As a young child’s heart rhythm faded to a stop, I walked off the hospital floor and got in my car with a plan to end my own life. For weeks, I had watched the life drain out of her due to a progressive, unforgiving cancer. Day after day, I witnessed her slow, agonizing death and the heartache of a young family. I felt helpless to stop the forces fighting against them. In my own state of depressed hopelessness, I felt my life slipping further and further away. Sitting in the car, I closed the door behind me like I was shutting a coffin. After the ignition started, with the wheels aligned like four pallbearers ushering a ceremonial procession, I rolled out of the hospital parking garage and headed toward absolution in the vehicle of a broken mind.
In the crisp late-fall air, I draped my left arm out the driver’s-side window, hoping a cool breeze would revive a sensation behind the nothingness of feeling numb. Not feeling anything at all, I circled around the gun store parking lot one more time. The car headlight beams swept across the neon sign in the storefront window. The rolling tires seemed to hesitate suddenly, much as a knife once did while it hovered over a vulnerable vein. On that occasion, the knife never hit the skin, but deeper plans were in motion now.
After one more time around, I nestled the car between two painted yellow lines. For weeks, I had flirted with similar temptations in the form of car exhaust fumes and a slowly closing garage door. As the door came down, I saw the closure of a final chapter of my life, marked by graphic visualizations of a final gasp for air.
Living in this state of disconnected reality, I felt in moments like I was already gone. Often, I struggled to separate an impending deed from what had already been done.
As I reached for the door handle, I felt the weight of the preceding year in which, an inch at a time, I had forfeited ground from the person I had always wanted to be. Since the earliest days of my youth, I had aspired to be a healer, but after years of medical practice I felt overwhelmed, defeated, broken, and bullied by a profession that methodically stole my authentic core identity, until I felt like I had nothing left to give. I simply wanted to help people. Yet in the confines of how I was living and working in medicine, I couldn’t even help myself.
The hinge creaked, and the car door swung open with an almost human tone, a noise not so much like a cry for help as a scream of despair. Straddling the door frame, I took a swig of vodka, and then placed my left foot on the ground. My right foot remained planted over a brown paper bag on the floor mat of the car as I mounted the courage to actually step outside.
A few paces to the store’s front door took me to another point of no return, another framed entryway to an inevitable exit. My focus went to the backlit glass case, and a greater solution.
A dark depression had blanketed every aspect of my life over the preceding months. The consuming numbness revoked every ounce of joy from a previously ordinary life. I had survived periods of depression earlier in my medical career, but nothing like this. This time it went to a lower depth, a waking nightmare complicated by attempts to find a liquid solution to relieve the intensity of an indescribable pain. Day by day, I existed in a void, exacerbated by decades of deep-seated guilt and never feeling like I truly belonged.
For a few minutes, I meandered back and forth along the gun case, indecisive about the collection or the caliber, but knowing all the same what I needed as a mechanism of escape. I tapped my fingers gently across the glass display as my mind drifted off to a field and a welcome silence. I imagined walking through the eye-high stalks of an Indiana corn field, my hand grazing the silk of each ear of corn. Lost in between the rows, I saw a narrow future converge into a pathless nothing. The falling sun dispersed longer shadows as I walked deeper into the labyrinth, until I started to fade away. With my hand now running down the length of the store case, I startled when the store clerk offered a casual greeting. His simple words extracted me from a deliberate self-delusion. As I turned toward the greeting, I saw a younger gentleman, a handful of years my junior, with a slender frame, a steely look, and a five-o’clock shadow.
“What can I do for you today?” he inquired.
“Searching for some protection,” I answered sheepishly.
“I got just what you need over here.”
All I knew was that I needed the pain to end. After a brief exchange, I found myself holding a 9mm handgun, feeling the metal pressed against my shaky, clammy palm. I held my finger over the trigger in an improvisational dry run, a prelude to a desired conclusion. I took out the cartridge and nodded my head subtly, projecting confidence as though this wasn’t the first time in my life I had held a gun. I asked about the price of the bullets as I contemplated the next steps in a rapidly evolving plan.
“First gun?” the clerk asked.
“Yeah, first time needing one,” I softly replied.
“Well, I’ll leave these papers. Holler when you have a question.”
He walked over to grab a shotgun off the wall for an older gentleman standing patiently by the register. In the moment, and for years to come, I felt the weight of holding that gun. Steel in hand, I looked down at the forms, read a few brief lines, and quickly realized it would take weeks of processing and holding periods before the weapon would be in my hands. I didn’t feel like I had that kind of time.
Adam B. Hill is an oncologist and author of Long Walk Out of the Woods: A Physician’s Story of Addiction, Depression, Hope, and Recovery.
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