Shameless, Showtime's Sunday night series about dysfunctional families -- one in particular, the Gallaghers -- has felt like home to me since the day it debuted.
From the seemingly always grey and slush-covered scenes of my hometown Chicago; to the role reversals of children having to parent their parents, raise themselves, and keep secrets in order to stay together; to the crazy chaos of their lives and the situations they must navigate just to survive, Shameless and its over-the-top storylines aren't so over-the-top for me. As a matter of fact, they hit pretty close to home, when your home is inhabited by mental illness. In no scene has it felt more familiar than in the final moments of season five, episode six -- "Crazy Love" -- when Ian Gallagher (brilliantly played by Cameron Monaghan), the middle child who is gay, signs himself into a psychiatric hospital.
The fear seen in Ian's eyes.
The slight tremble of his hand as he signs his name on hospital papers.
The resignation on his family's faces, the realization that "crazy" has come calling again, and that there is no other option. And even more devastating: the knowledge that Ian's disease can't be cured; rather, it translates into a lifetime of experiments with drugs that he'll comply with taking for a while and then going off of them in a cruel but unavoidable cycle between "normal" and "nuts."
The fierce embrace and helplessness of Mickey's entire being.
The stark white lobby, the security card access, the sign on the psychiatry floor door, "Elopement Precaution," the sound of the heavy metal locking behind him, the lonely walk down that long hallway with lights harshly glaring down, stealing even his shadow...
All are painful memories for me and my own experiences with mental illness, having committed both a mother and a sister to what often was more of a prison than a place of hope and a return to health.
Leading up to Ian committing himself, the similarities in our two dysfunctional families' experiences are spot on. To underscore a few:
Just like Frank who tried to care for Monica, Ian's mother, on his own, when she exhibited signs of bipolarity, so, too, did my father for my mother, when she began hearing voices, acting "crazy," seeing and believing things that weren't real, all of which were symptoms of her paranoid schizophrenia.
Just like Lip, I, too, had to make that panicked phone call to my older sibling, when our youngest sister exploded in her own psychotic episode, later being diagnosed as well with paranoid schizophrenia.
Just like Mickey, I made threats and ordered ultimatums to both my mother and my youngest sister to force each into a mental illness treatment facility.
Mickey's ask of the nurse -- to be able to go with Ian -- is denied. For me, this moment caused me to sob. The memory of being 14, committing my mother to a psychiatric hospital and feeling elated that we were not allowed to have contact with her for a couple of weeks, and the memory of years later at the age of 26, committing my youngest sibling, waving goodbye to my little sister and feeling my heart ripped from my chest, knowing she had to go it alone -- all of it came flooding back. Two very different times in my life with two very different emotions experienced. Both, however, so unfair to all of us.
Mental illness does not offer its victims even the slightest of comforts that are a given to those suffering from physical diseases. Insanity is a very solo journey that only the strongest survive. Those who do deserve our respect. Instead, our society shuns them. I am grateful for Showtime and Shameless and other programs that keep it real, and that through their portrayal, help bring about change for the better in how we treat and support people who have a mental illness as well as the people who love and care for them.
Paolina Milana is a former journalist turned marketing, PR & media pro. She is the daughter and sister of two diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics. Her recently published memoir The S Word shares the story of her coming of age surrounded by crazy. Paolina blogs at PaolinaMilana.com. Reach her on facebook.com/The.S.Word.memoir/ and follow her on Twitter @PaolinaMilana.