Faith, Resilience, Determination, Love, Acceptance
Not exactly the five sentiments that you might expect to hear from someone who placed a gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. In fact, you probably wouldn’t expect such a person to survive. But the reality is Faith, Resilience, Determination, Love and Acceptance is what helped Gary Burton survive severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, opioid addiction and a suicide attempt.
Gary had always been the caretaker of his family. He grew up with sisters, a devoted mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. His protective instincts were strong, so it may not have been a surprise that he joined the military and after that served in law enforcement. He saw things in his two careers he would never want anyone to see. He was there when Flight 232 crash landed in Sioux City; he has cut inmates down from bars when they tried to hang themselves; he’s responded to car accidents; brutal scenes and talked a gun out of a 16-year old’s hand. By the year 2000, the difficult life he had lived started taking a toll on his body when spinal issues began.
“I had thirteen surgeries on my neck and back between 2000-2007. Doctors told me I would never walk without a cane or walker.” Gary said. “Doctors prescribed narcotics, telling me I NEEDED them to curb the pain and have any quality of life.”
While doctors kept increasing dosage to overcome the resistance Gary developed, his life marched on. “I had lived life up to age forty as a straight man, but I finally acknowledged that I was gay”, Gary said. “After that I met a man and began a relationship that has been a miracle for me.”
Then 2014. Both his grandmother and his mother, the two women who raised him, were diagnosed with terminal cancer. Gary wanted their last years to be their best years, so he became full-time caretaker of the women. Cancer took the toll that he knew it would and in November 2015 his Grandmother passed away.
He continued to care for his mother. But it became more and more challenging as he wrestled with the effects of the narcotics he was prescribed. He felt the weights on his shoulders everyday – physical pain, psychological trauma from things he had witnessed, his self-appointed role of caretaker for his family, his mom, his sisters and nieces.
In August 2016, he had to put his mother in a nursing home – something he swore he would never do. He stopped taking pain meds in preparation to enter a treatment program, knowing within hours he would experience severe withdrawal. He arrived at the center and learned he couldn’t be admitted that day due to difficulty with insurance – he would need to come back tomorrow.
“I couldn’t take it. I sat on my bed, placed a .380 under my chin and pulled the trigger.” The discharged knocked Gary out immediately, but he quickly awoke and tried to figure out what had happened. “I walked to the bathroom mirror and saw the left side of my jaw was gone and remembered what I had done. You can’t print the words I yelled. How could I be so stupid?!” Gary said he was immediately filled with a desire to live like he hadn’t felt before – he would NOT give up; he would NOT go out this way. Having seen trauma like this before, he knew he’d bleed out quickly. “I found the phone – the house phone, not my cell phone because they needed to trace the call and called 911. I knew I had to open the door so they could get in. Then I sat down trying not to pass out.”
The responding officer knew Gary. She immediately asked where the gun was and who had shot him. When Gary provided the answer by pointing his hand and nodding his head, she turned attention to getting Gary the help he needed. He recalls about 20 squad cars and ambulances, then being wheeled into the ER where he recognized the doctor. The doctor said he needed to put him under so they could operate right away, but he didn’t think it looked fatal. He promised Gary he’d do everything he could to help him survive.
After surgery and three days in a coma Gary awoke to see Bill, his partner, holding his hand. Bill’s words to Gary were “I forgive you. I should have seen it coming. We’ll get through this together.” Gary recalled easily the hurt and pain he had caused others by his actions – the 911 dispatcher was only on the job for 2 days when he got the call; the responding officer will always have the image of his face blown half off; Bill saw the aftermath of what he had done and he had to tell his mother what had happened. What Gary didn’t expect was the love, acceptance and faith that followed.
“I found out my old boss from the sheriff’s department just happened to look into the ER room and screamed when she recognized me. She held my hand, even though I was unconscious, until they wheeled me to surgery. She sat with Bill for hours until I was out of surgery even though she had never met him before. She arranged for all the people standing vigil to be fed. I didn’t expect any of that.”
Over the next 2-1/2 years he made tremendous strides. Gary had an appointment with some sort of doctor every day for a year and a half and he never missed one. He had six more surgeries, each one requiring a stint on pain meds when he was in recovery. He entered Jackson Recovery Center where he stayed for six months to be completely sure he was ok.
He kept close to his mother, who had initially blamed herself for his actions, and helped her realize it wasn’t anything she could have prevented. “I hadn’t planned to attempt suicide. I’d never thought about it before, they call it severe trauma with suicidal ideation. I knew I had PTSD, I just didn’t do anything about it.” Gary explained.
Bill was there with him through the recovery and they were married a year after the attempted suicide.
Gary was asked to help others by serving on the Plymouth & Woodbury County drug court. A program for people who have had addiction related convictions as a last stop before prison. The ‘judges’ of the court are people who have recovered from addiction. Gary said “Usually within two years, the people are on track to a better, sober life.”
When asked why he is so willing to tell his story, Gary says, “I now see the hurt I caused and the love I received in return. PTSD, Opioid Addiction, Suicide Prevention – these are all things I can talk about and help with. I need to tell my story.”
When asked how he’s done it, Gary shares five words “Faith, Resilience, Determination, Love, Acceptance.”