roots, fearlessly traveling the world.

She worked as a nanny, so she traveled with different families. I think she lived for awhile in London. I think she lived in the Caribbean, then on the West Coast. And then later when she was no longer a nanny, she was working in some other industry, she settled herself in to the East Coast and bought some property in Connecticut. I loved hearing about her experiences, and sometimes I wished that I was living the life she was leading. Shelly was the girl who shortly after I moved to California, she sent me a gift. I think it was for my birthday, it may have been for Christmas, but she sent me thongs. And I’m talking thongs not as in flip flops, but as in sexy underwear, like the Victoria’s Secret’s kind of stuff. Now remember, I was plus size, right, so use your imagination. Anyway, I would never have even thought to buy anything like that for myself.

I think when I saw them, pipe cleaners that they were, all I could think was how uncomfortable they must be to wear. So now don’t get me wrong, they were lacy, silky. They really were beautiful. But when we talked about it on the phone back then, I remember saying something to her like, “Yeah, they’re pretty, but they’re pretty because I wasn’t in them.” I just kept thinking, who the heck would want to see me in these? And Shelly didn’t hesitate a moment with her response, and her response is one that stays with me to this day. She said something like, “P., you wear those thongs not for anybody else, you wear them for you. You need to feel pretty and sexy about you.” Now Shelly has been a great teacher in my life. And on that day, she taught me a lesson about being a caregiver for and showing love to yourself, for no other reason than because you deserve it just by being you.

Last year, Shelly decided to return to her roots to be closer to her family. And my spending a few days at the end of January and beginning of February this year with her at her new home in Cedar Rapids, it really underscored for me further this whole kind of concept of change and of growth. The phrase that kept coming to mind during my visit was Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. And I wondered, you see, when I set out to visit Shelly, I started out so excited about the cold weather and the snow that was predicted. Living in Southern California, it can be very Groundhog’s Day in terms of the weather. It’s always pretty sunny and warm, and I’m not complaining at all. Not at all.

But while out in the frozen tundra, let’s call it, I realized that I had romanticized Midwestern winters and had expectations of curling up in front of a fire, baking cookies to keep warm, and watching the snow fall outside. And you know how it makes that whole like blanket when it’s freshly fallen and nothing has touched it, it kind of sparkles like diamonds, especially at night when the light hits off of it? That’s what I was dreaming up. And as I’m sure you can guess, that didn’t exactly happen. So first off, it took me a couple of days travel because my flight kept getting canceled to even get there. And once I got there, there was no fire, no fireplace, no baking cookies. It did snow the first night I was there, and it did look beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. But pretty much the very next day it all kind of turned into a gray slushy pile of gunk and it made everything look so dirty. That’s not how I imagined things.

And it’s ironic because I should have known better, all right? After all, I lived, what, through 36 years of Chicago winters and experienced firsthand the beauty and the beast of it all. So I should have known. So in terms of that saying, “You can’t go home again,” I guess from my perspective today, I think that you can go home again, as long as you do so without any expectations, without any romanticizing of the past. And with full acceptance of wherever you’re calling home might now be, right? It’s definitely not the place you left. Nothing stays the same.

In the eighth grade, we had to read S. E. Hinton’s book called The Outsiders. If you’ve never read it, I think every kid and adult should. They made a movie out of it as well, maybe a couple times. But there’s a character in the book, his name is Ponyboy, and he recites Robert Frost poem Nothing Gold Can Stay. That poem has stuck with me ever since the eighth grade, and it came to mind again during this trip. And it’s really short. I’m just going to read it here. Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower, but only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.

I wonder, how often do we set expectations of others, of experiences, of ourselves? How many times do we romanticize scenarios, places, people, our histories? How many times do we suffer because we’re wishing that things were different? We’re not accepting what is, especially when there’s nothing that you can do to change what is. My birthday, that old picture of what once was, my relationship with my sister, my relationship with myself, my trip to Iowa, my visit with my old friend, nothing gold can stay. Change is the only constant. Home is wherever we are, as long as we understand that home is within us. And just as our external circumstances are constantly changing for better or for worse, so too are we internally constantly changing. We’re either changing for the better or we’re changing for the worst. We’re never staying status quo.

I realized during my trip to Iowa that I had changed, more than I would have ever even thought. I had changed for the better. I had grown. My conversations with others and with myself had changed. My awareness of what was, what I controlled, and what choices were mine had changed. My perspective, my openness to possibilities had changed. My ability to accept what is, no matter what it is, had changed. There’s another quote I love by Oliver Wendell Holmes and it’s something like the mind once expanded by new ideas or experiences is never able to shrink back to its original size. That’s how I realize I’ve been experiencing life, especially of late. The old me, the old ways. What was okay in the past, what I thought, what I felt, it’s all changed. I have always known that there was a power within. Throughout all of the madness in my life, I’ve proven time and again that there also is magic. I’ve learned how powerful surrender can be, and I’ve realized more and more just how powerful each of us really is. That is the gift. Now the secret is to not give our power away and to choose to use our power to change for the better from the inside out.

I think some of you know that I’m a CASA, and that’s a court appointed special advocate for kids in the foster care system. And I literally just got off the phone with the 15 year old foster kid for whom I am a CASA. That kid is so smart and has such potential, and yet, she’s her own worst enemy. I told her that no matter what, she always has a choice. She can choose to change for the better or for the worse, and she can take whatever happens in this very moment and either allow it to influence her to change for the better or for the worse.

Anyway, I hope she learns the lesson quicker than I have in my own life, but I believe maybe Oliver Wendell Holmes is right. You need those experiences. You need those thoughts that expand your universe in order to change and grow. I think of that three year old me standing on that chair, cutting into that cake, living in the moment, and loving everything that was before everything changed for better and for worse. And at the age of 54, I’m grateful that my mind has been stretched by new ideas and experiences and continues to grow. Happy birthday, me. Thanks for joining me.

Thanks so much for listening to Madness To Magic and my podcast I’m With Crazy, a Love Story. I believe we’re all here for a purpose, and I know that this is part of mine. Please share this with anyone you think might benefit or might even have a story of their own to share. You also can visit me at or check out more of my stories, including info on my book, The S Word, at I hope to hear from you and to join forces with what I consider a unique caregiver tribe as we all learned to embrace all of ourselves, to have compassion for others and to come into our full power by the grace that is both madness and magic. Until we meet again, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite mantras. Be bold and mighty forces shall come to your aid. Thank you.

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