A powerful account of a young man’s struggles to find his way in life
By Helen Maczkowiack
Key Themes: biography, schizophrenia, family, anxiety, mental health services
This book is the biography of Helen Maczkowiack’s son, Stephen, who suffered from schizophrenia and took his own life at just 29. It captures the haunting story of a young man’s desperate struggle to find his way in life. It features excerpts from Stephen’s diary, which gives the reader a deep insight into his illness: the paranoia, obsession and flashes of anger, the unpredictability as well as the creativity and energy. Helen says in the preface of her book that her primary motivation was to preserve her son’s writings. But as she became more and more involved in rewriting his story, she discovered that she could also promote mental health issues to support the development of more effective responses from community services and those working in the mental health field.
A courageous story consisting of diaries kept by Stephen who suicided and Helen’s unflinching honesty that will touch the hearts of all readers. It will help to increase community awareness, help develop understanding, offer comfort and support to parents, encourage people to speak out, offer support to those grieving and help realize the importance of discovering early childhood differences.
About the Author
Helen lives with her husband in Adelaide South Australia. They have a daughter, four grandsons. And a son deceased.
Helen has recently retired from full time work and is now doing only relief work in pre schools.
She has worked for the Department of Education in South Australia for over thirty years in early childhood, specifically with children who have learning difficulties and other disabilities. She has also worked in a speech pathology program for young children with speech and language difficulties, autism, emotional, social and behaviour difficulties.
Since completing her book she has appeared on several radios talk back shows and presented talks to many interested groups about her book.
Her goal is to continue working with the help of this book to increase community awareness and understanding of depression and other related illnesses.
She enjoys writing poetry and short stories about real life happenings that she hopes to one day put into a book. Helen also enjoys travelling and doing craft work.
I can’t take it any more; why can’t I forget the hurt? When does the hurt stop? It’s just too hard to live with. I can’t stand being alone; no one ever stays this unhappy. Something that’s a part of me is lost; things that I love always go away. My heart is truly heavy, almost physical. I’m sad. Please let me die, should tomorrow be sad! Who will grow old and be happy with me?
August 1998, 3.45 pm. I came home from work and had my usual cup of coffee. It was now 20 past four and I was peeling the last carrot for our evening meal. Darrel finished work at 5pm and would be home at five past six.
Someone was knocking on the front door; I put the carrot down and rinsed my hands at the kitchen sink. I opened the door to a police officer.
‘Is this the home of Stephen Maczkowiack?’
‘Yes,’ I looked blankly at him, not daring to wonder why he was here.
The few seconds of silence between us felt endless. Nathan, our neighbour’s son who had been playing with Lego on the kitchen floor, nuzzled in beside me.
‘Please go home,’ I whispered to him.
Turning back to the officer, I said,’ I’m Stephen’s mother. Do you want to come in?’ I held the screen door open as he brushed past me into the front porch, and ushered him into the kitchen.
My mind was spinning, apprehension and uneasiness sweeping over me.
Why is he here? I had trained myself, over the years, not to get excited, but to stay calm and deal with whatever situation Stephen was in. The officer’s exact words from that point on now escape me, but the essence of them will remain with me all my days: ‘Your son was found in his unit in Barmera at four o’clock this afternoon. He hanged himself.’
I remember the word ‘hanged’ clearly. It echoed through my head and ricocheted through my whole body. Time stood still.
‘No! No way! That’s not true!’ I screamed back at him. My brain felt like it was exploding from overload of what had just been said, at the same time trying to reject it. It was a message from hell.
I grasped at a thought that was completely irrational. He didn’t actually say he was dead. Maybe … But I knew it was true. The look on the officer’s
face said it.
I recall my head was dull and empty, my body in shock. I kept shaking my arms; I guess I didn’t know what else to do with them. At the same time I willed my legs not to collapse on me. I felt as though a clamp was compressing my stomach and chest, trying to squeeze the last breath out of me. I couldn’t even cry ‘No!’ any more. All I could do was make a pitiful cry like some injured animal, and the noise kept coming over and over again. I was marching around the room, still shaking my arms like a demented wind-up toy.
I have no idea how long I kept this up, but eventually I was aware of the police officer holding me, trying to calm me down. And I remember his saying this was the hardest part of his job. ‘I am the same age as your son.’
He rang the station to advise I was so distraught that he would stay with me until my husband came home. I have no recollection of whether I gave him Darrel’s work number or if I dialled it for him. Why did this happen? What went wrong? We had been with him five days ago in Barmera and he had looked happier than I’d seen him for a long time. He was in good spirits. In fact Darrel had said, as we drove away that night, ‘I think he’s going to be fine.’
There were two reasons we had gone to visit Stephen; he wanted us to see where he lived and worked, and we were also concerned for his general wellbeing. He was working five days a week installing irrigation systems and fruit picking on weekends. He only had every third weekend off, when he would return to his home in Gawler to see his friends and work on his garden. He didn’t seem to be able to stop working. He had been through five very difficult years.
The break-up of his marriage, a work injury that prevented him from getting a job and having to cope with constant pain were only some of the difficulties that had caused his loss of confidence in himself and his ability to succeed in life. And then things seemed to be looking up – he was no longer heavily in debt and he had a job. However, we were concerned about him living alone because he suffered from depression and we still had a lingering uneasiness, although this was laid to rest, to some degree, after our visit.
While waiting for Darrel to have a shower before we headed home to Craigmore, Stephen and I squatted together in front of his unit, on that last evening we had together.
‘I shouldn’t smoke,’ said Stephen, reaching into the top pocket of his shirt for his cigarettes.’ Dad wouldn’t like it.’
Given all that Stephen had been through, and his fragile state, smoking seemed a minor transgression. I told him if he wanted to smoke to go ahead, it was all right with me. He leaned back against the wall and gave a contented sigh.
‘Look at that,’ he said, waving his arm to indicate the beautiful sunset across the lake.’ Who else do you know who’s lucky enough to come home from work and see this view every night?’
This was a rare and magical moment for us both. It was truly magnificent. Later that week at home in Adelaide, I tried to contact Stephen to let him know someone was interested in seeing his résumé. I had seen a job I thought would suit him advertised in the paper, and mentioned this to Stephen when we were in Barmera the weekend before. It was for an irrigation firm that was looking for someone with experience. Stephen expressed interest and said I could phone them. The person I spoke to understood that he was tied to his current job until November but said he should still send his résumé. Stephen didn’t have a phone in his unit so I rang his work, but he hadn’t turned up for two days. I wasn’t overly concerned and thought perhaps he was sick. He wasn’t sick – he was dead.