Hawes honored for mental health work

Staff writer Jennifer Berry Hawes has been awarded the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses’ NAMI S.C. Reporter of the Year 2013 award for her work covering the challenges facing people with mental illnesses.

She will speak at the Charleston area chapter’s Nov. 11 meeting.

He tried to do the right things, joining the military at 18, then working long, tasking years as a pipe fitter. When depression sabotaged his days, he got help. But Michael Delich got older. And he didn’t plan.

Do you need help?

Veterans struggling with mental health issues can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or go to VeteransCrisisLine.net.

Those with housing problems can call the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ toll-free National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 1-877-424-3838 (1-877-4AID-VET). The VA also has launched a new hotline — 1-855-VA-WOMEN — to answer questions about resources available to women veterans.

So came the day three years ago when a man considering him for a job was brutally honest: You’re too old. Pipe fitting is, like much construction work, a job-to-job life. Delich worked on naval ships until the local base closed, then on private construction sites.

By the numbers

39%

Increase in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health care budget since 2009.

21,000

The VA’s total mental health workforce nationwide.

1.3 million

Veterans nationwide who received specialized mental health care from the VA in fiscal 2012.

927,052

Veterans who received specialized mental health care from the VA in fiscal 2006.

45%

Homeless veterans nationwide suffering from mental illness.

70%

Homeless veterans nationwide suffering from substance abuse.

2015

Year the VA aims to eliminate veteran homelessness.

At 55, he suddenly couldn’t find a job, not a single one, not when the economy tanked and plenty of younger guys, ones who hadn’t lost part of their hearing and didn’t have back problems, pursued the same jobs.

On Facebook

To connect with others dealing with mental illness, join the Lowcountry Mental Health Group on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/LowcountryMentalHealth

Not married, with no children, his parents deceased, Delich had no place to turn. Nor was he a man to seek handouts. What little he had saved quickly vanished.

He lived out of his Jeep for a year. Then he sold the Jeep to survive.

Michael Delich, an Air Force and Navy veteran, became homeless.

Becoming lost

A friend mentioned an abandoned house, a small ranch in Goose Creek. It had no electricity, no running water, no furniture, nothing but a roof and brick walls to keep out the Lowcountry’s storms and vicious summer sun.

Delich lived in the empty, silent space with only its infestation of spiders for company.

With no money or car, he stopped going to the local veterans’ hospital and stopped taking his depression medication.

Mostly, he relied on two nearby churches that served twice-weekly free hot lunches and a food pantry that gave out canned goods. One neighbor brought him Filipino soup. Another left him water. Once in a while, another brought him pizza.

Still, he lost nearly 50 pounds. His hair grew gray and shaggy. He received no medical care; his health deteriorated.

“I felt lost,” he recalls. “I felt totally lost.”

This for a man who voluntarily signed up for the Air Force and went to Vietnam, then to Thailand at the war’s end. He served four more years in the Navy working on its ships.

Yet, in the dark and silent house, those days seemed so very, very long ago.

One by one, as they rotted and throbbed, Delich pulled his own teeth, so many he can’t recall the number. Twelve, maybe 14.

He’d take a cast net, tie it around the tooth and cast. Only three teeth remain.

And he began to drink, a lot when he could get it. Anything to avoid going back to the house.

Each night, alone in the darkness, he’d think: “I don’t know how long I can do this.”

Yet home it was, for 2½ years.

At one point, he found a broken recliner to sleep on. A neighbor let him plug an extension cord into a garage outlet for a working light bulb and a tiny heat source when temperatures dropped.

The cold was the worst of it. He’d fill a bucket from a neighbor’s spigot and wash in the abandoned house’s garage.

In winters, the water iced a frosty path along his withering skin.

He no longer felt human, no longer part of the civilized Lowcountry that carried on without him.

When the depression returned to claim him, Delich couldn’t even move beneath its suffocating darkness.

Why bother?

“I would just stare at the wall, at the ceiling, whatever there was to stare at,” he recalls. “I just didn’t care anymore.”

Then, a bank came to claim the house.

Delich would have to leave.

Luckily, he had two friends who checked in on him during all that time, including Steve Jeffries. Soon after the bank came, Jeffries found his fellow veteran friend sleeping in the back of his pick-up truck.

On Sept. 17, Jeffries loaded the withering man into his car and drove him to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

Delich could barely function. As the medical center staff assessed him, his thoughts felt jumbled and incoherent, the answer to their questions slipping from his mind’s grasp, lost and unhealthy as he had become.

Helping hands

At the VA medical center, Delich found help.

Dr. Elizabeth Call put him back on his depression medication, and he began therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, which had plagued him since those early days in Vietnam and Thailand.

Whatever happened there, Delich doesn’t want to talk about it today.

“It never went away,” he says softly.

He also joined a substance-abuse program to grapple with the alcohol he turned to when he became homeless.

And on Sept. 30, a VA staffer called him: We have a place for you to live.

He now shares a townhouse in North Charleston with three other veterans in similar situations. He has a shower, electricity, a toilet, a refrigerator, a bed. He has a home.

“I was speechless. Overnight, it was like civilized living again,” he says.

See the redo?

One recent day, Delich ambled down the VA’s winding hallways after a substance-abuse meeting, greeting friends, carrying a torn up black bag with his things.

Yet he felt good.

He has regained nearly 10 pounds. And in coming months the VA will pay for him to get his remaining teeth pulled, then replaced with new ones.

He dreams of eating steak and pecan pie after that.

“Want to see the redo?” he joked, chuckling merrily.

Then he paused, noting out loud that he just laughed.

“I didn’t having anything to laugh about for 2½ years.”

He also was drained on this day from a morning spent at a PTSD screening where he had to recall memories he long has tried to stuff away and forget.

He rested a bit, then went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. His life these days revolves around the public bus schedule and his various recovery meetings. He hangs out at a coffee shop to keep clear of trouble.

“I feel great because I have hope,” Delich says. “Before, I wouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning. There was no point.”

Mostly, he wants to get into job training so he can find a new vocation, one that pays the bills, one that lets him save a bit. He’s a hard worker, a skilled journeymen pipe fitter. He’s a man with skills to offer, he insists.

This time, he’ll plan ahead for getting older.

“Me, I got blind-sided. All I did was get up and go to work,” he says. “My big mistake was to never set a goal or have a plan for when I was 55 or 60, and it bit me in the butt.”

A new look

Delich arrived at the Stand Down Against Homelessness event Thursday morning after a journey by bus and now his bicycle. Mostly, he hopes to get a new duffel bag. He carries his ripped up black bag.

A haircut wouldn’t hurt either.

The event is packed with 1,000 other local residents who are homeless or nearly so. Last year, he saw the line and left.

This year, he has hope enough to wait.

He grabs a cup of black coffee and joins the haircut line. Soon, Clarence Bryant drapes a smock around him and grabs a shaver. Salt-and-pepper tufts drift to the ground like memories fading softly with time.

The luxury sends Delich’s eyes rolling back. He smiles dreamily.

So begins a visual transformation that mirrors all that has just happened in his life.

The shaggy hairdo gone, his face shaven smooth, a woman hollers, “Look, he’s been hiding all that handsome!”

Delich twitches with a smile, pretending he didn’t hear, that he isn’t incredibly pleased.

Soon, he heads out on his bike, dapper with the new cut, his new duffel bag stuffed with a jacket, clothes and food.

He needs to hurry. He’s scheduled to start a new PTSD medication as part of a clinical trial at the VA.

You’re lost

Recently, Delich went back to the abandoned house. It was barred shut.

As he stood there, looking at his old life, his thoughts filled with those dark and lonely nights.

He thought of how inhuman he had felt.

“Everybody’s got to have a home,” he says. “Without it you’re lost. That’s what it felt like for the past 2½ years. I was lost.”

Now, Michael Delich has been found.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.