Making It Back: Bruce Simpson tried to take his own life, then he started healing
I have practiced law in Kentucky for 40 years, and I write this today to warn you about reaching the point of no return should you ever determine, as I did in January 2023, that death is a better option than life.
Yes, I attempted suicide. Now, the facts.
During the last half of my career, I had heard it said, “Bruce, you have an excellent reputation as a lawyer.”
I cherished hearing these words. My self-worth became increasingly dependent on receiving such positive affirmation. This is because I have had low self-esteem for most of my life. I masked it well, but beginning in early adolescence, I suffered from untreated and sometimes paralyzing depression—a problem I did not recognize, appreciate or obtain treatment for until after my significant life crisis in January 2023. I was in my mid-40s before I began feeling better about myself, but that was only because I started experiencing major success as a lawyer.
In early 2022, doctors diagnosed me with atrial fibrillation, which required hospitalization. In May 2022, I sustained a brain bleed (hemorrhagic stroke) from a fall and was hospitalized four times during the next seven months. The brain bleed exacerbated a preexisting cognitive memory impairment related to my depression that I did not know I had until it was too late.
In January 2023, I received a shocking adverse decision from an appellate court that noted I had not filed a responsive brief in a case I won at the trial court level. Instantly, I was crushed by more anxiety than I knew existed. How could I not have filed a brief in a case I won? I could not believe I hurt my clients, and I saw my “excellent reputation” disintegrate. I was up all night, overcome with grief, sorrow and humiliation.
In less than 12 hours, I concluded that suicide was my only option. I had previously thought about suicide should my self-esteem ever be seriously threatened. I had to be perfect as a lawyer, and anything less was unacceptable. I never took any steps to ameliorate my depression and thoughts of suicide. Such is the nature of depression. A person suffering from depression often is constrained from seeking help.
Preparing to carry out my plan
I went to a gun shop to buy a powerful pistol. I had not fired a weapon since serving two years in the Army 50 years ago. I knew of people who failed in their suicide attempts by gun only to live out their days in tortured agony and dependency. I did not want this. I was advised to purchase a .357 Magnum revolver and hollow-point bullets. As I was shown how to load and fire the gun, I paid close attention. I intended to be successful.
Then I went home and wrote a note to my family. I love my family, but I thought I had disgraced them—and myself—beyond restoration. I emailed my clients, advising them of the appellate court decision and their appeal rights. I also recommended that they retain new counsel. But I did not tell them what I was going to do.
I took an Uber to the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. Before exiting the Uber, I texted a partner, advised him of my error and apologized.
I milled around the cemetery, pausing momentarily before pulling out the gun. Alone, I thought, “Really, Simpson—Is this how you want your life to end? Is this how you want to be remembered?”
My cellphone started blowing up with calls—my wife clearly had found my note. I turned off my phone. I did not want to be dissuaded. I had reached the point of no return.
I wondered if the gun would fire, so I test-fired a round into the ground. I was stunned by the loudness and kickback. I knew the shot would attract attention, so I called 911 and reported that I discovered a body. I removed the spent shell and then pulled the hammer back from the pistol, watching the next bullet rotate into the firing chamber like the previous bullet did during the test-firing. I pointed the gun to the side of my head, and I pulled the trigger.
But the gun did not fire—it merely clicked. I was dumbfounded. I intended to kill myself. What happened? I knew the police would arrive soon, and I did not want to shoot myself while an officer was approaching, so I put the gun in my pocket. The officer drove up, stopping next to me. I told him I was wrong about the body, that it was a garbage bag.
He said, “No problem, thanks for reporting it anyway.” He drove away.
Calling an old friend
Totally bewildered, I walked out of the cemetery. A thought entered my mind to call a former close friend, Bruce Smith, also an attorney. We had been friends for years, but we had two hotly contested cases opposite each other and the relationship soured. I had not thought about calling him in five years. If he did not answer, I would return to the cemetery and finish it. But he answered, and he agreed to talk.
He picked me up, and we went to a bar. We talked for 2½ hours, and we healed our friendship. Nevertheless, I was still determined to return to the cemetery and kill myself. I never disclosed this to Bruce. When it came time to leave, I asked Bruce to drop me off at the gas station across from the cemetery, and I would wait for an Uber.
As I departed his car, he asked, “Where are you going?”
I told him, “To wait for an Uber.”
He said, “No, it’s cold; I will wait with you,”
I said, “No, go ahead, it is late.”
He said, “I’m waiting with you.”
I attempted to leave his car three times that night for the cemetery, and each time he stopped me. He subsequently took me home.
Driving down my street toward my house, we observed five or six police cars.
Bruce looked at me and demanded, “What the hell is going on?”
I muttered something ridiculously unbelievable. I asked him to drive me to the main road 2 miles away.
As I finally left his car, Bruce grabbed my arm and asked, “You are going home, right?”
I lied again and said yes. I still intended to kill myself, but after leaving his car, I had a sudden change in thinking. I could not kill myself after he had driven 12 miles to take me home. I could not leave Bruce with that memory.
As I walked home, I experienced an enveloping sense of peace, in stark contrast to the nightmarish distress that had consumed me. My suicidal thoughts abated. Approaching my home, I noticed the police cars were gone. I telephoned my wife. She was ecstatic. She bolted out the front door crying and hugged me. She was elated and devastated at the same time.
My wife called the police, advising them of my return. Shortly, two police cars and a paramedic unit appeared. I told them my desire for suicide had ceased. But a police officer said that because of my threatened action, I would have to be detained for three days at Eastern State Hospital. My gun was confiscated. A police officer searched me for other weapons and then escorted me outside. I was handcuffed and lodged in the backseat of a cruiser, all in front of my home and neighbors.
En route to the hospital, I recalled my past inappropriate comments about people in mental hospitals. I was put in an unlocked room and checked on every 15 minutes. Staff had to unlock the restroom when I needed to use it and be in the bathroom when I showered.
I was truthful in my responses to all questions, but I did not volunteer that I pulled the trigger or that I tried multiple times that night to finish my mission. I was afraid if I told them this, they might confine me longer than three days. I shared only that I had changed my mind about suicide.
During my stay at Eastern State Hospital, a clinical psychologist, Dr. Donald Crowe, helped me understand that my self-worth should be based on who I am, not what I do in my profession. Through diagnostic testing, he discovered that I had a cognitive memory impairment. Physicians at the University of Kentucky later confirmed this, and they said my depression most likely caused the memory impairment. These physicians ruled out dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. I learned that my memory problem could be substantially, if not totally, corrected with the healing of the brain bleed, appropriate medication, nutrition and proper sleep. I have improved considerably and got progressively better. But for my involuntary commitment, I would have never gained this valuable insight and information.
Understanding mental health care
Ten days after my attempted suicide, I met with my clients. I apologized and informed them of their right to sue me and the statute of limitations. I still think about my mistake almost every day, but I am no longer suicidal.
Before all this, I had been highly skeptical of counseling’s efficacy. I was convinced that by sheer willpower, anyone could conquer what I thought were merely “emotional problems.”
I was wrong. Competent counseling combined with appropriate medication is immensely helpful. My internist, Dr. Chitra Raghavan; my clinical psychologist, Dr. Marty Seitz; and my nurse practitioner, Kristy Carter, helped save my life.
But too many people have prejudicial attitudes about those who need mental health care. A stigma attaches to mental health treatment that does not attach to treatment for cancer, heart disease and the like. Yet the pain and incapacity from being mentally overwhelmed can be as pernicious as any physical malady we readily acknowledge. I know—I have experienced both.
As I started to heal, I began reading about suicide, its contributing risk factors and its incidence. The threat of suicide is significant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide rates increased 36% between 2000 and 2018, and decreased 5% between 2018 and 2020. However, the rates returned to their peak in 2021. There were 48,183 suicides in the United States in 2021, or one death every 11 minutes. Lawyers are two to three times more likely to consider suicide than nonlawyers over 18.
But why publicly share these intimate, personal revelations, which may unnecessarily generate doubts about my fitness to practice a profession I love, especially since my memory and mental health have greatly improved? I have had four major hearings since Jan. 25, and I performed exceptionally well. I feel better mentally and think more clearly than I ever have. I have backup support from other attorneys with whom I co-counsel on every case. We divide the work so there is no additional cost to the client.
Here is why I am sharing this: People are more vulnerable to being mentally shattered, given certain life crises, than they sometimes can appreciate. I do not want anyone I can influence—lawyer or not—to descend into an unstoppable spiral to the point of no return.
I am grateful to have another chance—not everybody attempting suicide gets one. I have witnessed the wreckage a suicide attempt can have on one’s family and friends. It is gut-wrenching. I can only imagine the horrific suffering of family members and friends of someone who dies by suicide. I did not realize the catastrophic impact suicide can have on others when I planned my own.
We have one opportunity in life, of course, and as miserable as it may get, such hardships can be mitigated and even remedied with assistance. Some of us may need more help than others. Our future can be better than our past. I am experiencing it.
Speak up and seek help
But we must stop whispering about suicide when we learn of someone’s attempt. It should not be the subject of juicy gossip that must be immediately and “secretly” shared. This is harmful. On the contrary, I appreciated the few people who compassionately reached out to offer me support when they learned of my attempt.
The data is compelling that suicide is an escalating public health problem. As a society, we must institute prompt and improved measures that address suicide prevention. Moreover, as a profession, if we proceed with the same ineffective response, what does this say about our concern for young people aspiring to be lawyers? We owe them and fellow attorneys of today more than what we are doing. We are killing ourselves at an alarming rate. Emergency assistance is available 24 hours per day via by calling 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Help is also available via your state bar association’s Lawyer Assistance Program.
I do not know the answers. I have ideas. I am available to listen and share with any lawyer contemplating suicide. I am not a licensed counselor. I am only a volunteer with the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program.
But I am also someone who has been to the bottomless abyss of the darkest place. I am not sure I will ever be able to articulate with enough clarity the awfulness of the worst place any human being can venture. I do not want you to go there. There is a path forward that is not permeated with sadness or misery. Rewarding therapeutic help is available, and more importantly, it works! Please, for yourself, your family and your friends, reach out for it.
This story was originally published in the December 2023-January 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Making It Back: Bruce Simpson tried to take his own life. Then he started healing.”
Bruce Simpson is a solo practitioner in Lexington, Kentucky.