I love bold statements, but I never expected to see one on a T-shirt about mental illness.
So when I saw people wearing bright blue #Team Frank T-shirts at a fundraiser in Milford, CT., I had to ask about them. It takes courage to wear this powerful statement on your back:
I walked up to a middle-aged woman and asked about her shirt. It turns out #Team Frank was organized in honor of her nephew. She directed me to his mother Heidi, who wanted to know why I was asking questions. “I used to be a reporter in this town,” I told her. “And now I write my own blog. Can you tell me what happened to your son?”
“He died . . . on the eve of his 21st birthday,” she explained. A chill ran through my body. I’m a mother and my son will turn 21 on Sept. 24th. Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. Losing your son right before his milestone birthday is an incredibly cruel blow.
I wondered how Heidi got the courage and strength to move on with her life. Like many parents who have lost children to horrific tragedies, she is channeling her grief into activism, hoping to spare other families pain and heartache.
Heidi is an advocate for mental health services since her son’s death two years ago, saying volunteering for Bridges helps her carry on. “It’s truly helped me get by a little easier knowing I’m doing something so positive in honor of my dearly missed kind, caring, funny and extra handsome, life of the party son with a heart of gold,” she explained.
Loved ones hung this photo of Frank Besciglia during a fundraiser Sunday to raise awareness and funds for mental health services. They wore T-shirts bearing the name FRANK on the front: Friends Raising Awareness & Needed Knowledge. It also said: End the Stigma.
Heidi’s son Frank suffered from bipolar disorder. He died on Feb. 27, 2016. “We got the help, just never the right help nor long enough stays,” Heidi explained. “Our mission is acceptance between friends who may be struggling – worldwide awareness that this is a real disease and should be looked upon the same as someone with cancer, diabetes or any life threatening illness.”
“We want to raise money for places like Bridges that treat clients with no insurance,” she said. “And we want to encourage those affected that they never have to walk alone.”
I feel I was destined to meet Heidi and share her story. I’ve been participating in this fundraiser for Bridges, a Milford, CT.,-based mental health care agency, for about 25 years. I generally cycle or walk with a group, but this year I went by myself. Going solo gave me the time to linger and do a little people watching. After marveling at some exceptionally silly cycling getups – honestly, are these guys serious? – I noticed the shirts.
I suspected something terrible had happened to prompt such a bold statement: people often pull no punches after a tragedy, feeling that they have nothing to lose by being brutally honest. I wondered if I would have the courage to wear the shirt: would people suspect that I had a mental illness if I wore it on the street? Would they avoid me, give me a condescending smile or think that I was strange?
This is the problem with mental illness. People suffering from it and their families often feel alone because of the shame and stigma associated with it. Parents with depressed or anxious children keep silent and don’t get the support they need from family and friends. People being treated stay silent because they don’t want to perceived as troubled, strange, weird or damaged.
I admire people who are open about their struggles. Discussing it brings it out of the shadows and normalizes it. I can’t tell you how relieved parents are when they discuss a child’s struggles with mental illness, and hear that they’re not alone, that there are others in the same boat. It doesn’t change anything, but there’s safety in numbers. They don’t feel like they’re the only ones going through it, and that alone is helpful.
This fundraiser is close to my heart. My mother-in-law Maureen volunteered and worked for Bridges for several years. She was a staunch mental health advocate, having been directly touched by it in her family.
One of her jobs was to solicit donations for food, drinks and goody bags for participants in Folks on Spokes and Folks on Foot. I still remember her fretting about her lack of bananas one year. “I need bananas for the riders,” she said in her distinctive baritone. “What on earth am I going to do?”
Of course, she found bananas. She may have even bought them. But it was important for her to take care of the riders and walkers. She made sure cyclists wore bright orange vests and helmets. She ensured we had enough food at rest stops – a full banana, not just a third or a quarter of one. She made sure there was a good lunch spread and a bag of swag waiting for us at the finish line.
This year’s ride was very different for me because I had no team. In the early years, the Curmudgeon and I organized teams composed largely of relatives and friends who helped us compete for most money raised. I think one year we had close to 20 people and came in third in fundraising.
After Maureen’s death in 2004, we organized “Team Maureen” in her honor. We asked people to wear her favorite color purple. One year, I was so motivated that I bedazzled a purple T-shirt with our team name. Boy, I had a lot more energy back then. Another year, Bridges officials recognized our team, announcing our name over the loud speaker, taking a photo and displaying a huge poster of Maureen’s smiling face.
But it’s hard to organize people every year. After awhile, it becomes a bit of a chore – you feel you’re bothering or pressuring people for your cause. And everyone got very busy: children were born, weekends were crazy, boats were purchased and other obligations beckoned.
After reaching great heights of nearly 20 people, Team Maureen shrunk to just three or four people. This year, I cycled 20 miles along the Connecticut coast while listening to John Denver’s greatest hits (dork alert?). I hadn’t listened to him in years, but somehow it seemed fitting: a guy singing about nature and coming to terms with life.
I saw him at the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, CT., in August, 1997, less than three months before he died. He was spectacular, and I remember feeling blessed that I got to see him in concert. He had one of those voices that reverberated through your whole body, demanding you close your eyes to thoroughly appreciate it.
I was supposed to do the 40-mile loop with my sister Diane, but I couldn’t swing it. She did it alone, and we never met up. In truth, I had no business even jumping on a bike and doing 20 miles without proper training. I’m not 30 anymore, right?
I took a few breaks at rest stops along the way and chatted up some riders. We talked about how hard it’s been to cycle in this summer’s heat and humidity, and the advantages of clip-in bike shoes. I said they’re great for spinning, to which a woman responded, “I don’t spin. I’m at an age where I won’t do anything that I don’t want to do and spinning is one of those things.”
I agree with her, though I don’t bike on the road often, and haven’t since I moved here 15 years ago. The roads are narrow and the pavement is rutted. And nearly every cyclist I know has been struck by a car. I’m not naive enough to think I can escape being struck by a distracted driver.
After finishing and wolfing down a turkey sandwich donated by Subway, I spotted #TeamFrank finishing up the walk to remember people lost to mental illness. I walked to the bridge where some people, including Heidi, hung posters remembering loved ones who died.
It was very sad. They were clearly loved, yet their illnesses overpowered them. But maybe their photos tied with bright ribbons on a sparkling September day can save someone else. I certainly hope so.