- Childhood neglect and abuse can have an insidious effect on an individual's sense of self.
- Unchecked and long-term despair can corrupt judgment and self-control.
- A life defined by emotional neglect and abuse may beget an indifference toward society and its norms.
Andy recalled his childhood as one filled with fear and aloneness. His mother Elizabeth was a kind but phlegmatic woman with a broken soul. She relied on the bottle to soothe her sorrow and solitude. Andy’s father was a drug abuser and habitually in trouble with the law. Andy’s early memories included his father beating his mother and berating and slapping him around. By the time he was 8 years old, Andy’s father was serving a life sentence in prison.
Elizabeth went from one short-term job to another as she struggled to make ends meet. When not working, she was either looking for work or soothing herself with booze or male companionship. Andy was typically left to provide for himself.
For Andy and Elizabeth, domestic life was the antithesis of a secure stability. It was nomadic in nature, entailing a series of temporary living arrangements. They roamed from one dystopian motel to another, as they mixed with drug dealers and users who lived in these flophouses, or hung out in the surrounding neighborhoods. If they got lucky, Andy’s mom would find a room to rent from a family in a local apartment complex. This type of arrangement brought with it a different kind of trauma. At times, for instance, Andy struggled to sleep as he labored to block out the sexual grunts and moans assaulting him from a mattress just a few feet away. “There’s things I shouldn’t talk about,” he told me. When necessary, Elizabeth offered sexual favors in lieu of a rent check. It was another way of making ends meet.
Without any genuine or consistent caretaking provisions, Andy found solace in the streets. The local drug dealers and grifters became surrogate parents of sorts, and the street life served as a source of succor. Basically, he had been raising himself and he needed some backup.
By the time he was 9 years old, Andy was delivering drugs to various locations for a local drug dealer. At 10, he was smoking weed daily, and by the time he hit his teen years, he was himself a dealer. Over time, his drug use expanded until, by his late teens, he was a polysubstance abuser.
When I first came in contact with Andy, he was in his mid-20s. He had already been arrested on multiple occasions for drug use and sales. He had a record of assault and a couple of robberies, done exclusively when high on drugs. I was asked to evaluate him after he was charged with attempted murder of a police officer.
During the two weeks prior to the alleged attempted murder charges, Andy told me he was in a state of abject despair. He decided that he did not want to live anymore. He began using drugs day and night, "everything I got my hands on,” including alcohol, methamphetamines, crack cocaine, bars of Xanax, fentanyl and wax, which he described as "concentrated weed." For about three or four days before the attempted murder, he had not slept. He was not selling drugs anymore. (“I couldn’t. I’d use anytime I got my hand on.”) He had friends from childhood who were local dealers who supplied him with drugs at no cost.
At some point during his drug-infused frenzy, Andy decided he wanted to die. He had been feeling “bad inside” for most of his life and wanted to end it all. The drugs animated his self-destructive destructive impulse to psychotic proportions, as he was tormented by images of decaying bodies and “whispering voices … I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it sounded demonic.” He believed “I had a dark cloud menacing him.” He wanted to die, but at the same time, he felt a sense of terror as he imagined killing himself. He walked into a 7-Eleven store, planning to steal some whiskey. Whiskey always made him more reckless—maybe in an even greater state of intoxication, he’d find the courage to kill himself. He needed to find a way to “end it all,” to terminate the madness and misery. As he walked down the liquor aisle, he noticed a police cruiser pull up and park in front of the store. Impulsively, he grabbed a bottle of liquor, smashed it, and approached the passenger side of the vehicle. The officer opened the window and asked, “What do you want?” As Andy thrusted the end of the bottle towards the open window, the officer grabbed Andy’s arm and held it as his partner ran around the cruiser and subdued Andy.
From the police reports and partial store video that was available for view, Andy’s attempt to stab the officer was clearly lackluster, as the officer easily prevented himself from getting stabbed and held Andy’s arm as he awaited for his partner to handcuff Andy.
Andy told me he hoped and planned to be shot ("suicide by cop”) and for his life to come to an end.
In recent years, there has been heightened public interest and scholarly research on the tragedy of “deaths by despair,” the morbidity resulting from the lethal use of drugs (especially opioids) and other forms of self-destructive behavior in mostly middle-aged, non-college-educated people who feel cast aside by an economy that values a higher education. For non-college-educated men between the ages of 45-54, the causes of death from suicide, accidental drug overdose, and alcoholic liver disease have risen rapidly since the beginning of the 21st century.
Death by despair has been a chronic issue among a subgroup of defendants I have evaluated who have personal histories similar to Andy’s. Dispossessed, they amble through life, seeming functional and sentient, but dead inside. Like Andy, these defendants have told me that their criminal behavior and rage were reactions to a deadness felt since childhood. It expresses a hopeless nihilism, the result of a life defined by emotional neglect and abuse. And it can beget an indifference toward society and its norms.
Case, A., & Deaton, A. (2022). The great divide: education, despair, and death. Annual Review of Economics, 14, 1-21.
Lettieri, R.(2021). Decoding madness: A forensic psychologist explores the criminal mind. Prometheus Books 'The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. ( See Chapter 10.)