Monday, July 9, 2007

Suicide may or may not be painless, but if it's not yours, stay out of it

Have you ever reached a point in your life where you felt like the only reasonable option for you was to end your life? Maybe it was a wisp of a thought, flitting through a troubled mind; maybe you were truly desperate. Then again, maybe you realized that killing yourself was not only possible, but just one of several viable and completely valid avenues available to you.

We are culturally programmed to find the very thought of suicide--our or anyone else's--abhorrent. For some, the stigma is enough to hold off from committing suicide. For others, religious conviction keeps the desire in check. Then there are the 30,000 Americans per year who go ahead and get it over with. Who are we to argue about that extremely personal choice? For the past couple of years, thoughts of my own possible suicide have come and gone with unnerving frequency. I have spent countless hours trying to understand the psychological and biological factors that cause these thoughts, as well as the things that keep the impulse contained. At the end of all of my reading and questioning, I learned that the decision is ultimately a choice to end unbearable pain or to avoid a future of hopelessness or suffering. Why anyone thinks that these feelings are so invalid that they have the right to interfere with another person's end-of-life decisions is a mystery to me.

Several years ago, a coworker lost his wife in a tragic car accident. My coworker's son had been at the wheel, and in a split-second of poor judgment, he made what turned out to be a fatal left turn at an intersection. My coworker's wife was killed instantly, and my coworker himself was seriously injured, his body a collection of shattered bones and bruised organs. The driver, the son, had no physical injuries, but the psychological trauma caused him to suffer without relief until just a few days ago. After years of unmitigated guilt, loss, and emotional devastation, he reached his breaking point and took his own life. Having been strong in his conviction, he made sure to do it right on the first try. At work, everyone was shocked and deeply rattled, deeming this event a tragedy, a tragedy of the worst kind. I'm inclined not to agree. My coworker--the father of the young man who died--is suffering this loss terribly, and that is understandable. Still, his son was obviously not recovering from the accident, even years later. Where were all of the people who are now mourning him? Why did they feel he needed to be strong and move forward, yet nobody was there to comfort him along the way? Why is it considered the right thing to "live with what you did," but so wrong to die when that very event causes intolerable emotional pain? America hates a quitter is my take on this paradox.

When my coworker's wife died in the car accident, there were cards, phone calls, cooking, and a barrage of condolences for the surviving members of the family. This time, people have been avoiding my coworker with their eyes downcast, mumbling mundane greetings as they hurry by in the hall. It's as if people perceive a suicide as a shameful act even more than a tragic one. They whisper about it as if the young man died while engaged in a sordid activity. Death is death. There is no shame in death. I'll concede tragedy, maybe. Kids get killed by drunk drivers, innocents are murdered, a baby falls from a balcony; that's tragedy. Death is inevitable and has many causes. Suicide is only one of them, and it is a decision, a personal choice, no different than the cancer patient who forgoes treatment, or the heavy smoker who gets lung cancer, or the morbidly obese man who just keeps rolling on his bed, eating and waiting for congestive heart failure to claim him at last. Unhealthy choices, yes. Shameful? No. The end of something unpleasant? What's the problem with that? Why would you have us stay alive with no end to the suffering? What's the benefit?

I don't think there's anything wrong with a person who makes a conscious choice to stop the madness and pain in his or her life. I would be furious and flat-out hostile if someone interrupted me that way. Suicide ideation, planning, or completion do not necessarily indicate the presence of severe mental illness. That's an arrogant and irrational assumption based on one's views about their own preferences for end-of-life decisions. Being comfortable with death--even welcoming it--may show an inner peace and wisdom that most people can't understand. Probably because they shut down at the mere mention of death and because they can't imagine their own demise, they assume you are mistaken in planning for your own.

Can 30,000 Americans per year all be wrong and irrational?

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