When family and friends decided to hold a memorial event for AJ Fernandez, they knew without thinking what that event would be: skateboarding.
“That was his passion.”
That response — “That was his passion” — came simultaneously and in near-perfect unison from four family members and friends gathered recently at the skateboard complex at Wadsworth Park in Flagler Beach.
“AJ was always at this park,” Yvette Ruiz-Raszl said of her son, a 4.0 Flagler Palm Coast High School grad who took his own life on Aug. 26. It was five years after AJ, a 24-year-old Queens, N.Y., native, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
“It drove me crazy, driving all of you back and forth to this skate park,” Ruiz-Raszl said, her smile indicating that she loved every minute of her chauffeur duties.
“He skated here four or five times a week,” said Bill Raszl, AJ’s stepfather and Ruiz-Raszl’s husband. “He’d get some nasty, nasty scars on his knees,” Raszl added, his voice a mix of pride and astonishment at his step-son’s skateboarding derring-do.
And yet, said AJ’s skateboarding pal Joey Strople, “AJ was always worrying about everybody else.”
“He probably had the biggest heart of anybody I knew,” said friend Carli Cipolla, who is organizing the Remembering AJ Skate Competition even as she’s preparing for her wedding in November. The skate competition, a memorial benefit event, will be held Nov. 8 at Wadsworth Park.
The competition is open to skateboarders of all ages. All proceeds, including the $20 entry fee, will benefit the Johns Hopkins Schizophrenia Center in Baltimore. Participants can see competition rules and pre-register for the event online here, or register beginning at 9 a.m. on the day of the event. The judged competition will begin at 11 a.m.
AJ’s family and friends hope the event not only will memorialize AJ but also bring awareness to schizophrenia and suicide prevention.
“One of the problems with mental illnesses is they don’t get properly diagnosed,” said Raszl, who moved his family from New York City to Palm Coast in 2004. The family also includes AJ’s sister, Stephanie, and younger brother, Will.
“They think there’s something else wrong,” Raszl said. “We don’t know enough. We don’t have enough technology I guess to figure out how it all works.
“There’s not enough money in research. There aren’t enough doctors it takes to do that. You can’t say it’s any harder or easier to solve this illness than another illness. You gotta cure them all, I get it. But there aren’t enough resources available for people with mental illness. We’ve been dealing with it for five years and I can firsthand tell you, it’s just not.”
According to the Johns Hopkins website hopkinsmedicine.org, schizophrenia “is one of the most complex of all mental health disorders. It involves a severe, chronic and disabling disturbance of the brain. What was once classified as a psychological disease is now classified as a brain disease.”
The website says “one of the most disturbing and puzzling characteristics of schizophrenia is the sudden onset of its psychotic symptoms,” which may include “a distorted perception of reality (for example, difficulty telling dreams from reality) . . . detailed and bizarre thoughts and ideas, suspiciousness and/or paranoia (fearfulness that someone, or something, is going to harm them), hallucinations (seeing, hearing or feeling things that are not real such as hearing voices telling them to do something), severe anxiety and/or fearfulness, lack of emotional expression when speaking, exaggerated self-worth” and other symptoms.
Until five years ago, AJ exhibited few, if any, behaviors that might have led his family to suspect anything was wrong, they said. Indeed, the Johns Hopkins website says schizophrenia typically first appears in males during their late teens or early 20s, and slightly later for females.
Five years ago, AJ’s symptoms began to appear. He became convinced that a friend had been held prisoner by his parents for a year inside that family’s home. While out one night with other friends, AJ left his car and ran into a pond.
And, said skateboarding pal Joey Strople, “There was the time AJ told us he was some kind of prophet. He was saying because his name was Angel that he’s an angel and we have to follow him, and he knew the key to life. That’s when I definitely knew this was serious.”
AJ’s family thought he might be on drugs, so they took him to a hospital. Tests for drugs and other possible explanations came back negative. Doctors mentioned the possibility of schizophrenia but there was no compelling evidence at the time to conclusively render that diagnosis.
“He came home and seemed to level out and he seemed OK,” said Raszl, who works as a landscaper and maintenance man. “That whole episode had come and gone.”
But the erratic behaviors returned and AJ was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in February 2010.
Then began a series of “so many different recipes of medication” from doctors, said Ruiz-Raszl, who is the conference services administrative assistant at Hammock Beach Resort. “At one point he felt like he was a zombie. Why take these medications if you’re going to totally all the time feel drugged up?”
“He knew he had this sickness,” Raszl said. “I told him you have to keep taking the medicine. That’s how it has to be. If you don’t take it, things are going to go bad. He was like, ‘I know. This is ridiculous. I can’t believe I have to do this the rest of my life.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t believe it either. It’s terrible but you’ve got to.’ ”
“Finally we felt we got the right recipe: the right time, the right dosage,” Ruiz-Raszl said. “He was doing well for a whole year. He was productive. Then it started changing six months ago. We went back to the doctors (in Jacksonville) and they said there was a possibility that eventually the illness would get worse, that there’s no coming back from it.”
Even in the midst of her tragic loss, Ruiz-Raszl recognizes the difficulties confronting medical science.
“How can you fix something that’s in your mind?” she said. “It’s not like you have a broken arm and you can put a cast on it and it’s fixed. This is your mind. It’s such complex organism.”
AJ “wanted so much from his life,” Ruiz-Raszl said. “He was always smiling and he was a great friend. He was a good son. He had so many aspirations.”
The Remembering AJ Skate Competition is scheduled for Sunday Nov. 8. Registration and warm-up sessions begin at 9 a.m.. Competition begins at 11 a.m. at Wadsworth Park, 2200 Moody Blvd., Flagler Beach. The competition entry fee is $20. Call 386/986-6730 for information, visit rememberingaj.com or email [email protected].