The other morning I went over to a neighbor’s house to get my shotgun.
One of my shotguns, actually. I have nine. They’ve all been over at the neighbors, along with a rifle I own, since sometime last April, the day after I told Mary I felt like killing myself.
I don’t think I was serious. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. Looking back on it, I’m almost certain. And I told Mary after my initial outburst and mention of self-harm with a gun that I doubted I could ever do such a thing to her, to my kids, to my grandkids.
That’s a hard legacy to leave. Not one I would ever want to leave.
Even so, almost certain isn’t enough with something like this. This life-and-death something. Talk of self-harm is serious talk and should be taken that way, which is exactly the way Mary took it.
Back then, I was early on in my fight against a host of symptoms — headaches, nausea, dizziness, extreme eye sensitivity, inability to read or write for long without getting sick — that mixed with anxiety and depression to form a pretty toxic emotional brew.
I was a mess. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I only knew I was miserable day after day. Later, after tests here in Rapid City and a week of tests at the Mayo Clinic, we would get some answers. Not enough. But some.
Back then we had none. And my frustrations and fears were growing.
So one night I let emotions out with words that got Mary’s attention.
“I want your guns out of this house,” she said.
The next day they were gone. Mary doesn’t mess around.
I said removing the guns wasn’t necessary. She said it was, emphatically. Mary wasn’t just acting as a wife with concerns for her husband’s state of mind, although that was her overriding motivation. But she was, and is, also a local volunteer for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. One of Moms focuses is suicides with guns, and how to prevent them.
The sad statistics in South Dakota about guns and suicide
There’s a good reason for that, especially here in South Dakota. More than 100 people a year die from gunshots in South Dakota, 80 percent of them — or about 86 people — by suicide.
Removing guns from the home of someone who might just use them for self-harm is one of the key priorities of Moms Demand Action. So Mary was adamant. And I decided not to argue. So the guns went to a neighbor’s house, which is where they’ve been, safely stored, with the ammunition still here at our house.
Mary took other quick action last spring after I spoke unsettling words. She made some calls. The next day my son, Casey, had rearranged his work shifts in the emergency department of a St. Paul hospital to hit the road to Rapid City, to be here with and for his old man.
A couple of days after Casey left, my daughter, Meghan, drove out from Sioux Falls to be with the old man for a few days, too. She helped me get set up with a Zoom appointment with a local psychiatrist, who started me on some meds aimed at settling things down a bit.
That was all mixed in with a string of emails and calls from my four older siblings.
That was all essential. But first things first for Mary, and for me. The guns. Out of the house.
Why one of the guns came home, and a neighbor was cautious
It hasn’t been much of a sacrifice, practically speaking. My symptoms persist. And I’m not doing any hunting this fall. I’m just not up to it. So the guns are fine where they are, for now. Most of them, anyway.
One shotgun came back the other day, briefly. The Benelli 12 gauge semi-automatic is a good all-around bird-hunting gun. And one of my stepsons had been invited to a pheasant-hunting weekend in the Gregory area.
He texted his request one evening. And I texted the neighbor to see if I could pick up one of my shotguns the next day. She said sure and that she’d text me in the morning when I could come over and get it.
In the morning, I was washing the breakfast dishes when Mary called me on my cell phone. She was upstairs in her office.
“I called you on the phone because you haven’t heard me calling you down the stairs,” she said.
I was listening to CNN and clanking pots and pans around. Oh, and I don’t hear that well, either.
Anyway, the neighbor had texted Mary to see if it was OK if I went over and picked up a shotgun.
And I thought: “What am I, a sixth-grader? Our neighbor has to call my wife to see if it’s OK if I pick up one of my guns?”
Then I thought: “Good for her,” meaning our neighbor, who is also an active member of Moms Demand Action.
As the struggle continues, thoughts of self-harm can return
After my comments last April, why wouldn’t our neighbor check with Mary about giving me back a gun? She knows my struggles against the mix of symptoms continue, despite treatments and medicines and different people working to help, including an internist, a neurologist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a physical therapist here in Rapid City.
I’m not out of the fight yet. In some ways, it’s probably like being an alcoholic. Maybe you haven’t had a drink in 10 years. But you’re on guard against taking one every day.
Someone who had thoughts of suicide once is likely to have them again. And I have, briefly, here and there, on bad days, had those thoughts since last April when the guns went to the neighbors. I probably will again, on bad days. They don’t last long, those thoughts. But I note them and mention them to people who should know, my therapists and Mary, mainly.
At those times I try to remember that the worst moments or hours pass. I also remember my wife and my kids and my grandkids, the time I spend with them in person and on FaceTime, by phone and by text, and how precious those are. And I think about how Mary and I have made the evening meal — whatever is being served — a candlelight celebration.
I think about my own faith life and my Catholic belief that my life has great value in whatever shape it’s in and that it is not my own to take. It is my own to live, whatever the quality, whatever the length, in the best way I can.
Each day, focusing on finding a reason to celebrate, or at least find some degree of comfort or contentment, whatever my symptoms and struggles are.
My world is not what it was a year ago. Not even close. I’ve lost a lot from the very active 69-year-old I was then. I have so many limitations on what I can do and how I feel that it’s easy to get discouraged, depressed. It’s easy to feel hopeless.
With the future uncertain, celebrating daily pleasures
Each day, I try to find things I can take pleasure in, to feel good about, to celebrate even. My daily walks through the neighborhood. A poem written after one of those walks. Or maybe a blog column for SDPB and a chat about that column with my friend Lori Walsh on public radio.
And, when my symptoms permit, I goof around on Twitter or Facebook, and spend some evening TV time with Mary, watching an episode or two of something interesting on PBS.
I don’t know if I’ll get better. I don’t know if I’ll get worse. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read a book again, to spend hours after on the computer, reading online newspaper and magazine stories, researching one thing or another, working as a real journalist again.
And I don’t know how long my guns will stay at the neighbors’. The neighbors say the guns are no problem, safely stored and secure, out of the way.
I’ll probably want them back someday if I improve enough to do some hunting again, even if on a much more limited basis. If not, I’ll distribute them to members of my family who might like them.
For now, my guns are in a pretty good place, for everyone.