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From Grace Kelly’s Bridesmaid to a Homeless Shelter

How my mother’s misdiagnosed mental illness profoundly changed both our lives.

Illustration by Celia Jacobs

In order to picture my mother before she had me, I have to go back in time. It’s 1947, and she has newly arrived in New York from Steubenville, Ohio. She’s living at the Barbizon, a hotel for single women on the Upper East Side. Her next-door neighbor is a young acting student, Grace Kelly. The two women become close friends. While Grace goes to acting classes, my mother looks for work as a model. She signs with Eileen Ford, and soon enough, her face is on the cover of magazines.

Growing up, the mother I knew wasn’t glamorous or social. By the time I was born in 1959, she had left Manhattan, her social life and her career behind her. My advertising-executive father had insisted my mother and two older sisters move to a remote corner of Long Island by the water, far away from her beloved Upper East Side.

As a child, I remember running my fingers over the beautiful furs and gowns in her closet, including the pale-yellow chiffon dress she had worn as a bridesmaid to Princess Grace at her wedding in Monaco. My mother never wore her pretty dresses anymore, and she didn’t see her friend Grace. But they still wrote to one another, the letters from Monaco arriving in creamy envelopes with a red-and-gold wax seal.

One of my mother's modeling images. Photo by George Barkentin

During my childhood, I was just as isolated as my mother. While other children boarded the school bus in the mornings, I mostly stayed at home. My days were filled with watching TV in my bed or playing on the small inlet beach at the back of our house. My mother, the person who was supposed to protect me, raise me, and encourage me, instead kept me home from school for the majority of my childhood. She was convinced I was sick, taking me to doctor after doctor. She told me I had rheumatic fever, anemia, a weak heart, or internal bleeding. The reality was that I was fine, but my mother was not.

She was so distant and sad, completely closed off from the world. My father did nothing to help. He was almost always absent, consumed with his work and social life in Manhattan. He remained oblivious to his wife and children, except for those times when he showed his frustration by yelling at us. I left home when I was 14, moving in with my older sister in New York, finally going to school and getting the education I knew I deserved. Not long after I left home, my parents divorced.

In the years to come, my mother struggled financially and with her fragile mental health. In 1979, my sister Robin died in a car accident. Three years later, Grace also died in a car accident. These two events in quick succession devastated my mother. After many years of trying and failing to stay in stable housing, she gave up on her attempts to live a “normal” life. She began living at a homeless shelter on the Upper East Side, only a few blocks from the Barbizon Hotel, where she had first met Grace and where she spent her happiest years.

During this time, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Finally, I had some explanation for why she had behaved the way she did, why she’d kept me home from school all those years. She was sick, suffering from delusions. Her diagnosis brought me insight, but it didn’t bring much peace. We tried to get help for my mother, to find her a place to live, to get her treatment. She refused all offers. In the coming years, she continued to live at the shelter. She spent her days sitting in Central Park or going to Bergdorf Goodman, where she used the basins in the ladies’ lounge to wash.

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My mother with my sisters and I. Courtesy Nyna Giles

By then, I was married, with my own children. Each month, my husband and I paid my mother’s bills at a local diner, so she would never go hungry. I accepted her collect calls. I went to visit her whenever I could. Often, we’d meet at the little square on 58th Street that she used to go to each day to pray. My mother believed if she sat there and prayed long enough, the square would be elevated to a shrine for humanity and that miracles would come to pass.

After a decade living at the shelter, my mother developed a heart problem and could no longer legally stay there. We found her a place at an adult home on Long Island. But she wasn’t happy. She missed the city, her corner of the Upper East Side, the little square where she used to go to pray.

When she died in 2007, at the age of 78, her passing left me with a profound and unshakable sorrow. I was grieving not only for the loss of my mother but for the woman I never knew. There were so many questions I couldn’t answer. I began collecting photographs of my mother from her modeling days, poring over old issues of the magazines where she had been featured. I looked through family photographs. In the pictures before my birth, my mother is always smiling; she seems to radiate happiness. But in the photos taken after I was born, something in her has shut down — her eyes are filled with quiet despair; it was as if she’d become a different person.

Was it possible my mother started showing symptoms of her mental illness only after my birth? Most people with schizophrenia experience their first symptoms in their teens or early twenties, but my mother was 31 when she had me. When I was born, she underwent a C-section and an emergency hysterectomy. Could that have contributed to the onset of her mental illness? During my quest to find out what had happened to my mother, I met with the world’s leading expert on schizophrenia, Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

I told Dr. Lieberman as much as I could about my mother’s story and her symptoms. He listened to me intently, then he explained to me that my mother had been misdiagnosed. She didn’t have schizophrenia. Instead, she was suffering from postpartum psychosis, a rare, devastating condition affecting mothers in the first few weeks after birth. Symptoms of PPP can be extreme; delusions are common. In my mother’s case, she was convinced that I was sick and she needed to keep me home to protect me.

For so many years, I had been looking for the reason: “Why?” It turned out the reason was me — my birth had been the moment that my mother’s life changed forever.

I reached out to another mental-health professional, Dr. Diana Barnes, a specialist in maternal mental health. She confirmed Dr. Lieberman’s diagnosis. From Dr. Barnes, I learned that PPP is highly treatable, especially if caught early. The tragedy is this: had my mother been diagnosed and treated in the months after my birth, she likely would have recovered.

Since learning the truth about my mother, I’ve spent countless hours wishing I could go back in time and help her get the treatment she desperately needed after my birth; our lives might have been so different as a result. While I know it’s too late to change her story, maybe I can help others by sharing what happened to her, and to me. And perhaps the miracle she used to pray for at her little square will finally come to pass.

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Nyna Giles is an author, advocate, and marketing professional. Her latest book is The Bridesmaid's Daughter.