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Capturing an illness's frustrations

By Tom Davis

Up and down. Up and down. For years, that's how things went for Susan Smiley.

Her 63-year-old mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. She's been in and out of psychiatric facilities in the Chicago area. She took, and then didn't take, her medication.

Up and down. Up and down. Smiley got tired of it.

"I was sort of at wit's end with all the trials and tribulations," said Smiley, 38. "I wanted to just channel my frustrations."

One day Smiley, a filmmaker, picked up her camera and followed her mother around. She captured her pain, her unpredictability. What evolved was a nearly five-year odyssey - all caught on film - that became the subject of a cinematic exposé of the highs and lows of her mother's mental health care.

Smiley's "Out of the Shadow" is a 67-minute documentary that presents a frank and somewhat surprising account of her mother's lifelong battle with mental illness. It was Smiley's first independently funded film, helped by donations from friends and family and some grants.

The Care Plus Foundation, Bergen County's largest mental health agency, is offering a public screening of "Out of the Shadow" at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Hekemian Conference Center at Hackensack University Medical Center. PBS plans to air the documentary later this year, Smiley says.

As an independent filmmaker, Smiley is working hard to attract publicity. But she makes it clear she's not shooting for box-office magic or Oscar acclaim (although she'd readily accept either or both).

She wants people to realize that anyone with a mental illness is not far removed from the often ignored homeless who linger on city streets. The film wants people to recognize that they very likely know someone who is mentally ill.

And Smiley challenges them to act - much as she did.

Fittingly, the movie begins with a view of homeless people, with Smiley noting in her narration that "when I pass them, I think they could be my mother." But they don't have a loving daughter willing to fly halfway across the country to care for them, she notes.

"It's very stressful," Smiley, who operates out of the Los Angeles area, said of her mother's care. "I didn't want her to be homeless."

In the film, Smiley takes the viewer on a ride through psychiatric hospitals, doctor visits and other situations that involved her mother. Through it all, you're asking: What will happen to Millie? How bad can it get?

Smiley and her younger sister, who is featured prominently in the film, lived with their mother's mental illness since they were born. When their father left them early on, they had to face their mother's illness largely on their own.

"One thing I cover in the film is the culture of denial," Smiley said. "It's easier to turn a blind eye than to say, 'Millie said something really bizarre today' and not pursue it any further."

In the movie, Smiley shows home movies of her mother's playfulness. But she doesn't do it to present a gratuitous feel-good moment. She does it to show irony.

The home movies portray Millie's mood swings as dramatic. She would go from being sweet, sensitive and gleeful to verbally and physically abusive. Or, as Smiley says, "demonic."

Halfway through the film, Millie is shown sitting in her mother's old house, one of the many she lost as she bounced from treatment facility to treatment facility. In the scene, Millie hadn't taken her medication in weeks. She unleashes a litany of obscenities.

"When mom's illness takes over," Susan Smiley says in the film, "I become the enemy."

But then, in another scene, Susan is shown driving with her mother during a brief afternoon leave from a psychiatric facility. They chat; they meet with friends; they shop. Susan Smiley remarks how Millie seems happier than she seemed to be in a long time.

"It's because you're here," said her mother.

As the film illustrates, Susan Smiley and her sister ultimately take stock of themselves, and their situation. They go to court and obtain guardianship rights over their mother. They're not only able to point her in the right direction; with the power of the law behind them they force the issue. When Millie falls off her medication, loses her mental stability and reacts adversely, the daughters provide a safety net.

It is through these means that Millie ultimately finds stability and some peace. The daughters direct her to a group home, where her medication schedule is monitored. She gets a job as a dishwasher - one she has to this day.

"I think it's important to show that there's hope for recovery," Smiley said. "It just requires being educated."

The Coping column appears every other Tuesday. To suggest topics, write to Tom Davis, The Record, 150 River St., Hackensack, NJ 07601 or e-mail Please include your phone number with all correspondence.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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