Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
Teresita Galarza, her children Yaramineliz and Emmanuel Diaz, who have schizophrenia, and Ms. Diaz’s son, Jeremiah.
By JOHN OTIS
Published: December 3, 2013
What Teresita Galarza didn’t know would not hurt only her. It would also take a heavy toll on some of her children.
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The children’s father did not disclose a family history colored by mental illness, and that genetic propensity has so far manifested itself in two of Ms. Galarza’s five children. Yaramineliz Diaz, a daughter, first began behaving strangely in 2004, when she was 14 years old. Ms. Galarza, then already a single mother, had just moved her family to New York from Puerto Rico and they were living in a shelter in Brooklyn. Ms. Galarza said that one day someone at the shelter made an innocuous remark to her daughter, which somehow set off an intense panic attack.
“She got scared,” Ms. Galarza recalled. “And she wouldn’t eat or sleep.”
Her daughter’s reaction signaled the onset of schizophrenia, which was diagnosed almost immediately after Ms. Diaz was brought to a nearby hospital.
“I was sad to know she had that condition,” said Ms. Galarza, 44. “But I knew I had to work with that, to make sure she takes her medications and goes to her appointments.”
For the last six years, Ms. Galarza has worked as a custodian in a courthouse in downtown Manhattan. She is the sole breadwinner for a household that includes Ms. Diaz, now 23; two of her sons, Emmanuel Diaz, 24, and Joel, 21; and her grandson Jeremiah. The family was able to secure Section 8 housing in Brooklyn a few months after they arrived in the city.
In 2010, Emmanuel Diaz began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia. It was a development that Ms. Galarza said she had been expecting.
Mr. Diaz, then 20, said he began to hear a voice goading him into doing things.
“It talks to me like a friend,” said Mr. Diaz, who began capitulating to the voice’s demands.
His mother recounted how her son began to nervously pace the rooms of the apartment, often rambling nonsensically. Mr. Diaz also was unable to sleep. While none of Ms. Galarza’s other children, including Mr. Diaz’s twin brother, have shown any signs of mental illness, Ms. Diaz experienced a setback after giving birth to her son, Jeremiah, last year. She became even more withdrawn.
“Before she had Jeremiah, she would do everything by herself,” Ms. Galarza said. “She’d go shopping, go to the movies. Now she always needs someone to go with her.”
The father of Ms. Diaz’s son is absent from their lives, so Ms. Galarza has seized the parental reins, choosing to assume responsibility.
The siblings are currently treating their illness with medication and counseling services. They have participated in the East New York Clubhouse, a program for adults with mental illnesses that is run by Brooklyn Community Services, one of the agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
The family has also been visiting the agency’s East New York Family Center, which has worked with them to prevent Jeremiah from being placed in foster care. It has offered parental support and counseling and provided Ms. Diaz with a homemaker to help her with her son’s care during the day, when Ms. Galarza is at work.
The family’s money problems reached a peak over the summer when they fell behind in their rent. Ms. Galarza’s other children live on their own and have their own responsibilities; her children’s father has remained in Puerto Rico and does not contribute financially.
So Brooklyn Community Services secured $850 from the Neediest Cases Fund to help with rental assistance.
Mr. Diaz said that he has been trying to find part-time work, a goal his mother hopes he will achieve. “If he wants a good job like anybody else, he’s entitled,” she said.
Ms. Diaz remains laconic, responding to questions with smiles and quick answers. But, her social worker, MiKami Puchon, said she has been making strides toward improving her condition.
“Before this time last year when we started our services, she wasn’t eating. Now she’s walking around, talking. The family really has done a lot to stabilize everybody. Things have changed a lot,” Ms. Puchon said.
Mental illness has plagued the family, but it has also galvanized them.
“It’s been a challenge, but I got it” Ms. Galarza said.