I used to pray, and pray, and pray, please don’t let me be like mama. So the more that I come now to understand what my mother must have been going through all alone. Honestly, now I admire her more. While I was praying not to become her, it turns out, I learned later on in life that my mother was praying too, and she was praying to God to not let her kill her children. I regret keeping her at arm’s length. And in shunning my mother, I ended up suffering the most because I missed out on the best parts of her for fear of the worst parts. That’s just an added sad legacy that crazy brings. Or the fear of crazy is what I should say. Now, my mom is no longer alive and I’ll be honest, not a day passes that I don’t think of her.
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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 everybody. Thanks again for joining me and Madness To Magic. I’m With Crazy: A Love Story, my podcast. With this being Mother’s Day, today’s podcast is, guess what? All about moms, or at least my mom. Mother’s Day is kind of hard for me actually. The fact that it falls in the very same month as mental health awareness. That makes it even harder.
If you know Anne Lamott, she’s one of my favorite authors. She actually wrote an article a while back. It’s always stuck with me and she shared her reasons and actually said her reasons for why she hates Mother’s Day. She wrote something like, “It celebrates the great lie about women, that those with children are more important than those without.”
Now, bear with me here. I’m sure this is going to be BC here, but it’s how I feel. Honestly, I have regretted at times not having had children just as much as I’ve rejoiced that I don’t have children. I won’t even let you know why, but I’m sure you can guess. Those of you who have children.
I’ve also felt less than other women, because I don’t have children. Just as much as I felt more empowered than other women because I don’t have children. So as much as I agree with Anne Lamott, I also have come to disagree and it just kind of depends on what I’m feeling at the moment. I have evolved enough to know that I can feel both and that’s okay. It’s not a sign of a split personality disorder.
So, I will leave it that. But what I will say is that Mother’s Day is a struggle for me and the more that I kind of examine it, the more I feel it’s a struggle because I feel robbed. I also feel like my mom was robbed. So by now you know a bit about my story, right? My coming of age years especially, I suffered due to my mother’s mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia.
It did Rob me of having a mom, but it’s more than that. See, my mom was an artist. An undeniable talent when it came to the needle and thread. I think I may have even shared this before. She was actually commissioned by the fashion guru, Emilio Pucci, excuse me, to emigrate from Sicily to the US in the late 1950s.
She handmade our clothes. She opened up her own home business. She designed these beautiful dresses and outfits for people who just came to her by word of mouth. I remember this one little dress… She was making a wedding dress and then she made the little flower girls dress and she attached little tiny bells to the under petty coats. Oh, such a pretty dress and just so cool and cute and the kid loved it. The mom loved it. It was great.
But anyway, what I was trying to get at is that my mom was really talented and really, really super smart and a force to be reckoned with. But rather than taking pride in those talents as like this creative fashion phenom ahead of her times or a female entrepreneur business owner.
The one thing that had been drilled into my mom’s head since birth, thanks to her Sicilian upbringing, was that as a woman, the only thing that mattered was being a mother. So my mom gave birth to four babies and in many ways discarded her own care and keeping. Sacrificing hers for ours.
So, the whole concept of Mother’s Day robbed her really of celebrating herself. As a result, depression, isolation, being made to feel like our servant, all of this took a toll on her psyche. Her damaged mental state wasn’t solely due to paranoid schizophrenia. Now that I work full time from home, I’m realizing even more what my mom must have endured.
Her isolation and what she must have felt without any kind of outlet. She didn’t have the internet or social media. She didn’t speak English very well. She didn’t even have a car to go places. She truly was a prisoner, not just physically right, but even even worse, a prisoner of her own mind.
Then and on top of that, the stigma of all of it, for all of us, right? From all of us, we didn’t help at all by shaming everything into silence. Now, I’m not sure if I shared this with you already, but I will talk about it here as well. How our secret “came out” so fresh off the boat Sicilians. My parents practice their own form of Cosa Nostra, which they were kind of taught as Sicilians that what happened in the family stayed in the family.
So everything having to do with the mental illness, that was our thing. Nobody else was supposed to know about it. Right? As a result, we all became masters at keeping secrets. My book that published in 2015 The S Word, it’s a memoir really about keeping secrets. That’s what we became good at.
No one knew about my mom until the eighth grade and then came Christmas morning, 1979. So like all good Catholics, my father and my siblings, and I, we were racing to leave the house and get to the local church for the 10:00 AM mass. It was a mass notoriously known for standing room only. On this one day of the year when we would go, our mom never joined us anymore. I mean, even if we did go Easter or whatever, she doesn’t ever did.
But on this one day, there she appeared at the top of the staircase and she was dressed from head to toe, in this Scarlet O’Hara red. That was a color that not only did she never wear other than her lips, she never wore it as a dress, an article of clothing. But she also didn’t approve any of her girls wearing it.
So the minute that I saw it, I kind of thought to myself, the eighth grader in me was smart enough to be like, “This ain’t going to go well.” My father, on the other hand, he chose to believe it was some Christmas miracle, gifted to him by God after years of praying, asking for an end to the demons that tormented his wife very dramatic.
So he was thrilled. Now, you have to remember at this time, my mama spent her nights sitting in the dark on our living room sofa screaming profanities in Italian. Swearing that she would murder us all. Plotting and pleading with whatever voices only she could hear. She had started stashing sharp kitchen knives. My brother’s wooden baseball bats all under the bed that she shared with my papa.
She would be promising to use them if he dared to close his eyes or step one foot into the bedroom. So, our father, he ignored this potential danger and he always chose to sleep in their marital bed. But him doing so meant that we rarely kind of slept in ours. Right? We always tried to stay awake and keep vigil in case she did follow through on her threats.
Anyway, Christmas morning we file into the church. Right? I remember, everybody was kind of there classmates, teachers, neighbors, and we’re going down the center aisle for communion. I led the way, my mama was right behind me, and then my father was behind her. I kind of turned and I just had this terrible feeling.
I looked at my mom, I kind of caught her eye and she had this expression, kind of like that, “Just you wait,” kind of glare in her eyes. Then over her shoulder I could see my papa. He was all smiling and optimistic, winking, nodding. When I got up to the priest, I heard the priest say, “Body of Christ.” I robotically replied, “Amen.” Took the host. I turned, I walked away and I didn’t look back.
The only thing that I did do was keep quickly running out the door pretty much because it was then that I heard my mom scream. She had gotten to the priest and before she could even take the host, she just started screaming and fell to her knees and grabbed onto the priests legs. I just remember the shrill screaming echoing through that whole sanctuary, bouncing off those stained glass windows.
Everybody kind of standing to get a better look. She kept kind of crying at the priest and saying that we, her family, were trying to kill her and begging for him to save her. So Merry Christmas. So the secret was finally out. But what I will say is this, so being raised by a mother diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia actually before she was even diagnosed was even worse.
But even after the diagnosis, we’re talking the late ’70s and early ’80s. So even the so-called PhD professionals, they didn’t even know what to do with crazy. They really didn’t. Dealing with all this took its toll. So while other little girls would dress up in their mom’s clothes, wear their mother’s pearls, whatever. Put lipstick on, high heel shoes, all the typical kind of mother daughter things that, hallmark as you’ve seen, for me, I kept my distance.
I did not want to be near her. I remember I used to pray, and pray, and pray, please don’t let me be like mama. So the more that I come now to understand what my mother must have been going through all alone. Honestly, now I admire her more. While I was praying not to become her, it turns out, I learned later on in life that my mother was praying too, and she was praying to God to not let her kill her children.
So, add on top of it, whatever those demons were telling her, she had to battle everything and find the strength to not do what the voices were telling her to do. That’s something. I wish I knew. Now, ultimately, they did find a cocktail of drugs. It quieted the voices. It allowed her to live a more peaceful life. But honestly, it was much more catatonic really.
It was what it was at that point. I won’t even go into right now, whether or not that’s improved. But what I will say is, when my mom did become a bit more stable on her meds, I flew her out to see me and my new home in California. She was still in Chicago. Actually I think it was the first time she was even going to meet my boyfriend Joe, who’s now my husband.
So we go, we pick her up at the airport, we drive home, we turn into the driveway, she steps out of the car and we’re headed towards the front door. But parked over at the side is my Joe’s Harley. My mom, partly because of the drugs, partly because of how she was raised. She wasn’t ever really expressive, but all of a sudden her entire face just lit up.
Her eyes grew like giant saucers and she just kept peppering with questions about the Road King. Right? Who’s is it? Do you ride it? Do you get on the back? I mean, even when we got inside the house and sat down, she just couldn’t take her eyes off of it. So finally I’m like, “Ma, what’s with the motorcycle? Why are you totally into it?”
And she just… I don’t know. It was an entirely different spirit that started to share a story that turns out, gave me a glimpse into my mom as a rebellious teenager. So, and it’s one of my favorites because my mom, while she was telling it, she just beaming. She was just beaming. Just remembering. You could see her reliving it in her eyes.
But the story is when my mom was about 16 years old, it was the 1940s she was walking on these high heel shoes, teetering. In those days in Sicily, the roads were cobblestone. So she’s trying to navigate her way without falling. She’s pretty exhausted because she has to hurry up from her job as seamstresses apprentice and get home and make dinner of course. The good dutiful daughter.
So a stranger comes up beside her on his motorcycle, she said. He stops and he asks her if she wants a ride. My mom said she didn’t even think about it. She didn’t hesitate in part because her feet hurt, she said. Then she kind of laughed and she said he was such a cute boy. So despite knowing there’d be held to pay if her father found out. I really mean how her dad was a huge corporal.
What is it called? Corporal punishment person. Just not a great guy. But despite knowing that. She said she jumped on the back of that bike and just felt so free and independent. Exactly the things I say when I’m on the back of my husband’s Harley. So, she just told that story and then I remember she wasn’t even prompted.
She just said, if she had to do it again, even if she knew she’d get caught and punished, she didn’t care, she would’ve done it all over again. Didn’t matter. She loved it. That was a moment in her life that you can tell that was her. That was the real her. That squashed down. Squashed down by Sicilian rules, good Catholic girl rules, the mental illness, the isolation, thinking you have to be a mom.
If you want to, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean you got to give up everything else. Anyway, so much stuff that just got stuffed down inside her. Sadly, these are a lot of things that I never knew about my mom. Stumbled on a lot of things that we had in common, right? Ridding on the back of a motorcycle, something we share. Also other things, love of espresso, strong coffee, marzipan, amaretto.
There’s a lot that we actually did share and that I’m proud to share. That’s another reason why mother’s Day, I feel so robbed. Because it reminds me of how I cheated myself out of having a full relationship with this woman, because I couldn’t get past her mental illness. I kept her at arm’s length and I never really gave myself the chance to get to know her.
I misjudged her. I missed out on all the great things she was and from which I could have learned. So yeah, I prayed, “Please God, don’t let me be like mama.” I got my wish. I did not inherit my mother’s insanity genes. Sadly, as you know, my little sister did. But while I got that prayer answered and didn’t inherit the insanity genes, it also turns out that I didn’t get other things because I wasn’t like mama.
I didn’t allow myself to be like mama. By that I mean I told you how she was commissioned to come to America because of her sewing skills. Well, to this day I haven’t a clue how to hem a skirt or sewn a button. She had incredible fashion sense. Here, I’m 54 and I would benefit from having Garanimals on because I never got close enough to take in the great things about my mom.
The way she even had her Sicilian recipes and things. All are still mysteries to me. I wish I knew then what I know now and I know I can hear my shrink saying, “Paolina, when are you going to stop wishing for a better past?” It’s not that. It’s not that I’m wishing for a better past. I know that that can never be. I just I’m evolving more and more and recognizing the truth, all sides of my mom, of what we went through.
So, the me of today understands all those factors that played a part into why mama went without treatment for so long. Right? We were a family without health insurance. We were immigrants. English was our second language. So it was twice as difficult to navigate the complex medical system and insurance entities.
Mental illness on the whole wasn’t even… You whispered it. Nobody would even talk about it. Right? Crazy was kept out of sight, out of mind, locked up in institutions or let loose on the street and ignored. Right? Insanity rarely made headlines. Well, maybe it did, but only if like a heinous violent act was committed by someone. Right? Nine times out of 10 I’d always be like, “Oh, well they had a mental illness.” Or schizophrenia would always be mentioned.
Now, again today, and I won’t get into this too much, but I do feel not much has changed. I mean, people are trying, but mental illness really is still a bit of a secret. It’s still shrouded in fear, confusion, guilt, shame. There’s misunderstandings. There’s no services. Lack of services at best, right? Stigma. There’s full-blown ignorance. It’s a shame.
Yet, I will include myself among those who are at fault for keeping it that way. Right? So for much of my own life I made it my distance, right? Excuse me. My mission, I should say, to distance myself from those genes of insanity. Right? So I kept my mom at arms length. I was afraid of the demons she battled and the parts of her she couldn’t control.
But in shunning my mother, I ended up suffering the most because I missed out on the best parts of her for fear of the worst parts. Right? That’s just an added sad legacy that crazy brings. Right? Or the fear of crazy is what I should say. Now, my mom is no longer alive and I’ll be honest, not a day passes that I don’t think of her.
I just wonder, could she imagine me living the life I’m living now? Would she approve of what I’m doing? What would she say to me now? How many conversations might we have about careers and home based businesses and even being married. I don’t know. What did she really feel like when she herself crossed an ocean to start a whole new life. Not knowing the language, leaving her friends and family behind.
Did she ever have regrets knowing how talented she was, giving it up to raise a family? I don’t know. How did she cope losing her own mom and her father at such a young age. I just wonder now, not about her disease, but I wonder about my mom, about the person, about her. So much could be and should be said about today’s state of mental health or lack thereof.
How we view it, address it, and serve the needs of people who have such a complicated illness as well as the needs of people who care for them and love them. So much has not changed for the better in decades, in my opinion, in many, many ways. It’s maybe even gotten worse, especially with social media.
What I know for sure that sadly I can’t change for myself and my relationship with my mother. What I know is that people who have a mental illness are actually more alike than different from you or me. They are people who have hopes and dreams and who tell funny stories. They are the ones who know how to make the perfect pasta maybe, or the perfect cup of coffee.
They maybe have talents that you or I never will have. They’re the ones who are so much more than just a disease in their brains that really has no cure and that barely offers up a way to manage it. So, if there’s one lesson I learned too late. A lesson that I hope it’s not too late for others to learn. It’s that loving someone with a mental illness is not easy. But don’t lose out on the best of what might be for fear of the worst.
Doing so that’s true in sanity and it does double and it’s injustice to those who like my mother have the strength and the courage to battle their disease despite the lack of understanding, viable treatments, and true support.
So, I will end with this. I am the daughter of a great lady who happened to have a disease labeled paranoid schizophrenia and who is so much more than that. The me of today is super proud to have had her, all of her, as my mom. Happy Mother’s Day to my mom. Happy Mother’s Day to you and to the women in your lives who have been like a mom to you.
If you’re estranged from your mom for whatever reason, I do hope my story here inspires you to reach out before you no longer can. If you do, let me know. I’d love to hear what happens. I’d love to hear your stories all the way around about loving crazy. Anyway, until we meet here again. Happy, happy Mother’s Day or a mom to me day to you all.
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 madnesstomagic.Com.
Or check out more of my stories, including info on my book, The S Word at paolinamilanawrites.com. I hope to hear from you and to join forces with what I consider a unique caregiver tribe. As we all learn 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.