2021 Reading Challenge

2021 Reading Challenge
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Excerpt: Committed by Paolina Milana

About the Book

Los Angeles – May 2021 – Imagine keeping a family secret about your mother’s mental illness and growing up as one of the offspring charged with “caring for crazy.” Then, to compound the horror, witnessing another version of schizophrenia as it consumes your younger sister – who you practically raised yourself, thanks to your mother’s frailty. To see Paolina Milana as an example of resilience might be the understatement of all time. 

As a 20-year-old, Paolina gets a chance to escape her circumstances by attending an out-of-state school, but the madness she tries to leave behind will not let her be as letter after letter arrives, constantly reminding her of the insanity from which she longs to break free. Making matters worse, the voices in her own head whispering words she’s not sure are normal, further her fears. “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—becoming fully in charge of her paranoid schizophrenic mother. But it isn’t until at age 27, when her younger sister explodes in a psychotic episode, is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and must be committed, that Paolina descends into her own despair, nearly losing herself to the darkness.

Beautifully written with flourishes of handwritten letters (in Italian) from her parents, recordings of her own inner voices challenging her every move, and a heartbreaking slew of sticky notes revealing the harrowing thoughts of her sister’s delusional mind, Paolina’s epistolary memoir invites readers into her inner circle of intimate encounters with mental illness. Poignant and impactful, Committed is a story of resilience that teaches and inspires, not as a tidy narrative, but as an authentic and rare share that speaks to the struggle of staying sane despite being surrounded by madness.

The Excerpt

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? 

No clue.  

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.

Copyright 2021, Paolina Milana

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.

Available for preorder online and wherever books are sold on May 4, 2021 (She Writes Press)

Find Paolina online at:

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