'Like a double agent': A Saint Johner's fight against conversion therapy
Victor Szymanski was 16 when he was coerced into attending therapy to 'cure' homosexuality
Victor Szymanski looked like he had everything.
The youngest of seven in a strict Polish-Catholic family, he excelled in the full International Baccalaureate program at Saint John High School.
He starred in musicals and school plays. He won awards for painting and photography. His classmates voted him the "rising star" of the class of 2013.
But Szymanski — now 24 — was tormented by what he believed was a shameful secret.
"I was like a double agent," he said, "It was pretty exhausting and heartbreaking."
Starting the summer after Grade 11, he was coerced into attend "reparative therapy" sessions with Thomas Schmierer, a Catholic therapist who claims his techniques can cure patients of homosexuality.
Also known as conversion therapy, such methods have been medically debunked and banned for minors in several U.S. states.
On Dec. 13, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged in a mandate letter to end conversion therapy in Canada.
"It was all pseudoscience," Szymanski said, "It was deeply damaging."
The sessions that were supposed to "cure" Szymanski did the opposite, fuelling a dark period of suicidal depression.
Szymanski is now advocating legislation that "rightfully addresses conversion therapy as a form of emotional and psychological abuse."
In light of the federal pledge to ban conversion therapy, he wants to share his story publicly to let people know the practice — in his case, at the hands of a U.S. therapist — can still happen in New Brunswick.
Szymanski wants to make one thing clear.
"I love my family very much," he said, "Everything I am is because of them. And despite the circumstances and everything that happened, I still believe they wanted what they felt was best for me."
His parents "instilled in all of us a great respect for education. My parents worked very hard to ensure that all of us were never hungry."
While his friendships and life at school were stellar, his teenage life at home was humiliating.
At age 15, he confided in one of his siblings that he was attracted to men.
His parents launched "a sort of intervention at my house centred around the topic of 'Victor is gay, how do we fix it?'."
At his parents' insistence, he agreed to undergo therapy to address SSA, or same-sex attraction.
The therapy involved biweekly Skype sessions with Thomas Schmierer, a California-based Catholic therapist, along with videos and discussions from Exodus International, a now-defunct "ex-gay" Christian ministry that claimed to help people "proclaim freedom from homosexuality through a relationship with Jesus Christ."
Schmierer, in an article titled "Unwanted Homosexual Attraction Is Treatable," claims many of his LGBTQ patients have successfully "broken their homosexual compulsion" and "resolved [their] current same-sex attraction issues" to end up happily married to members of the opposite sex.
Both Thomas Schmierer and Szymanski's family declined to comment for this story.
"When you're a kid and you want your family's approval, you are desperate for that kind of acceptance," Szymanski said. "You'll do anything. I was a minor at the time. I didn't really feel like I had a choice.
"So I played along."
"I kept the the conversion therapy very secret from anybody, really."
In therapy, Szymanski was told that his homosexuality was caused by "narcissistic illusions and shame-based distortions."
"The anxiety that it caused me was pretty crippling," he said.
After the biweekly sessions, "I just couldn't sleep. I struggled a lot with depression, anxiety, insomnia, a lot of self-esteem issues."
Despite that, he graduated with high honours from Saint John High School and received a scholarship to the University of Toronto to study life sciences.
When he started at St. Michael's College in 2013, "I was still doing the conversion therapy, but it was just proving to be too much," he said.
The pressure culminated in a suicide attempt in October 2013.
"I remember being in my dorm in Toronto and writing letters to everyone I knew in my life," he said. "I sealed them and scattered them all over my desk."
He then swallowed an entire bottle of over-the-counter medication.
"When you're convinced that there is something intrinsically wrong with you, that you can't change and that's just a part of you — that bleeds into every aspect of your life," he said.
"I couldn't see hope anymore. I just thought that it would be best if I left."
Szymaski survived the attempted overdose.
"In reality, what I needed … was somebody to just tell me that I'm OK and that I'm not 'flawed' or 'intrinsically disordered.'"
The return home
After the suicide attempt, Szymanski dropped out of U of T. He lost his scholarship.
When he moved back home to Saint John in November 2013, "I pretty much lay in my bed for what felt like a month," he said.
"I felt like a complete failure. A failure because the conversion therapy didn't work. I was convinced I didn't try hard enough. A failure because I had lost the opportunity to study at one of the most prestigious schools in Canada."
For the following six years, he "did everything I could to distract myself from the reality of what happened. I was almost never home. I was always doing something."
He completed his bachelor's degree at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, volunteered and trained for a triathlon. He studied for the Medical College Admission Test and applied for a master's degree while working full time.
"Anything I could do to fill that void of silence. Anything I could to not have to sit with myself."
'Like a tomb'
The relentless schedule of academics and extracurricular activities continued until fall 2019, when Szymanski's thesis supervisors sat him down for a meeting.
"They told me, 'Hey, maybe it's best that you slow down. We can tell that you're tired, you're burning out, and we want to make sure that you're OK.'"
When he did slow down, the enormity of what he had experienced — the shame, the suicide attempt — started coming back.
"When somebody undergoes a trauma like that — a near-death experience — typically it's too overwhelming to deal with right away," he said.
His suicidal feelings returned.
"When you live in that, life feels like a tomb. It's bleak. It's cold, and it's suffocating. It's almost devoid of any feeling," Szymanski said.
"So when I started feeling like that again, right away, it was like, 'I have to get out of here.'"
In the middle of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, he packed everything he owned into his 2005 Volvo.
"I decided I'd rather live and sleep in my car than be at home at that point," he said. "Fortunately, I had a best friend who was looking out for me."
That friend was Nadine Nzirorera, who describes Szymanski as "truly one of the greatest people I have ever met."
"He has helped me through a lot of tough times. When he told me that living at home was really taking a toll on him and felt that moving out would be the best option, I wanted to help him in any way that I could."
He moved in with the Nzirorera family the same month and continues to live there.
"Despite my experiences and what I went through I'm very, very lucky to have this network of people," he said.
Szymanski is now a graduate student in the applied health service research program at the University of New Brunswick.
"The reason why I agreed to this interview was because a lot of people don't know that conversion therapy still happens — and that conversion therapy happens in Canada," he said.
As a member of No Conversion Canada and Born Perfect, two support groups for survivors of conversion therapy, he's hoping to see stiffer penalties in Canada for therapists who practise conversion therapy — and for those responsible for coercing minors into the discredited practice.
"There has to be some responsibility put on families that unknowingly are harming their children," Szymanski said.
As for his own parents, he said, the relationship still hasn't healed — although he hopes one day that will change.
"When you're almost forced to deny a part of you, that denial is like a wound. There's a whole part of me my family doesn't know about. Almost like they've been robbed of this relationship with the real Victor.
"I'm a pretty forgiving person, I hope one day I can have a more open relationship with my family that is more accepting."