ISU alumna and author opens up about what adversity has taught her

Paolina Milana has published two memoirs on her experiences with mental illness in her family.

Sierra Hoeger

Paolina Milana attended Iowa State for one year, riddled with the fact that her mother and sister were at home suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. While she was forging a path for herself as a writer in Ames, guilt, and eventually responsibility, began to make themselves known, forcing Milana to return home and act as primary caregiver. 

When Milana was 10 years old, her mother had started to exhibit signs of schizophrenia. A daddy’s girl, Milana was obedient and diligent when it came to helping around the house, stepping in shoes larger than her own. 

Then, at 25, her father passed away. 

“I was everything from managing my mom’s illness to dealing with doctors, legal, the house bills, all of that care, and then two years after that, my little sister exploded in a massive psychotic episode,” Milana said. “And I then became caregiver to both of them.”

Her mother and sister’s diagnoses constricted Milana in more ways than one, including when she was attending the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and was offered an all-expense-paid semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Milana declined, aware she would be leaving her dad alone without help for a long span of time. 

While attending UIC, Milana made the commute from her family’s home in Skokie, Illinois, to the campus located in the heart of Chicago. This commute included a walk to the public bus stop, a ride on the bus to the train station and a train ride downtown, where she would then transfer to two additional trains and eventually be near campus. 

“That time between house and that campus was great,” Milana said. “Because sometimes I got to sleep and sometimes I just got to decompress and watch other people and be among something outside of the cray-cray at home.”

After her sophomore year, the decision to leave home was weighing heavily on Milana, and she eventually convinced herself to attend Iowa State. Her last-minute decision meant she had to live in temporary housing with a roommate that is still a close companion to this day. 

“Coming to that campus, at first, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’ I just went from the frying pan to the fryer; I made my life worse,” Milana said. “Number two, saying goodbye to my father was really trying for me. It was as much as I couldn’t wait for the freedom and just finally being able to breathe and only think of me, I felt such tremendous guilt leaving him, leaving them. Who did I think I was that I deserved this time when they were still stuck? So that was a challenge.”

The hardest part of attending Iowa State was saying goodbye to her father. Phone calls and letters from Skokie were hard to answer, keeping Milana from spreading her wings further and flying toward newfound freedom. 

Throughout her time at Iowa State, Milana had two professors whose impacts are still imprinted within her life. Lee Hadley, former professor of English, taught a creative writing class and gave an assignment that Milana had deemed difficult but had earned her top marks.

Hadley had given Milana compliments about her assignment and her writing skills, stating how rare it was that she was complimenting her work. 

“It was the first time that I ever realized, oh my God, I could make a living as a writer,” Milana said. 

Barbara Mack, the second professor that left a lasting impression on Milana, taught her that she could be a powerhouse while also being caring and compassionate. 

“And when she came into that classroom, I was blown away,” Milana said. “And I thought to myself, ‘oh my God, you can be big, because I was big and she was kind of buxom, you can be loud, you can take charge, you can be caring, you can be funny.’ It was all wrapped up in Dr. Mack. And I so appreciated having that kind of a role model in college because it really taught me I could be that too, and I was that.”

It was pure chance that Milana was able to stay an extra semester at Iowa State, due to a sum of money from a lawsuit she had won prior to the beginning of the school year. When leaving UIC, Milana had gone out to dinner with some friends to say goodbye and had instead left with a case of salmonella, forcing her to be late for move-in at Iowa State. 

The check covered tuition and then some.

“All the stuff that happens in life, you have to believe happens for a reason,” Milana said. “You have to believe it.” 

Before “Committed,” Milana had written “The S Word” but kept it hidden in a drawer for 10 years. Milana was nervous about the vulnerability she expressed throughout the novel, emphasizing that it was a “tell-all.” 

“It was really a book of anger, rage, when it started,” Milana said. “In the 10 years it took me to write all of that, it ended up being a book of redemption and forgiveness and realizing everyone’s doing the best they can at any given moment. It doesn’t excuse anybody, but it was a whole different perspective.”

Then, the decision to take the drafts out of the drawer came from observing an unfortunate experience between an adolescent cashier and a man years older than her. Milana realized she needed to publish her book not for her own personal sake but for young adults everywhere. 

Her second novel, “Committed,” took three years to write. 

“At the core of why I had done this is the fact that there’s no way that I could’ve gone through all this stuff for it not to have a greater meaning,” Milana said. “It has to, right?”