Selfish vs. Selfless When Suicide Speaks
I give numerous presentations to outside guests, about life inside prison. In one topic, Psychological Prison, I discuss the process of how an inmate is informed about the death of a loved one. I begin by asking the inmates on my panel to raise their hand if they have had a family member die while they have been incarcerated. The majority of hands go up. I cover the inmates notification process and possible outcome if they show any form of sadness: suicide watch in segregation . That is the worst place to be while processing pain. You are locked up, no sheets, only a smock to wear, nobody to talk to, no access to your personal property, and alone. You are not going to attend a funeral, like shown in the movies. Closure most likely will not start until you are released and the death becomes real. I have never had to experience that scenario in my nine years of incarceration --until now.
I called my mother on a Wednesday morning and she sounded ill. I asked if she was feeling ok and she replied, "Dalton drowned." I asked her, " What?" in disbelief. Her response was repeated the same, but in a flood of tears. She proceeded to inform me of what little details she knew. I am stunned, not sure what to do? How to feel? Or, what my purpose is? It felt like I was punched in the stomach and the sinister feeling of impending doom begins.
My daughter, the one thing I hold dear to my very existence, got married on Saturday, flew to Florida on Sunday for her honeymoon, and had to witness the last moments of her new husbands life on Tuesday. In addition, she almost lost her life attempting to rescue her soul mate. My son-in-law was taken off this earth just as he was about to embark on a new chapter in his life. How much trauma can a 22 year old, newlywed , college student endure? And why?
I try to process this on a prison telephone, in an open area, and do my best to suppress my tears. On top of the surge of emotions , there is still situation awareness of where I am: prison. When others see you sad, they ask questions. I do not want to be pestered with , "What' s wrong?" Another point to consider is that I am in shark-infested waters, surrounded by swindlers and predators. My tears are drops of blood in this sea of carnivores . My pain becomes another' s gain if I am not careful.
As a parent , you want to protect your children, and comfort them when they hurt. I am a combat veteran and would do anything to shield my kids from witnessing an unnatural death. The baggage is far too great and the emotional wounds may take a lifetime to heal. Death is a strict teacher. Its rules are unflinching and doesn't care what you think about fairness. In my situation, the burning of failure penetrates my soul. I cannot comfort my daughter due to my wrong choices in life.
Suicidal ideation is no stranger to me. My pain is unbearable right now , I have zero control, and death will take it all away. The one thing I do have control over is my own life. I want some morsel of control back. If I kill myself, I will be free of the failure of a father that I am. I also blame myself for this horrible event. l am incarcerated for manslaughter. I killed my wife. Is this God's punishment? Is this an "eye for an eye" or "the sins of the father" type of stuff that I have seen on Sunday morning television? Is my daughters pain , and loss, due to my past behavior? I think it is. Does my daughter blame me? In my current frame of mind, not being able to get a hold of family, or leave messages, the answer is YES. Access to a firearm at this very moment = solution.
The rays of living are eclipsed. I want a divorce from life. Divorces are acceptable and this terminology make it ok. As unhealthy choices are being planned, I start brainstorming what resources are available to end my life. This is the planning phase. There is no quick way out (suicide) in the prison setting, but it has been accomplished in the past. I know what I must do.
I find myself trapped in a thick darkness from which it feels there is no escape. My heart has been ripped out and my soul is missing. I am a zombie, a hollow bag of skin. I hurt in such a way that intense physical pain would be a relief. I am focused on the here and now and the most obvious consequences to my actions do not register. My loss of control backs me into a comer as my mental calculations, and reasoning, become primitive. I want control back , my life is control, so I will take it.
As a former soldier, and combat medic, I am familiar with fearlessness. Who do I reach out to when I am use to being the one they call for help? A sentence in the Soldier's Creed states, "I will always place the mission first." If my mission is to end my li fe, that is my priority now. I become consumed with tunnel vision. This may be one explanation why active duty military , and veterans, have a high success rate with suicide. There are approximately 20 suicides a day in this category of our population. (Source: VA National Suicide Data Report 2005-2016)
When I made the decision to kill myself , my senses, although numb in appearance, are hypersensitive to justification. Even after I have decided to die, I still listen to key words, expressions, and body language of those I encounter. If I sense that you don't care: a wrong blink, look , word, or laugh-that's confirmation of my devalue. I'm actively looking for: someone to disregard me. ..proof that I'm worthless; not believe that I hurt...I'll show them; or treat me like a victim ...I'll be a victim soon enough. The questions ot " Are you ok?" or "How are you doing?" are worthless and you will get a one word response eve ry ti me . You already know something is wrong with me . Don' t be stupid. If you ask , " Do you want to harm yourself ', you get the big fat lie of "nope." You are not going to lock me up, punish me , prevent me from killing myself, or poor babying me . However, the question of, "How bad are you? " will get my attention . You verified my world of pain, you respect it, and now I am challenged to think about an answer. I have to process this question, from my dark place, due to the fact I do not have an automatic reply for it. No one word bullshit answer. That is your open door to buy me some time. My invisible walls must be breeched before the inevitable.
On the mission to end my li fe, I still seek rationalization to reinforce my decision. I made a few telephone calls to non-family members that would not be biased. One resource walked me through the Bible verses that was my fixation. (One of the justifications to kill myself.) He searched for it while we spoke and then educated me on the context of the whole story, not the eternal damnation of a single verse. That lowered the threat level a notch, but I still want out. I am reacting, in desperation, caused by intense emotional pain.
I call resource #2 and tell of my daughters tragedy. After hearing me out, as I talked in circles, he expressed empathy, but then spoke of a story I recently wrote? I mean come on! My new son-in-law drowned, daughter witnessed it, and I am done living. And this guy is talking about one of my stories? That confused the heck out of my one sided thought process and emotions. That sly individual took my focus off the grave, momentarily , and I have to process one of my accomplishments. Someone just bought me more air to inhale as my focused shifted. I had no clue what was going on in our conversation, as I wanted to go back to the tragedy. The refocus was a condiment in the recipe for my survival. At no point did I tell anyone of my intention to kill myself.
I spoke to staff soon after I had discovered the horrible news. This was when I was deep in the hunt for justification. I was offered to speak with mental health and the answer was premeditated, " no" . I just wanted to die. However, after speaking to those previous resources, I gave in and informed staff that I was willing to see a counselor. I wanted to see my mental health specialist just one more time. The next day, during my appointment, another key discovery gave me purpose. It was brought to light that I may be the only person my daughter can relate to since I have been intimate with death during the war. I may be the only person she can connect with. Now, I have synapse firing in parts of my brain that were shut down. The mental walls have been breached. She may need me. Enough said! I can honestly say that mental health, and their bag of tricks, interrupted my path to suicide.
After several people refused to give up on me when my depression made loving me a task, it came down to this: Yes, I hurt bad, I blame myself: and this pain isn't going away anytime soon so do not minimize it. Let's talk fairness. The main reason l cannot end my life right now is due to the question of..." Could my daughter, a 22 year old widow, handle two funerals in a week? And due to my actions?" I cannot do that to her. Not now anyway. So I need a purpose, a mission (I am a soldier).
1. Start asking outside organizations, churches, veterans groups, and anyone else if they could send a card, or money, to support my daughter. Ask ing for addresses, letter writing, and phone calls takes focus and determination.
2. Call my daughter. Utilize my experiences battling PTSD and trauma to be a mentor , friend, and part of her support system.
3. Obtain a sympathy card. The best one I can find. Go to the chapel, get the word out to other offenders that I will buy one, or have someone make me one.
4. Write every detail of this experience down. Offer insight into my self-destructive thought process. It may save someone' s life and be of use to mental health professionals.
After I complete this miss ion, then I will revisit the need to end my life.
After Action Report
As a former non-commissioned officer (NCO), the standard US soldier, airmen, sailor, or Marine isn ' t going to respond readily to terms like: co-morbid conditions, cognitive strategies, and psychoanalysis. Those words are for mental health professionals at their meetings. That is like trying to understand cryptology, or nuclear propulsion, for us boots on ground type warriors. I prefer rock drills and plain talk.
My previous situation of despair will be discussed by utilizing three popular military war movies: Top Gun (1986), Flight of the Intruder (1990), and Behind Enemy Lines (2001). Those films ignite the senses, and emotions , with adrenaline, fear, anticipation, death, and will to survive. Those fighter jets are an awesome display of firepower and strength. The pilots operating the aircraft are admirable, and fearless, until the danger zone is reached. When enemy fire strikes your life source (aircraft), it becomes sensory overload. Army term: a significant emotional event (it scares the crap out of you). Your mind is bombarded with flashing lights, beeps, emergency messages , and radio traffic of impending doom. You have the choices to fix the problem, pull the ejection lever, or crash to your death in the blaze of glory. But, when tunnel vision takes over, and you aren't breathing oxygen effectively, death is imminent. Pride, embarrassment, fear, or pain may be the reason you forget about your lifeline of ejecting. Life is a blur until a hint of reason can pull you out of the tailspin. I am not reading the gauges right, and the parachute is under my seat , but I don't realize it is there. However, even when I eject and the chute opens, I still have to navigate issues, identify problems, and tend to my injuries.
In Behind Enemy Lines, actor Owen Wilson is shot down in Serbia. He was being hunted by a sadist ic foreign army, had just witnessed the execution of his co-pilot, was battling the environmental elements, and was in a country where friend and foe was a blur. The scene where Wilson was speaking to his commanding officer, actor Gene Hackman, after a failed rescue attempt, Hackman sensed Wilson's despair and loss of hope. That equates to death. Hackman pauses (on his radio), then engages Wilson with a series of petty questions concerning Wilson's gear. Wi ls on' s hostile surroundings did not matter, the murder he witnessed hours earlier, or the delay in his evacuation. Only his essential gear to survive, the items he possessed, was his immediate focus. That redirection gave Wilson just enough focus to push through the despair and live a little longer. The small items he did have control over were significant enough for another hour of living. Sound familiar? What resource #2 did? He deflected my current state of mind even though I felt the tragedy should be the immediate focus. That bought time. In suicidal ideation, the clock is ticking. Buying time, buying life, opens the door to be able to have a glimpse at my purpose.
In a sharp contrast to what we learn in the Soldier ' s Creed , " I will never accept defeat", the failed mission to end my life is the one comprise to take pleasure in being unsuccessful. Suicide is a virus , it makes you sick mentally, and it infects others.
"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us."
If you are working on an APWA-related project, please let us know how you plan to utilize the Archive. We hope to share information about your work with our readers and, whenever possible, with relevant APWA authors.
APWA is an open access archive. We encourage use of the writings for research, course planning, and projects engaged in examination of the criminal legal system. Reproduction of essays in their entirety infringes on author copyright without their explicit consent from the writers. Please contact us if you plan to reproduce entire essays; we will do our best to put you in contact with the authors for consent, and their compensation for any project that is profit making.