The mental health crisis in America is crushing a substantial portion of our people and their families. This is, of course, no laughing matter. It’s sad, depressing, and I, for one, feel horrifically helpless to stem the tide. Every week, it seems like the violence, harm, and death rooted in mental health issues grows. Helpless to stop it? May as well find a way to laugh at it.
So, pretty early in my career, I ran on a Suicide Attempt In Progress. A man called 911 and said his roommate was actively trying to kill himself. My partner and I drove Code-3 into the neighborhood, but quickly realized the caller gave us bad directions and no address. A few frantic minutes later, we found the house and the roommate flagging us down and yelling for us to hurry.
“Get in there, quick, he’s dying right now!” I remember wondering why the roommate cared enough to call, but not enough to actually intervene if that was true.
Because only a fine line separates suicide from homicide, we kept the roommate outside and entered the home with our guns drawn and at the ready. Suicide by cop is a very real thing, and its imminent potential is terrifying. As I looked in from the front doorway, I noticed a small kitchen knife on the living room carpet only a few feet inside. I saw only the tiniest speck of blood on the very tip of its blade. Clearly wasn’t used with the requisite enthusiasm. We started calling out to him, identified ourselves as cops, and told him we were there to help. No response. My partner and I hurried inside, quickly cleared the hallway on the right, a few bedrooms, and urgently came back to the living room near the front entrance. No other cops had yet made it to the scene. Just the two of us, and the chances of contacting this guy increase with every step.
We moved through the living room toward the kitchen and, as we did so, I noticed three or four different kinds of pills on the deck. Dozens of them, all strewn about like he’d tried to dump several prescription bottles down his throat. My partner and I pushed forward into the kitchen, and that’s where I got the first glimpse of his feet, just as I heard his thrashing around on the linoleum floor. Adidas sneakers kicking and flailing, which showed me he lay on his back and still had a pulse.
Because of the relative position between my partner and I, I pushed around the kitchen island and got our first real glimpse of him. From his back, he had a lamp cord wrapped around his neck and pulled it tight with both hands held up and over his head. Wet, half-chewed pills were stuck to his cheeks and lay on the light brown linoleum near his head.
“Police,” I yelled, “stop and let go of the cord!” Now mainly focused on his compliance, I still had to ensure he didn’t shift his focus from taking his own life onto taking mine or my partner’s. He uttered a weak, wet gargle and tightened the cord as we drew closer.
“Hey, dumb-shit,” my partner calmly stated, his voice filled with annoyance. “If you keep it up, you’re just gonna make it easier for us to handcuff you. That ain’t gonna kill you, the blood flow’s restored as soon as you pass out and let go ‘o the cord.”
He momentarily struggled harder against the cord, gave up, and tried to give a frustrated huff, but the cord only let him utter a weak bark. Dropping his hand onto the floor, he complied with our commands and we took him into protective custody. A few minutes later, he’s handcuffed to a gurney in the back of an ambulance and headed in for eval and psych treatment.
“Knife, pills, and mechanical compression,” my partner surmised. “Looks like he went oh-for-three today.”
A week later, the same partner and I get called back to the same apartment to assist med with the same guy. After a few days and treatment and counseling, he tried again. This time, he leapt from his balcony. His second story balcony. Feet first. Futile attempt to die, but it is enough to break both ankles if you land it wrong. This time, a sergeant shows up who’s far saltier and cynical than either of us.
“Same fuckin’ guy,” he asks in a thick Chicago accent.”
“Fohr-time looz-uh,” he scoffed. “What’s he gonna do next time he wants attention? Eat a handful uh Benadryl? Get outta ‘ere.”
Because we have to witness everything mankind does to itself and each other, we have to laugh at anything. Well, almost. I’ve known only three things too heinous and terrible to make into jokes, so they never get completely processed into a psychological box and buried in the recesses of our minds among the other miseries. My inability to laugh at those three will ensure I have to live with them differently.