Struggle with Mental Illness Ends with Death

From The Oregonian, April 20, 1997 – not available online

On the last day of her life, Emily Comeaux put on angel earrings, bought a $350 revolver, wrote a goodbye letter to her daughter and laid her 37 years of demons to eternal rest.

Tortured by multiple personalities and an abusive past, Comeaux spent the last month of her life asking for help. Her plea tested the limits of the mental health system to deal with a person who thought she knew what she needed.

On April 12, she walked into the Providence Crisis Triage Center in Northeast Portland and asked one last time.

But Comeaux, a mental health worker herself, could wait no longer for an answer. She slid the .38-caliber handgun from her Dooney & Bourke purse and calmly angled it into the front of her burnt-orange cardigan.

Born Dawn Elizabeth Comeaux, she called herself Emily — the personality, of the 23 she believed she had, who was sane enough to cope with life.

Emily pulled the trigger.

“I’m real sorry to do this to you but sometimes it takes a death to make a major change in a corrupt and incompetent system. I have fought for health and had to fight the mental health system every step of the way. In effect, their `treatment’ has killed me. . . .

“This is so unfair to you but my death will hopefully save other people with my illness to stay alive.”

Comeaux wrote one last letter to “the one true gift of love this life ever gave me”: her daughter, Mariah, who had come into her life 19 years ago, after Comeaux was raped.

A volunteer who worked to help others navigate the mental health system, Comeaux was laying the groundwork for what she considered her last act of advocacy.

Her death marked a tragic end to her efforts to keep her psychological demons in check — a battle Comeaux thought she knew how to win. She just needed the mental health system to play its part.

The system thought it was doing just that. Jump-started in January with the opening of the Crisis Triage Center , crisis care in Multnomah County was coordinated instead of dispersed.

“Within hours before she actually committed suicide, she had been under rather intense attention on the part of a number of people involved in her treatment,” said Floyd Martinez, director of the Multnomah County Behavioral Health Division, which contracts with Providence to provide crisis mental health care.

The state is leading a routine investigation into her death to identify how the system did or didn’t work. Providence and The Oregon Advocacy Center, where Comeaux volunteered, also are investigating.

“Now you listen real close to this. I DID NOT GIVE UP. I fought with every ounce of strength I had, you saw me fight, watched the battle many years. I’m not gone, you just can’t talk to me for a while. Baby I know this is going to hurt real bad but I also know I raised a fighter with a loud voice to shout that the system is wrong. I am doing this to help others.”

Seven years ago, at age 30, Comeaux began to cry. She couldn’t stop.

She had returned to Oregon, the picture of success. She had become the youngest assistant vice president of a Minneapolis stock brokerage. She married another stockbroker in Lake Oswego.

But the marriage lasted only 15 months.

And her mental health began to deteriorate after she ran into members of her birth family at an aunt’s funeral.

“They tortured her,” her foster mother, Martine D. “Marty” Petersen, said of Comeaux’s early life. The torture, she thought, ranged from electric shocks to sexual abuse. Comeaux came to dread each March, when spring equinox and Easter triggered memories of satanic ritual abuse.

Some of Comeaux’s alter egos — women, men and children who inhabited her body — tried to tear her eyes out “because of things she had seen,” said Petersen, who took the girl in at age 15.

Comeaux first had tried to kill herself when she was 6.

She took an overdose of sleeping pills. She later told a friend she remembered it as a peaceful, pleasant experience: It got her out of the house.

The girl had learned early on that when the blood and tears started, the abuse stopped.

During the next 31 years, Comeaux tried to hang herself, slashed her arms and throat, jumped off roofs, took repeated drug overdoses and burned herself with cigarettes.

“You finish college, marry that sweet young man that adores you. Then the two of you find a good church to go to, raise a few babies and love each other forever. Create a life for yourself that I always wanted for you.”

In 1990, Comeaux entered a mental hospital for the first time. She spent two weeks in the mental health unit at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, then was committed to Eastern Oregon Psychiatric Center for several months as a danger to herself.

By November 1992, Comeaux was committed to Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville. When she left Ward L in April 1994, her diagnosis was multiple personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia nervosa.

“She was actually at what I’d say was her worst at Dammasch,” Petersen said. “I spent a Christmas Eve with her where she told me goodbye because she just had to die.”

During those 17 months in Dammasch, Comeaux attempted suicide. She also devoured books on multiple personality disorder.

Her foster mother, meanwhile, found a center in Colorado that specialized in the controversial areas of ritual abuse, multiple personality and dissociative disorders.

Comeaux listened to tapes from the Colorado experts about how to calm the trauma in her alter personalities. She used the method when she felt the urge to harm herself.

“She had so many things that were still repressed,” Peterson said.

“It seems as if death is the only power for systemic change. My only options were the state hospital system (which we both know is useless and cruel), private therapy which will bankrupt poor (friend) Wendy and she needs that money to help you recover.”

Comeaux got better. She worked to put her core personality, Emily, back in “executive position.” Emily kept a tight grip on the other personalities, some of them suicidal.

Once she left Dammasch, she worked as a pharmacy technician, graduating first in her class at Oregon Health Sciences University. She worked on a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Portland State University.

But as the spring equinox approached in 1995, Comeaux relapsed. This time, however, she was ready.

She checked herself into Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. She worked out a treatment plan with therapists and nurses — a plan that called for physical restraints to protect her from herself, no drug therapy and time to do the “internal work” she learned from the tapes.

The plan seemed to succeed.

She returned to work. March 1996 came and went without incident. She earned a college degree in August. In October, she took a part-time, night-shift job at The Ryles Center in Southeast Portland, a 16-bed mental health center. In December, the center gave her a full-time job as a unit coordinator, an administrative position that she plunged into “125 percent,” said Patti Williamson, her supervisor.

Williamson said Comeaux was a gentle motivator, awarding gold stars to employees who properly used a system for signing out medical charts. Workers with enough gold stars could trade them in for chocolate chip cookies.

She wowed physicians with her flawless medical transcriptions, her organization and her knowledge of psychiatric medications and terminology.

Comeaux seemed happy.

This February, she went to the center’s Chinese New Year’s party decked out in a satiny pink outfit that she’d spent days thinking about.

This year, she figured, March would be no problem.

“Of course all I have, what little that is, is yours. Sell the car. . . . My belly dancing costumes are worth bucks, put an ad in the paper, the beaded belts are worth up to hundreds of dollars. Sell the gun, it’s worth 350.00. I know that may sound gauche but I raised a practical girl who knows the value of money and you’ll need it.”

March opened like a surprise vortex and swallowed Emily Comeaux.

On March 14, she tried to commit suicide by injecting herself with insulin. Her roommate rushed her to Providence St. Vincent. She survived.

Put me in physical restraints, she told a psychiatrist — just as her 1995 treatment plan called for. Instead, he issued a Notice of Mental Illness, which allows a hospital to keep a patient involuntarily.

The pattern repeated itself during the next two weeks. She was placed on involuntary hold five times. She overdosed again, this time on fast-acting insulin. On Easter, she slashed herself with a razor blade at home.

On her last night, in her Southeast Portland duplex, Emily Comeaux slept deeply with her cat Smudge nestled on her chest.

After her morning coffee, she bought a gun.

Friends called during the day. For the first time in weeks, Comeaux’s voice rang with strength.

Between calls, Comeaux sat on a white plastic chair in front of her laptop computer, a patch of gentle sunshine warming her hardwood floor.

She tapped out her goodbyes.

“I just hurt too damn much and need some peace,” she wrote. “I don’t have the time or money any more to pursue mental health. It hurts me more each time and steal the life from my soul.”

Mariah and her boyfriend dropped by for a visit about 2:30.

Her mother turned from her computer to chat with the young couple about their weekend plans. They left nearly an hour later. Comeaux gathered her daughter in a warm embrace.

When Comeaux finished her work, she removed the floppy disk and placed it in her black nylon computer bag, already stuffed with hospital papers, a hairbrush, sugarless gum and dental floss.

She slung her purse over her shoulder and took the basement steps down to her red Toyota Paseo with vanity license plates: CODE44.

Code 44, in the mental health system, means escape.

The slender woman with light brown hair walked into the Providence Crisis Triage Center and calmly asked the receptionist for several doctors by name. They weren’t there.

“I need to see someone,” she said. The receptionist produced a clipboard of paperwork. The woman declined and walked out.

Minutes later, she returned. This time, she had a purse.

She spoke softly to the receptionist, who again handed her the paperwork.

“I don’t think so,” the slender woman said.

She backed up and looked toward the hall that led to the treatment area.

“I need help now,” she said.

A blast pierced the stillness of the room. The bullet penetrated the slender woman’s chest and rocketed through the window, several feet away from an older woman who sat alone in the waiting room.

Comeaux’s body lay on a gurney in the medical examiner’s office.

A friend touched the place where the bullet had entered. Then she looked down at the stomach, exposed beneath a hiked-up sweater.

There was her tattoo — the one Comeaux got after her release from Dammasch. It had three butterflies and a single word: “Hope.”

“I’ll be around, you can count on it. I’ll be in every star, every dandelion and black and orange caterpillar. I’ll be in daffodils, playing with cats and rats.”