Jim Whitlock checked into the motel at 6:10 on a Monday night. He paid cash.

At 6:30, he walked across the street to a liquor store and bought a fifth of Jose Cuervo Gold and took it back to his room.

He sat at the table and laid out three whole limes, a container of salt, and a shot glass. With his pocket knife, he cut the limes into quarters and laid them out in a perfect row.

Then he took three pictures out of his wallet: Two boys and a girl. The photos had the dog-eared look that comes with being taken out a lot.

He put the photos on the table where he could see them, cracked open the bottle of Jose and poured a shot.

He sprinkled some salt on his hand and tossed the shot.

“For you Charlie.”

He licked the salt from his hand and sucked on a quarter of lime. The Cuervo felt good. Damn good.

Whitlock poured another shot, sprinkled some more salt, and tossed it down.

“You too Aaron.” Another slice of lime.

More salt, another shot, another lime.

“Kathy, this one’s for you.”

He saluted each of his kids five times as he downed shot after shot.

Then he put the .22 caliber pistol against his temple and pulled the trigger.

The force of the bullet knocked Whitlock off his chair, blood pouring from his temple. The sound of the gun reverberated through the room, loud enough to startle the couple next door. They called the front desk, who called the cops.

When the police arrived 20 minutes later, they found Whitlock on the floor, pale, bloody and – somehow – still breathing. The cops called the paramedics.

At the hospital, the surgeon figured he would have to drill into Whitlock’s skull to relieve the pressure from a traumatic bullet wound. But the skull was intact. The ER staff shaved Whitlock’s head and found the bullet just below the skin at the back of his head.

“He must have held the gun at just the right angle to allow the slug to glance off the skull and travel around the head under the skin,” trauma surgeon Alan Evinson remembered afterwards. “In 30 years of treating gunshot wounds, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Whitlock was released from the hospital the next day.

That was four years ago, but Jim Whitlock remembers that night like it was yesterday.

His marriage of 21 years had ended, his wife got custody of the kids and the judge said Whitlock was too dangerous to see his kids without supervision. So he checked into the hotel and decided to end it all.

“At first, I was pissed off. I thought, boy, am such a screwup I can’t even blow my brains out properly. But the more I thought about it, the madder I got, but I was mad because I was giving up too easily. No way.”

It’s been four years, two months and 19 days since Whitlock killed off the bottle of Tequila. He knows exactly because that bottle was his last drink. For four years, two months and 19 days, Whitlock has been working on putting his life back together and showing a judge that he can see his kids without someone around to make sure he’s safe.

He’s not there yet. His ex-wife has blocked every move to have the visitation orders modified, but Whitlock says he will make it. She has used his attempted suicide as an indication of instability.

“Maybe it’s unstable to her, but that night was the single most clarifying moment in my life. Shooting yourself in the head and then living to talk about it adds a lot of clarity to things.”

For one thing, Jim Whitlock has a different view of guns.

“You know all those kooks who prance around saying guns kill people? Well, I put a gun to my head and saved my life. Weird ain’t it?”

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC