May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re reviewing Paolina Malina’s “Committed: A Memoir of Madness in the Family”. This was a beautiful and tragic journey through the authors own mental health struggles, along with those in her family. Rating: 5/5 (trigger warning: subjects related to mental health and abuse discussed which may upset some audiences)
After a decade of caring for crazy and keeping her mother’s mental illness a secret from the outside world, twenty-year-old Paolina Milana longs for just one year free from the madness of her home. When she gets the chance to go to an out-of-state school, she takes it, but her family won’t leave her be. Letter after letter arrives, constantly reminding her of the insanity rooted in her family tree. Even worse, the voices in her own head whisper words she’s not sure are normal. “Please don’t make me be like Mamma,” she prays to a God she’s not sure is listening.
The unexpected death of her father soon after she returns home leaves Paolina in shock–and in charge of her paranoid schizophrenic mother. But it isn’t until she is twenty-seven and her sister two years her junior explodes in a psychotic episode and, just like Mamma, is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and must be committed, that Paolina descends into her own despair, nearly losing herself to the darkness.
Poignant and impactful, Committed is one woman’s story of resilience as she struggles to stay sane despite the madness that surrounds her.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and now felt like the perfect time to read through and review during Paolina Milana’s memoir. Paolina walks us through the period of time in her life where her mother is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and entering a psych ward. Committed: A Memoir of Madness in the Family is authentic, and raw, and relatable.
While the reader might not relate to the exact details of Paolina’s life and struggles, I think there are a lot of issues on the surface that we’ve all faced. Her parents are immigrants, she struggles with her weight and self image, she longs for independence and an education. She fights through a sort of co-dependency with members of her family. When her father dies tragically, Paolina finds herself, still in her 20s, as a caregiver not just to her mother, but to her younger sister who is also battling with schizophrenia. She struggles with her own mental health, and negative voices. As I read through, I felt more and more empathy for Paolina, and I saw myself and my own issues in her relationships and memories.
Paolina Milana has done a beautiful job of writing out each scene as if we lived it alongside her. I really respected that Paolina kept it real and did not sugar coat anything. I feel like a lot of authors, both fiction and non-fiction, tend to glaze over the ickiness of mental health. Despite the sometimes-dark subject, it was still refreshing to see Paolina tackle everything head on. But not just tackle it, but breathe some light through the darkness.
I really recommend reading this, even if you don’t feel like you’ve struggled with mental health issues, I can almost guarantee someone close to you has. Whether they’re making it known or not. I think Paolina did an amazing job of showing real mental health issues, and I am so glad to have this book in my life. Take a peek for yourself with the excerpt below.
WE HAD JUST COMMITTED MAMMA to a psychiatric ward. I think we ended up putting her in the University of Chicago hospital that time, but I can’t be sure. It was hard to keep track. At the age of fourteen, I had had my fill of hospitals and mental illness and doctors who seemed to know less than I did about the reality of having a mom diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. None of the medications seemed to work, although my mamma’s refusal to take them had a lot to do with their effect or lack thereof.
Mamma continued to believe in her conspiracy theories— mostly, that the house was bugged and outfitted with cameras that captured her every move on tape. Usually, she saw herself naked, displayed in lewd photographs in national magazines and on the television news stations. And she was convinced her entire family—Papà, my nineteen-year-old sister, Caterina (Cathy), my seventeen-year-old brother Rosario (Ross), yours truly, and even the baby of our family, my twelve-year-old sister Vincenzina (Viny)—were in cahoots with the authorities, and part of a master plan to do her in.
Why did she believe such things? Your guess is as good as mine. Auditory and visual hallucinations are symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. And in Mamma’s case, her mental illness had gone untreated for so long, with one misdiagnosis after the next, that she had become rageful and scary and a threat to herself and others. She kept knives and baseball bats under her mattress and often threatened to kill Papà in his sleep or set the house on fire and take us all out in one fiery blast.
Kill or be killed. That was where we were at in 1979. When we admitted her to the psych ward against her will, we were told we were not allowed to visit for a couple of weeks. Hospital rules demanded it. And I could not have been more thankful. With Mamma gone, my entire family, for the first time in I don’t know how long, slept. The house was silent; the tension, fear, and drama disappeared. And even though we all knew it was just for a few weeks, we rejoiced in it, welcomed it, pretended it would go on forever.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t. On the day we were first allowed to visit Mamma, all five of us robotically shuffled down the hospital’s long halls, illuminated by the flood of light coming from a row of hanging pendant fixtures overhead. I guessed that this was similar to walking down death row in prison. We were just as alone, despite being all together.
Surprisingly, while we were there to see her, Mamma wasn’t there to see us. Somehow, she had disappeared. She was nowhere to be found, either in the hospital or on its grounds. It was as if she had just vanished. Papà was bewildered. We kids were confused. The doctors and nurses on the floor raced around, apologized, and expressed complete disbelief that anybody could slip out of their psych ward, let alone the entire hospital, undetected.
But Mamma wasn’t like anybody else. She was extremely intelligent and artistic, a seamstress so talented that when she emigrated from her hometown of Nicosia, Sicily, to the United States at the age of thirty-one in 1958, the famous designer Emilio Pucci commissioned her to sew for him in Chicago. She was also beautiful. When my papà, Antonino, a self-made barber ten years her senior, was on a ship heading toward his own American dream, he befriended Mamma’s younger brother, Salvatore, who showed Papà a photo of his still-single sister Maria—Mamma in her twenties—dressed as a mandolin player in celebration of Carnivale. My father loved playing il mandolino, and when he saw the young woman in the photo with her hair the color of night, skin as smooth and creamy as a homemade zabaglione, blood-red lipstick—her signature—and curves that filled out that mandolin player’s costume, to hear him tell it, he was hit by “the thunderbolt,” just like The Godfather’s Michael Corleone when he first laid eyes on his Apollonia.
But when he learned of Mamma’s disappearance from the hospital that day, he became struck by something else: confusion. The man I’d grown up with, who had always found his way regardless of the circumstances, at that moment no longer could.
After spending an hour or so searching for Mamma at the hospital, we gave up and left. After we made our way back to our car and all of us took our places inside, Papà started up the engine and pulled out from the parking spot. We silently inched our way through the neighborhoods of Hyde Park (at that time, the late ’70s, not exactly the safest place to be at night). I gazed out the side window, watching the puffs of smoke burp out from the exhaust pipes of other cars on the road. Slowly, I began to realize that we had passed the same houses a couple of times.
I started to pay closer attention. Same street. Same turns. And then Papà stopped the car and pulled over.
Our human GPS had broken down.
“Ma, bambini, dove siamo?” Papà, in a very nervous, frightened voice, was asking us where we were.
That shook me to my core. He never got lost. And here, finally, Mamma’s madness had succeeded in breaking him. He no longer knew the way.
I SHOOK MY HEAD CLEAR, expelling the memory, and focused on where I was now, my college campus surroundings. I wasn’t lost. I was exploring. This had nothing to do with any kind of madness. It was completely normal.
Yeah, but where the heck are we?
So many towering trees, sunshine peeking through their branches and playing hide-and-seek with the leaves, creating shadowy figures on the ground: this is what surrounded me. I slowly surveyed the crisscrossing walking paths that stretched out before me, beckoning me to follow. I had already followed them for what felt like miles, and despite having a map in hand, I’d managed to get completely turned around.
“A volte devi grattarti la testa,” Papà would say.
At that moment, I, too, found myself doing exactly that— scratching my own head and wondering how to get to my ntended destinations: Curtiss Hall and Memorial Union.
I tried to focus. I had promised myself I wouldn’t do this— wouldn’t think of home or Mamma or my siblings or even Papà while away at school. And here I had been doing just that, which was why, probably, I had gotten distracted and, subsequently, lost. I thought you said you weren’t lost.
I needed to quiet my inner naysayers. How, exactly, I would do that was still an unknown. Keeping that little bit of insanity inside of me at bay was proving more of a challenge than I had anticipated.
About The Author:
Paolina Milana’s mission is to share stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit: To unleash the power that lies within each of us to bring about change for the better.
Milana’s professional background is rooted in journalism where as a features writer for a major daily newspaper in the Midwest, she told the stories of other people. Then she moved to the field of PR/media and digital marketing as an executive in both corporate and non-profit environments. Given her experience in an emotionally tumultuous household where she was put in the position of caregiver to unstable family members, she is uniquely qualified to serve as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in foster care and as an empowerment and resiliency coach, using storytelling to help people reimagine their lives, write their next chapters, and become the heroes of their own journeys.
Paolina has won awards for her writing, including her first book, The S Word, which received the National Indie Excellence Award. Her self-help picture book for adults, Seriously! Are We There Yet?!, and her holiday fiction novel, Miracle on Mall Drive both published in late 2020. Paolina is first-generation Sicilian, married, and lives on the edge of the Angeles National Forest in Southern California.