The patient had just murdered his wife. A single shot from his handgun had sent her straight to the morgue. Then, with a sudden loss of basic marksmanship, he failed to kill himself. He placed the gun in his mouth, allowed an awkward angle, fired, and the bullet lodged in the right temporal lobe of his brain, narrowly missing the structures that would have led to his immediate death.
Frankly, I lacked enthusiasm for treating him. He wanted to die. He deserved to die. I wanted him judged by the standard of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life. But the discipline of medicine allows no such judgements, and I found myself in the operating room removing the bullet, debriding damaged brain, and sealing the cranial cavity from potential contamination from the tract through the mouth and sinuses. Miraculously, and somewhat to my disappointment, he survived.
And he survived well. On day one, I changed his bandage. On day three, he regained consciousness with no loss of vision or paralysis. On day five, I removed his stitches. He suffered no complications despite the high risk of infection. Physical therapy supervised his return to normal balance and ambulation. For two weeks he wore a patch over his right eye because he saw double, but then that symptom also went away. By the third week he could read again.
His discharge was delayed, however, because he had no place to go except jail, and he couldn’t go there until he reached sufficient physical and mental capacity to be competent and self-reliant. For several weeks he lingered in the hospital with a sheriff’s deputy stationed at his door.
Each day I would come to see him. Always he was courteous and cooperative with myself and the staff, and in my mind I tried to reconcile the gentle person before me with the raging lunatic who had killed his young wife.
I asked what would happen to my patient after he was transferred to jail. The deputy shrugged. “It’ll be up to the judge,” he said. “But I think probably nothing.”
“But he murdered his wife,” I said.
“Yeah, but the judge is going to see that scar on his head and send him to a psychiatrist who will say he’s not competent to stand trial, and maybe he’ll go to a state mental hospital, or maybe he’ll just go home.”
I stared at him. He shrugged again as if to say What are ya gonna do?
The next day I found the patient reading his Bible. I wondered if he even remembered what he had done. So I asked.
A cloud passed over his face. “I killed my wife,” he said.
“Do you remember why?” I asked.
“I was angry.”
His memory was intact, but sometimes patients with temporal and frontal lobe damage will be incapable of remorse. “How do you feel about that now?” I asked.
The cloud came back. “I feel bad,” he said. “I loved her.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “I’m not that person anymore.”
In his last statement, he was entirely correct. Due to his self-inflicted wound, his temporal lobe and frontal lobe were significantly damaged, and changes to his emotional responses and intellectual capabilities were undeniable. He may be incapable of anger. In a way, he was broken. Yet the changes left no outward signs. Even the scar became hidden as his hair grew back.
I once watched a man in Wyoming break a horse. The horse was dangerous and useless, but expensive with good breeding and therefore worth saving if at all possible. As a last resort the horse had been sent to the trainer from New Mexico. Unless the horse could become trainable and safe, it would be euthanized.
The horse bucked and snorted in his stall before being released to a circular corral about forty feet in diameter. The man stood in the middle of the corral with only a light six-foot flexible rod and let the horse run around him, seemingly oblivious to the threat of crashing hooves and sharp teeth. He then described his own life, full of passion and rage and despair, and stated he and the horse were alike until, on the eve of his own self-destruction, he was broken and began a redeemed life. Over the next hour he talked to us about redemption as he let the horse run, made himself vulnerable to the horse, thereby building trust, and then gave the horse the opportunity to submit. He never touched the horse with his rod or his hand until near the end of the hour when he faced the now calm animal, stroked his muzzle, and placed a halter on his head. Then he mounted and rode around the ring. The horse was no longer the dangerous bucking bronco that had entered the ring. The changes left no outward sign, but the horse was “broken.”
I know that within myself is a streak that is wild and self-serving and ultimately destructive. It is the voice that tells me that only I know what is best for myself, that life is short and I need to get what I want now, that I need to free myself from the people and the rules that restrain me. This voice echoes the wild spirit of the stallion, the spirit that would have led to its destruction, and I expect that it echoes the demon voices that drove my patient to murder.
We all needed that spirit to be broken before we could become whole–at least whole in the sense of fulfilling our best destiny. In other words, we needed to be broken to be healed.
But I don’t think we can break ourselves. My patient may have come close by trying to destroy himself. But the horse needed a gentle trainer. And I also have a gentle trainer; His name is Jesus.
When we are broken, we can be redeemed from the wild and self-serving spirit that leads to rage and lust and alcohol and drugs and despair, the things that hold us in back from our best selves. The best of us are broken.