By Erica Christoffer
What Mary Jane Haggerty wanted most of out life was the happiness of others. And, that is exactly what she achieved.
Mary Jane, who became known as a brilliant housing advocate and community activist in Rogers Park, passed away Dec. 28, 2008 following a year-long battle against stage four breast cancer. She was 56 years old.
Mary Jane started her work with the Rogers Park Community Council in 1996, quickly ascending to director of the Housing Action Program. One of her greatest successes was uncovering a condo fraud scheme led by crooked developer, Michael Kakvand. Her research found him connected to the sale of condominiums to straw-buyers in 26 buildings throughout Rogers Park. He was eventually convicted on fraud charges.
“She was so generous – to essentially devote her life to other people,” said John Haggerty, Mary Jane’s brother. “And she never complained.”
Yet while Mary Jane strived for success in her career, she was also facing a much greater life challenge – bipolar disease.
“I think there are all kinds of stereotypes in our society about mental illness,” Haggerty said. “People shouldn’t feel anymore shame about mental illness than about cancer.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health approximately 5.7 million Americans have bipolar disorder. That’s about 2.8 percent of adults in the U.S.
Also known as manic-depression, people with bipolar suffer from unusual shifts in mood – much greater than the usual ups and downs everyone feels. These symptoms can ultimately affect a person’s ability to function.
“My heart goes out to any family who has someone suffering from this disease because you feel so helpless,” Haggerty said.
But there is hope, said Haggerty. And, for Mary Jane, following years of battling her mental illness, she found that hope.
Studies have shown a number of possible causes for bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar is most likely caused by genetics, coupled with outside factors in one’s life and environment, which triggers a shift in the brain.
Mary Jane experienced three major manic bouts in her life, each about a year long. The first of which took place in the mid-80s following a couple of career setbacks and the ending of a personal relationship.
She didn’t talk a lot about it with her family, Haggerty said, but she did seek help and started seeing a therapist. However, Mary Jane was adamantly against treating her illness with medication.
“She was a very well-read person. If there was a problem with the medicine, she researched it and knew about it,” Haggerty said.
Soon her life started to spiral out of control. She wanted to open her own store selling fair-trade goods from other countries. She even moved into a storefront on Howard Street and Rogers Avenue. But she wasn’t sleeping; she’d wander the streets at night. She couldn’t focus rationally to make her business work.
“It was all driven by the manic side of her disease and it wasn’t grounded in reality,” Haggerty said.
She eventually had to check into a hospital. Haggerty remembers the day vividly: it was summer and tornado weather was brewing in the sky. He felt as though it was mimicking what was going on inside Mary Jane.
“One of the things I always admired about Mary Jane was even in the worst moments of her illness, there was part of her that knew what was going on and you could reach it,” Haggerty said.
She recovered and re-started her career, going to work for the Edgewater Community Council.
“Very quickly she started doing great stuff,” Haggerty said.
Then, about seven years later the manic started resurfacing. “She would just change,” Haggerty said. “Her behavior was atypical for her and really not in line with her values.”
Mary Jane attempted, once again, to come to terms with the disease.
“She tried as hard as anyone could to handle it on her own,” Haggerty said. But the treatment that worked best for Mary Jane included medicine.
Her career then took her to the Rogers Park Community Council. Executive Director Elizabeth Vitell met Mary Jane in 1997 while they both served on a problem buildings task force. At the time, Vitell worked for the city’s Corporation Council.
Vitell remembers being impressed with Mary Jane humble attitude but diligent work ethic.
“She was so hard working,” Vitell said. “I never heard Mary Jane say anything like, ‘Is it time to go home yet?’”
“We have a drawer full of awards that she received, which she never put up. She just didn’t care about that stuff,” said Vitell.
Around 2002, Mary Jane went through her last manic episode. But this time she reached down inside herself, coming to terms with the fact that she needed to take medicine regularly.
“She was just an incredibly courageous person,” Haggerty said. From that day forward, she took her medication every day for the rest of her life.
“Part of what’s heartbreaking about Mary Jane is she died of cancer right when she learned what she needed to do to live her life in a more balanced way,” Haggerty said.
Mary Jane is often characterized as selfless and giving. She served as caretaker for her father until he died in 2004, and later moved in with her mother to give her the help she needed.
Mary Jane was talented, energetic, successful – and also battled bipolar disorder. That was the person her brother and so many others admired greatly.
But what stood out most about Mary Jane, said Haggerty, was her capacity for happiness and gratitude.
The last piece of news she received from the outside world, the night before her death, was that a friend had given birth to twins. Mary Jane had been waiting on word. Haggerty’s wife Heather relayed the news to Mary Jane, talking with her at her bedside about the birth, their names, how much they weighed.
“It was very clear she was dying the last few days, but her eyes lit up… she had this big smile… she turned her head and said, ‘I am so happy.’” Haggerty said. “Those are the last words she spoke. ‘I’m so happy.’ And it was because of someone else’s joy that she was happy. Now that… that was Mary Jane.”