by Robert Lanz, LCSW
When I woke up this morning and read the Sunday LA Times as I always do, my neighbor Steve Lopez had written in his weekly column sentiments and observations similar to my own spontaneous post yesterday. Steve is the author of a great book, The Soloist, about homelessness and mental health. He has written several books but The Soloist is the one that rings truest to me of course since his schizophrenic, Nathaniel Ayers, was like the hundreds I had cared for over the course of my career. He pretty much echoed my thoughts about the Isla Vista incident. He’s a much better writer of course and I’d suggest you read his column.
Most people who commit suicide don’t necessarily want to be dead. They want their pain to be dead. Over time their thinking becomes so negative and hopeless that they only see death itself as the way to stop the pain. If they could just shoot the painful part of their brain my guess is that most of them would do just that. That’s the treachery of depression, tunnel vision, with no light at the end….
If she felt any pain at all, it was gone before she knew it. There wasn’t enough time to have it register as a thought. Not for her. The bullet went in one side of her head and out the other, passing through both temporal lobes of her brain. On the way the shock waves tore away at her spinal cord and she lost her reflexes from the neck down and she couldn’t have moved if she wanted to, but she didn’t want to move any more so it didn’t matter to her. Perhaps to someone else it mattered, but not to her. She couldn’t cry out because not only did the nerve pathway to her lungs get damaged but her trachea was also ripped open from the blast. She was dead three times from one gun shot and she still managed to make it to the ER with a heartbeat and it was our job to try and save her.
If we had saved her life she would have been a quadriplegic with no personality, no thoughts, no perceptions and no sensations. So even if, by some miracle, the trauma surgeons managed to preserve the heartbeat, the woman would have achieved her final goal. End the pain. The part of her brain that experienced that particular emotion no longer existed. Just about everything else that mattered went with it too, except the brain stem, the reptilian center tucked safely between the brain hemispheres, where it regulates vital bodily functions. No thinking, no feeling, no moving or seeing or being in any way, just alive. A state of high tech nirvana where a machine does all the work and the nurses feed you through a tube. But the woman didn’t care. She just wanted to end the pain. And she did. Her pain anyway.
I’m not so sure about her husband and what would come of his pain now that hers was gone. He told me he was sitting watching TV in another room when he heard the “pop” of a small caliber gun going off. He went to the woman’s room and he saw her lying there on the floor motionless and he said he thought she was joking. He probably really didn’t think that. It was probably more that he wished it and before he could really formulate the thought into a wish, it hung there in his brain for a moment, the heaviest thought he would ever have. No nirvana for him.
While the woman was drifting into her final peace he was trying to plug up the hole in her head, begging her to live. He was afraid to put her down to go to the phone. He was afraid she would die if he stopped touching her, so he just held her as the blood and breath and the life slipped away in the darkness until he finally dragged them both to the phone and called for help. The sheriffs came. The paramedics came. Everyone knew she was a sure death but they brought her to the ER with sirens wailing and CPR pumping and sheriffs escorting them all the way. They all came to the ER to try to save a life. I’m not sure why.
The woman’s husband didn’t show up at first and I thought that was a little strange. Then he didn’t show up in half an hour and I thought it was more than a little strange. I asked the paramedics and sheriffs again if they were sure he was coming and they said he was. I’m not sure why the sheriffs didn’t bring him with them. Maybe he told them he was OK and could get to the hospital alone and they believed him.
After an hour the husband still hadn’t shown up and I was getting worried about him. Was he next? Did he care? Did he have a heart attack? Did he get lost? Did he head for the border?
The woman with three fatal injuries at 2AM finally died from one of them. And then her husband showed up. Sometimes it’s senseless to follow the protocol and wait for the physician to tell the survivors of the death and, after all, it was two in the morning and he had seen his wife with a big hole in her head and the doctors were all busy at the moment. This was one of those times.
“I thought so” he said, a dull look in his eyes. “We didn’t have a fight or anything.”
While waiting for the sheriff’s investigation team to come and interview the husband, he told me several times that they “didn’t have a fight”. I heard it so many times I was starting to get suspicious and thought for sure they had. He didn’t cry. He didn’t even come close. He didn’t have a clue as to why she would kill herself. No financial problems, no fatal illness waiting to take her slowly and painfully. No lingering depression, no loss of a child, no loss of status or money. Not that it mattered now. Nothing was going to change the outcome of this situation. It was 2AM and his wife had just killed herself and didn’t tell him why. At least that’s what he said. And then he said again, “All our problems were behind us. We didn’t argue or have a fight or anything.”
I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. Maybe they didn’t have a fight. Maybe after being married to this lifeless sort of guy she decided she wanted to be sort of lifeless too. Maybe she wasn’t in enough pain to bring it up. Maybe he wasn’t paying any attention and she left a thousand little clues and she thought he would never get the point unless he got a clearer message.
Maybe he killed her. Maybe she wanted to kill him but was too nice a person, I couldn’t tell that now. I couldn’t tell from talking to him what had really happened in his life or in her death. I couldn’t tell if he knew what the deal was or if he really was clueless. If she wanted to be alive and wasn’t, that would be tragic. But from what everybody was able to tell from the way the bullet went through her and the way the room was and the way the story went, she just decided, for reasons she may have never shared, to put a bullet through her brain and leave everything behind. End the pain. End her pain.
I could think of a lot of places I would rather be at 2AM than sitting with the husband of a woman who killed herself and hear him tell me once again that they didn’t even have a fight…