“Happy Heavenly Birthday Steve” was the post on Steve’s’ Facebook timeline.
I felt shock. Not surprised, exactly. But still shocked. I had headed off to that virtual space as I had done for the past 2 years, to wish him a happy one, never knowing if he saw it. We had not heard from him since the day he phoned my husband Kevin, to incoherently tell of the death of his beloved dog Chilli. Chilli was all he had left in the world by then, and his death left us with concerns for Steve’s wellbeing.
The first time we saw Steve was at the animal shelter where we were all volunteer dog walkers. Independently of each other, Kevin and I had both noticed him and the skill set he had with the dogs. The kennels were old and poorly designed. Getting dogs in and out was a stressful, visceral experience as the dogs lunged at each other across the narrow walkway between the kennels. By the time you got their wriggling bodies harnessed up, outside their kennel, along that narrow corridor of stress, and outside to the grass, you felt exhausted. That was before the actual walking part happened!
Then this man was standing, in the centre of the green outside the kennels. Totally calm, still. Totally in and of himself. A slight man with a commanding but kind presence. A large cross breed dog threw himself about in a frantic frenzy of frustrated energy at the end of the lead. Steve waited. And waited. Impervious to the loud barking, the rest of us being hauled about, the general mayhem. The dog looked a bit puzzled, eventually calmed, and off they went for a walk.
We were impressed and made sure we spoke to him the week after. We all hit it off, felt a camaraderie amongst the heartbreak of the kennels. Steve and Kevin began to walk Taz together. Taz was extremely large, and semi-wild. A rottweiler cross mastiff. It took both of them to safely get him out without being pulled over. Even then he was a handful. Sometime in the future, and after many pleading phone calls from the shelter, Taz came to live with us. Although that is another story altogether. Steve came and worked with us on our K9 Project, supporting young people alongside rescue dogs. He demonstrated the same calm approach with people as with dogs. He had enough of a rebel in him to get on with most teenagers, and a dry sense of humour. He was with us when we met Izzy at a different rescue, instrumental in her coming to live with us. He formed an amazing relationship with a young man called Jack, on the autistic spectrum. Our weekly walks were the highlight of Jacks week.
Along the line things got difficult for him. His wife tragically died of a heart attack next to him in bed one night. She was really his rock, his guiding light, his star. Their home was linked to her family, Steve had to leave. He experienced PTSD, flashbacks, confusion, alongside his immense grief. He was admitted to hospital. It got pretty hazy understanding what had happened for, and to, him after that.
Hospital stays left him confused, he was discharged with a heady mix of prescribed anti-psychotic drugs and he was also self-medicating. He became homeless for a time. Eventually rehoused, he was then alone, and attempting to reshape his life. We met him again by chance out walking with our dogs. Our joy at seeing him was tempered by sadness as he was incoherent, frail, fragile. This previously articulate and humorous man, who ran his own business and lived a full life, had become a fragment of his former self. He was still unstable, muddled. Determined however to reshape, to try again. We live an hour away and did what we could to assist with his reshaping.He was very isolated, his pride made it hard to ask for, or accept help. At that time he still had Chilli, we helped with money, mostly for transport and vet bills for his beloved Chilli, who was all he had left. We went out for dinner, to try and establish some normality for him – a total pleasure with glimpses of the old Steve with his humour and wit. He came back to work with Jack when he was well enough. He came to our K9 Community Café, where he and Chilli were popular attendees.
Then he disappeared again. He previously talked of moving to Wales where he had family. We hoped he would make it there -it seemed the best chance of healing for him. He was in my mind often, as my feelings of helplessness and unease quietly rumbled along in the background.
After the phone call to tell us Chilli had died, we never heard from him again. Texts and phone calls were not answered. It seems not so long after that he died, we have not been told how. I can only imagine what happened.
Visually I have strong memories of him- standing in an oasis of his own quiet strength and calm, surrounded by the dogs he helped so much. Or maybe wandering along arm in arm in the sunshine, with Jack, each making the other one happy, dogs trotting merrily close by. And laughing, laughing.
The subject of mental health is a complex one. I do not pretend to be an expert. Each person is unique, each response needs to be equally so. I know that some of the support Steve received from front line workers was positive and highly valued by him. I cannot comment on his hospitalisation and drug treatments as he was always unclear about what exactly had been happening. Nevertheless I do know that mental health support is geographically variable, and relies on a pharmaceutical approach to treatment, with not always positive results. (see Horatio Clare- Heavy Light -amongst many others) Currently we are told we are going through a “mental health crisis”, especially amongst the young. Anxiety is on the increase. Suicide rates are increasing, especially amongst young men. Mental Health Services remain stretched to impossibly thin, unsafe levels. Covid created a vacuum into which many people fell, and I know many who are struggling to get back to the levels they were before covid before. I do not have any answers. Just concerns.