You Are Not Alone
RESPECT LIFE MONTH: MENTAL ILLNESS
By: Joanne Halt & Danielle Koleniak
When many think of Respect Life Month, the first thing that comes to mind is abortion. While abortion is a huge issue that has also recently gained even more media attention, the value of life stretches far beyond a baby in the womb. Over the month of October, a team of volunteers are providing opportunities to learn, pray and generate change in awareness sessions titled “You Are Not Alone.” The sessions focus on four respect life issues- Mental Illness, Crisis Pregnancy, Human Trafficking and Homelessness.
This week, St. John XXIII Catholic Church centers in on mental illness- the topic that likely comes last to mind when thinking of ‘Respect Life,’ but to parishioners, George and Sandy Szymanski, it is part of their every day. Their youngest son, who they love dearly and glow when talking about, suffers from schizophrenia. Though this article is filled with a heartfelt yet raw story of a family, powerful statistics and resources available, it may not be suitable for young eyes.DOWNLOAD THE BULLETIN
Respect Life Month is a good time to expand our emotional bandwidth by gaining information about these vulnerable populations who truly are “our neighbors” and to say “You are not alone.” The challenge will then be, to use that information to help out in some personal way, or to help change the systems which allows injustice and neglect of our neighbor to continue.
Danielle Koleniak: For parishioners who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about yourselves and your family.
Sandy Szymanski: George and I are originally from Buffalo, New York. We were married 15 years when we began the process to adopt a child from Korea. We were very fortunate to get our first son, Michael in 1978. He was almost 3 years old. He’s is a joy! Then, we later decided to get a brother for Michael. We got John when he was 5 years old. He was being raised by his grandmother after his birth mother died of tuberculosis. John was quiet, but adjusted really well. He was very smart and learned English very quickly.
George Szymanski: Mike and John went in different directions with sports and interests, but they got along very well. They were so compassionate towards one another. They were just a year apart in age. People always told me they were lucky to have us, but I really believe Sandy and I are the lucky ones.
SS: We knew John was definitely the quieter of the two. His closest friend, Joe, was blind. He is all heart. He is the dream kid. We noticed in high school and college that he was having issues of not believing in himself. He really wanted to go back to Korea. He thought he would fit in more there. After graduating college, he wanted to go into the military and work in Korea. He didn’t make it through basic training and was released. He sent us a letter thanking us and saying he didn’t want to stay with us because he didn’t want to be a burden. When he came back to Buffalo, we had no clue where he was. We then found out he was staying in the city mission. He went from one extreme to the other. That’s when we really started to see signs that something was not right. After I was diagnosed with cancer, we persuaded him to move in with us to help. We knew if he we said we ‘needed him’ he would move back home. Soon after, the three of us moved to Florida.
DK: When did things begin to take a turn?
GS: He got a teaching job in Korea and was there for 11 months. It was working out well for him, but he said he just couldn’t eat the food. He told us he was coming back home because he was sick. When he came back home he was really thin. We took him to a doctor and the doctor said he could help John with his stomach, but he needed more help. That’s when we decided to Baker Act him.
SS: When he was at the Ruth Cooper Center, John agreed to stay and receive medication and treatment. He was doing well and was taken off of medication. He was fine for four months. He got another contract and work visa to go back to Korea. He was really excited about the opportunity again.
Unfortunately, on the plane ride over, the anxiety of everything brought back the voices in his head. The second he got off the plane, he bought a ticket to come back. Instead of coming home he went to a hotel in Immokalee.
GS: He was so distraught, he tried to kill himself in an incident at the hotel. The saving grace was that this happened in Collier County. The deputies there have Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), so they knew what they were facing. They talked him down and arrested him.
A few days later, we got a call that he was in jail. He was in jail for 11 months. We were only allowed to see him through a TV monitor twice a week. The only person who had contact with him was Father Bob. He was allowed to be with him. We are still so grateful for that. It was a very difficult time.
During this time I took a course with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) called “Family to Family”. I wanted to better understand my son and his mental illness. When we got involved with NAMI, it gave us hope and direction.
SS: We didn’t want to shove this under the rug, we wanted to bring it to light and share it with our church family and ask for them to pray for us. We wanted ourselves and our faith community to let go of the stigma of mental illness. John is who he is because he has a genetic disease- schizophrenia. John’s voices tell him that he is worthless, stupid and everyone hates him. There is nothing worthless or stupid about John that would cause anyone to hate him. He’s a beautiful human being who is quiet, but a very supportive, loving person.
We’re telling our story because we know there may be other families who are going through this and don’t know where to turn. Our involvement is not only to help John, but to bring awareness to help other people who are in the same boat. We have an incredible support group here at the parish for those who have a loved one with mental illness. It’s called Journey to Hope. It’s small, it’s private and it’s a group that truly offers hope.
GS: We went through all the stages of this. We went through denial, and then a long period of anger, then we accepted where our son was, which then brought us to an understanding. Now, we’re at a place of understanding and looking for solutions. We’re seeing the great need in this area for funding to help people who are in distress. It opened our eyes.
We work together as a team for each other, our son, and for the people who are out there in need of help. Human life is too important to be disregarded or disrespected. We’re called to be Christ for one another and take care of the least.
This month’s series of awareness sessions “You Are Not Alone” begins on October 6th when Kevin Lewis CEO of SalusCare at 9 A.M. and Psychiatrist Stephen Machlin, M.D. at 6 P.M. present information on treating severe, chronic mental illness and dual diagnosis in Lee County. With proper treatment, and community and family support, those with mental illness can manage their symptoms and lead functional lives. October 4th -10th is National Mental Illness Awareness Week and this year’s theme is “I Pledge to be Stigma-free.” October 6 is the National Day of Prayer for those suffering with these disabling illnesses. Besides praying for ill individuals on October 6th, we can also become informed. We hope to see you there on October 6th.