Growing up in Skokie, Illinois, Paolina Milana was used to seeing her mother sleep with knives and baseball bats and wrapped with covers around her head.
When she and her two sisters and brother were older, Milana said, their mother told the family that she had to fight voices in her head telling her to harm them. Milana also remembers her mother believing that the family had the house rigged with computers and cameras to watch her.
Her mother was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with medication. But later, when Milana was 26, she found out that her 24-year-old sister had the same illness.
Milana recalled coming home from a trip with a friend and seeing her mother at the door. Her mother explained that her sister had been up during the night screaming and talking to voices. Milana went in and saw her sister at the top of the stairs. She was holding magazines and talking about how everyone was writing about her, Milana said.
Since her father had died a couple of years before, Milana acted as the guardian of her mother and sister and made the decision to have her sister committed.
She talks about the secrets that she kept for years in her book “The S Word” and has dedicated the book to anyone who may be keeping secrets. Milana and her book are being featured as an example of the need to address mental health issues and recognize Mental Health Month in May.
“The worst part about mental illness and schizophrenia is it’s not a broken bone that you can fix and we’re done – it’s constant,” Milana said.
While taking care of her mother and sister, Milana said, she had grown to 365 pounds and was ready to commit suicide. The business owner where she worked had detected that something was wrong and convinced her to see a therapist. Through therapy, she realized that she needed to focus on her own life. So she moved to California at age 36 while her older sister and brother shared responsibilities to care for her mother and sister.
More than 10 years of therapy saved her life, Milana said, and she stopped wishing for a better past and instead used the past to learn from it and become who she is today.
At age 52, the NIU alumna (B.A. ’89, M.A. communication studies ’00) has worked as a communications professional for several organizations and is now a marketing, public relations and editorial consultant. Most recently, she has written for The Muse and was selected to travel with best-selling author and life coach Martha Beck on a self-transformation adventure to Africa.
As a writer and speaker, Milana has shared her story at the Huffington Post, on The Oprah Winfrey Show and with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Active Minds and other organizations to help the public recognize symptoms of the disease and know how to get assistance. NAMI is a great source to find organizations that can help with mental illness, and Active Minds is a nonprofit organization that empowers students to speak about mental health to educate others and encourage help-seeking.
About one out of five adults in the nation experiences mental illness in a given year, according to NAMI statistics, and about one out of 25 adults suffers from a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits major life activity.
NAMI also reports that only 41 percent of U.S. adults with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year.
Part of the reason that Milana speaks about mental illness is because she wants to get rid of the stigma associated with it and advocate for funding.
“There is so little attention and funding given to mental illness,” she said. “Instead, we look at the symptoms.”
She often tells her audience to be aware of what’s going on with family and friends, and she wants people to know that mental illness is not anyone’s fault.
“If somebody, especially a kid, is taking themselves out of the mix and just being much more solo, talk to them and find out what’s going on,” Milana said.
While the book is meant to help others, it turned out to help her with discovery, redemption and forgiveness.
“The book helped me more than I thought it would …,” Milana said. “First, it helped me come to terms with everything that happened. And it made me realize that nobody’s innocent, just as nobody’s 100 percent at fault. And it made me realize that I played a part in it as well.”
She finds peace by looking beyond herself.
“I still believe in something greater than myself, and I think that has done a world of good for me,” she said. “I think you have to believe in something like that.”
She recalled being depressed one time and her husband reminding her about how happy she was at their wedding to prove a point that emotions are short-lived and that times will get better.
Her father used to get excited over the small things in life, such as his garden, Milana said, and she has realized that those small things bring happiness and keep her going.
“When you look back at your life, you realize all the connections that made you who you are today, even the lowest periods, the highest periods, the people you meet,” she said. “When you’re going through it, you should just trust that where you’re at and what you’re experiencing is meant for who you’re supposed to be.”
By Colleen Leonard