The Will to Live
“Cappy … how’s it goin’?” was my typical salutation to Ron, a guy I’ve known for probably 10 years. Cappy was short for Captain, the nickname given to him after that horrible, straight-to-DVD movie starring Kurt Russell. “How’s Mandi and your daughter?”
“Awesome,” he said. That was about a week ago.
Ron had been a bartender for as long as I had known him. For years, he and his girlfriend Mandi worked the front bar in a local nightclub. They were a power couple and two of the more normal people I’ve encountered in the nightclub industry.
In my younger years, I did a great deal of security consulting to owners and managers, and so when I moved from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., I found a place to call my own for the occasions when the social bug would bite. Most of the bartenders I’d met over the years were pretty flaky, especially the females, but not Mandi. She was amazingly centered for a ridiculously good-looking girl. At work, their relationship was strictly professional to the extent that most wouldn’t even know they were together.
Ron actually has an engineering degree, but made far more money in the nightclub business and at the poker table. He was probably one of the most solid players I’ve known. The type of guy who would do well in the World Series of Poker if someone staked him. You learn a lot about people tending bar and playing poker. You learn to read the unspoken word to know what’s going on with somebody at the unconscious level. Like police work, poker and drink slinging are people businesses. It’s a great little petri dish for learning about people.
About three years ago, Mandi came into the club sporting a huge diamond ring. Mandi didn’t go much for jewelry, but she sure liked this little bobble. It was the next logical progression in the Ron and Mandi saga.
About a year later, Mandi announced she was pregnant. That year, their daughter Elle was born. They were jubilant. I didn’t see much of Mandi after that because she chose to be a stay-at-home mom and the nightclub business wasn’t compatible with her new life.
By all accounts, they were the perfect family. They were smart, attractive and mutually supportive people in one of the more remarkable relationships I’ve observed. They had a solid income, a house paid-off in their mid- 30s, a beautiful new baby and an exceptionally close extended family.
Then, I received the text message on June 20 at 23:47: Mandi had killed herself.
Over the next couple of days, I was able to talk to Ron. He was a mess, of course, but dealing with it. Mandi left no note, no forewarning nor signs that a professional poker player and master of the subtle unspoken language of human behavior could detect. Ron had taken his daughter to the doctor for a scheduled visit, and while they were gone, Mandi went into a room in the house, sat down on the floor, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Whatever anguish Mandi was experiencing ended in that moment and set in motion what’s likely to be many years of anguish for those she left behind to solve the puzzle of what could’ve possibly gone wrong.
Somewhere, somehow, the depth of Mandi’s pain went undetected. I don’t fully understand the psychology of suicide, but I have a pretty good handle on the science of self-destruction as a result of allowing the burdens of life to build unaddressed. Mandi’s story could be the story of so many others. The story of how, over time, the will to live can be subtly drained from you.
The point of this article isn’t to analyze Mandi’s pain. Those of us left behind find it difficult to comprehend what it was that could be so unbearable so as to drive someone to take their own life and in so doing cause so much anguish for others.
We learned she was dealing with a rare disease called Still’s Disease a sort of arthritic type of disease but it was treatable, and there were new promising medications she’d just started on. It seems Mandi didn’t want to go through that process. There are some things that, unless you experience them yourself, you can never truly understand. I don’t know how much pain she was in or what she was ultimately capable of enduring. What is inarguable is that, to Mandi, her pain was very real and to her, unbearable. The incomprehensible part of it all is that the degree of her suffering went undetected by those closest to her. There were no signs this was coming, although despite the absence of a note, the circumstances of her death ultimately indicated she’d carefully planned it.
Mandi’s pain was, in many ways, physical. Police officers and the other guardians of our society bear a terrific burden, although not often purely physical. They shoulder the travails of society’s calling at the expense of their own physical and emotional wellness. In the recent offering by the ever-informative Force Science Research Center, Dr. Bill Lewinski speaks of the concept of “Suicide by Inches,” as coined by psychiatrist Karl Menninger. Lewinski says, “This refers to more gradual behaviors of self-destruction, like excessive spending in an effort to buy happiness, excessive drinking or compulsive adultery as means of escape, addictively overworking at the cost of relationships with spouse and kids.
“For a relatively few officers, these patterns may eventually culminate in suicide, but for a great many more such behavior dramatically erodes the quality of life. They experience a kind of suicide of the soul that … can be as devastating as pulling the trigger.”
Dr. Alexis Artwohl, author of Deadly Force Encounters, and Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival, have been teaching seminars for years on this subject. Gilmartin’s books and classes begin to condition officers to the realities of the job and how they can erode over time, becoming ill-prepared to handle who they eventually become. A new movie and seminar entitled “The Pain Behind the Badge” brings to life many accounts of officers on the brink of self-destruction. According to the National Police Suicide Association, two to three times as many officers take their own lives each year in contrast to the number who are feloniously killed. What about those who do not, yet whose lives are so troubled that they begin to destroy those around them, along with themselves?
Much of the training that’s done in law-enforcement circles focuses on physically winning and surviving dangerous encounters. Although prevailing in these challenges is essential, it seems equally essential, if not more so, to prevail in the other challenges in your life lest they destroy you.
There are resources out there, but unlike much of the other training available to law enforcement, there’s no mandatory training in these areas. In several of my articles, I have discussed the concept of The Seven Survivals, asking officers to take the initiative to seek out training realistic, often scenario-based training in arenas beyond the physical battle, especially those dealing with human emotions.
Like it or not, you’re an emotional being. Sergeant Chris Butler from the Calgary Police Service gave me a book after we did a class together entitled The Emotional Brain. He told me man is ruled by his emotions, not the other way around. Law enforcement is an emotional minefield. Those closest to you might be stomping through that minefield on a daily basis you know who those guys are. But what about the Mandies of your universe? It’s entirely possible someone close to you, with whom you share the most intimate details of your life, might be one desperate decision away from self-termination.
Every day, you strap on the tools of your craft and go out to do battle with the evils without, while often times not effectively defending against the evils within. No one’s immune to the pressures of life or a job. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman talks about the concept of stress inoculation in his books and lectures, but most take this to underscore the need for training to prepare for the external battles. An equal amount of effort must be dedicated to winning the emotional battles as well.
In his “Bulletproof Mind” lectures and in his book On Combat, Grossman discusses the concept of not letting anybody take your life without one hell of a fight. He talks about the necessity to fight tooth and nail to the bitter end, exhausting all possible resources. If you’re unsuccessful, you’ll know you gave it your all. “Nobody,” he says, “nobody will take your life without a helluva fight including you.” He admonishes his students that they must stand guard even against themselves and that if an officer or soldier takes their own life, they hand all of their enemies a victory.
At the memorial service, Ron stood and gave the eulogy. He spoke of times together, her favorite things, her quirks and habits, and the fact that she hated that she thought she had large pores. On the way home from the service, one of my close friends remarked that he’d never known anyone as well loved. I had to agree. There were so many things Ron knew and loved about Mandi.
I’m not sure how you can ever prepare for the loss of a loved one, especially for this type of loss, but you can do everything in your own power to extend the quantity and quality of your own life and career so that you never put your loved ones through the anguish Ron and his family now know. You owe it to yourself, your family and the community you’ve sworn an oath to protect.
After an officer is killed in the line of duty, other officers tend to be a little more careful on the job and take from their sacrifice lessons to keep us all safer. When an officer takes their own life, I’m not sure we take the correct lessons or make the necessary adjustments to prevent it from happening in the future. As for me, I’m listening a bit closer to my friends and family. I’m a bit more available and a bit more present when we’re together. I liked Mandi, and I’m going to miss Mandi. And Ron I’m here for you buddy.