The squared borders of Wick Park provide a defined routine and world for Steve Hiet. With winter’s end in sight, he’ll again become a regular face in the park. As unofficial groundskeeper, he gains a measure of fulfillment by keeping Wick Park safe and by picking up trash.
“It’s good for people to have a nice, clean place to bring their family,” he said.
When he’s not looking out for trash, Steve is looking out for the enemy — and that’s where two worlds collide for him and for those around him. He’s been diagnosed as schizo-affective, a disease that combines the hallucinations and delusions of schizophrenia with the irregular personality of a mood disorder. His delusions revolve around an epic war in the late 20th century where God and Satan gathered their soldiers for the final showdown.
The good guys lost.
To Steve, most people are “death creatures,” the demonic army now exercising dominion over the Earth. His face hides behind a long, unkempt mostly gray beard. His eyes scan everyone in range, anticipating an enemy that could manifest at any moment.
“They forced me to fight on Satan’s side when they murdered all the Christians and stuff in Armageddon,” Steve said.
He is one of 3,736 people who received mental-health services from Turning Point Counseling in 2009, a fraction of the 13,830 treated by the Mahoning County Mental Health Board. Steve’s life is similar to those thousands of lives. He lives in an apartment near Wick operated by The Burdman Group.
Tom Arens is Burdman’s behavioral health program director and has known Steve for more than 15 years. He and Steve’s dad, Clark Hiet, have the most routine contact with Steve and allowed a unique glimpse into his two worlds.
Those competing worlds have distanced most others from Steve. But Tom and Clark see beyond that.
“I think he’s got the capacity to work in some sort of limited way,” Arens said. “He’s a bright guy, and I’ve seen him work.”
Stephen was born Dec. 1, 1966, to Clark and Sandra Hiet at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Youngstown. The youngest of two girls and two boys, he was favored by his mother.
“If he wanted shrimp, he got shrimp to eat and the rest ate a can of macaroni,” Clark said. “He was a spoiled child.”
Clark said Steve also was the most intelligent of all his children.
“He could read everything — even the newspaper — when he was 5 years old,” Steve’s stepmother, Sharon said.
He often skipped class, but was able to achieve success when he wanted.
"He’d grab the book before, and read a little bit, and ace it. Then he just decided the next time he didn’t want to do it, so he didn’t. So they flunked him.” Clark said.
Steve attended Springfield Local High School and laughs at the memories.
“I just barely graduated. I goofed off and smoked weed,” he said.
The sun glared in his face, and he held up a thin, sinewy forearm to block the light. A full smile pulled at the deep wrinkles around his eyes.
He talked about continuing an education through mail-order courses and taking a job at a Columbiana factory.
“They put a damn projector thing in my head. They trained me all that government engineering stuff to which I could go to work in that foundry. Armageddon in the foundry,” he said.
The two worlds have no boundaries for Steve. It’s all the same to him.
“He likes delusions better than reality,” Sharon said.
Agents of the U.S. government, which he calls “the bosses,” forced him to work in the factory, making tanks and nuclear bombs for the host of Hell. Steve said he escaped and retaliated against the forces of evil, claiming a body count of 350,000 CIA agents. He said “the bosses” have been watching him and limiting his movement ever since.
Though he often can be seen on his North Side walks, the winter keeps him indoors more than he would like. Steve is in an apartment just off Wick Park. His expenses are paid with income from Social Security. He doesn’t need full-time care but is near assistance if it is needed.
“I’ve got to believe he benefits from just the feeling that he’s not isolated,” Arens said. He said restlessness is common for patients such as Steve. And his wanderings have given him an added purpose.
“He’s kind of a character in this neighborhood,” Arens said.
The chapters in his life are ongoing interruptions.
Debbie Aeppli married Steve before he was diagnosed. They had a baby girl, Danielle. She hasn’t seen him since she was 10 years old. She is now 21 and lives near Atlanta and attends college.
“I really do not know anything about him,” Danielle said.
The marriage dissolved after Steve’s first major episode.
Soon after Danielle was born, Steve’s delusions emerged, and paranoia had gotten the best of him. He climbed into a tree and shot at the planes in the sky.
His brother, Michael, came to talk him down, and Steve aimed a loaded shotgun at his head, and instead filled Michael’s radiator with buckshot.
“He couldn’t have missed,” Clark said. “He was too good with a gun.”
Steve was committed to psychiatric care.
Debbie filed for divorce.
Michael doesn’t speak to his brother anymore; same for their sister, Donna. Both still live in the Mahoning Valley. A sister, Joan, died of cancer when she was 14.
Other than mental-health professionals and fellow patients, Steve’s only regular contact is his father and stepmother. Even his mother, now Sandra Curl and living in Texas, who doted on his every want and need, is afraid of Steve after he threatened her.
Clark said Steve has never hurt anyone and doesn’t expect any danger from his son.
“I don’t think he could do it,” Clark said. “Of course, there’s always a first time.”
“It’s not fair to say mentally ill people are dangerous. Anyone who is paranoid is potentially dangerous,” Arens said. “You got about two-thirds of the people that, with the right treatment, can pretty much blend in to society.”
Steve is part of the other third. His grizzled appearance distinguishes him as part of the wayward masses that inhabit the city and haunt its parks.
Arens has hope for Steve to move himself into the ranks of the functional.
Steve isn’t completely engulfed in the war in his mind. There is a portion of the person he used to be hiding underneath the psychosis.
He can be lucid and rational when talking about subjects such as his daughter or mother. But he just as easily slips into his apocalyptic nightmares.
“It’s like you can see that there’s a light back there if you could turn it on,” Clark said.
“We can try to inspire him. We can try to talk to him,” Arens said.
Ultimately, people in Steve’s situation must take medications and comply with treatment. With effort, his condition could improve, but he’ll always be symptomatic.
“You don’t get cured from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder,” Arens said.
The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator.