« Back to Impact Areas

Out of the Shadow

Millie Smiley was a beautiful blond with penetrating brown eyes. People often said she looked like Grace Kelly.

Yet behind the beauty and the smiling façade was a young woman hiding her increasingly severe mental illness.

She went to college, fell in love and had two adorable baby girls.

But by the time they were 4 and 2, Millie’s life had spiraled out of control. She was divorced, jobless and unstable. There were delusions, screaming and beatings.

“On bad days my mother was violent. On good days she’d sleep all day – though that meant she did not feed us or change my sister’s diapers, so I did it instead,” recalled Susan Smiley, the older daughter who documented Millie’s wrenching journey in the film “Out of the Shadow,” which premiered in 2004 at the Silverdocs Film Festival.

“She was a horrible human being sometimes – and yet she could be so loving,” said Tina, Millie’s younger daughter. Susan added, “It was those loving moments – brief glimpses into that sweet soul that was hidden deep within my mother – that kept us devoted to her, always hoping for more.”

It would be years before Millie was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – and decades before her mental illness was finally stabilized.

After their father gained custody of the girls, Millie lived with the demons of psychosis, isolated, unable to hold a job, going on and off medications, moving from place to place – 17 psych wards, 8 apartments, 3 boarding houses and countless hotels.

“This is a remarkable film about schizophrenia. It is emotionally powerful, showing that recovery is possible – while at the same time exposing flaws in our mental healthcare system. Susan Smiley has produced a memorable, masterful work,” said Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness from 2004 through 2013.

Directed and produced by Susan, “Out of the Shadow” was featured in several film festivals and aired more than 1200 times on public broadcasting stations since 2006. The film’s been translated into nine languages and shown internationally.

The David and Lura Lovell Foundation supported this project with grants totaling $291,175. The Lovell’s son Robert also has schizophrenia. They too battled the inadequate mental health system for years.

Millie’s story is far from unique. Some 60 million people in the world suffer from schizophrenia. It strikes people from all walks of life, regardless of nationality, race, creed or class. Half attempt suicide. One in 10 succeeds.

Millie did attempt suicide. “I slit my throat and wrists and there was blood everywhere. The noise pollution was like 10 billion years of hell,” she says in the film.

“Out of the Shadow” documents milestones in Millie’s tumultuous life. She’s now 70.

  • Denial. Millie’s father died in World War II. Her mother Catherine was a nurse. Growing up, Millie’s cousin Nancy tried to talk with her. “Every single time I brought up the subject that there was something wrong with Millie, she pooh-poohed the whole thing and said that Millie was just high strung.” Nancy once asked Millie, “When did you feel things were not right?” She answers, “I’ve never been right. Nothing has ever been right for me.”
  • Ignorance. “Mildred could keep it together when people visited,” Nancy says, “so outsiders would not have the sense she had anything wrong with her.” There was little awareness of mental illness at the time. People didn’t get involved. “The shame and ignorance causes families, friends and neighbors to turn a blind eye to the destructive behavior, hoping it will magically go away with time,” Susan says. “I swing between a profound sense of betrayal at my family’s inability to help us and empathy for their need to look away.”
  • Altered reality. “Anybody who’s dealt with a family member who has schizophrenia knows that it’s not something that just goes away after they start taking medication. Schizophrenia is something you have to deal with till the day you die,” Tina says. Millie hates taking medicine. She does not grasp the cause-and-effect relationship between her state of mind and the medications. “I don’t need nursing. I’m perfectly healthy. I walk everywhere. I don’t drink or smoke or take drugs. I eat properly. You’re better off going to health food stores. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” she says in the film.
  • Legal barriers. Because of patient confidentially rules, Susan and Tina have trouble keeping track of their mother. Time and time again “we’d find out she’s been evicted the day after – so we don’t know where she is. They won’t tell us where she is because she hasn’t signed the form to release the information. As far as we know she’s out on the street.” Finally they decide to take on the public health system so they can have more knowledge and control over Millie’s care. “We went to court. We sued the state for guardianship of our mother.” It was not a smooth road. At one point, Millie tells them, “You’re not my guardians. You’re hideous nasty meanies.”
  • Crisis. Millie visits her aging mother in a nursing home and is agitated by the experience. Her mother dies soon after. “Two months later she was back on the psych ward and refusing all treatment,” Susan recalls. “After a two-week standoff, the doctor says mom is his most defiant patient.” The system still requires Millie’s signature for treatment. “We had to get her to sign a consent form. This was our only hope for getting her back on track.” Over Susan’s objections, Tina convinces Millie to sign the paper by telling her it’s an application for her own apartment. The pivotal lie is worth it to Tina. “She doesn’t realize that in order for her to have the life she wants, she has to be medicated to get her brain straight. It’s better than letting her go homeless and die a horrid death.”
  • No continuity. After the crisis Millie is released to a nursing home – the only place in the county system that has a bed for her. “The absentee psychiatrist is clueless about her history – the latest in a long line of nameless, faceless doctors to offer a panacea for her condition,” Susan says. “Everywhere mom lands within the fractured system she gets a new doctor who has a different idea about how to treat her.” With scant records of her medical history, “there’s a tremendous lack of consistency in the medications she receives – which causes a lot of problems.”
  • Resilience. At long last Millie applies for and is accepted into a group home that Susan calls “the Holy Grail of placements.” This is a safe, permanent residence from which she cannot be evicted. It is her 47th home in 20 years. Millie comments, “I’m getting kind of old to be so flexible.” At age 60, she settles into a comfortable supervised routine – taking her medications twice a day, riding the bus and working at a restaurant as a dishwasher. She tells Susan, “I love work. I’m anxious to get there in the morning. I’m very enthusiastic about the food – it’s delicious, it’s nourishing, it’s seductive. It’s gourmet fast food. I look forward to weekends – and then I look forward to Monday too.” Millie is enjoying being around “normal” people. She even reconnects with her former husband and celebrates Christmas with their combined families.

After viewing “Out of the Shadow,” the son of a schizophrenic mother wrote to Susan. “I never realized that the fear, frustration, anger and shame that I felt could be so universal. Millie is a perfect subject for a documentary on schizophrenia – a beautiful, intelligent young woman whose life is torn apart by a horrible disease and broken system. If it could happen to an all-American girl like Millie, then by the grace of God it could happen to any one of us.”