Steve Brown, 59, is telling me about the first time he was sectioned. He experienced a psychotic episode and jumped through the window of a building. During one of his early stints in hospital, he was encouraged by a nurse to go to a creative writing class to help his recovery.
His breakdown happened in the 1990s, when he worked as a marketing executive for an industrial tape company. A few years into the job, his father died – a loss that was unfathomable. His mother had died a decade earlier, and now his final parent was gone, too. “One minute I’m a whizz kid, the next I’m in a lock-up [psychiatric] ward in Withington,” Steve says.
He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a bolt from the blue because there was no family history of mental health illness. In the psychiatric unit, a doctor offered him electroconvulsive therapy, which is used for severe types of mental illnesses and can alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia. Steve refused. “It frightened the hell out of me,” he says.
His writing often explores his experiences with his mental health, homelessness and substance abuse. In ‘Fear’, his first poem, he wrote: “Faces masked behind a face […] feel like a number, with the fragility of lace.” Other poems describe the cruel nature of having a mental illness. In ‘Ward Off Evil’, he describes the helplessness he felt inside a psychiatric unit, “queuing an endless queue”, “like a rag doll caught in barbed wire […] a body feeling on fire”.
Some poems have an anti-authoritarian streak and are coloured with playful observations of his fellow Mancunians. “Manchester is in my blood,” he says – Steve’s family hails from Ancoats, and he is proud of his heritage. He was brought up between Firswood and Chorlton and later moved away to Staffordshire and France before returning to Manchester.
He now lives in ‘posh’ Didsbury, a place where he feels out of touch and likens it to ‘The Village’ in the 1960s TV series ‘The Prisoner’ starring Patrick McGoohan: a place of seeming idyll, but where nothing is as it seems. “Whatever’s happening in the world, you can still get your hummus and your oat milk,” Steve notes wryly. “It’s a bit of a bubble – but it’s nice.”
In ‘Bang On’, a poem about Manchester and the negative stereotypes associated with different people, he quips: “Are you the yuppie? Working at the BBC/drinking champagne and getting everything for free? He then asks, “Are you the copper? […] Cynical about people, Manchester and life/Going home to policemen kids and policemen wife.”
For Steve, writing poetry gives him purpose, and performing his work allows him to share his experiences with others. His medication makes it difficult to focus, so poetry is a respite. “It gives me joy, warmth and laughter,” he explains.
He draws inspiration not only from his past experiences but also from the people that he meets. “I shine a light in the dark areas,” he says. “I sit down with people.” Often he will strike up a conversation with rough sleepers, and read them his poems, which he carries around in a satchel. Sometimes he will share a cigarette with them or give them his tobacco.
Not all his poems dwell on the darker chapters of his life. Interspersed are ones about love, spirituality and hope. “The heat drifted across the /flowers and rested on my heart whispering/ ‘she’s the one you’ll never be apart’”. One of his greatest satisfactions is seeing his poems typed up and laminated, as he tends to write on scrappy bits of paper.
Life is still sometimes challenging for him. He has been unable to work for 20 years and lives on benefits which usually ties him over. Some days he is caught short, but there are places he knows he can go to when that happens.
“If I have no money for a week, I can usually survive on the basics such as coffee and tea,” he says. Places that offer ‘pay-as-you-feel’ meals, and community meals such as the Tibetan Kitchen in Whalley Range, stop him from going hungry. If he really needs to, he borrows money from friends (for Steve, lending from a bank means debt collectors and red letters). “The worst you get off a person is a smack in the face, which is far better than a bailiff,” he says. “That’s the way I choose it.”
He looks for the positives, even if the past was hard on him. I ask him if he’s learned anything from life. “I’ve learned you don’t really know anything,” he says. It’s a balancing act, a tightrope in life – I just see the beauty.”
You can follow Steve on Instagram @stevejaffabrown. The Nia Centre is run by NIAMOS who have regular happenings including jam nights, spoken word, workshops and support groups. The Old Abbey Taphouse have weekly events including live music, community feasts and live gigs.
Dani Cole is a features writer and photojournalist based in Manchester. She met Steve in June 2022. Together they are collaborating on an ongoing project, ‘Paradise’, which documents his life. Follow Dani’s work at www.dani-cole.co.uk and on Instagram.