Caring for others with mental illness

Kolodzik uses her experiences to comfort people with mental health challenges

APPLETON — Joanne Kolodzik had some strong role models in her life when she was growing up. “One influence on me was my grandmother Mary (Mamie) Brice Kolodzik and her devotion to Mary and Adele Brise because she was related to Adele,” said Kolodzik. “She was also my confirmation sponsor.”

Other role models were her teachers at Holy Rosary School in New Holstein. “I had happy teachers and I loved them,” said Kolodzik. “They gave me a positive influence with the Franciscan lifestyle and (their love of) nature.”

Your Catholic Neighbor: Joanne Kolodzik (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

Kolodzik was so inspired by those women that she chose to enter the religious life. “I spent two years as a novice and four years as a junior sister.”

Her vocation as a sister was spent teaching. In the summer of 1976, after finishing up the school year teaching at St. Bernadette School in Appleton, Kolodzik was approached by her superior. She remembers her saying, “Joanne, you’re not happy here. Pray about this, but I think you should leave.”

While she remembered not feeling comfortable living in community, living the life of a sister was all Kolodzik wanted to do. Being asked to leave sent her into a tailspin, she said. “I went into a depression when they told me I had to leave. Then I went from depression into hypomania.”

Looking back, Kolodzik realized her mental illness could have been present earlier in her life but living in the convent may have delayed its onset. “In the convent there was such a routine, I probably would have gotten sick sooner but I didn’t because I was allowed to abide by that routine.”

Thanks to a team of psychiatrists and counselors Kolodzik has had through the years, and being on the proper medication, she was able to create a meaningful career for herself. “I got my first job with the state at UW-Whitewater, working in the circulation and reserve area of their library,” she said. While there, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education and a minor in natural science with a math concentration.

In 1983, Kolodzik transferred to UW-Milwaukee and worked in their library for 30 years. “I retired in December of 2013. I sold my car and I wanted to move someplace where there was enough to do, I could get public transportation, and be close to my family,” she said. That led her to Appleton.

“Routine is so important for mood disorders,” said Kolodzik. With that in mind, she has a set volunteer schedule each weekday. On Monday afternoons, Wednesday mornings, and Friday mornings, she oversees the Fremont Street desk at Ascension NE Wisconsin – St. Elizabeth Hospital, where she escorts people to various parts of the campus and transports people who are wheelchair-bound. Once a month, she puts in extra time at the hospital distributing magazines to the waiting rooms on the first floor and bringing current promotional material from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Fox Valley to the Behavioral Health Unit.

On Tuesday afternoons, Kolodzik volunteers as receptionist for three hours at NAMI in Appleton. She’s also involved in the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). “I’ve been involved in mental health advocacy for 30-plus years,” she said.

Going back to her roots, on Thursdays and Fridays Kolodzik helps out at the Appleton Public Library. She occasionally volunteers at the Trout Museum of Art in downtown Appleton and is a lector at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.

Through the years, Kolodzik has made an effort to reach out not only to others with mental health challenges, but the elderly and those with visual impairments. “I read textbooks on tape at UW-Milwaukee for students with disabilities. My current apostolate is to reach out with a short note/photo to encourage others,” said Kolodzik.

“In the first part of my life I was gathering facts and learning stuff. I never had anything to say,” she said. “I was always listening. I found out later on that I had feelings. I integrated the feelings, the mind and the body.

“Now that I know how to talk to people, I enjoy hanging out with people,” she added. “Almost every time I’m talking with someone they’re opening up about mental illness in their family and the sadness because a lot of people aren’t getting the help they need. I’ve been blessed to have insurance and have my family that cared and got me help. And the sisters, I’ve stayed in touch with the sisters over the years.”

Life has had its share of ups and downs for Kolodzik, but she’s learned lessons along the way.

“Patience. The first medication you take, maybe it won’t work,” she said. “Communication with the doctor. If things aren’t going right, let them know and they can tweak it. Kindness. It’s a Christian thing. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I’ve hurt other people in times of depression or mania. The more you pray, the Lord will always convert your heart to be docile.”

An adage she shares is: “When things don’t go as we expect, don’t swear, just say a prayer.”

Your Catholic Neighbor

Name: Joanne Kolodzik

Parish: Sacred Heart of Jesus, Appleton

Age: 68

Favorite saint: Thérèse of Lisieux

Words to live by: “Pray without ceasing.””