For the past two decades, a suicide epidemic fueled by guns, poverty and isolation has swept across the West, with middle-aged men dying in record numbers
Toby Lingle was cremated in a 49ers cap, a Star Wars T-shirt and sunglasses shortly after his funeral at Highland Park Community Church in Casper, Wyoming. He was 43. The outfit was the daily wear for an aggressively coarse and casual man. Lingle was that guy, the one who told the crude joke to your kids and insisted on swearing in front of the elderly at restaurants. He would simply amp up the blue material and drop some more f-bombs if you called him on it.
His sister, Tawny Perales, showed me a picture of Lingle in his coffin. “He wore the cap all the time because he was losing his hair,” she told me at a Starbucks not far from the church. “People think it’s weird I took the picture, but I don’t care.”
Lingle had a wicked sense of humor, so he would have enjoyed the minor meme he caused last summer. There was a video posted on Reddit called “Sir, you dropped your sandwich,” where an armed SWAT officer is running toward a “shots fired” situation at Lingle’s trailer. The cop drops a sandwich, skitters forward a few steps, before reversing himself as someone says, “He dropped his goddamn sandwich.” You can hear bystanders laughing. Without context, the clip is pretty funny.
It is the only thing remotely funny about June 24th, 2018, for Lingle’s family. That was the day Tobias Lingle put his newly acquired Sig P226 Legion to his chin and pulled the trigger inside his trailer in Williston, North Dakota. He had scrawled on the grease board, “I’m sorry, I can’t take the anxiety and depression any more.” He got in a final joke. Next to his goodbye message, Lingle had paper-clipped a pair of lottery tickets. They were not winners. Now all that remains of Lingle is a thumbprint on an amulet his sister wears around her neck.
The Centers for Disease Control recorded 47,173 suicides in 2017, and there were an estimated 1.4 million total attempts. Many of society’s plagues strike heavier at women and minorities, but suicide in America is dominated by white men, who account for 70 percent of all cases. Middle-aged men walk the point. Men in the United States average 22 suicides per 100,000 people, with those ages 45 to 64 representing the fastest-growing group, up from 20.8 per 100,000 in 1999 to 30.1 in 2017. The states with the highest rates are Montana, with 28.9 per 100,000 people; Alaska, at 27 per 100,000; and Wyoming, at 26.9 per 100,000 — all roughly double the national rate. New Mexico, Idaho and Utah round out the top six states. All but Alaska fall in the Mountain time zone.
Last summer, I began a 2,000-mile drive through the American West, a place of endless mythology and one unalterable fact: The region has become a self-immolation center for middle-aged American men. The image of the Western man and his bootstraps ethos is still there, but the cliché has a dark turn — when they can no longer help themselves, they end themselves. I found men who sought help and were placed on a 72-hour hold in a hospital ward, and say they were sent home at the end of their stay without any help, collapsing back into the fetal position — the only thing accomplished was everyone in the small town now knew they were ill. I found men on both sides of the Trump divide: One whose anger toward his abusive parents was exacerbated by hours in his basement watching Fox News and Trump while drinking vodka; the other was a Buddhist mortician whose cries for help were met by scorn in a cowboy county that went 70 percent for Trump.
“I have no one,” a man told me quietly over coffee. Outside, an unforgiving wind whipped through the tall grass. “The winters here are killing me.”
I found something else: guns, lots of them. Guns that could be procured in an hour. A house where a wife did a gun sweep and found dozens hidden. I found suicidal men who balked at installing gun locks on their pistols because they were afraid of being caught unarmed when mythical marauders invaded their homes. And I found that the men who survived suicide attempts had one thing in common: They didn’t use guns. Pills can be vomited, ropes can break, but bullets rarely miss.
For years, a comfortable excuse for the ascending suicide rate in the rural West was tied to the crushing impact of the Great Recession. But it still climbs on a decade later.
“There was hope that ‘OK, as the economy recovers, boy, it’s going to be nice to see that suicide rate go down,’ ” says Dr. Jane Pearson, a suicide expert at the National Institute of Mental Health. “And there’s a lot of us really frustrated that didn’t happen. We’re asking, ‘What is going on?’ ”
The impact of hard times can linger long after the stock market recovers. A sense of community can disintegrate in lean years, a deadly factor when it comes to men separating themselves from their friends and family and stepping alone into the darkness.
“There’s been an increase in the ‘every-man-for-himself mentality,’ ” says Dr. Craig Bryan, who studies military and rural suicide at the University of Utah. “There doesn’t seem to be as strong a sense of ‘We’re all in this together.’ It’s much more ‘Hey, don’t infringe upon me. You’re on your own, and let me do my own thing.’ ”
Suicide in America is dominated by white men, who account for 70 percent of all cases.
The climactic scene in Westerns has always been the shootout. Now that’s being acted out in a deadly monologue. Activists in gun-friendly states tiptoe around the issue of eliminating guns, instead advocating locking them up to keep them out of the hands of the desperate and angry. Their efforts are noble, but futile. In Utah, 85 percent of firearm-related deaths are suicides. One of the shocking things Bryan learned was that many of these deaths were suicides of passion — impulsive, irrevocable acts.
“A third of the firearm suicides in Utah happened during an argument,” says Bryan. “Two people were having at it. Not necessarily physically violent, but they were yelling. And someone in the moment, almost always a man, basically just says, ‘I’m done,’ grabs a gun, shoots himself, and he’s dead.”
No segment of the population is more likely to be impacted by these horrifying numbers than middle-aged men in rural America. They not only own guns and lack mental-health resources — by one estimate, there are 80 or so psychiatrists licensed to practice in Wyoming — but they also have chosen a life that values independence above all else.
“It becomes a deterministic thing,” says Pearson. “You are the type of man who has chosen to isolate himself from town, health care and other people. Then you shoot yourself, and you’re hours from a trauma center.”
It’s easy to bash white middled-aged men in America. As a member of that privileged group, I’ll admit that much of the bashing has been warranted: No group in the history of the world has been given and squandered more than the white man. Yet the American white man is responsible for enough suicides annually that Madison Square Garden could not hold all the victims. And no matter how privileged, that’s somebody’s dad, someone’s friend, someone’s brother and someone’s husband.
I began my trip in Ketchum, Idaho, an affluent ski town not far from Sun Valley. When I arrived, there were just two college-age bros at Ernest Hemingway’s grave site. They pulled up in a white Hyundai SUV, and among a glade of trees, they laughed and posed for pictures at the writer’s grave in the late-afternoon sun. They high-fived with the certainty of young men who believe they will live forever. Hemingway’s final resting place rivals Jim Morrison’s for being a center for partiers masquerading as mourners. That afternoon, Papa’s tombstone featured a pile of coins, a can of Rolling Rock and somebody’s barely worn hiking boots.
A fiftyish man sat cross-legged in front of Hemingway’s grave and began to cry. He watched on his phone a video of a boy who looked remarkably like him. He left as quickly as he appeared.
Americans don’t read Hemingway like they used to, and despite being a fan, I think maybe this is for the best. From the abusive temper to his not-so-vague racism, he was a Neanderthal who wrote short, beautiful sentences.
He has a lot to answer for. With his romantic accounts of wars, hunting down defenseless elephants, fishing in cold streams, and black coffee and cigarettes consumed around campfires, no writer is more responsible for the adoration of the terse, self-sufficient American man than Hemingway. Then, he hit middle age, when the body tires of sleeping rough. His talents diminished. Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun blast on a July morning in 1961. He was 61.
Hemingway suffered from many of the trademark maladies of the middle-aged male victim. He endured mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder, and his family tree was wracked with suicides that continued all the way to his granddaughter Margaux. After his father killed himself in 1928, Hemingway commented, “I’ll probably go the same way.” There were other factors — alcoholism and multiple concussions suffered in various crash landings and mishaps. What really killed Hemingway was one of the things killing American men today: a macho fantasy of a man who needs no one but himself. After some initial obfuscation that Hemingway was killed while cleaning his gun — the old story — his death became one of the first suicides to be openly talked about in America.
One sleepy morning, I visited Hemingway’s craftsman-style house. It’s a stillborn museum: The town library owns and maintains it, but it is not open to the public. Inside, the house is as it was in the 1960s. Upstairs there is a desk where Hemingway stood and tried to write, which he often failed at late in life. He could look out at the Boulder Mountains above him or down on the Big Wood River, where he went fly-fishing for trout. But on that last morning, he did neither. He took a shotgun, walked downstairs, opened a door onto a small foyer, and shot himself. There was no poetry, no bravado, just a cracking sound and then silence. In the end, just another sick and tired man.
I spent the next day driving nine hours on two-lane blacktop across the vast, empty part of America from Ketchum to Casper, Toby Lingle’s hometown. In between Sean Hannity braying at me from every AM station, I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcasts with Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams, two of the more notable recent examples of the middle-aged white-male suicide epidemic.
Both men had battled depression, and had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, a prevalent factor in suicides particularly in the area I was driving through — 30 percent of male suicide victims nationwide have alcohol in their systems, but in states like Wyoming, experts say, it is closer to 40 percent. Otherwise, they couldn’t have been more different.
Bourdain sounded self-deprecatingly ebullient, a gourmand bon vivant who had kicked cocaine and heroin after decades of abuse.
“When you know how low you can go, when you’ve hurt and disappointed people and humiliated yourself for many years, you’re not going to start complaining about the wrong bottled water,” said Bourdain with a small laugh.
He sounded happy and in control, but there were other signs. After Bourdain’s suicide, a fan counted up the times that he uttered lines on his show like “I determine not to hang myself in the shower stall of my lonely hotel room.” That is precisely how Bourdain killed himself in Kaysersberg, France.
Williams offered more-obvious clues. During the Maron interview, Williams talked about an alcohol relapse while filming in Alaska. He sounded exhausted and told a seemingly funny story about the discussion he had with his “conscious brain” about suicide.
“There was only one time, even for a moment, where I thought, ‘Fuck life,’ ” Williams told Maron. He then re-created the inner dialogue:
“You know you have a pretty good life as it is right now. Have you noticed the two houses?”
“Have you noticed the girlfriend?”
“Have you noticed that things are pretty good . . . ?”
“OK, let’s put the suicide over here under ‘discussable’. . . . First of all, you don’t have the balls to do it. I’m not going to say it out loud. I mean, ‘Have you thought about buying a gun?’ ”
“What were you going to do, cut your wrist with a Waterpik?”
His conscious brain asked him what he was currently up to.
“You’re sitting naked in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s?”
“Is this maybe influencing your decision?”
Williams then riffed that maybe he would talk about it on a podcast two years down the road. Maron couldn’t help but laugh.
Four years later, suffering from undiagnosed Lewy body dementia, Williams would hang himself in the same Marin County home where the interview took place.
Two of the more famous men of the past 50 years fell into the same existential pit that has gripped so many their age: a curtain slowly falling over a life that outsiders saw as filled with privilege and promise.
Even the famous leave few breadcrumbs.
Toby Lingle wasn’t a loner. He hated doing anything by himself. If he needed to buy socks, he begged one of his female friends to go along. Open a checking account? He needed a gal pal to take him to the bank. So how did he end up dying alone in a trailer in a North Dakota boomtown, far from friends and family?
It’s a question his loved ones will wrestle with forever. Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”
Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)
“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’ ” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”
For a man tortured by loneliness, Lingle chose the exact wrong job, a problem I saw frequently among depressed men in the Mountain states. He became a “hot shot” driver, someone who could be called at any moment and told to hightail it to Denver and pick up some rig equipment that needed to be delivered to the fracking fields of western Pennsylvania yesterday. Along the way, he was briefly married and had a daughter whom he lost touch with when she moved to a North Dakota reservation with her mom. He filled the long hours driving by pestering friends with calls and trading Star Wars audiobooks with fellow driver Jocko Ward, his best friend.
Lingle tried living alone, but it wasn’t for him. He would come over to Tawny’s, tears in his eyes, saying, “I’m in a funk, I’m having a meltdown.” The weather didn’t help. Casper is among the windiest places in America, and the gusts howl in a winter that lasts from Halloween to Opening Day. He’d cry in the spare room for a day or two, but after a while he’d come out and share a pizza with Tawny and her two boys. Tawny, who battles her own mental-health demons, begged her brother to get help. But he muttered the same two-note refrain that I’d hear repeatedly across this land: “I don’t have health insurance. Besides, what if people found out? I’d lose my job.”
Lingle fell in and out of love, with his most serious relationship ending when his girlfriend begged him for a last time to get help and he refused.
I had dinner with Tawny and some of Lingle’s friends at a downtown Casper burger joint one night. There was his sister, a nephew, some ex-girlfriends and a male buddy. The women all knew about Lingle’s struggles with depression, even about a suicide attempt when he took a bottle of aspirin. There were tears from the women, but confusion from his dude friend, Darrell Palmer, whom he would text constantly about the NBA playoffs.
“I never knew any of that,” said Palmer.
It reminded me of something Ward had told me the day before. When home, Lingle spent hours at Ward’s house playing video games with his sons. One night, Lingle mentioned how much he missed his mom and how it haunted him, but when Ward brought it up a few minutes later, Lingle shut down.
“There was a crack, but just for a second,” Ward told me as tears filled his eyes in a Casper hotel lobby. He was dressed in a long-sleeved tee, steel-toe boots and fire-retardant jeans, a uniform of sorts out here. “But then it closed just as quick.”
This is a refrain I’d hear again and again.
“There’s still that cowboy-up mentality of ‘I don’t need any help, I’m not going to talk about my problems,’ ” Karl Rosston, the suicide-prevention coordinator for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, tells me. “They see it as a weakness, especially when they have depression.”
Ward had one last idea. He had taken a job seven hours away, in Williston, North Dakota, managing the maintenance and sales of rig equipment in the Bakken oil fields. The company was expanding and paying good money. Ward told Lingle that he could have a job running things in Williston. He would have a regular driving schedule and make some serious cash.
Lingle said yes even though his pals wondered how he would fend for himself so far from his friends and sister. But Lingle reasoned he would not be totally alone. His estranged teenage daughter lived on the Fort Berthold Reservation 50 miles away, and his big brother, Tim, was just an hour west in Culbertson, Montana, where he worked as a sergeant at the county sheriff’s office.
A few days before he left, Lingle asked his sister if she would be OK without him. She turned the question around on him.
“How about you?”
Lingle smiled. “I’ll be fine,” he said.
I had a beer with Tom Morton before I left Casper for Toby Lingle’s place in Williston. Morton is a local reporter who had written for an influential series on suicide in the rural West for the Casper Star-Tribune earlier in the decade. Its premise was simple: This is an epidemic, and we need to talk about it or we’re going to lose more men. The silver-haired Morton, 65, knew of what he spoke. He had once attempted to take his life and admitted that the temptation was never far from his mind. We downed the drink and tried to suss out the reasons why the suicide rate was so much higher here in blue-sky country. We talked of various theories, from lack of insurance to the altitude (which impacts the production of serotonin in older males) to the prevalence of guns. The conversation turned to the loss of the cowboy life as ranches became less family-owned and more corporate. I suggested that after a hard life on the range or in the oil fields, 50 seemed awfully old here, especially when the body could no longer work 14 hours a day in the unforgiving cold.
Morton thought these were all plausible, but he wondered if it was the last obtainable task available to a man after everything else had been exhausted.
“It will follow me the rest of my days,” said Morton. “I used to shoot competitively in college — now I won’t own a gun.” He looked around the bar as if to see if anyone was eavesdropping, and recalled something he had written: “To me, suicide is the most beautiful, alluring demon I’ve ever known. She’ll wear the gown and perfume, and procure the limo and the wine.”
He grinned a bit. “She wants me, but I won’t let her have me.”
Toby Lingle made the move from Casper to Williston in the spring of 2017. His pickup pulled his new home, a $60,000 camper with wood paneling, a separate bedroom, a living room and an electric fireplace. It would become his tomb.
Initially, Lingle was going to live with Tim, but, like most brothers, they had their problems dating back to when they were kids and Toby tried to tag along with Tim and his friends. So he moved his trailer into the warehouse of the oil company he worked for. This wasn’t as odd as it sounds. Williston’s on-again, off-again boomtown status made even RV spaces expensive. So Lingle resided in a giant garage not far from a Walmart and settled in. He had privacy, perhaps too much. From 5 p.m. Friday to Monday morning, he could go 60 hours without seeing the sun or another human being. His only companion was a stray cat he named Bruce Jenner.
Things didn’t work out with Lingle’s daughter. His family says she expressed little interest in her dad’s life. Still, he had Tim, or so they both thought.
I met Tim Lingle on a bright morning not far from where his brother took his life. He shared his brother’s mischievous eyes, but not much else. Tim was a Navy vet and police officer who never could quite figure out his little brother’s moods.
“I loved him, but he could be difficult to be around,” Tim told me. “He was always giving me advice on my kids, and I’d think, ‘Man, you haven’t even seen your daughter for years.’ ”
But still Tim cared. They tried to get together at least once a month and go to a superhero movie — because of anxiety, Toby didn’t dare go by himself. One thing Toby did well was grill, and he had his brother and his niece over to the warehouse for steaks. Toby wanted to show Tim something.
“Look at this,” said Toby, pulling open a drawer. It was packed to capacity with empty liquor bags.
“I was so crushed, since our dad was an alcoholic,” Tim told me with tears in his eyes.
Toby asked Tim to do him a favor. He knew his brother had a friend in the gun-shop business. He wondered if he could get a good deal on a pistol and an AR-15. Tim obliged, and soon Toby was texting photos of his new toys to Ward and his friends.
“They seemed to make him happy,” Ward told me. “He’d send me pics every time he added a new scope or a light to them. I never thought they were for anything but fun.”
“With suicide, there’s so much left unsaid,” says on specialist, who estimates 112 people are impacted by a single suicide. “It can be obsessive to survivors.”
Toby’s sister sensed something wasn’t right. She urged him to join a dart team at a bar, anything that would get him out of his trailer and in front of new people. Tawny knew people were drawn to Lingle, and once they had met him, they’d want to hang out. But Lingle never went, another reliable sign of depression among middle-aged men, the whittling down of their social circle.
Lingle was supposed to spend his days driving rig equipment to drill sites in Montana and North Dakota, within 200 miles of Williston. His job was selling new parts and replacing old ones. But he was his own boss, and it seems that after six months, he stopped making his rounds. Since he worked by himself, no one knew for weeks. Ward and Tawny would call and Lingle would give them happy talk about how everything was all right or that he was just in a funk.
Ward was supposed to see Lingle on the day he killed himself. They had made plans to meet in Casper and drive down to a Lady Antebellum show at Red Rocks, outside Denver. But on June 24th, Lingle never showed. At first, Ward thought he might be shacked up with one of his married friends — no-strings relationships were the only kind of liaisons Lingle could handle. But after he made a round of calls, Ward gave up and started heading for Denver. Hours passed and Ward grew worried. He called a work pal in Williston and told him to ask the police to check on Lingle. The friend and a cop entered the vast garage and knocked on the door. At first, there was no answer. Then a shot rang out.
The next few hours were chaos. Ward had also called Tim, who raced from 70 miles away in his squad car with the siren blazing. A SWAT team was called in. They shot in tear gas and tore down the garage door and set siege to Toby’s camper. Finally, they forced open the front door. Toby was dead from a self-inflicted shot.
Tim and I lingered for a few minutes outside the warehouse where his brother died. The door had been replaced, and there was no sign Toby had ever been there. That’s when he showed me the Reddit video of the cop dropping a sandwich. “Everyone thought that was so goddamned funny, but that guy was running because my brother had shot himself,” said Tim in a rough voice.
Despite isolating himself, Toby wasn’t alone. Nearly 200 people came to his funeral in Casper. He left behind Tawny, Tim and Ward, who all toggle between thinking they had given Toby too much tough love and feeling they should have known Toby had lost the plot and should have made a beeline for Williston.
Dr. Christine Moutier, a suicide specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, estimates a suicide can impact the lives of 112 people, from loved ones to co-workers. While the numbers are not definitive, there is evidence that contemplating a loved one’s suicide can lead to a ripple of suicides in a family or community.
“With suicide, there’s so much left unsaid,” says Moutier. “It can be extremely obsessive and torturesome to loss survivors. You think, ‘If this had gone that way, would it have played out differently?’ ”
Tim and I stopped for lunch before I made the drive on U.S. 2, heading west into Montana. I asked Tim how his work had been going since Toby died. He said it was OK, with one exception. A fellow officer, Frederick Lee, had a 13-year-old son in nearby Wolf Point who had taken his dad’s handgun and shot himself a few weeks prior. Michael Lee was found clutching a keepsake stone that contained a strand of his mother’s hair. She had committed suicide two years earlier, another example of the catastrophic ripple effects of suicide.
“We couldn’t let his dad come back into that house,” said Tim in a whisper. So Tim and his buddies spent a day scrubbing, soaking up blood, and scraping tissue off the walls. Tim mentioned that Lee was trying to spread news about suicide awareness in Montana and that it can happen to anyone’s family.
“Would you like to meet him?” he asked.
I said yes, and Tim gave me his cellphone number. But I didn’t call until weeks later. I couldn’t bear it.
I went home to regroup for a week. I grew distant, even around the love bug that is my four-year-old boy. He is named after my father, a Navy pilot who was killed in a plane crash off the USS Kitty Hawk when I was 13. Our son was born on the anniversary of Dad’s accident, both a blessing and the greatest cosmic joke. I thought I had dealt with the trauma the best I could: I had written a book about it, but being alone on the road and around so much tragedy had brought it all back. The black dog had returned, nosing around my door.
My wife asked me if the story was worth it and suggested that maybe I should quit it. I told her I couldn’t; I was too deep into the hole that had consumed so many before me. It seemed, on some level, the only way out was to submerge myself in more pain and emerge somehow cleansed and free.
I kept digging.
Some men kill themselves in beautiful places. I learned this while sitting in Dan Hedrick’s truck in the rocky enclave of Vedauwoo, Wyoming, halfway between Cheyenne and Laramie. We were driving to Laramie, where he hosts a monthly suicide-loss survivors meeting for mostly wives, sisters and mothers left behind. We made slow progress on a rutted road, and Hedrick, whose own brother shot himself at 42, pointed out some turnoffs that looked over giant rock formations molded during the final ice age. The copper stones are dramatically placed, defying gravity and making it hard not to believe in God.
“The police have pulled more than a few bodies from out here,” said Hedrick, a 59-year-old graphic designer. “A lot of the men just run a tube from their exhaust pipe into their car. In the winter, this road becomes impassable. You might not find the car for months.”
Hedrick’s brother David was 10 years his junior. Young David was called Mr. Happy Face by their aunt for his sunny disposition. But that optimism began to fade. Like Toby Lingle, he took a job as a long-haul trucker and began to retreat within himself, becoming a bitter and angry disrupter at family gatherings. When David got bored with trucking, he went to work for the railroad, based out of North Platte, Nebraska.
He hurt his back coupling two cars. The damage left him in agony and ended any thought of going back to truck driving. It also sent him into an irrevocable spiral that is not uncommon in rural areas where a man’s body can be worn out well before his mind.
“If you’re constantly aching, you’re limited in what you think is possible,” says Bryan at the University of Utah. “Especially if there was a time when you can remember that you were very capable, active, physically fit and strong. It can be seen as a loss of who you are and hard to recover from.”
David had no insurance, and he self-medicated his pain away with pills. He went to work managing the family Army-surplus store on Cheyenne’s outskirts, an unwieldy beast of a job, dealing with 50 years of buses, trucks and Army gear acquired by his hoarder father. Overwhelmed, David was once found wandering incoherently at a truck stop west of town. His brother helped him detox, but it didn’t take.
David remained a pain in everyone’s ass until a week before his death. He cleaned up and asked a girl he loved to move to Kentucky with him. He applied for a new driver’s license and had a long conversation with a traveling preacher at the store about the afterlife. He even went to a doctor and got put on antidepressants.
Then, in the early hours of December 14th, 2011, David stepped outside his home and shot himself with a pistol. He was found the next morning.
“There was a little voice in my head the day before telling me to check in on David, but I didn’t do it,” said Hedrick. “I told myself I’d do it later. I have to live with that.”
Since then he has volunteered at Grace for 2 Brothers, a Wyoming suicide support group started by a mother who lost two sons to suicide. He sees isolation as one of the problems of Wyoming and the West when it comes to male depression.
“Whether you’re working on a cattle ranch or in the oil fields or truck driving, you’re isolated and away from your family,” Hedrick told me as we pulled into the parking lot of Ivinson Memorial Hospital, where he holds the support meetings.
He entered a conference room and fanned out suicide-support brochures, bottled water and some chocolate-chip cookies.
A mother and daughter and another mom attended the meeting. Both parties had lost men in their thirties. The sister broke down and kept repeating, “Why did he do this? He knew I’d help him. I’d do anything for him.” Her sobs filled the room. “He was my brother.”
Hedrick told her what he had told himself: It’s not your fault, he had free will, and you can’t carry all the guilt. The woman turned to him and asked, “What else am I supposed to do?”
He didn’t have any easy answers. After an hour or so, the meeting ended with hugs and promises to stay in touch. It was the holiday season, and dealing with loss wasn’t going to get any easier.
I drove into Cheyenne the next morning and parked near the Albany, a storied restaurant and bar. It reminded me of a man I knew who always stopped at the Albany on the regular solo drives he’d make across the country. He wavered between thinking that those cross-country drives were cherished moments of his life and wondering if they were a self-sabotage road show where he could stew for 10-hour stretches, working his self-hating juices about losses, goals not achieved and folks he had let down.
I pushed him out of my head as I cut through the entrance of Cheyenne’s stately old Paramount Theatre. Like many a stately old theater lobby, it is now a coffee shop. There I met Rhianna Brand, the 33-year-old director of operations at Grace for 2 Brothers and a one-stop center for knowledge about Wyoming suicides. She knows of what she speaks — Brand is a tall brunette with three kids and multiple suicide attempts behind her. She sells essential oils and hosts a YouTube real-estate show in her spare time. She’s twice divorced, has talked with her kids about her depression, and was showing me a box full of gun locks.
No one who wants to live peacefully in Wyoming can come out as anti-gun, so Brand pushes complimentary gun locks — think a Kryptonite bike lock for your .45. The locks take five to 10 minutes to -disconnect, maybe just long enough for someone to reconsider, go for a walk, or call someone. Brand pulled out a plastic bag of gun locks from a shelf, knocking down the funeral card of a friend who used to volunteer at Grace for 2 Brothers before she took her own life.
“I have called gun shops around town and asked if I could leave a box at the counter,” Brand said. “They hung up on me and said it would be bad for business.” Later, she asked if Cheyenne bartenders would take an hourlong class on how to spot suicidal people among their regulars. At first they were resistant — worried about alienating customers — but Brand recently had a few takers.
Gun availability is one of the tangible causes for the rural West’s suicide rate, and Wyoming leads the nation with 73 percent of its households owning guns, while the state is third in per-capita suicide. Still, Brand can say nothing.
“You mention anything connecting guns and suicide around here and people shut you down and ostracize you,” Brand told me.
The pile of gun locks reminded me of the story that Cheyenne’s Emily Gregory told me about her husband. His death still felt fresh enough that when she met with me she brought her friend Tara for support. The 56-year-old Gregory was a smallish woman in jeans who seemed to grow larger and braver as she told me about her husband, Kevin. They had met when they were 14 and had been intertwined ever since. They both grew up in alcoholic homes, with Kevin’s being particularly violent. Emily said Kevin took out his anger on others: He was sent to reform school after threatening fellow high school students with his car.
Kevin straightened out a bit, and he and Emily got married just out of their teens. They had some wild years, but both got sober and the two started a family that eventually expanded to three children. They moved to Nevada for a while, and Kevin drove a truck for a gold-mining company. Everything wasn’t perfect: Kevin would get most depressed in the late fall, as winter approached, and in March when the winter refused to quit. He seemed content hunting with his arsenal of rifles. They moved back to Cheyenne when Emily’s dad came down with cancer, and Kevin earned a degree in computer science, commuting more than an hour each day to Denver. That’s when the trouble began. Kevin had always told Emily he came from an abusive household, and being back in Cheyenne with his family reopened old wounds.
One afternoon, they went to a Broncos game, and she was stunned to see Kevin order a beer. Soon, his drinking progressed to bottles of vodka. Kevin would buy them at a series of Cheyenne liquor stores so no one would know the extent of his appetite.
He started hitting Emily. At first, it was isolated incidents after dark. He kept his days together, but then the sun would go down.
“I always said there was a day Kevin and a night Kevin,” Emily told me. Her eyes welled with tears and Tara reached over to give her a squeeze. “Day Kevin was a wonderful person, and night Kevin was just horrid. He’d take his guns out.”
I interrupted Emily and asked a question.
“Are we talking about two or three?”
Emily shook her head.
“No, probably 50.”
One night, Kevin took a .357 out to the front yard. Emily followed. Her husband threatened to kill her and himself.
She called the police, who took Kevin to the hospital. A classic blackout drunk, he asked Emily in the morning what he had done. Eventually, he was diagnosed as bipolar, but the lack of mental-health specialists in the region hampered his attempts to get help. He was prescribed Zoloft, an antidepressant that doesn’t help with bipolar disease. After another gun threat, Kevin threw Emily against a wall and broke her ribs. The cops committed Kevin to the hospital’s mental-health facility. On a court order, he was held for 17 days. After he was released, Emily got a restraining order, but relented after her husband would phone her drunk and fire a gun, suggesting he had shot himself. After a pause, he’d ask, “How do you like that?”
Emily said they were completely co-dependent, but she thought she could keep more of an eye on Kevin if he was in the house. Every night, he would retreat to the basement after dinner. It was 2016, and Kevin would watch Donald Trump speak, and it would ramp up his rage.
“He’d get in these moods about how the country was going to hell and write these horrible Facebook posts,” remembered Emily. “It was all ‘Liberals are stupid Kool-Aid drinkers, and I act on fact.’ ” Emily’s hands trembled. “You couldn’t talk to him.”
Once, Kevin disappeared for 24 hours during the winter. He returned with facial bruises and a broken arm. Emily begged him to get help.
“I can’t, they’ll take my guns,” he responded.
Finally, around New Year’s 2017, Emily told her husband she couldn’t take it anymore. He agreed and told her she deserved better. He promised to call a rehab clinic the following Monday.
On January 6th, Kevin Gregory came home and told his wife he’d made contact with a rehab center and “things would get better.” He helped her make potato soup for dinner and then went up and took a shower and shaved. He then descended the steps into his basement man cave.
A few hours later, Emily heard a cracking noise. At first she thought it might be her husband knocking over a doggie gate. Her teenage daughter came into the room and asked her if she should go and check.
“No, stay here, and call 911 if I yell,” her mom told her.
It didn’t take Emily long to find out what had happened. She smelled the gunpowder before she saw Kevin’s body. He was 53.
Kevin killed himself with a recently purchased .357. Over the next few weeks, Emily found another 50 or so guns, many hidden down in the basement, but also in the trunk of her car, under a mattress and behind a couch. She learned that even though he had been hospitalized for mental illness, Kevin still held a concealed-carry permit issued by the state of Wyoming.
Emily went quiet, but Tara chimed in.
A 2018 study revealed that 65 percent of non-metropolitan counties in America have no psychiatrists. Wyoming veterans have to Skype with a revolving door of therapists in Salt Lake City.
“It’s kind of pointless — you can get a gun at Walmart or a pawn shop or from a friend in 45 minutes,” she said. “No one asks how you’re doing. This whole area is more intolerant than it was 20 years ago. You mention taking away guns and people will never talk to you again.”
Emily got up to say goodbye and wanted me to know that Kevin was not a bad guy. He had his demons, but there was no one to help him. “No one up here wants to hear that you’re depressed and need help,” Emily told me. “And no one wants to even talk about getting guns out of the hands of sad people.”
I don’t think I quite grasped the inextricable link between Wyoming’s Wild West gun policies and mental illness until I talked for three hours in Cheyenne with Steven Bates, a former military cop and a bear of a man. He had attempted suicide five times; the last time his wife caught him staring at his gun. He’d taken giant steps to help himself, running suicide-prevention groups and writing beautiful poetry about depression. Still, he isn’t sold on gun locks, although he uses them when his grandkids are around. “What if someone broke in and those five minutes cost me my life?” asked Bates, who is six feet three and 300 pounds. Outside Bates’ home, the only sound that could be heard was the wind whipping through his comfortable neighborhood.
Back in Cheyenne, Brand was still talking gun locks when a man took a seat in the corner. He looked 50, was slender, and wore studious glasses, running shoes and a hoodie. He sat quietly for a while as Brand talked about the dearth of mental-health facilities in Wyoming. The most comprehensive mental-health hospital is on the far edge of the giant state, in Evanston, five hours from Cheyenne, Laramie and Casper. A 2018 study revealed that 65 percent of non-metropolitan counties in America have no psychiatrists. (Wyoming veterans in need of help Skype with a revolving door of therapists in Salt Lake City.)
For the first time, the man in the corner spoke up. “I can tell you about that place,” said the man. “I spent 72 hours there, then they called my sister, gave me no referrals.” (The Cheyenne Regional Medical Center responded: “All inpatients from our behavioral-health unit are scheduled at the time of discharge to see a psychiatrist within two business days of being discharged.” The CRMC also said patients are referred to a community mental-health center that operates on a sliding-fee scale.) He took off his glasses and wiped them carefully. “I got home and went back to the fetal position for a week.”
The room went quiet. Another man began talking in a fast, clipped pace. He began spilling out that he often felt the same way, but didn’t dare share it with others for fear of being put in the broken-toys basket for the rest of his life. His blue eyes filled with tears. He wiped them away, put on his tattered field coat and said goodbye.
The man in the glasses was named Jay Harnish, and we agreed to meet the next day in what he joked was Cheyenne’s most cultured location: a Barnes & Noble.
We got some tea and sat down, and Jay, at 60, looks younger than my 51. He’s lived in Wyoming for nearly 20 years, but he admits he doesn’t fit in. He talks like a Whole Foods dad about the technical definition of “food desert” — a lack of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods — and how Cheyenne is the epitome of a food wasteland. He is, in fact, the father of three kids. But they don’t talk to him much anymore.
Harnish has been around death his whole life. When Harnish was 17, his depressive father grew tired of his high school shenanigans and sent him to work at his uncle’s mortuary in Santa Cruz, California. He worked the night shift, responsible for body pickups. He saw things.
“I cut down men who had hung themselves,” Harnish told me. “We’d go to the scene and do body removal. It was part of the job.”
Relocating to Utah and then Cheyenne, Harnish stayed in the business. He said he has seen thousands of dead bodies. But the truly scarring moment happened in 1987, when his father took his life. The family expected Harnish to prepare him for burial.
“I didn’t think of the impact of embalming my dad until years later,” he said. “Now I think about it almost every day.”
About a decade ago, Harnish became a Buddhist and told his wife that he needed to get out of the mortuary business. They opened a juice bar and restaurant, the healthiest place to eat in a town where, Harnish said, a veggie burrito comes with bacon.
But the store didn’t soothe him. He made the decision to leave his wife, and that drew the scorn of his three adult children. He moved in with a new girlfriend and started cutting himself off from the world. One night, he took a small mountain of pills.
He was admitted to the psych ward at the hospital. For three days, Harnish said, he refused all drugs and listened to the screams and banging of men and women suffering through psychotic breaks. After the 72 hours, the hospital asked him if he had insurance, and when he said no, according to Harnish, they offered to call him a cab. His relationship fell apart, and he retreated to a 270-square-foot cubbyhole of an apartment at his sister’s house.
As we talked, a Cheyenne businesswoman walked over to say hello and mentioned she hadn’t seen him around for a long time. Harnish mumbled some pleasantries, but his fists were clenched.
“This isn’t the place where you want people to think you’re crazy,” he told me. “I think it’s different in cities, but here people look at you like you have something contagious. I’ve lost all my friends.”
When we spoke, Harnish still had no insurance. He hadn’t been able to hold a job for two years. He had found some purpose, running the social media page for Grace for 2 Brothers, but was so low on money that he often had to decide between eating and spending money on gas or, as a special treat, heading 40 miles south to a Buddhist center in Fort Collins, Colorado.
When his grandson turned two, his daughter didn’t return Harnish’s calls. Like many of the male sufferers I talked to, he had a stubborn blind spot: For him, it’s not guns — he refused to take antidepressants. He paradoxically told me he didn’t think he would like who he would be on meds.
“Every day, I wake wondering why I’m still here,” Harnish said. “There seems no reason for me to still be alive.”
Harnish was dreading the onset of winter. I gave him my number and told him to text me whenever he wanted. On a December night when Cheyenne was already dealing with wind chills in the teens, he texted to congratulate me on a job promotion. I asked him how he was doing. He sent a series of texts. The first was three emojis: two piles of shit with a skull in between. “Three years in a 25-by-11-wide space isn’t good for the soul . . . I’m tired of eating and shitting in the same room . . . I was a strong person at one time, but those days are gone.”
I told him I had no easy words for him, but begged him to hang in there. He just sent back a thumbs-up emoji and went dark.
That was six months ago, and I feared the worst. But recently, Harnish got back in touch. He met with one of his daughters and saw his grandson. He’d stopped volunteering with suicide prevention — it was just too close to him — and began working part-time with disabled adults. His optimism had wavered, but he had been trying.
“I’m done thinking of death,” he said. “I work hard to be nice to everyone — you just don’t know what they are going through.”
There are things that keep Harnish going. Music is one of them. Right now, it’s the new Bruce Springsteen song “Hello Sunshine.” Springsteen has been public about his own battles with depression, and Harnish feels that the song was written for folks like him. He plays it over and over:
You know I always liked my walking shoes
But you can get a little too fond of the blues
You walk too far, you walk away
Hello, sunshine, won’t you stay?
Wyoming’s suicide rate has risen for the past 15 years. The government’s resources have been stretched to the limit and are often underfunded. “There’s no crisis center in Wyoming, so people are being routed out of state, waiting an hour, and a third of their calls are not being answered,” Rhianna Brand told me.
In 2018, Wyoming had the opportunity to vote to increase its lowest-in-the-West, 60-cents-a-pack -cigarette tax by a dollar. Those funds could have been used to bolster mental-health resources. Alas, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, the increase wasn’t brought to a vote because the Legislature checked out early so the House speaker could attend a football game.
There are other steps being taken. In Montana, the state is importing four-year psychiatric residents from the University of Washington to ease the drought of mental-health professionals. There are training programs for nurses and general-practitioner doctors on the front line to help cope with the suicidal. All of this could help.
But there will always be the guns. Atrocities from Sandy Hook to Parkland have taught us distressingly little is changing, especially in blood-red states like Montana and Wyoming. “We could pretend guns aren’t the problem,” a Wyoming health official told me. “But that isn’t logical.”
I could go on about the policy steps that must be taken to solve this social crisis. I could also tell you that the suicide rate could drop severely with a federal suicide-awareness program that would cost less than Trump’s Mar-a-Lago trips. We could talk about how a sensible gun program and better mental-health care could be paid for with the dollars the Pentagon has wasted on the troubled F-35 fighter.
That’s all true, but that’s not how I want to end this, because that is not how a man on his last string thinks about it.
Remember the man crying at Hemingway’s grave looking at a video of his son? The friend who aimlessly drove cross-country, stopping at the Albany in Cheyenne? And the man with tears in his eyes in Brand’s office? All three are me.
I’ve got a son and a wife who love me to bits. Good work that earns me a solid wage. And still.
And still, the thought crosses my mind, more frequently than I care to admit. Have I told anyone? No. Not my doctor. Not my wife. Not my best friend. I’m writing this story in a friend’s deserted condo, 200 miles from friends, 200 miles from help. Next week, I’ll drive alone up to Big Sur from L.A.; it will either help me forget or let things fester.
Still, I know I will be all right. They are just thoughts. Soon, I’ll be back to being the wisecracking jackass on Twitter that you mute. Besides, I’d never do it. I have too many people who love me. A mother, a wife, two sisters and my dear little boy.
I dropped my son and wife off at the airport this morning. It was the day after the anniversary of my father’s death, and my wife knew this story had left me low.
“You’ll be here when we get back?” she asked. “I feel like you’re on the brink.”
She looked me straight in the eyes: “We need you.”
I told her I’d be fine.
Most days I believe it.
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