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A stark compilation of words to leave by

August 23, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — As a homicide detective, Rick Carlson's life revolved around death for a lot of years.

During his 35-year stint with the San Diego Police Department before retiring last year, he found ways to process what he'd seen. As an artist, he has painted pictures of murder scenes and created portraits of victims. He's also enjoyed some interesting offshoots of his work.

He has squired some of Hollywood's elite around town and is writing a screenplay about cops. He's also a major force behind the drive for a police museum in San Diego.

And now he has published a book, "I'm in the Tub, Gone," exploring what some people brood about in their final moments before committing suicide.

The slim volume (available through is a compilation of dozens of suicide notes collected by Carlson during his years on the force. The notes are angry, sad and sometimes weird. Some are laced with profanity; others approach the poetic in their desperation.

Carlson, 57, hopes his book may spur people to be more attuned to the pain of others that is driving them to self-destruction. "People just don't want to talk about suicide," he said. "It's like a secret little infection."

Names and some details have been changed or omitted to mask the identity of the writers. But otherwise the notes are just as Carlson and other officers found them during their investigations -- bad grammar, overwrought passion, F-words and all.

Some notes provide instructions to family members:

Please put me in a nice comfortable coffin with lots of pillows. Jeff, You got your wish that I kill myself and if there's a God I hope [you] burn in hell.

Even at the end, many people express their love for others:

I am doing this because I love you and [our] sons a lot. You don't need anymore heart aches From or about Me.

Or their inability to find love:

Sorry this is how

I have to go

I only wanted to love

Or be loved but was not

Good enough to let it show

There are often regrets, including those of one suicide victim who wrote, "I'm [annoyed] that I will miss the O.J. Simpson trial."

Alcohol or drugs are common themes, including the pain of living with someone addicted to one or the other:

Make up your mind

Us or alcohol

I told you that you were

Wearing me down, I guess

You didn't believe me. Maybe

It's for the better.

Some of the notes explain what the suicide victim has done to end his or her life (" ... took 2 bottles pills waiting to drift off forever ... ") or provide details of the person's last day. One man wrote a list of chores to accomplish:

"Grocery list"

Go to the store

Buy milk,

Buy bread,

Buy Eggs

Shoot Sam (a cat)

Shoot Self.

Carlson is still puzzled. "I always wondered why he found it necessary to do his shopping before he killed himself," he said.

Some of the notes were typed; most were handwritten. Some began with good penmanship but got sloppier and even illegible at the end, possibly as the person got angrier or the drugs or booze began to take control.

"A suicide note is like a textbook to someone's life," Carlson said.

Academics who have studied such notes say they commonly express a sense of hopelessness, of being overwhelmed by life's woes, of anger mixed with remorse and love.

"Suicide notes often show that the people do have things to live for but also reasons to die," said Dr. Eric Caine, suicide expert and chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical School. "Suicide is a very ambivalent act."

Academia has shown increasing interest in suicide in recent years, a trend spurred by a 1999 surgeon general's report calling for a national suicide prevention strategy. In coming weeks, the National Institute of Mental Health and other related health agencies will announce funding for several suicide research centers.

Not all suicide victims leave notes. Some studies put the figure at 10%, others as high as 33%. Whether the notes are representative of the overall "suicide population" is one of the things the mental health groups want to study.

The institute estimates that 30,000 people a year kill themselves, making suicide the 11th leading cause of death in the country. Untreated mental illness is a major factor in suicides, academics say. Carlson came to that same conclusion years ago in arriving at death scenes.

"I learned there's a lot of disturbed people out there," he said.

He has known several police officers who have killed themselves. None left a note. "It's probably part of the cop thing: keeping in your emotions," he said.

There is macabre humor in some notes:

All my love to you. You are the best. My fish likes you too.

Some notes try to blame a spouse for the fateful decision:

Maybe seeing the ocean today -- stop for oysters & wine, something might have made a difference, but you only wanted to get shoes and the car washed. Maybe a movie would have made a difference -- but you didn't want it.

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