mental health caregivers podcast

I’m with Crazy: A Love Story (Ep 15) Thanksgiving: Celebrating Dysfunctional Families with Friends

This episode of my podcast is so fitting for Thanksgiving week. My crazy soul sister Sylvia, one of my dearest firends, shares her story of having grown up in a dysfunctional family, surrounded by madness, and the syncronicities and commonalitles and plain old divine intervention that has come into play throughout her life. This really is about loving crazy and giving thanks for both the madness and the magic that’s part of all our lives.

As Sylvia says, “…just sharing with one other person who completely understands is so powerful.” And I think you’ll agree when listening to Sylvia’s story that SHE is powerful. We all have “STUFF” and we all have a choice: To take whatever happened to us in the past and allow it to continue to screw with us and drive our futures OR to take it and to use it to power our way to where we want and deserve to be. Some of Sylvia’s biggest life lessons are that we are NOT alone and in being open to the extent we can, saying things out loud, and speaking our truth is healing in and of itself…

During this Thanksgiving season, I am so grateful to have connected with my soul sista Sylvia. I know you will love her, too. If this episode hits home with you, be sure to comment and share with others.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!



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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.

Paolina:                Hi everybody. It’s Paolina here on “I’m with Crazy: A Love Story” podcast. Today I am with one of my crazy soul sisters Sylvia, a dear dear firend, and when I say soul sister I really mean it. We met a long, long time ago when starting craeers at a newspaper. I’ll have her join in, but the syncronicities and commonalitles and just the divine intervention that has come into play with us really speaks to madness to magic and loving crazy…

So, do you want to give your elevator speech on your particular cray cray?

Sylvia – Well, I was part of an extremely dysfunctional family. My father was an alcholholic, mom drank a lot as well, my sister became a drug addict and alcoholic, and I struggled with  allcohol later in life, and depression, and anxiety – it’s all just one big ball of fun!

Paolina – In this ball of fun, let’s take it apart. Having your primary caregivers, your parents, not necessarily in a place caregivers want to be or should be – I know we hate that “should” world, but at times, it applies – did you have to take on the caregiver role early?

Sylvia – I was the oldest and voted myself the leader of the family and the hero. I think I took on that roll,  as well, with protecting other people in my family. So if my ddad was being crazy drunk, then I felt it was my role to protect my mom and protect my sister.

Paolina – Was that because nobody else was stepping up to the plate or was it a matter of “I’m in charge here and I’m gonna do it better than anyone else”?

Sylvia – When I got older, I felt really angry with my mom for not making sure we were safe. I didn’t understand why we were living with that. It didn’t make sense to me. Her answer to me was “I married him for better or worse and this was worse”…

Paolina – wow…ok, so…

Sylvia – Ya, even if our lives were in danger – which made no sense to me.

Paolina – That’s fascinating. It’s two sides of the coin there.  When you are encountering madness whatever it is – some people are like “hey, you can’t run, stay with it, you’re there for a reason and if you run you are a coward,” however, there are times when the most courageous thing to do is get out and protect yourself & run. You didn’t understand your mom’s reasons, what did you think when she said that was her reason? Christianity is for better or worse, but at what point is worse so bad you have to get out because that’s not what was intended?

Sylvia – So, one of the worst times in our life, I was in sixth grade. My dad gone from being an alchoholic to a paranoid alcoholic. Which, side note: When we first met, I will never forget, ever, sitting in, we went out for dinner, and you’re telling me your story, my mouth is hitting the floor because I never heard of anyone who had as crazy a family as me.

Paolina – And to be honest, neither of us knew the other’s story. It was divine intervention, and interestingly enough we didn’t share it with the world. In my case, it was super hidden, and your case, too. We weren’t coming to work, saying ya, guys my dad is an alcoholic…

Sylvia – You had said something during that time while we were talking, because your mom was a paranoid schizophrenic. You were telling me of some of the things she used to do. One thing in particular, you said she was sitting in the living room at night cussing someone out for hours and hours and hours. My dad would do that that, sitting in the kitchen, f-ing and godamming somebody, nobody there, but somebody. When you told me your mom did that, I was like wait a minute your mom wasn’t an alcoholic…? After that, I did research on how alchohol can induce paranoia and schizophrenia.

Paolina – That’s pretty brilliant. Say what you will about social media, I love/hate it, but one of the things about social media and the Internet, we live in a time where you can research and meet other people going thru same thing. You’re not alone. We grew up without that, very different from today…

Sylvia – Right, you can’t Google it.

Paolina – Right

Sylvia – So to have that connection with you, that was the first time I think I felt like I wasn’t alone and the secret – I think about your book The S Word – the secrets and just sharing with one other person who completely understood was so powerful. That was huge!

When I was in the 6th grade, my dad was in that paranoia schizophrenic state, and that we – me in 6th grade, my sister in 4th grade and my mom — he thought we had people hiding in house. He was convinced we were trying to kill him. Which DID run thru my mind at that age!

Paolina – We shouldn’t laugh right? I thought that, too. Lady if I wanted you dead you would be. 

Sylvia – The point that my mom would stay with him, with kids, and we’re coming up with plans on what to do if dad would try to kill us — and we did! We’d crawl out the window, I’d get my sister, and we’d meet up on the corner. My mom was a stay-at-home. She felt stuck as well. She didn’t have an income, but as she got older and did earn money and could have survived on her own, I didn’t understand. She wouldn’ t go. It was not an option. In some respects, I appreciate that, with me being married and having moments of “I’m done” — I appreciate that I was raised with that value. But on the other hand,  then I think NO. I feel if I was in the situation, I wouldn’t stay but I never say I would never do that…

Paolina – Yes, but it does teach you that unless you’re in the situation, Brene Brown says it best: Unless you’re in the arena, I don’t want to hear from you, because you have no idea what you’re talking about. For m, it’s a very complicated emotional situation because it’s your parent and because it’s not like it’s 24/7 — it can be — but even if a moment or 30 minutes a day they’re loving – THAT’s what you’ll focus on. It doesn’t matter what happened the rest of the 23 hours. So when did you for yourself decide you were done and out of there. How did that look?

Sylvia – I had been at college for a year, maybe 6 months. I went away to school in Jan. 2nd term – I had come home and I was working and my dad was not doing well. He had a couple of weeks prior to this moment, he had gotten in a really bad car accident, he was driving like a madman down the expressway, and had his elbow out the window and had gotten side-swiped by a semi-truck, so he lost his whole elbow which ended up in the backseat – and at that time, I had to clean it up and drive the car home. LOL. Anyway…

He left the hospital and called me to come get him. So I went to pick him up which is what I did as the co-dependent, hero. He left the hospital against their orders, so he just came home and continued with drinking. One day my sister and I had gone to the beach with friends, we pulled up in front of the house, my dad was sitting out in the front yard in a lawn chair cussing everybody who went by. My sister said something to him, and he picked up like a cooler or some kind of drink cooler and threw it at her and hit here in the head. He had never hit us before, and for me, that was it. I went in the house told mom I was leaving, packed my bags, I had been going to a young adult Bible study that summer. I was with my boyfriend at the time and had him dorp me off at the leader’s house. I was 18. My mom understood. I was like you can stay in this, but I’m leaving.

My dad – basically what happened was – I was staying at my friend’s for a couple days. I didn’t have car, so I rode my bike everywhere. I rode to where my mom worked. She was getting off work soon, and when I came outside my dad was there to pick her up. He was like “Sylvia come here” he wanted to talk to me. He was trying to apologize. Even now I can feel I wanted to believe him. He kept saying “I’m sorry I’m sorry “ and I rode my bike right past him and was like NO I’m done. I just kept going. The next moring, I get a phone call from my mom that my dad was taken to the hospital. He had had a heart attack.

At this time, not only was I the self-imposed hero/protector of my family, but I was a life guard, which is perfect. I knew first aid, really well, and I knew CPR, so I’m hearing my dad had a heart attack and is on the way to the hospital, so, of course, my first feeling is if I would have been  home, I could have saved him. So I go to the hospital,  and I knew he was gone. The minister came in.

I was filled with guilt. Filled filled filled with guilt. I think the only thing that kept me alive at that time, because I was pretty sure, but I don’t know that I would have committed suicide, but I was very, so very guilty I felt couldn’t go on. I remember sitting down by our phone and there was a letter, like a piece of mail but it had no stamp on it. It was addressed to me. It said it was “from a friend” – and it was a letter tht my dad had written me. I really truly believe this letter saved my life, because I think over the years I think I would have killed myself. Evenually. It was basically a letter with him apologizing. He was so sorry he hadn’t been a good father, he really wanted things to be different. He wanted to go on vacation with us. He wanted to be a good dad. It helped me even at that age. I believed him, and as the years went on, learning more and more about his life growing up,  it was easy to forgive him. It was so easy to forgive him, but of course he was gone…

Paolina – Guilt plays such a huge role in this, right? Even you leaving not just your mom, but a sister two years younger…that had to also be hard from the start. Did that cross your mind?: I gotta get out of her, mom’s one thing, but… or was it “I just gotta go”…

Sylvia – At that time, I like what you said about moments when things are going okay. That was a moment my sister and I were doing ok. She had her own problems. Living with her was scary as well. She would run away, was on drugs…

Paolina – Even at that age? How in the world did you, surrounded by that. I mean, in my own cray cray, while my mom clearly was not well, and later Viny my sister, I had a pretty frickin’ stable father, a positive father. I had siblings – especially my brother’s humor and logic came into play. But you were it. It sounds as if your mom had her own challenges and was fearful, and trapped, which happens, and your father you explained, and your sister, your only sibling also drowning: How do you find that strength of “if I don’t put on my own oxygen mask right now I’m destined for that”- especially because you already were depressed. How did you find that strength?

Sylvia – I think it came more out of anger at that time. I was hurt. It was years of – the way I have coped with a lot of things is denial but denial eventually smacks you in the face with reality. You can’t stay in denial too long. I would do things in high school cuz I wanted to force things to be normal. Oh, no we’re a normal family, but we weren’t so I would do things like tell friends, oh, my dad will drive us to the football game Friday night. Then Friday would come and my dad would be sitting across the street at bar. Now I had to make up some lie. I learned to lie really well.

Paolina – It’s funny you said it was born of anger. One of things I learned with my shrink is – she said to me anger is okay, good, but you’ve got to project it outward because anger projected inward become depression. You maybe finally turned it to where it was supposed to be turned.

Sylvia – Ya, and then my dad died the next day.

Paolina – You had this letter, he must have written when you left, did it give you comfort or maybe lent more to guilt…?

Sylvia – I think I was smart enough to know – it wasn’t like I read the letter and was like “oh, he would have changed” – I was smart enough to know – it was just the fact that he wanted to be a good dad. I remember my big thing at the time, I would just sit there and think in my head, how do you tell someone you love them and can’t drive them to a football game.

Even though my dad was an alcoholic – normally he was not physically abusive. He was the most loving kind gentle person when wasn’t drinking – a beautiful person…

Paolina – I remember my father, a big Sicilian guy who said when you go with boys, I want you to promise me one thing. I want you to get them super drunk. I was like “Why?” He said because when you do that true character of person will come out. Are they somebody who laughs silly and rolls on the floor or somebody who becomes enraged and will hit you. 

Sylvia – What helped me was talking to my mom about my dad’s childhood. Learning things about him when he was 10 years old. His dad woke him in the middle of the night to get the doctor because his mom was pregnant. But by the time my dad got back, his mom had died. When I think of it, it’s like how I felt when he died, he was gonna be the one to save her – then they found out it was twins, and the babies died. I can’t imagine him going thru that – learning of his depression and where he was.

Paolina – After the funeral and settling down with your mom and sister? Were you still in the caregiving role then?

Sylvia – Definitely my caregiving role, even at college. My mom was like “go back to college” – mom was trying to learn, too. Even though my dad was an alcoholic, she depended on dad for emotional support. She lost her partner – she didn’t drive, she started working – at that point, my mom – here’s where I feel a lot of my grit and strength/will is – she decided she’d learn to drive – she was 50 – so I taught her to drive – and I’m 18 – now she had a car, was working, had a successful career. She did start doing things to take care of herself Al-Anon meetings and was a big reader. She was trying to get healthier.

My sister – it’s really been a rough life for her. I feel she absorbed most of the junk from our family. So she started getting into relationships that were really abusive. Really a rough life. She did start eventually – she got in some trouble, ended up in jail, that kinda was a turnaround for her, so she did turn around, still some struggles, also. But I love talking to her. We can talk about some pretty deep things. I feel she’s never gotten all the healing I have. I feel sad.

Paolina – Some people will take whatever happened to them in the past, and unfortunately, allow it to continue to screw with them and drive their future. Other people take it and while it influecnes who you are and what happens, you find that power within to make it magical.

Sylvia – I didn’t even realize when you were younger you thought you were magical, so did I!

Paolina – Ya, I was in kindergarten and never forget it…My teacher Mrs. Joy was big buxom blonde pink lipstick…smiled, but something seemed behind it. I thought to myself I gotta watch out for her, not that she did anything, and I’m sure she was lovely. But one day in art class, we had our smocks on and were going to paint. I wanted to paint white lily, my mom’s favorite. I drew it. And Mrs. Joy came and said how pretty  it was and then she picked up a paintbrush and started adding purple to my white flower.  Truthfully, I know that it wasn’t to harm or scar me for life, but when she walked away all I could think was that this woman was evil and she ruined my painting. So I wished that her fingers would fall off. Well she walks into the back room, and we had this giant paper cutter and all of a sudden we hear a scream and she comes out with her fingers bleeding, I’m like I’m fucking magical…I completely thought it was me.

Paolina – Now you and your depression/bunny hole – what happened, how did you come out of it, what’s life lesson for anyone experiencing it for themselves or something else?

Sylvia – I think cuz my mom was trying to get help and talked to me about Al-Anon and being co-dependent – even back then we didn’t talk about it. I think it did enourage me. I was having nightmares in college, and I did see a counselor. It’s taken a lot of different things to get me to a healthier place. I do believe God has led me to some really good counseling, let me work at a psychologist office for 6 years, I learned so much there, a lot of reading – all of it helped. The most powerful thing is being able to have someone you can talk to who understands…so much power – even our first encounter – to have somebody look at you and be like “I totally get it” – I didn’t know – hopefully people know they aren’t alone, I think it’s easier now but I still think people don’t understand they aren’t the only ones…no , not that you’re going thru exactly what you’ve gone thru, but there are people who are understanding and have been thru a difficult thing…like your S word book being open – not everyone is called to that – but being open to the extent we can, saying things out loud and speaking our own truth is healing in and of itself…

Paolina – Absolutely I was just going to say that too many times, what we’re dealing with, I have an entire committee in my head – voices that battle all the time – but when you say it out loud, it’s okay hold on…there’s a whole ‘nother perspective, so it frames things up differently.

Sylvia – And anti depressents helped –

Paolina – Yes! We forgot the drugs –The problem is life goes on and other things happen, if not getting healing, it builds up. Doing whatever you need at that time, creating healthy life. Whatever works for you, you said this earlier – I know for a lot of people anti-depressants work, a lot not, some checking into a facility, some it’s being with nature…for me the couple times drugs were recommended, because we had our own pharmacy in house, I said no – I’m not adding to that. Was it the right decision? Don’t know. Decided at that time, I’m still here.

So now you’re a mom – your third child Joey – had health issues –

Sylvia – Ya, I got to the point of thinking I can’t dream any more, I just gotta get thru this.

Paolina – What is fascinating to me is you had another kid after that – a lot of people would have been NOPE

Sylvia – I was so afraid to tell people I was pregnant. I thought people are going to think we’re crazy.  I don’t know why, but we wanted another baby, we knew we wanted one more child.

Paolina – Because when you go to the amusement parks you need an even number of children.

Sylvia – Yes! I don’t know why, but Dave and I agreed. It’s so funny talking to you – I say: “I will never forget” because I can’t remember much of anything anymore. LOL But I will never forget, we had gone camping, just Dave and I with the kids, and I had just found out I was pregnant and was going to call my mom and tell her and was so scared.  Joey was 4. Four years of hospitals doctors, drugs, Ronald McDonald house – at that point it wasn’t resolved.

Paolina -What I remember is that he was born basically dead

Sylvia – For three days, they kept having to rescesitate him, seizures, no reflexes, he slowly got better, at one point, we were in therapy 6 days/week a lot of driving, needle pokes, doctor visits –

When we called my mom, she was crying because she was so happy. I was just scared. That’s almost all I needed, I wanted them to be happy that we were having another baby.

P – Hope and the renewal of life…You know I do remember for myself what I was going thru at the time, at California alone, a card came in the mail – I still have that card – and it was from you and you said I don’t know why I’m sending you this card, but I’m giving you this quote from the Bible – Ask & you will receive…knock…etc. And then seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things sent to you…

Now who’s magic…but I was lost when I moved out to California, thinking what the hell – this isn’t my life, and that shifted it for me….

Sylvia – I say this – what people don’t seem to embrace how powerful they are, so sit down with friend and be open to share what’s going on – if you can take a moment distance-wise – pick up phone there’s a reason for it…soul sisters, I can not hear from you for decades practically and we just pick up where we left off.

Paolina– I just want to say to you THANK YOU – I think everyone who encounters you for however brief just feels this core strength and welcoming heart and I bet you have changed more lives that you realize…

I don’t know if you remember about this when I was drowning with Viny my sister the fact that you a stranger stepped up, you did everything from clean her place, clean her up, take her shopping, you were to her the sister that I could not be…

Sylvia – she was a delight in the midst of her messy – she was smart and funny and she was delightful. I loved going shopping with her, I feel like I learned a lot from her. She cracked me up – She was a caring person, who didn’t have a lot of filters like I do for deciding about people. I loved that about her.

Paolina – For everything she went throught and it was a lot – she was pretty funny even about her disabilities – she still had this joy d’vivere. And she became in her assisted living home a champion for the other underdogs and a PITA for everybody else. I came to realize myself with her…for some reason I think I brought up When Harry Met Sally – Sally / Meg Ryan sitting at diner with Billy Crystal – don’t want the peas to touch carrots – very particular – it’s funny in a movie it’s allowed – the more confident and wealthy and social status high up you are the more cute, but mental illness, at a facility, you standing up for yourself saying “I want this” is seen as defiance…my little sister did vocalize and fight when she learned how to stand up for herself. I come back to that’s how I behave, why shouldn’t she. I wanted to find love of my life and have children so why shouldn’t she? You made her feel NORMAL. And I think that really she would have been in such a worse place if not for you.

Sylvia – It really was my pleasure. One thing thinking about this. I was at church last Sunday and a girl came up for prayer. We have a prayer team. I don’t know here well, she is homeless and has issues. One thing I said to her, when you come into this place, especially, I want you to know we’re all just like you. You may not see it in me because I’m good at hiding, but I see that with other people to who have struggles. Jesus said we’re all naked wretched and blind. Point is we all have stuff. I feel like it was easy to be myself around her. I feel like that with you. You know what? Just because maybe I could see her struggles, I just hide mine better. I’m still working on so much stuff.

Paolina – Soul sister – you are awesome, and I’m so grateful you being in my life – everything I learned form you and shared with you.

Sylvia – you’re one of my favorite people, and I thank you. You changed my life…

Paolina – Thank you to everyone for joining us again, if this resonated with you, please comment below and share. 

Paolina:                 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 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.

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