I grew up in a home where mental illness was very much part of the ebb and flow of family life. Somewhere in the 1960′s, my mother began having mental problems. To this day, I do not know what her exact diagnosis was. All I know is that my mother could be a perfectly normal, rational person and then, like a switch was flipped on, be the textbook definition of crazy. (a post I wrote about my mother on what would have been her 75th birthday)
She was a bright, well-read woman, passionate about politics and life. She played the piano, was a scratch cook, and had a backbone of steel when it came to standing against what she perceived was injustice. In the 1970′s, she sued Winebrenner Nursing Home in Federal Court over wage discrimination and won. She also sued a doctor over a botched skin graft and won. She was a right-wing fanatic, an avid writer of letters to the editors of the local newspapers. She supported Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and thought the Kent State rioters got exactly what they deserved. Like many of her generation, she despised Martin Luther King Jr, believing that he was a communist.
She supported the feminist agenda, yet spent her life trying to keep a man in her life. Married 4 times, she was an beautiful woman who attracted the attention of men. Several weekends ago, Polly and I traveled to Fremont, Ohio to attend a dirt track race. One of the fan favorites was a man by the name of Art Ball. Ball began racing a half century ago, and, at the age of 74,he is still racing around the Fremont Speedway. The fans cheered every time Ball took the track. I laughed when they did. I told Polly, they may cheer Art Ball the driver, but I wonder how many of them had a mother who slept with Ball? Yep, back in the 1970′s, my mother dated Art Ball. Over the years, I have walked by several old men on Bryan streets who had no clue who I was. But, I know who they are. I remember coming home late at night and there they would be sleeping on our couch. One night, I came home to a man sleeping on the couch and my mom lying on the floor next to him. His hand was on her breast.
Over the years, mom spent significant amounts of time at Toledo State Mental Hospital. She went through electroshock therapy treatment and was a life long prescription pill addict. I loved my mom dearly, but we never talked about her mental problems. Several years before she died, mom told me that her Dad had sexually molested her. I know that she was raped by her brother-in-law. I know this because I was home from school sick the day he came to our home and violated my mother. We had no phone, so she had me go to the neighbor’s house to call the police. They didn’t believe her. Why would anyone believe crazy Barbara?
Mom tried to kill herself many times. Drug overdoses, slit wrists. I remember coming home from school one day and finding mom lying in the middle of the floor. To this day, I can picture the blood. She had slit her wrists. At least twice, EMS was called and mom was taken to the local hospital to have her stomach pumped.
In the 1980′s, the suicide attempts abruptly stopped. I have no idea why. I suspect part of the reason was that she now had grandchildren. Mom began having health problems that robbed her of her vitality and strength. She no longer could work, and outside of leaving the house for doctor’s appointments, she rarely went anywhere. (she never heard me preach) As her health deteriorated, her thoughts turned again to suicide.
One early spring day in 1992, on a Sunday, mom took out her Ruger .357, pointed it at her heart, and pulled the trigger. In a matter of minutes she was dead. No note, no reason. I am left to speculate as to the what and why of things. I do know her heath was quite poor. She lived with constant pain and debility. While I think that she certainly wanted to kill herself, it is likely her husband helped end her life.
I write all of this because I think it is important for readers to understand my back story. When I write about suicide, it is an issue that I intimately understand. I know the pain and anguish that comes when you pick up the phone and hear the voice on the other end say, your mom is dead. She killed herself.
As a person who has chronic heath problems and lives with chronic, debilitating, unrelenting pain every day, I know how these things affect the mind. I have battled with depression most of my adult life and I have thought about suicide more than a few times.
When healthy people read that I have thoughts about committing suicide, they often try to remind me of all that I have to live for or they try to make me feel guilty by telling me that suicide is a selfish act. How dare I even consider checking out since I have a wife, children, and grandchildren. You have everything to live for, they tell me.
While I appreciate their well-intentioned words, the truth is, they don’t know what they are talking about. How could they? Until they walk in my shoes, they can not know why I might want to end it all. Until they trade bodies with me and experience the pain, from head to toe, in almost every joint, they can not truly understand.
This is a life I would not wish on anyone. In many ways, the chronic pain and debility has become the hell that Christians keep telling me that I am headed to. Do I have a right to determine when I no longer want to endure this? Do I have the right to say, enough? We seem to be OK with the cancer patient saying ENOUGH and asking for the last push of morphine that puts them into a coma they will never recover from. Why is it any different for them? Shouldn’t each of us have a right to determine how and when our life ends? While we had no choice about when/how/where we were born, do we not have the right to negotiate the terms of our own death?
Sadly, many people think that life is always better than death, that a person should ALWAYS choose to live given the opportunity. They think we should radiate ourselves, poison ourselves with chemo, and let doctors endlessly experiment on us, just so we can gain a few extra months of life. Is this how we really want to spend the last days of our life? I know I don’t.
The means of death are as close as the medications I take. I don’t need to call a Doctor Jack to end my life. I take medications that, if taken by the handful, would ensure that I would never wake up. I would be less than honest, if I didn’t say that I have had, at times, a thought late at night, as I take 30mg of Restoril…just a handful of these and it will all be over.
I know this post will likely make some readers uncomfortable. Maybe they don’t understand. Bruce, for God’s sake, you are typing this post. Surely this proves you are OK and that life is worth living. Maybe, but as I type this, my body throbs with pain. Don’t do it, you say? Doing or not doing changes the pain very little. There is only so much narcotic pain medication I can take and then I must just grit my teeth and bear it. Better to bear it writing than lying in bed or sitting like a lump of flesh in the recliner.
This is not a cry for help. I do not need an intervention. I am not in the midst of a life threatening crisis. This is me being honest. This is me saying what many fellow sufferers wish they could say. Thinking about suicide is not a reflection on the level of our love for our family or our devotion to them. I love my family dearly. They are the only thing that keeps me from calling it a long, dark, day. I love them and I want to see them grow old. I want to see my grandchildren graduate from high school. I want to enjoy the thrill of great-grandchildren.
I want all of these things, and more, but I also want the pain and suffering to stop. I want one night of rest, one day that isn’t started with narcotic pain medications. I want the life that I lost a decade ago. I want to be able to walk, hike, and work. I want what I know I can never have.
I have talked to my counselor about these things many times. He does his best to help me through what he calls crisis (event-oriented) depression. He knows that if he can help me get through these times, life will be better on the other side. But, thoughts about ending my life because of the pain? He allows me the space to consider this, the final act of self-determination. He reminds me of how much I have to live for but he also sees what the pain is doing to me. He can read my face, my eyes. He sees what few can or are willing to see.