By Moryt Milo
The family dynamics created by mental illness are as diverse as the diseases that shape them.
When Natalie Shampanier, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, tried to help her mother who began to exhibit symptoms of severe paranoia and psychosis in her 50s, Natalie’s family life became complicated. Mental illness had hit home.
“I am a therapist trying to help a family member and that doesn’t really work,” she said. “I knew not to tell her head-on she had a problem, and I tried to work with her.”
Her mother, Jean, had become increasingly suspicious and paranoid about her neighbor. She was convinced he had it in for her. That he was trying to torment her emotionally. None of which was true. Yet this was her reality and it was fixed and unshakable.
“For a year, we tried to tackle it and it wasn’t working,” Inon Shampanier, Natalie’s husband, said. “After a year, we told her we love you and want to help you, but I think you have a problem and could use some help. After that, everything took a nosedive.”
Like so many families who have a family member with a mental illness, Natalie and her husband wanted to believe that maybe the things Jean was telling them might be true. The incidents didn’t seem that outlandish at first. Like the time Jean claimed the neighbor threw trash at her, Natalie thought, “OK, maybe that’s possible. I so wanted to believe it. It’s not like aliens were coming to attack.”
For close to eight years, the Shampaniers, with two young children, tried to manage their family and Jean’s erratic behavior. It affected every part of their daily lives. At first, they tried to play along hoping Jean’s lucidity would improve. But Jean always had an explanation for the unexplainable.
“We were helpless and couldn’t do anything about it. She was helpless and everything just snowballed,” Natalie said.
Each incident build on the next, taking Jean deeper into her distorted reality. When Jean casually mentioned to Natalie and Inon she was certain her neighbor had broken into the house and planted bees there, the Shampaniers knew her paranoia had reached a tipping point. From there, Jean’s condition worsened. Convinced her home was unsafe and that Natalie and Inon had turned against her, Jean abandoned her house and lived in her car for a year. Natalie became her mother’s only lifeline, checking on her and bringing food while Jean lived on the streets in her car.
“Her mental illness affected me 24 hours a day. It consumed me,” Natalie said.
As Natalie and Inon’s guilt swelled, a strangling helplessness overwhelmed them. Natalie knew her mother felt betrayed and was worried that if she involuntarily hospitalized her, what little remained of their relationship would be severed permanently. Jean already refused to enter Natalie’s home, convinced her neighbor was lying in wait on the Shampanier’s roof. Natalie also was certain any hospital stay would be inadequate. They witnessed how Jean gamed the questions during their efforts at family therapy.
“It was heartbreaking,” Inon said. “She was living in a nightmare and we couldn’t wake her up.”
Writing a Screenplay
Jean died in 2016 from a massive heart attack. She was just 59 years old. The loss was devastating for Natalie and Inon. Jean had moved into a new home, her paranoia had lessened, and she was excited about the birth of the Shampanier’s third child.
To an outsider, Jean’s illness wasn’t immediately apparent. She had been a loving, kind mother and devoted grandmother with a wonderful sense of humor. It only reared if the issue with the neighbor was introduced into the conversation.
After Jean’s death, Natalie started writing about her experience. The process turned cathartic as the words flowed. Those words evolved into the screenplay, with Inon’s collaboration, titled Paper Spiders. They didn’t think the movie would get made, even though they weren’t strangers to the film industry.
“So many stars had to align for that to happen,” Inon said. Those stars did align and their screenplay took on a life of its own.
In the beginning, Natalie and Inon decided to remain mum about the story being based on reality. They had kept Jean’s illness a secret from friends and family for years.
“It just seemed very personal and strange for someone who had never heard of such a family situation,” Natalie said.
During production, that changed. As the project progressed, people began to approach them and say, this is like my cousin or my friend’s mom, and Natalie and Inon had an awakening—their experience wasn’t that strange after all. They weren’t alone in their struggles, and they decided to divulge their closely guarded truth.
For Natalie, the movie was a revelation on multiple levels.
“I wish in a way I had seen this movie when I was going through it to understand it just doesn’t happen to me,” Natalie said. “We only realized afterward so many people were going through something similar but really didn’t talk about it.”
The film—a coming-of-age story about a high school teenager struggling with her mother’s mental illness—turned therapeutic for Natalie in another way. It pulled Natalie back into her own childhood. As she analyzed her past, Natalie recognized there were signs all along of emotional instability in her mother.
Her mother tended to be suspicious of the neighbors, thinking they were getting into her business. “She tended to sometimes misinterpret people’s intentions,” Natalie said. “She had good intuition, so occasionally she was right with her presumptions. But more often she would assume they had some kind of ulterior motive.”
The seeds of paranoia and psychosis lurked there early on, but there was no way Natalie could understand that as a child. It was never severe or out of control. This was the mother she knew and loved, a mother who had been kind and protective. She didn’t know anything different.
So nothing made sense when Jean’s mental health went haywire in her 50s. That is not common say psychologists. Children are usually exposed to a parent’s mental illness at a young age not in adulthood.
MedCircle Clinical Psychologist Judy Ho, Ph.D, said, “When this is the family dynamic, the child never gets to be a child. Whether it’s a parent who becomes ill early in a child’s upbringing or during their teens, the situation is traumatic. The child’s needs are never met, and it’s all about the parent’s problems.”
She added, “The child doesn’t know the boundaries of a healthy relationship, and the child becomes the parent.” A term known as parentification.
Elizabeth Cesena, LMFT, who works at El Camino Hospital in the behavioral health outpatient Continuing Care Program, said when this happens, “Trust is compromised and the child develops unhealthy coping skills.”
Cesena also pointed out, “Once the child becomes an adult, that parentified component doesn’t go away and the individual often looks for those types of adult relationships. They have learned to become enabling.”
Natalie never experienced any such trauma in her youth, which made the situation even more perplexing and stigmatizing as an adult.
Fate Lifted the Curtain
Working on the project proved to be healing for Natalie and Inon. It broadened their understanding of mental illness. Natalie and Inon began to accept they did nothing wrong. They began to allow the helplessness that surrounded them for eight years to peel away.
“It’s very easy to be frustrated by mental illness, but at the end of the day [Jean] didn’t choose that,” Inon said. “You are born with a certain mind like you are born with a certain body and there are a lot of difficult decisions that are not up to you.”
The project came together with extraordinary speed—the producer, actors, location, and filming. Inon directed the film. Paper Spiders began production in May 2019 and post-production wrapped up by the end of 2019. In 2020, they were ready to debut on the film festival circuit when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Film festivals went virtual and Paper Spiders played at a variety of events around the country. At the Boston Film Festival in September 2020, the movie earned multiple awards. It is on NAMI National’s recommended movie list and has been screened by various NAMI affiliates.
Although many of the scenes were based on Natalie’s life with her mother, the Shampaniers decided to script the story through the eyes of a teenager, Melanie (portrayed by actress Stefania Owen), trying to deal with her life as her mother, Dawn, (portrayed by actress Lili Taylor) spirals deeper into paranoia and psychosis. Natalie and Inon wanted to be sensitive to how people would respond and they also wanted to end the movie on a note of hope. They were cautious about mental health triggers and wanted to balance the storyline with comedy and levity in a gentle manner.
“When it’s someone you love and you feel like you can’t help them, to us that was the narrative, which people can relate to,” Inon said.
Now with the film available on numerous video-on-demand platforms, Natalie and Inon said, “We hope we can contribute just a little to the public and private conversations about the need to support people with mental health issues and those who support them. Then maybe we will have done something that has value beyond the movie.”
Paper Spiders is available on various Video-on-Demand platforms including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Google Play. Watch the Movie Trailer below:
You can find the movie’s information and discussion guide here.
Author: Moryt Milo serves on the board of NAMI ( National Alliance for Mental IIlness) Santa Clara County. She writes and blogs regularly for the non-profit on a range of mental health topics. Additionally, she moderates NAMI-Santa Clara County events. Click the links below for a sample of her Medium posts. View her blog or writings for more of her work.