(Caution: details of suicide attempts)
By Auren Ruvinsky, special to the PQB News
“I was dying a slow death, drowning in credit card debt and things kept slowing down, I was slowing down,” admitted Steve (last name withheld).
Often working in Alberta he’s always been able to bridge the slow work, but this time it sent him into a deep downward spiral.
Steve grew up in Victoria and speaks well of most of his life, spending time in Europe in his 20s and marrying an Italian woman, which ended amicably after six years.
“It’s boom and bust out there but I always managed to tap dance out of it,” said the now 59-year-old. “I’d pay off my credit cards in the good times and live off them in the bad.”
His main trade was in flooring in Calgary but he did what he could to make ends meet.
“Procrastination was a lot of it towards the end,” he said, hoping it would turn around.
In 2016, a few years after his father died, he came home to Vancouver Island to be closer to his aging mother. He didn’t try expensive Victoria and ended up in Nanaimo, close enough to visit his mother. He got bits of work, but it was difficult in a new community, without contacts. He sold off all his assets to survive.
“I owed so much money I thought there’d be a warrant out for me,” he said, and as his troubles rose his standard of living and prospects dropped. He discovered the hard way he wasn’t cut out for front counter work, getting anxious and flustered, having to quit the best job he’d had in a while.
Last winter he moved to a motel in Parksville with the last of his credit to get away from the crime and alcohol on the streets of Nanaimo.
“I’d never paid into EI so I knew I wasn’t applicable and I didn’t even know about Income Assistance.”
He hit the wall, no money, no work prospects.
“On March 16 – what turned out to be the start of COVID – I walked off into the woods without anything, not a penny to my name,” he said, feeling he may never come back.
“I was really losing hope, I became suicidal, I just wanted to go to sleep.”
As the world closed down he went into isolation under a bush with nothing but a sleeping bag and a few clothes, no flashlight, let alone a tent or other basics. He hid from the authorities and people in general.
“The real killer out there – you can find water and if you can stay dry – the real killer is loneliness, you’re really so completely all alone – I’d find myself muttering to myself. There’s no TV or Wi-Fi, your brain becomes your TV.”
It was too much, he took a bunch of booze and pills and passed out in the pitch-black woods.
“It was the worst night of my life,” he said, and then it got worse when the first suicide attempt didn’t work.
He woke up in the dark, confused and terrified, heart racing.
“I was running around in the rain thinking people were chasing me, in a weird hyper state, I think my body was fighting it,” he said. “I cut myself up and ripped my clothes. Eventually I passed out and lay there in the dark,” before deciding to finish the job.
“I eventually strung myself up by my belt from a tree, but (the belt) snapped. I had a second belt so I tried again,” he said, not clear what happened after that.
He was partly visible from the tracks, so he wouldn’t be left there forever and, “When I came to, the belt looked like it had been cut – I almost wonder if someone cut me down. I lay there for a day and a half and eventually got up, dusted myself off and walked into town to the soup kitchen – and they fed me.”
He was in a haze, a scruffy mess, he felt a bit better as he ate. He started working on surviving, found a lumber-wrap tarp for shelter. He found an old bucket and working faucet to wash himself and his clothes.
“Then one day when I was eating lunch at the Soup Kitchen (a woman) found me and helped me get a tent – an actual tent – it was just a small two-person one, but to me it was like the Taj Mahal – all clean and dry.”
While he found it embarrassing to eat lunch on the side of the road, he found that the social contact was crucial.
“Once you eat lunch with people and you have regular conversations, you realize we all had a life before. You find yourself having smart conversations about physics or astronomy with a guy in dirty ripped jeans – many of them are super intelligent,” he said pointing out “some lives just go another way.”
“You can’t assume anything,” he said of the people he’s gotten to know. “The mental health issues are huge and lots of drug addiction. I’ve met people, I think ‘you poor guy you didn’t stand a chance, you’re parents really did a number on you.’”
Steve started connecting with other services and discovered he wasn’t going to be arrested and there was even help available. He has now been in a modest one-bedroom cabin near Parksville for a couple of months.
He lavishes praise and thanks on the people assisting him and is listening to advice to explore options. He’s looking for something he can do into old age, determined to turn things around and start giving back.
NOTES: Oct. 11-17 is Homelessness Action Week. To contact the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, call 250-248-2093 ext. 248 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is also available online at www.oceansidehomelessness.com, www.sosd69.com and www.facebook.com/sosd69.
Auren Ruvinsky is the co-ordinator of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, an informal co-operation between local services addressing homelessness.