by Robert Lanz LCSW
The Wizard of Oz was always one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Maybe because all kids loved it. Maybe because Judy Garland built a castle with the proceeds of the Oscar winning movie on the street where I grew up. Maybe because the house has frequently been owned or rented by interesting show business people ubiquitous in my neighborhood. In fact a Grammy winning recording engineer lives there now. Or maybe I loved it because it was a really great movie.
But the Tin Man in the movie is nothing like the Tin Man in this story, except that, I guess, they were both on a quest to find a heart but in very different ways. The ER Tin Man was on a solo quest, all down hill, no happy ending. Our Tin Man was a huffer, a sniffer or whiffer with a penchant for what I had learned when I was a probation officer was the perfect inhalant, Five Star Silver spray paint in a can. It was guys like the Tin Man that finally moved the state of California to put all the huffables under lock and key, forever frustrating me if I have to go to Pep Boys or Home Depot on my project days and the store guy has to get a special key so I can get my own spray can.
Those who sniff fumes, usually the propellant not the paint, just spray it into a rag and whiff away. In a pinch, gasoline or most chemicals like that will work to some degree. In a pinch, if there is no rag handy a sock will do. I remember when I was a PO, mothers often complained that their sons came home with paint on their chin and a missing sock. Not a good sign.
The Tin Man was like that except he was so depressed and so incessant and so brain damaged and so sloppy that in his quest to stay high, or higher I guess, he frequently got off target, missing his nose and mouth by inches or more and eventually his hands and face were covered with that Five Star Silver paint. Thus The Tin Man.
The homeless huffer slept in the bushes not too far from the hospital and had been to the ER several times for being unable to care for himself. The cops wouldn’t arrest him and the psychiatric unit wouldn’t admit him and he just remained in the ER until the social worker could get rid of him.
That was me on several occasions and like a mother hen I got my friend in housekeeping to give me some acetone and rags to clean him up. Some people thought I spent too much time with him- sometimes I did too because besides cleaning him and feeding him and getting him some fresh clothes there wasn’t much we could do. You can’t jump off a high place or shoot yourself without being locked up in a psych unit if you survive but a chronic, slower path to the same death escapes the 5150 confinement rules. Apparently screaming and griping and tantrums by the social worker don’t get much traction either.
So the Tin Man cycled in and cycled out, all the social workers wondering what to do with a guy who accepted his impending death more graciously than we did. Even on direct questioning he denied being acutely suicidal, stating “I don’t want to kill myself. I just want to stay high until I die.”
When the paramedics brought his charred remains in they described his “home” behind the overgrown weeds in a nearby vacant lot. City camping with a discarded sofa and an overstuffed chair and even a coffee table with a big candle in the middle for light. No one knew if he was out of socks or rags or if he had actually figured out a better way to inhale that mind numbing propellant. Apparently, while pretty high already he sprayed half a can of paint into a large plastic trash bag then put his head in it. When he passed out and slumped off the couch the bag got too close to the candle flame and that was it for Tin Man.
Burns are the most painful way to die, seen it several times, patients begging for an opiate injection of painless death. No one thought the Tin Man suffered very long though, having not moved from where he fell, curled up like a burned wood match like we used to use for camp fires when I was a kid on a camping trip.
In The Wizard of Oz at the end, everyone got what they wanted. I guess our Tin Man did too….