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Suicide is Painful

Some may recall those lines from the theme of the television series M*A*S*H, suicide is painless/ it brings on many changes; it was a satire on war - but how many have been lulled into the false belief that suicide really is painless? I certainly have.

I have been ill for over seven years with a disabling condition which started with weakness in the arms, then the legs, and also affects my balance, my eyes, my digestive system, and my cognitive function, especially the ability to think on my feet. Everything is tiring. I use two sticks, and if I walk too far I have a tendency to keel over. I am severely restricted in getting out - the mere suggestion is like asking someone who has just run a marathon to climb a mountain. After repeated attempts at diagnosis, which ruled out degenerative disease, I have resorted to DIY (Diagnose It Yourself).
Though I know many people who are much worse off, for a formerly active person, this is a depressing situation, and I don't doubt that if I were to be found dead beside an empty pill bottle, many would think it quite understandable, even commendable; and that if my husband aided me, he would be treated compassionately by the judiciary. But my disabling condition is not the problem; I want to live - that is my problem. With a tendency to become quickly dehydrated, I fear that I may end up in hospital at some point, and either by accident or design end up dead. Since 2005 it has been legal to deprive patients of artificially delivered nutrition and hydration, and as at times I have been unable to take the tiniest sip of water without suffering a severe reaction, the thought of legalised therapeutic dehydration bothers me much more than the fear of my family being prosecuted for helping me to commit suicide. Should I be unable to communicate, I have to hope that medical staff would not interpret my condition as a jolly good reason for not treating me. This has happened, as organisations like SPUC and ALERT can attest, mainly to the elderly.
That is all very well, the euthanasia/assisted suicide campaigners say, but do not impose your choice on others. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether my life is mine to dispose of, I do not believe that the majority of disabled and sick people would like to commit suicide. Of course, if it is ever legalised (as with abortion) many will seek it, because the feeling of being a burden or a nuisance, the fear of annoying or upsetting people by asking for help, is acute. The unthinkable will quickly become acceptable, especially when there are other motives at play.
In the 1930s the euthanasia campaigns propaganda was aimed at helping the dying, but the small print revealed that it was the living that were viewed as the real problem: the disabled people who persisted in clinging to life, making things unbearable for everyone else, and worst of all, costing money. Special disgust was reserved for mentally handicapped people and babies described as monsters  the rhetoric of revulsion, as I call it in By Their Fruits. The old euthanasia campaign was fuelled by eugenics and also by the obsession that there were too many people - that charity, welfare measures and modern medicine (this was when TB was still deadly) were keeping alive thousands who, in the good old days, would have been killed off by Mother Nature. Thus were the sick, the disabled, the mentally deficient and many of the poor marked down as expendable.
Hitlers euthanasia programme almost dealt a death blow to the campaign, laying bare the dangers lurking behind the propaganda, but the real killer was improvements in health care. Indeed, some campaigners lamented that such developments made it difficult to put their case. But after the 1967 Abortion Act  which was introduced for compassionate reasons  a womans right to choose meant that improvements in treatment or hospice care were immaterial: individual choice, it was argued, should be paramount.
This takes us back to the original problem (as the euthanasia/suicide campaign saw it) of disabled and sick people not actually wanting to die - if we did, it would be like a tidal wave that no parliamentarian could withstand. It is not the physically impaired that are at risk of suicide, but the mentally fragile: these are the people who fling themselves off bridges or cliffs or high buildings; no one suggests that their mental agony be cut short by giving them a helpful push. However, it could be that the only reason disabled people do not take such drastic steps is because we are physically incapable of it, but we dont tend to opt for easier methods either; despite this, the euthanasia campaign would like us to be able to choose to be given a dose of barbiturates; well, we want to be helped out  but not like that.
Again, the euthanasia advocate would argue that this is just one persons opinion. But I think I can claim some insight into the kind of mental state that leads to suicide. Many years ago, beginning in my teens, I was afflicted with depression and would experience thoughts of suicide; a series of mind-numbing jobs didnt help and there were also transient symptoms of the muscle weakness that now disables me. But the biggest factor was spiritual: having, as a young person, discarded my religion, I was haunted by hopelessness, by the feeling that nothing really mattered. Fear circled overhead like a great black bird, threatening to come down and perch on my shoulder. Nowadays the helpful atheist will pop up to tell us not to worry, there is probably no God; but once we get rid of God, we get rid of Heaven. That there would be no Hell either does not help the depressive to live, when they are already experiencing Hell on earth; if death means oblivion, then that is a plus point in favour of suicide.
Little was said in those days about depression, but neither were there internet websites encouraging vulnerable teens to commit suicide; the news media did not romanticise assisted suicide while failing to explore the ramifications of legalisation. Medical advances were hailed as a good thing; people did not, in general, mutter darkly about the burden of ageing. Most young people had been brought up with some sort of religious teaching. Thanks to that I was able, in a desperate moment, to beg God to let me know if He was there. The mental agony slackened for an instant, and things seemed slightly easier after that.
It was a slow process, but eventually things came right; paradoxically, those who believe in an afterlife are less prone to kill themselves; God is a God of life, not death. For some reason, the nuns teaching about presumption and despair being sinful had remained with me, and yet, even after finding God, thoughts of suicide would occasionally trouble me. Until, that is, I realised that the Devil tempts us to despair in a weak moment. Much as I appreciate the Churchs teaching that the fate of suicides is subject to Gods mercy, even the faintest risk of spending all eternity in the company of Satan was enough to put me off the idea. Although I have had one bad bout of depression since then, it was not made even darker by suicidal thoughts.
You may notice that I never considered the terrible effects of suicide on family and friends; but thoughts of suicide are like the mermaids song, convincing us that other people would be better off without us, luring us into deep waters only to leave us to drown. In a counter bid to lure depressives back into the light, I wrote a poem called Thoughts of Suicide and made the opening verses deliberately dark, because I know how their minds work.
  The danger never goes away completely  I had a brief, despairing thought the other day, after reading yet more compelling arguments about how disabled people should be allowed to choose assisted suicide; I laughed at the Devil  he never gives up  but with religion being swept out of the public square, the chances of depressed young people committing suicide have never been higher. If, years ago, I had given in to a moment of despair, three people and their own children would not have been born, and maybe others would have followed my example, stricken by grief or guilt. At least we used to have the examples of the saints, both religious and secular - people like Elizabeth Fry, Grace Darling and Florence Nightingale - to help us through the dark patches in life. Nowadays, for youth, the most prominent example of moral courage is the spectacle of people travelling to Switzerland to exercise their choice in dying. Young people need to know that in such circumstances it is more courageous to live than to die - that beneath the romantic gloss bestowed on the subject by the current media love affair, suicide is not painless. Neither is life, but with life there is hope - there is choice, too, despite the other false claim of the suicide campaign, because suicide is the final choice. That is why this years day for life was so important  but one day is not enough: the message of life needs to be emphasised all year round.
(August 2009)

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