A heartbroken dad shouted ‘not my boy’ when he discovered the body of his son who had overdosed on prescription drugs after struggling with his mental health.
Steve Stratton, 54, quit his job to look after son Joe but was unable to save him from his addiction to prescription drugs, reports Essex Live.
Steve said Joe bought hundreds of the pills on the dark web.
The 54-year-old had tried to talk Joe out of his habit but his nightmare came true on September 4 when he found the body of his son at his flat in Chelmsford, Essex.
Steve, who had cared for Joe through his debilitating mental health issues, described the moment he screamed ‘not my boy’ after finding his son.
He admits his life as he knew it ended that day.
At an inquest on Friday at Essex Coroner’s Court recorded an open verdict regarding Joe’s death.
Joe, a 31-year-old father-of two, had died as a result of taking in a high dose of codeine and pregabalin.
But at the heart of his death lies a lengthy battle Joe had with his mental health, his father claims.
Steve, a nurse who has worked in mental health himself for around 30 years, said: "Joe started to get really unwell – awful depression, panic attacks, anxiety and this inability to manage situations which people who didn’t suffer from mental health wouldn’t have.
"Those situations were quite catastrophic for Joe, for some people they would say this is really awful, but for him they were really magnified tenfold.
"I was leading away from work and having to weigh up a balance in caring for Joe.
"Then, as we know he got on the wrong side of the law, which I firmly believe was his poor judgement and vulnerability from his mental health."
In 2012, when Joe was aged 25, Steve decided to leave his work in order to become his son’s full time carer.
Joe had a few run ins with the law, being spared jail in February 2016 when Steve wrote an emotional letter to the judge.
Chelmsford Crown Court heard how the "vulnerable" 28-year-old had acted as a "custodian" for almost £12,000 of cocaine.
He was handed a two-year prison term, suspended for two years, for possessing drugs with an intent to supply.
“I did all I could as his dad to look after him and care for him,” Steve said.
“That meant getting him rehoused and fighting his corner in terms of benefits and just being there every single day to make sure he had had his medication on time and his meals on time.
“He became a massive part of my life, even more than he ever was.
“We were inseparable.”
He added: “I rescued him so many times from real depths of depression and I pointed him in what I thought was the right direction.
“He had a daughter and he adored her.
“The mother of his daughter was really fantastic and she understood and cared for Joe.
“She felt it was important that he didn’t have the misery of being excluded because of his mental health.
“I looked after him and they would stay at my flat.
“Then he met another girl after they split up, and they had a baby – she’s just a year old now – and he adored her.”
After fighting his son’s corner for so long Steve managed to get his son a flat of his own in Chelmsford.
Joe moved in over the Easter period of this year and Steve says everyone around him felt it would lead to things improving.
“You hold onto anything you can but behind the scenes was this gradual deterioration in his mental health and a real problem with the mental health services,” Steve said.
“It was such a struggle to get continued mental health treatment, care and support.
"So it was down to just me and mum.
“We know that Joe had an addiction and that had gone from alcohol, to drugs and then he would have these clear periods where he wasn’t interested in anything.
“He would get back to the gym, he would go cycling, he would join the boxing club and this kind of went in cycles.”
Steve said: “There was a swapping and exchanging of medicine until he was prescribed this medicine called pregabalin.
“Pregabalin was what killed him.”
He added: “Pregabalin is now a controlled drug.
“When the coroner phoned us and said that was the cause – it was a reaction of the codeine enhanced by the pregabalin.
“That’s what killed him.”
Joe was going through an intense amount of pain, so much so that his dad suspects he completely mismanaged the amount of drugs he was taking.
“Joe would have popped Co-codamol like Smarties to get rid of the pain,” Steve said.
“That was part of his mental health.
“A week or so before his death I noticed he was quite sedated.
“I went to see him and I think now looking back that’s when we said goodbye to each other.
“Here in the background was the Grim Reaper and I said ‘I’m worried about you Joe. You’re slipping away from me and I think you’re going to die if you keep getting confused and taking this medication’.
“He was buying the same prescription off of the dark web and he wasn’t buying them singularly, he was buying 200 at a time.
“I couldn’t stop him and I said ‘Joe I will stop your benefits, I am your power of attorney’. ‘I’ll take the drugs and I’ll put them down the toilet’.
“We tried everything and of course I was met with conflict with him and it just upset him.
“Such was his mental illness and his inability to sleep he wanted to sedate himself and have his own control over him.
“But he mismanaged it.”
Steve continued: “He said to me ‘dad don’t be stupid I’m not going to die – I know what I’m doing’.
“I cycled home that night and I was crying.
“I was crying thinking that I’d lost my son.
“I cuddled him on the doorstep and I knew he’d gone.”
With Joe seemingly on the mend around Easter time, Steve decided to take that opportunity to get back into education and complete a Masters degree.
But on the day Joe died, Steve got bogged down with work.
“On the day Joe died I was at my laptop and I never saw Joe in the day,” he explained.
“I will always live with the fact that if I hadn’t got stuck at that laptop I would have been with Joe and I didn’t go to him.
“I just went straight home.
“Sometimes he slept for long periods and we would leave him and he would get up in the night and take more sedatives – his prescribed medication.
“But when he had his sleep we would get back together and talk."
Steve, along with Joe’s mother, discovered his son.
It never gets easier hearing how and for Steve it is still a horrendous episode to retell.
“His mum then said – as I had keys to the flat – we ought to really go round and see him,” Steve said about that night.
“I cycled from mine to Joe’s, it was 9.30pm and a warm evening.
“It was the beginning of September and we met at the flat in Wharf Road.
“I had butterflies a bit, Mum did as well, and we got up and knocked.
“He didn’t answer so I put the key in the door and the chain was on.
“I shouted through the door and there was no answer so I smashed the door down.
“We went into the front room and he was laying there with his vape in one hand and his mobile phone in the other on his mattress in the front room.
“That was very common because he slept in the front room by watching telly.
“He was there propped up and I thought he was asleep and I went ‘hey alright boy?’
“Of course as I got closer we saw that he was dead.
“I screamed and said ‘not my boy!’
“I ran out into the road, I screamed, and people came out on the balconies.
“I went back upstairs and we tried to resuscitate him and the emergency services were on the phone on loudspeaker.
“I hit his chest but I knew he was dead and he had been for a long while.”
Paramedics and the police both showed up quickly on the day Joe was found – with Steve giving a special mention to those that attended and the amazing work that they do.
But the repercussions will be there for ever.
“As dramatic as it might seem my life ended that day,” he said.
“I never will recover from this, this is what I do everyday.
“I just exist at the minute, there’s never a minute where I’m not thinking of him and that exhausts me anyway.
“I can’t reach him, I can’t tell him I love him, I can’t phone him, I can’t cuddle him and I can’t care for him.
“I have a photo of him and I kiss that photo every night before I go to bed.”
Through the pain Steve is now determined to do something good and bring a sense of positivity out of Joe’s untimely death.
While his own recovery will take some time – he is planning on spending time at a retreat with other parents who have lost children in January – his attention is turning to raising awareness over mental health and the dangers of prescription drugs.
He’s also keen to look after his grandchildren – who he sees a lot of Joe in.
“He’s not going to die in vain,” said Steve.
“The biggest thing for me is this ease of access to people who buy prescription drugs and how easy it is to get it.
“You can find it and you can buy whatever medicines you want.
“People can’t get the service they need if they’re ill so they turn themselves to self-medicating and here is the end result.
“Drugs like pregabalin, you have to be aware of the interactions, the indications and the management side.
“I hope I did all I can to give my son the best life he can – that’s all I wanted to give him in amongst his mental illness.
“Some people thought Joe took his life but that wasn’t the case.
“But nonetheless it’s only two or three clicks away to the dark web.”
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