Constable: Author from suburbs knows how mental illness can complicate Mother's Day
Some celebrate Mother's Day with breakfasts in bed, dandelion bouquets and macaroni necklaces. Others with brunches, flower deliveries or long-distance phone calls. Thanks to vaccinations and relaxed gathering guidelines, many are welcoming the chance to celebrate the holiday in person with an older mom this year. Some find the holiday bittersweet, as it's a reminder of the death of a wonderful mother, or perhaps the child who made her a mother.
For author Paolina Milana, Mother's Day is a complex bundle of love, hate, loss, mourning, mental illness, joy, memories of murderous voices in her mother's head telling her to kill her children, and the two times Milana made plans to kill her mother.
"There's a lot to unpack there," says Milana, 56, who is in a much better place on this Mother's Day. She lived the first half of her life in Algonquin, St. Charles and Skokie with a family ravaged by paranoid schizophrenia, as she became caretaker for her mother and younger sister. Now an award-winning author and acclaimed public speaker, Milana lives with her loving husband, Joe Edwards, in their idyllic Blueberry Hill Cottage on the edge of the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles.
"Insanity had taken root in my family tree, and I was tasked with tending our garden," says Milana, whose fourth book, "Committed: A Memoir of Madness in the Family," came out this week in time for May's status as Mental Health Month. She also hosts a free podcast called "I'm With Crazy: A Love Story," writes a blog at madnesstomagic.com, and operates a business called "Madness to Magic," where she coaches others and gives motivational talks. Reviewers have hailed Milana's book as a "modern-day 'Girl Interrupted'" and a "must-read" for anyone struggling with mental illness.
"This is the real deal, so raw. It just puts you there," says Lynn Drost, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Inverness with an office in Arlington Heights. Drost is the therapist Milana calls "the shrink who saved my life."
Milana was 28 years old and loitering at the end of her time at a woman's health club in Rolling Meadows when the manager could tell something was wrong and drove Milana to see Drost as the night grew dark. Milana reluctantly agreed to see the therapist but had plans to return to the family home in Algonquin and kill her mother, sister and herself.
"I knew she was in trouble, but I didn't know it was that traumatic," Drost remembers.
As the overburdened caretaker for her widowed mom and younger sister, Milana had planned to turn on the oven, fill the house with gas, light a match and end the pain for all of them. She assured Drost that "nothing was going on," and Drost responded, "OK. Tell me about nothing."
That simple request opened the floodgates for Milana.
"You can call it magic, the fates, or just what was meant to be," says Drost, who treated Milana for a decade and remains a close friend.
"So many people don't have a Lynn," says Milana, who hopes her books about mental health will encourage others to find the help they need.
Milana's parents were Italian immigrants from Sicily, where "being a mother is the end-all, be-all," Milana says. She adored her dad, even though she writes about the time he got angry with her and beat her. "And you can totally love your mom and hate your mom," Milana says. "In the middle of all the cray-cray, there were great moments. There were fun parts."
Her mother's threats to kill her children in the night were terrifying. When Milana was 14, her mother was committed to a psychiatric ward of a hospital. Her mom came home and was still so troubled that at age 16, Milana stirred too much medication into her mom's coffee hoping to poison her, but she dropped the cup before her mom could drink it.
The situation deteriorated after Milana earned a college degree, worked as a writer for the Daily Herald and witnessed her father dying of a heart attack, leaving her alone with her mentally ill mother and little sister.
"I had to deal with both of them, and still keep it hidden," Milana says, explaining that her mother's issues were complicated by her sister's delusions that she had written the Bible and was engaged to be married. "The two of them have mental health issues, but who's the one who is the danger?"
Milana's murder-suicide plan was a turning point for the 28-year-old woman.
"Paolina was basically a very healthy person in a horrible situation," Drost says, praising Milana's courage for talking about these issues. "She's a magnificent woman. She had that inside her all the time. I just opened a few doors."
Milana's mother died in 2008 and her sister, who lived in a mental health facility in Elgin, died of a heart attack in 2014. Her other sister has a family in Arlington Heights, and her brother lives in Algonquin.
Milana says she feels sadness on Mother's Day for the way her mother's schizophrenia kept them from fully enjoying her talent with a needle and thread, which got her commissioned by fashion guru Emilio Pucci, and things such as music, coffee and motorcycles, which they both loved. She also feels robbed of the chance to become a mother, because she was so worried that the schizophrenia that afflicted her mom and sister might be passed on to her children.
"I know I'm not the only one who has had such feelings," says Milana, who says the happy Mother's Day stereotype doesn't fit everybody. As one way to help, she volunteers as a court-appointed special advocate for children in the foster system, listening to their stories and giving them a voice.
Her book includes handwritten notes from her sister and mom as a way "to let them have a say in their stories," Milana says. Writing in Italian, her mom sent her a letter reading, "Today for me is a black day, I feel so depressed to not have the strength for anything." One note scrawled by her sister reads, "Give me something for this pain, so I can laugh, smile, be happy again. All I've known is fear & terror. I'd like to be like others, who never complain."
Recognizing their pain, and the pain they couldn't help but inflict on her, is all part of the process.
"Part of loving people is having the courage for everything that comes with that," Milana says, noting that both the good and the bad will affect you. "But it's up to you how it influences you. A lot of what I do is get people to embrace all sides of who they are. We are in the driver's seat. We always have a choice."
And, as she often tells people who come to her for advice, Milana says, "Be bold, and mighty forces shall come to your aid."