Unconditional love between mother and daughter detailed in book featuring Pacific Beach

Shyloh Nelson with her mom, Andrea Nelson, several years ago.
(Courtesy of Andrea Nelson)

Author Andrea Nelson will hold book events on Feb. 11 and 12


Unconditional love doesn’t always guarantee a fairytale ending.

In Andrea Nelson’s case, the love she shared with her daughter, Shyloh Nelson, means she continues to share their story.

In June 2021, Shyloh was found dead in a tent in Pacific Beach. The 33 year-old had been struggling with addiction and mental illness. During the last few years of her life she chose to live on the streets.

While Shyloh struggled in one way, her mother also struggled, in vain, to save her daughter from herself.

“Pacific Beach was the last place she called home,” explained Nelson, adding it was the last place she saw her daughter. “It holds a special place in my heart and I am especially compelled to share our story there.”

The cover of Andrea Nelson’s book, “Fort Unicorn & The Duchess of Knothing: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter.”
(Courtesy of Andrea Nelson)

Nelson has documented the parallel journeys of her and her daughter in the book, “Fort Unicorn and the Duchess of Knothing: A Mother’s Fight to Save her Daughter.”

She will be discussing it at the Pacific Beach/Taylor Library on Feb. 11 and Warwick’s in La Jolla on Feb. 12.

The story is heartbreaking, but also joyful and funny in turns. Nelson is keenly aware that so many homeless and mentally ill people become “invisible” to those around them.

But in telling her story, readers learn of Shyloh’s love of crafting, her whimsical word play, her openness about her struggles with addiction and the lifelong bond between mother and daughter.

Despite her struggles with addiction and life on the street, Shyloh Nelson kept her sense of whimsy and creative spirit.
(Courtesy of Andrea Nelson)

“Writing the book was part of my grieving process and I just had to get it all out of me,” Nelson said. “There’s something about going towards the pain. I’m drawn to explore it and fight through it.”

Nelson begins her story with her life in Wisconsin, where she still lives. She had rough teenage years, stating she was a delinquent and into drugs and alcohol for awhile. Although she managed to graduate from high school, “it was a rocky road.”

She married soon after high school and became pregnant with Shyloh. Nelson attributes her unexpected pregnancy with “saving my life. It was the first time in my life I felt true, unconditional love,” she said.

After leaving her husband, Nelson became interested in martial arts. That led to her beginning boxing. She started training when she was 25, was competing by 30 and became a pro at 33.

“I retired from professional boxing at the end of 2003 and started coaching,” she said.

Nelson still coaches. She also gardens and takes care of chickens and bees.

While Nelson continued working and going back to school, her daughter was growing up in a small town in Wisconsin.

In happier times, Shyloh and Andrea Nelson while berry picking in 1993.
(Courtesy of Andrea Nelson)

“She was one of those creative personalities. Parallel to my own teen years, however, she struggled with drugs and alcohol,” Nelson said.

Her daughter received high honors in school, but had a double life hidden from her family.

Meet the author

First event: Saturday, Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. for a reading and discussion in the Pacific Beach/Taylor Library, 4275 Cass Street, Pacific Beach.

Second event: Sunday, Feb. 12 from noon to 2 p.m. for a “Weekends with Locals” book signing at Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave. in La Jolla.

Buy book at: Paperback is $21.99.

Good to know: An ebook and audiobook will be available soon.

In the summer of 2008, her mother received a phone call that Shyloh had overdosed on heroin. Nelson had no idea her daughter was using it.

Although Shyloh had to take mandatory counseling, the next 10 years were a roller coaster.

“She was on meds off and on, but it was all fairly mild. She would fall off the radar for while and then get back on,” Nelson said.

Nelson said she believes a family history of mental illness and addiction played a role in Shyloh’s choices.

No matter what Shyloh was going through, she and her mother remained very close and often discussed her struggles. Nelson said she never stopped trying to convince her daughter to return home or accept help.

While living on the streets, Shyloh Nelson with her mom, Andrea.
(Courtesy of Andrea Nelson)

In 2016, Shyloh relapsed and began smoking crack and meth. She vanished before she could start a scheduled 90-day treatment program.

After putting out a missing person’s report, her mother found her 2,000 miles away in California.

“In California, there is a subculture of youth that live on the streets, it’s a nomadic lifestyle. Some are displaced, some are mentally ill and some choose it,” she said.

Shyloh stayed in various places throughout San Diego, from Spring Valley to Point Loma. Sometimes she stayed with friends, other times she lived under a bridge. She even spent time in jail.

At one point, while living in a brushy vacant lot in Spring Valley, Shyloh told her mother she named the spot Fort Unicorn.

Injuries she received in a freak bus accident in 2019 accelerated Shyloh’s downward spiral.

Over the next three years, she continually disappeared. Nelson would track her down and spend a week at a time trying to persuade her daughter to go back with her. By this time, Shyloh was calling Pacific Beach home.

The two typically met up in the mornings, spending their days together. Sometimes Shyloh had good days; other times, Nelson said, the mental illness kicked in.

Despite her best efforts at trying to help, her daughter continued her downward spiral.

“She changed her name several times, and it was really disconcerting; surreal,” Nelson said. “Sometimes it was really, really hard to be with her. But I knew she was still there.”

Shyloh Nelson while living in a vacant lot in Spring Valley, a spot she named “Fort Unicorn.”
(Courtesy of Andrea Nelson)

Over the years, Nelson met many of her daughter’s friends and others who helped her with life on the streets.

“My memories are bittersweet, but it’s an important place for me to share her story. I am drawn to go back over and over and spend time in the places we spent time together in,” Nelson said. “Pacific Beach is the place she called home.”

Nelson’s book was released in November 2022. She said some of the readings at book events have inspired deep and heartfelt discussions. She believes mental illness and addiction are issues which she suspects “touch almost everyone to some degree.”

Nelson is quick to say that she doesn’t have the answers to others dealing with similar situations. Nevertheless, she believes just being unafraid to talk about it helps.

“I’ve thought about this a lot. I would just tell them don’t burn any bridges; leave the door open,” she said. “Just try to hold onto them, do your best to accept them and let them know you love them.”

She explained that acceptance “doesn’t mean you condone something or agree with it,” but, rather, you realize “it’s just the way it is.”

She added that everyone is on their own journey, and even though it might not be what you want for them, ultimately, it is their life.

“I think a lot of people feel like they have to make things cut and dry, or black and white,” she said. “But life is too short for that and some things just don’t fit into our little boxes.”