ANTIGO, Wis.— James Randel points to the spot on his right temple where the scar was left behind. Then, he does the same thing on the left side, where another scar remains.
The mark on the right side of his temple was where the bullet entered, and the blemish on the left side was where it exited, stopping in the wall above his television.
“I shot myself in the head with a gun,’’ he said, in the matter-of-fact tone one might use when they stubbed their toe.
He uses his finger to make small circles around the scars. He can feel them, but he can’t see them. His suicide attempt didn’t take his life, but it took his sight. He is completely blind.
“I had a lonely job. I had a lonely apartment. I hung out with one person,’’ he said of a life rife with depression, drinking and marijuana use.
He was single, 22 years old, but mostly kept to himself. He only explored the bar scene a couple of times a year, preferring to stay at home and drink alone, up to a fifth of vodka a day. An accumulation of distressing incidents led him to the bars this night in 2019, but he was home by 10 p.m., and alone once more. The emptiness consumed him. He owned a gun, and he reached for it.
“Yeah, sometimes you wish you didn’t make it,’’ he said. “I think that’s most of it. Sometimes, you wish you didn’t make it. The whole thing is, like, you don’t really realize how vulnerable you are until afterward. I was completely useless. I mean, if somebody left me there, I would have been just done for, and I wouldn’t have even known. So, like you think about that stuff afterward. It gives you stomach tickles, it gives you shivers.’’
They often describe suicide as an impulsive act. A whim that can last for just a few minutes, or a few hours. For many, it is a see-saw battle inside their brain.
“Suicide attempters often have second thoughts,’’ Dr. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist for the Mayo Clinic, told the New York Times in 2016 following a 20-year study on first suicide attempts. “But when a method, like a gun, works so effectively, there’s no opportunity to reconsider.”
In another study done in the Annals of Internal Medicine, it reported that in suicide attempts involving guns, nine out of 10 were fatal.
Randel was that one out of 10.
“They said if it would have been another centimeter in, then you’d just be a goner,’’ he said of the doctors who handled his recovery.
He had no clue. James Randel had just put a gun to his head, pulled the trigger and, somehow, he was still conscious. All his mental capacities remained intact, his cognitive thought process operating as normal.
“I literally got undressed and went to bed,’’ he said. “I woke up with a headache and my bed was all slopping wet. I figured it was sweat, but it was all blood. I remember going to the freezer, grabbing an ice pack, and putting it on my head. My frickin’ eyeball was popping out of my head; I felt that.’’
He could have bled to death. It appeared that would be his fate. But chance then intervened on Randel’s behalf.
A girl he was seeing texted him. And she texted him again. But Randel couldn’t see his phone and thus could not answer. So she called. He began to frantically tap his finger on his phone. Finally, his finger and the “Accept” button connected.
“I just kept clicking until I answered and said, ‘Hey, I think I’m having an allergic reaction. Can you send your dad over here?’’’ Randel said to the girl, whose father was an EMT.
“And what I thought I heard was, they were going out of town, that they weren’t coming. I’m like, ‘All right, you need to call my dad and have him come over here and bring me to the hospital.’ So she said she was going to do that. I hung up. I got dressed, and that’s when I heard a vehicle pull up. So, I remember, I went to the front door. But then as soon as I walked out and turned the corner, the paramedic turned the corner and he looked at me and started swearing and everything; he’d never seen anything like that. He was immediately like, ‘Man, looks like you got shot.’ I was just like, ‘No, no. I think I hit my head. I’ve been drinking and stuff.’’’
He was taken by ambulance to Appleton, then put on a Flight for Life helicopter to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, one of only two Level 1 adult trauma centers in the state. After several weeks there, he returned to Antigo to live with his father and brother and try to come to grips with the fact that he not only tried and failed to take his life, but that he will never see again.
“You know, from time to time, when I’m sitting alone on my bed, you know, I’ll just be kind of sitting there and it will pop into my head, ‘Hey, I’m frickin’ blind,’’’ Randel said. “And I’ll get like a stomach tickle. It’s just, like, the most helpless feeling you can think of. Even when you drop stuff, you’ll think of it. I can’t simply look for something that drops.’’
One wonders if he feels more anger that he is blind, or regret that he tried to kill himself and failed.
“Golly, that’s a good one,’’ he said. “That’s a good one.
“So the doctors at Froedtert told me that when you lose your sight, you replace it with your emotions. So, like, things did get heightened quite a bit. My temper has been flaring up. I get depressed for no reason, more than usual. So, I’m usually a temper kind of guy, so I’d say I’ve been more angry about it. And then times when I’m alone, probably more depressed about it. So hard to say, dude, just kind of a mixture of everything. We’re kind of like a bucket of emotions.’’
Those emotions once took him to the darkest of places. Given everything, you ask if they have tried to take him there again.
“I have what I call passive thoughts,’’ he said of suicide. “I wouldn’t actively try and kill myself and, if I were to (have those thoughts), I know the steps I need to take because I have taken steps recently when I became depressed again. I do therapy, have been on medications, have seen psychiatrists; all that stuff.
“So pretty much anytime if I think I’m suicidal, my passive suicidal thoughts are getting too bad, I will definitely get a hold of somebody. I mean, when I first got home, yeah, I thought of it. Who wouldn’t? And I tried to take my life for a reason. It’s difficult.’’
James Randel is leaning against a wall, staring at the phone in his hand. And, yes, to the outside world, that would seem like an odd thing for a blind person to be doing.
“This works good, man,’’ he said. “Probably can use it just as good as yours. There’s a feature called VoiceOver. Everywhere I put my finger, it tells me what’s there and then all I got to do is double tap it to activate. So for example (he taps his iPhone, and it relays the time), that’s how I keep track of time. You know when I text, I’ll just basically do the voice input. I’ll find what’s called a dictation button. Go ahead and press that and I’ll say what I need to say, I’ll stop, and it will read it back to me. If I need privacy, I’ll put my headphones in. If I need privacy for my screen, I can triple tap with three fingers, it’ll turn my screen off but keep my phone on. I mean, heck dude, I can send pictures.’’
And you thought your phone was important.
“So let me tell you how boring my life would be without this, dude,’’ he said. “Wow, like, if I didn’t have this, I would have just gone insane long ago because I would just be sitting there. Because most of my time is spent doing either podcasts or reading (audible) books or texting. This is very important. This is very important. I pretty much use it for everything. I can download apps that can, like, that I can put it on something and it’ll tell me whether a washing machine is in front of me, or what color it is. I can download apps that I can open it up in front of me and an actual person will be on there and help me out. So if I need something read to me… I can do everything. I can do everything with this. I recommend it for any blind person.’’
His phone has literally become his best friend. That’s a good thing in the sense he knows he can rely on it. In a human sense, it’s not a good thing.
“It’s really hard to make friends,’’ he said. “Being blind, and I don’t know what it is, some people think they have to, like, baby me. I don’t know if people just… I don’t know what it is. I just cannot make friends. I haven’t made a legitimate friend in three years.’’
In the weeks and months following his return home, Randel literally created an indent in his bed where he sat for hours and days on end. He would wait for someone, anyone, to stop over. Nobody did.
“Basically what I did was sit, and wait for maybe somebody to come along and want to hang out or something,’’ he said. “Just did a lot of playing the guitar and sit there listening to podcasts and was bored a lot. And, I don’t know, sometimes you can, like, just go crazy because you know the guys (his father and brother) have to work. So I’m sitting there alone all frickin’ day. And I’ve never even experienced emotions this intense. Like, sometimes, I would have to get up and call CoVantage Credit Union just so I could hear somebody’s voice.’’
Yes, a random call to a stranger at his credit union got him through the day.
“Dude, yeah. I would call them and say, ‘Can I switch some money around’ and do this and that, and I’d be good after that,’’ he said. “I’ve been so much better lately since I’ve been getting used to it, but it got to that point where you get that desperate and call CoVantage.’’
Sight is not all Randel lost. His sense of smell is gone as well, and his ability to taste things has changed.
Both of his eyes are artificial, and metal now makes up a large part of the right side of his face.
It’s a lot to endure. But that’s what Randel chooses to do.
“I’m mostly happy,’’ he said. “Because, you know, when I first became blind, it was obviously a tragedy, and it’s, like, ‘What can I do?’ But as you go on, you learn stuff and it’s like, ‘OK, it’s not as hard as I thought it was gonna be.’ So, I am pretty thankful that I’m alive. Just a bad day here and there.’’
He initially worked at Goodwill NCW, a job that helped give him confidence in what he could accomplish and provided social interaction, but eventually chose to leave that position. What it afforded him was the opportunity to help, which is something that has become very important to him.
“Honestly, at home, my husband is losing his eyesight to a genetic disease,’’ said Anne Rickert, the store leader. “He’s been progressing for the last six years. We’re dealing with it as we go. He’s going to be totally blind. So I’ve actually asked James for tips because he handles it so well.’’
Randel has talked about going back to college to pursue a business degree and one day run his own lumber mill, and is also looking for a different job. But, right now, his future is unclear. He isn’t certain of a lot of things, except for this:
“For anybody who needs help, ask for help,’’ he said. “Because before I shot myself, I did ask for help. Unfortunately, I asked the wrong person who didn’t take the right steps. And, if you take the right steps, you’ll be fine. Because these are steps (now) that are being taken after the fact. And I regret not taking the steps beforehand. It’s not hard. Nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t have to tell anybody. Just go do the right thing. Get some help.’’
Story idea? You can reach Mike Woods at 920-246-6321 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org