This day is designated as “Suicide Prevention Day.” The Internet is chock full of exhortations to DO SOMETHING to prevent suicide.
I must admit that I think a lot about something that could be labeled as suicide.
The conditions one thinks of as being most likely to cause a person to consider bringing their life to a close are devastating physical illnesses such as terminal cancer, ALS, incurable painful diseases of various kinds. Physical diseases, you know.
But what about the pain of mental illness?
This is taboo. It is “the easy way out,” it is to be prevented at all costs.
At this point, I must insert a caveat:
I do not intend this piece to suggest to anyone that they consider suicide as a way of treating psychological pain. NO.
Mental illness is generally treatable. Some forms of mental illness are indeed temporary, such as most postpartum depression, and situational depression, and appropriate grief, which is often labeled and treated as a form of mental illness. Most forms of mental illness can be palliated to the point where they are at least bearable. Some people are fortunate to find medicines or other treatments that successfully treat their symptoms such that they are indeed able to live healthy, productive lives.
But what happens when every possible treatment has been given a fair chance, and nothing has worked, and the person is left living with unbearable psychic pain?
Is psychic pain by definition less painful than physical pain, say, that of bone cancer?
I would argue not.
In my own case, I have lived with mental illness all of my life. I became aware of it at age three. At age seven, I began to dissociate as a way of escaping from the pain. I had no connection to most other people.
As I grew up, the pain grew too. I did self-destructive things. I tried blotting it all out by over-achieving. Nothing worked. The pain began to overtake me, wash me away like a tsunami. A tornado.
I killed myself by inhaling a gas. Someone found me and resuscitated me. I hated them. I went on living.
Since then I have manufactured reasons to live: I wanted to graduate. I wanted to graduate again. And again. I wanted to get married. I wanted to get married again (no more!). I can’t do this to my son. Who would take care of my dog? Et cetera. I make bargains with myself. I feel better for a few hours once in a while. I see a beautiful flower, an elk, a stream with fish in it. I read a great book. Then the pain hits again, and only the deep, drugged sleep–if my body will respond to drugs, which it sometimes refuses to do, when a mixed bipolar state overcomes me–(and by the way, mixed state is the most dangerous of all, for suicidal behaviors)–can give me a few hours of blessed relief. Then, all I can do is hope that when I awake I will feel better. Sometimes that even happens.
Then there is the physical illness, which will eventually lead to at least hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body), and probably eventual quadriplegia. Even now, by the end of the day I am unable to hold objects in my left hand. From its source at the place where the nerves emerge from the left side of my neck to the tips of my fingers, throbbing pain and tingling and numbness and weakness and spasms. Sounds like a walk in the park, doesn’t it? Yes, I have been offered surgery, at the expense of a 25% chance of waking up quadriplegic. No thanks, I’ll take my chances with the natural process.
This, combined with the depression, is just barely tolerable. But I keep on keeping on, because I still have things to live for, and I still have ways of dulling the pain when it overwhelms me.
I do have an end point in mind, but I haven’t reached it yet.
I have goals: I want to see my son graduate with his Ph.D. I’d really like to see him married, but there’s no guarantee of that, since his last girlfriend dumped him the day before he was planning to propose. We shall see.
Of course I’ve been sent a sick dog who needs me. Her life, like mine, and like everybody’s, is self-limited. We shall see.
In exactly three years, my income will disappear. I will have Social Security, which does not even cover the cost of my medicines plus Medicare premiums, let alone other expenses of living. I am totally disabled, mentally and physically. I have no other means of support. This, then, if nothing else magically shows up, or if nothing else intervenes, is the end of the road.
For me, this is not a dreaded outcome, but a comfort. It gives me a timeline. There are things I want to accomplish. I want to finish the books I’m writing. That’s becoming more difficult, because my left hand can no longer type. I’ve tried and tried to get Dragon Dictate to recognize my speech, but I have some kind of palsy that affects my tongue, and Dragon just isn’t up to the task. (I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that my fingerprints have also disappeared. That’s it! Laura, the one-handed safe-cracker!)
Yesterday I read an article in a medical journal, written by a physician in Belgium, where, like Switzerland and Holland, psychic suffering is considered to be on a par with physical suffering. In these three countries, euthanasia is legal, and people suffering from intractable psychic pain are permitted, after extensive evaluation by three separate psychiatrists, to request euthanasia by means of thiopental, a potent barbiturate. Only about half of the people who apply are accepted, and of those who are, less than half actually go ahead and take the medicine. Those who don’t said that just knowing they have the means gives them the strength to go on living. Those who do take it most often die in their own homes, surrounded by their families, in peace. This alone is a vastly different scenario from the way most people with mental illness live: in isolation, stigmatized, shunned. If people who live in supportive communities, with loving families, still suffer psychic pain that is so intolerable that they opt for euthanasia, how much more the marginalized and stigmatized mentally ill of the rest of the world?
Before I stop my own narrative and give you a special life-affirming video, I want to emphasize:
I DO NOT ADVOCATE, OR BY MEANS OF TELLING MY PERSONAL STORY RECOMMEND, THAT ANYONE CONSIDER SUICIDE AS A SOLUTION TO THEIR OWN PAIN. MY STORY IS MINE ALONE, AND IS NOT TO BE CONSTRUED AS ADVICE OR SUGGESTION.