Suicide: a Strictly Personal Decision?
“Flowers for Algernon” tells the story of Charly, a retarded man who becomes a genius following an operation successfully pioneered by Algernon, the laboratory rat. The tragedy is when Charly realizes that his miraculous improvement is slipping away and his intellect is diminishing as Algernon’s did.
This story made me start thinking that our intellect is what makes us most human. It is what gives us the ability to create, plan, ponder, solve, love. What happens if the intellect is impaired or absent? Over the years, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t want to live without my intellect intact, that my loved ones would witness the Don that they knew and loved disappear into that vacant space that may cause me no pain but certainly causes emotional pain to my loved ones.
I witnessed friends succumb to senile dementia and Alzheimer’s and watched their loved ones suffer the loss. Like Charly, the afflicted person at first realized painfully what was happening and took steps to avoid the problems that attended their loss of mental capability. One friend, a lovely woman then in her fifties would wait outside in the cold of winter for the taxi because she feared that she would forget that she had ordered it. The last time we saw her was at a concert with her husband. She loved music. She hummed along, but she didn’t recognize us.
Yet another friend, an older vigorous woman was endlessly cheerful around us, but she recognized only her daughter. Three years later, weak and frail, she didn’t even recognize her own daughter. She and others we knew convinced me that should I learn that my fate was to be the same, I would take my own life rather than subject my loved ones to the suffering that accompanied the failure of my intellect.
Until November of 2011, I gave little thought to the loss of physical abilities. That fall, I learned that I had a brain tumor atop the brain stem that would cause me problems if left to develop. I emerged from the operation in late November unable to swallow, able only to whisper, nearly deaf and unable to walk a straight line. Months of therapy taught me to swallow small amounts very carefully allowing me to at least taste real food, gave me a voice somewhere between a whisper and Satchmo and allowed me to walk a reasonably straight line. Dual hearing aids permit me to hear a limited range of sounds. However, a growing numbness on my left side has reversed the walking ability to a drunken stagger. I am still fed three times daily a liquid diet through a tube into my stomach. Despite small initial advances that have since stopped, all this persists nearly two years after the operation.
I have been told that I was near death twice after the operation. No tunnel. No bright light. Nothingness. Peace. But I was prevented from crossing that threshold. How many times since then I have wished that I had been allowed to remain in that nothingness.
After living an active life in extraordinary good health, the abrupt loss of so many abilities that we all take for granted led me to realize that loss of intellect was not the only loss that would lead a person to seriously contemplate suicide.
Have you ever stopped to think how many of our social interactions revolve around eating? We meet friends at the restaurant or invite them over for dinner. It’s now torture for me to watch others eat. I can’t swallow my saliva and must spit frequently. Talking is not only difficult but quickly tires me out. The result is that my social life is essentially nonexistent. My substitute is the computer, reading and this blog. Fortunately, my intellect has largely survived intact…but I am nearly eighty-years-old with a genetic heritage of great longevity, normally reassuring news. What does the future hold? Will I live to ninety and beyond with this disability?
My wife eats many of her meals alone or she joins her brother’s family or friends who invite her to dinner with them. She spends as much time as possible in her studio with her art projects. She frequently travels to Stockholm to visit our children and take in the art exhibits. Understandably, she is stressed by the added responsibilities she has had to take on since my disabilities arrived. Even more a problem from my perspective is that she is so opposed to my philosophy regarding the right to determine my own fate that she refuses to discuss it seriously.
In light of all this, I’ve had to discuss my thoughts via email with an old friend who’s a clinical psychologist. She led me to contemplate that Donne’s “no man is an island” has more than just poetic meaning. Do I have a responsibility to others beyond myself?
Before my exchanges with her, I observed with concern and anger the prolonged political circus that accompanied the case of Terri Schiavo where politicians and religionists fought her husband’s efforts to end the life of his brain-dead wife. Would I want that to happen to me? I thought of Charly. I thought of the appeal of nothingness.
I became a member of the Swiss organization Dignitas that is noted for fighting for the right to die of those for whom continued life is a burden. Writer Terry Pratchett, who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s, has filmed a compelling documentary about the issue of death with dignity. All of this coincided with my philosophy of the right of the individual to determine his/her own fate. But I gave little thought to one’s need to consider the feelings of others. Donne’s “no man is an island entire of itself” has to be weighed in the scales, too.
But wait a second. Might giving greater weight to the opinions of my loved ones result in my being condemned to a worse fate than the early dignified death desired? Medical personnel customarily seek to prolong life that may lead to greater suffering by their patient. Pain relievers may dampen the pain, but what about the intrusions on the patient’s bodily integrity by needles and tests? What about religious hospitals and their procedures? What about religionists themselves? Or politicians? All of these and more may condemn the patient while bowing to the wishes of others. Has the patient written a living will or a Do Not Resuscitate order? Is it being honored?
While I wrestle with these conflicting philosophies, I sit at the computer, I read, I exercise to no apparent beneficial effect and I blog…and I watch the impact of my disabilities on the ones I love.
But not a day goes by without thoughts of ending my own life. On my own terms. Death with dignity. Nothingness.