Paolina Milana, Author & Founder of MadnessToMagic.com
My parents were immigrants. Growing up, they shared their stories of what it was like for them navigating the unknown, living in war-torn Sicily under the rule of Mussolini and Hitler during World War II. Fast forward to the late 1970s all the way into the early 2000s, and as I and my siblings were growing up, we faced a different kind of unknown involving mental illness. I’ve shared in my published books that my family tree is one wherein insanity took root, leaving us to find our own way, living with both a mom and a sister, each diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. These two major influences in my life are part of my story. But they aren’t the whole of my story.
Right now, we’re each experiencing some universal commonalities in terms of life events. These include the 2020 Election, the COVID health crisis, the downward economy, and the country divided in a way that our country hasn’t seen since the days of the Civil War. All of these happenings are part of all of our stories. But they aren’t the whole of our stories.
And that’s the point.
Life happens. Good. Bad. Ugly. Unknown. Sometimes, outcomes are what we want them to be, and, sometimes, they are not. Sometimes, we have “how to” playbooks to follow in dealing with them, and, sometimes, we’re forced to figure it out on our own. Regardless of what is, with each event — before, during, and after — we experience a whole host of emotions on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between: Anxiety, depression, fear, worry, panic, fury, relief, elation, amusement, satisfaction, and more. Sometimes, we’re even feeling emotions that conflict with one another at the very same time (i.e. how can I feel love for someone who so infuriates me with how they think and what they believe…?). One minute, we might feel hopeful, and the very next minute, we’re deep in despair.
All of our “now” may be pretty confusing and stressful.
That said, the good news (and, yes, there actually is good news) is that whatever we’re feeling, it’s normal. And we aren’t alone. In these uncharted waters of our time, it isn’t easy to navigate our respective ships, and it’s pretty clear that so many of us are struggling with so many different emotions that our mental health is suffering.
So what can we possibly do? How can we deal with life happening and what seems like more than we can handle? Here are some recommendations that have helped clients, family, friends, colleagues, and, yes, even myself:
- Acknowledge Reality – From the tallies of Election 2020 to the work from home and virtual schooling to loved ones or strangers contracting the virus: These things are facts. Acknowledge them and accept them for what they are. But in doing so, don’t forget to be aware of other facts: the sun rising or setting; birds flying overhead or singing; your dog jumping around, excited about being let outside to play; a stranger driving alongside you on the freeway pausing to let you into their lane. Too often we focus on the one-sided realities that add to our stress; rather than realizing all of the other truths of this life that are happening at the same time and that give us joy. Pay attention to ALL that is. Be aware of not just the challenges and the unknowns, but the everyday miracles and moments that make this life all that it is and was meant to be.
Think of what Fred Rogers said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
- Separate What Is from What You Make It Mean – Maybe the person you voted for in Election 2020 took the lead or maybe he didn’t. Maybe that person driving alongside you on the freeway did or didn’t let you into their lane. Whatever is, separate that from the meaning and the importance you assign to it. Because for everything in life, it’s not about the actual thing that happens (really, it’s not); rather, it’s about what we choose to make it mean and what we do as a result in response to it. So give yourself the freedom of perspective. Distance yourself and your feelings from the actual event or happening. Doing so helps you to see things more clearly and to find solutions to problems that, otherwise, you may not see.
Think of the wisdom of Helen Keller: “When one door closes, another opens. But we often look so regretfully upon the closed door that we don’t see the one that has opened for us.”
- Punctuate with a semi-colon versus a period – I started this article sharing some truths that are part of my personal story and some truths that are part of our societal collective story. As I said, as much as those events and facts are part of the story, they are not the whole story, nor are they the end of the story. In grammar and punctuation, the semi-colon is used to connect two independent thoughts that are closely related and of equal importance. In the mental health awareness and suicide prevention communities, the symbol of the semi-colon is used to communicate the fact that your story isn’t over. No matter what came before or what is in this moment, your story is “to be continued.” So if at this moment, your feelings are those on the negative end of the emotional spectrum, take heart in knowing that change is ever-constant. There is no period punctuating what is. There’s a semi-colon, and that realization is one of hope and inspiration and possibilities.
Think of the 2000 film Cast Away whose main character played by Tom Hanks crashes onto an uncharted deserted island and not only survives for four years, but rescues himself and finds his way back home: “So I know what I have to do now. I have to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide can bring.”
- Hindsight Is 20/20 – Back in my college days, I had saved enough money to attend an out-of-state school for one year (or so I thought). On the weekend prior to my leaving on my new adventure, friends treated me to a celebratory lunch in one of Chicago’s famous eateries. Little did I know that later that night, I (and my friends) would end up in the ER with severe food poisoning (courtesy of an outbreak at the restaurant). With my departure delayed, and several university orientation events missed, I cursed my fate lamenting “why me?” Fast forward to the end of that year. Tuition was due, and I didn’t have enough money. I was thousands short. Without payment, I wouldn’t get my grades and wouldn’t be able to transfer to another school I could afford. Feeling quite desperate and without a clue as to what to do, on the very last hour of the very last day the school would accept payment, I dragged myself to the financial aid office, planning to beg for mercy. On the way there, I stopped to pick up my mail. Much to my surprise, the letter with the return address belonging to a Chicago attorney’s office held within it a check from the restaurant responsible for my food poisoning. It not only covered my outstanding tuition bill but many other bills I had racked up. So at the end of the day, what I originally had thought of as one of the worst things to have happened to me turned out to be my saving grace. (I tell the whole story and more in my upcoming book COMMITTED publishing May 2021.) Hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. We often aren’t able to see or fully understand why something is or isn’t happening. What we think may be the end to our world may be the exact opposite. Likewise, what we believe is our dream coming true may just a few years down the road become a nightmare. We have to believe that life really is happening for us and not to us.
Think of it as Malcom X suggested: “Every defeat, every heart break, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.”
- Remember Who You Are & What Matters – During challenging times, it’s easy to get swallowed up in the drama. We put our focus on what’s outside of us, rather than what’s in us. We spend our energies on things we can’t control, and we neglect all the things we can – and, ironically, all the things that bring us joy and really do matter to us and make us who we are. So choose to get back to you. Engage in the things that bring you pleasure. Show yourself compassion. Do whatever it is you love. Reach out to those you love. Give yourself what you need. Those tiny moments of self-care will give you the strength to live life as it was meant to be. In my own times of despair, I have gotten back to who I am by engaging in creative endeavors. Every project has helped me shift my spirits and has propelled me forward in bigger and better ways that I could ever have imagined. As a matter of fact, it’s during one of those lower than low periods that I created “Seriously! Are We THERE Yet?! – my whimsical picture book for every grownup on life’s journey. If you need a bit of inspiration, this rhyming romp is for you. Get it and give it a quick read. It might just give you the spark you need to journey on.
As Chinese American author Maxine Hong Kingston said: “In a time of destruction, create something.”
About the Author: Published author, speaker, podcaster, content producer, and Founder of Madness To Magic, Paolina Milana’s mission is to share stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and the power that lies within each of us to bring about change for the better. Her professional background includes telling other people’s stories, both as a journalist and as a PR and digital media/marketing executive. She currently serves as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in foster care and as an empowerment and writing coach who uses storytelling to help people re-imagine their lives, write their next chapters, and become the heroes of their own journeys. Paolina’s first book, The S Word (She Writes Press, May 2015), earned the National Indie Excellence Award. Seriously! Are We THERE Yet?! (October 2020) is the first in her “children’s book for adults” series, and Miracle on Mall Drive (November 2020) is her first fiction novel. Her free podcast, I’m with Crazy: A Love Story is on iTunes at https://apple.co/399ToaG. A proud first-generation Sicilian, Paolina is married and lives on the edge of the Angeles National Forest in Southern California. She welcomes contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.