Psychologist Lorri Greene has sent a poem and a story, inspired by the death of a patient, a Vietnam veteran who never fully recovered. Here is the story. The poem, Collateral Damage, is here.
Stuck Inside of Mobile
By Lorri A. Greene, Ph.D.
“And, here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price, you have to pay to get out of, going through all these things twice.
Bob Dylan (1966)
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
The nightmares wake me each night around 3AM. There are usually tears in my eyes. The visions are clear. A man, my age, gun pointed to his head. He looks for the last time at his beloved cat. He pulls the trigger. Peace at last, at least for him. My pain now begins. I don’t sleep well. I am angry, guilty, ashamed, and alone inside with this pain. I never imagined it would be him. What did I miss? All of my professional skills are not helping me now. I am afraid to see most of my clients. What if it happens again? I don’t know how to prevent it, but I think I am supposed to know. After all, I was his psychologist. I am the “professional.” There seems little help available to me. I’m embarrassed to ask for too much. I don’t believe I deserve it.
Suicide is always hard on those left behind. But I was his therapist; the one who everyone believed could have prevented this tragic ending to this mans life. And, in my own mind, I guess I believe it too. It is difficult to realize how little I knew him. I saw him for five years. Not every week, but usually twice a month. He was always on time, a smile on his face, this man who took his own life. He loved animals, especially his cat, a bond we shared with one another. I met him because his dog died. He’d read about me in the newspaper and wanted a therapist who would understand about his love for animals, and not judge him and his pain for his loss. During the time we spent together, he asked me at least once a month to take care of his cat if anything should ever happen to him. I always said yes, and it never occurred to me to say anything else. If asked, I would have said he was not a person who would kill himself. He had survived an unstable home, a failed marriage, Vietnam, and eleven years as a prison guard. One of our colleagues suggests that if I hadn’t offered to take his cat, perhaps he wouldn’t have killed himself. Perhaps it is true. The guilt becomes more real. My colleague might be right. I should have never said I would care for the animal. Maybe he would not have done it. On the other hand, I’m a pet loss therapist. My clients expect compassion, and many have asked the same question over the last 15 years. I have always said yes. No one has actually ever needed me to do it. What should I believe?
He had recently gotten permanent disability for physical and psychological injuries sustained in Vietnam. He didn’t talk much about that war, but he once shared the “stressor” letter he had to write for the Veterans Administration about his combat related injuries. Tears streamed down my eyes as he shared the horrors he had witnessed. I felt ashamed at my own harshness toward those combat veterans, the ones I had scorned when they returned from Vietnam. How young and judgmental I was. It never occurred to me that the military was a way out for a 19-year-old kid who didn’t have much of a future ahead. He was patriotic to the end. His home was filled with his military memorabilia when I went to see his sister the day after it happened.
It should have been me to discover his body. Perhaps he thought I could handle it. He had made an appointment for the next Thursday. On Friday, I received something in the mail from him. I was busy and left it on the table, thinking it was the co-pay that he had forgotten to give me the day before. When his sister called on Saturday to tell me what had happened, I opened the letter. It wasn’t the co-pay, but instead a key to his house along with a map. There were also instructions to his sister that I would take his 9-year-old cat. If only I would have opened it when I received it. Maybe he would be alive today. I will never know.
It has been several months since this event occurred. I wrote this article the day after. I share it now, because it has only been a short time since I have put closure on this experience. Perhaps it might help another colleague. I have seen many clients since then. They still ask me to take their pets if need be. I still say yes, knowing that I cannot prevent someone from taking his or her own life. I thank my dear colleagues and friends, Carolyn Hudson, Denise Zimmerman, Brian Alman, and Wendy Maurer for showing me the way to have the courage to continue in the profession that I love. I have learned a lot. If this article helps one person, it has been worth it.
Lorri A. Greene, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, practices in San Diego, California. (www.petbereavement.com). She is also a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and the California Psychological Association. She can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
October 13th, 2008