Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Suicide Prevention Month

September has been National Suicide Prevention Month. That seems like a great idea; so why am I struggling with the concept? Between friends, families of friends, and friends of friends, I have entirely too much personal experience with suicide and would not wish to visit that kind of ordeal on my worst enemy. Still, the idea of depriving an individual of death on their terms seems equally wrong.


Looking at our society's schizophrenic approach to dealing with suicide, I can see I am not alone in my ambivalence. This November there will be a ballot issue (Proposition 106- "End of Life Options Act") seeking the legalization of physician-assisted suicide here in Colorado. Citizens in my home state of Oregon have had this legal recourse for some time already. At the same time, suicide is generally regarded as the "coward's way out," an ultimate sin just this side of murder. Why the polar opposite opinions?

I think we tend to draw the line based on what we interpret to be the intent of the victim in carrying out their lethal measures. Did the person do this to end their own suffering? If so, while tragic, we can comprehend it to a degree at least. If not, then we view suicide as punishment for those left behind, abandoned literally or figuratively. Few, if any, decisions we make impact only ourselves. Life-altering and life-ending rationales obviously stress a great many others.

It is only natural to feel conflicted on this issue. We are by nature selfish organisms. We want our loved ones and friends around for as long as we are, to give us comfort, to provide us with joy, love, counsel, and all the other positives that come from personal relationships. Just the same, if we truly love someone, we have to recognize the boundaries for personal decisions like suicide do not encompass us. We can choose only how we react in the aftermath.

Janet Adkins was the wife of my Boy Scout Troop Leader, Ron Adkins, and mother to three boys who were my friend, classmate, and friend respectively. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she turned to Dr. Jack Kevorkian to help her end her life. June 4, 1990, she did so, with the blessings of her family and friends. Anyone who knew the Adkins family knows that they did not reach this decision without a great degree of deliberation and mutual understanding. At the time, Alzheimer's was in no way treatable and both patient and family endured horrific emotional suffering. Mrs. Adkins did not want to visit that hell on her children and husband. I respect that and marvel at their resolve in the face of the public spotlight.

More recently, a dear friend and colleague apparently ended her own life after suffering decades of severe depression. The family is understandably quiet in the name of privacy and respect, but it seems an inescapable conclusion. I desperately wish they did not feel stigmatized if that is what happened. We have no right to demand that a person, no matter how much we love them, continue to endure excruciating pain, be it physical, psychological, or emotional, just for our own benefit. That is not love, that is the worst kind of selfishness. If you consider suicide a sin, maybe the real sin is in believing that you have any stake in determining how someone else lives their life, or decides to end it. Have you ever thought about it that way?

Don't look for the "healthcare system" to have mercy on you, either. The horrible truth is that no matter what our personal suffering, we are precious lives in the economic sense. The medical marketplace will twist and distort your sense of self in every way imaginable if it preserves your living, dollar-spending soul. We are not good at healthcare, but even worse at deathcare. The system will cling and claw until it can no longer drain you of any more financial blood. It is extremely convincing, to the point that it will turn surviving family members against your own desire for eternal peace.

So, this is what we need to prevent: the extension of life beyond the wishes of the individual affected. We need to prevent bullying, harassment, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and other willful behaviors that cause unbearable suffering leading to suicides on impulse. We need to stop allowing for-profit entities from sticking their noses and money-grubbing fingers into the ultimate of personal decisions.

To friends and family who have chosen to end their lives: Worry not. Rest in the peace that you deserve. There is nothing for which you need forgiveness from me. Nothing. I know that all the king's horses, all the king's men, and all the love in the world could not have saved you. And that's ok. Love, Eric


  1. Interesting thoughts. The subject of suicide has always been fascinating and taboo to me, but I often dare not speak of my fascination as to avoid the prospect of being looked upon as some kind of psychopath. The truth is that it is within anyone's power to harm themselves or others conceivably anytime, and it is our [nearly] collective yet unappreciated choice not to that is so fascinating.

    I loved the movie 'It's My Party' (1996). It was about a gay man with AIDS who is diagnosed with a horrible disease. The disease would cause an emotionally and physically painful death in less than a few years time, so he opts to commit suicide with prescribed suicide medicine after having a goodbye party with his close friends and family. By doing so, they remember him as he was, and he goes on his terms without letting the disease triumph. It was a beautiful story, I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it.

  2. Regarding your cynicism of the healthcare establishment: end of life conflict occurs between patients and doctors all the time. Sometimes it's the doctor who thinks that families should order "do everything you can" to save a patient, and other times it's the family, despite doctors' counseling otherwise and the futility of the situation.

    My partner has to deal with this a lot. He tries to teach patients' families about the horrors of a bad code on an elderly patient... how physically traumatic and undignified it is just for the patient to die anyway with a bruised and broken hand print indented chest, a free-floating sternum, and tubes in every orifice. It never becomes acceptable. He never gets numb to it. He just seems to get more and more angry and burnt out. It's sad and frustrating. And there are always other living patients with better outlooks who require a lot of tending to. It is, as you say, indeed the worst kind of selfishness. The patients become victims of their family's misguided morality or inability to cope.

    1. Thank you so much for *your* eloquence and gentle reminder that I sometimes paint with too broad a brush. You have my respect and admiration.

    2. To be fair, I think it is very hard to know much about the healthcare system without either being in it or knowing very personally someone who is. It's also very easy to become cynical of it because of how little time doctors have to spend with their patients. Kind of like how you grow to hate a big company because anytime you have a problem with it all you can get is some confounded recording or a clueless hireling. There are people who know what's going on and give a damn in there somewhere, but they're so hard to find!

  3. Having been a therapist and advocate for people with chronic conditions for many years, I have witnesses the inspiring ability of human beings to change the way they feel about their circumstances once given enough positive stimulation, tools, skills and support. Before I was a therapist, I myself was a person on the brink. An incurable illness had transformed my life without hope of recovery. I lost everything, perhaps most of all my hope, joy and sense of there being a future ahead of me to live for. The people closest to me were far from helpful. I was isolated, alone and in the darkest of places. But new people entered, people who themselves had lived through what I was facing.By their courageous examples, I slowly able to redefine myself to a different, but by all means NOT a lesser standard. I've been at this for 15 years now and my life continues to be difficult. I am not aging gracefully. Yes, I hope that I will not be deprived of my right to make that very personal choice to release myself from suffering down the road. But I know it to be true that most people reach that place prematurely due to an absence of community, support, example and mentoring. Those of us determined to derive joy and pleasure in our lives in spite of our suffering have a responsibility to lift others and offer them companionship and hope.

    1. Very well said, thank you. My friend really had tried virtually everything, but every circumstance is different, I agree. Very glad you are still here to share your empathy. :-)