Ask the average person why people commit suicide and they will give you all sorts of explanations. Many people think there are signs depressives display when contemplating suicide. While that can be the case, often the person seemed “fine” before killing themselves, or the “signs” were so subtle that they were overlooked. Depressives often fade into the fabric of day-to-day life. They become like furniture, always in their places. When this happens, people miss the signs, often tragically so. I know my wife and family love me, yet I also know that they are so used to me being sick, disabled, and in pain that I always seem “normal” to them.
Several days ago, I attended the Defiance Pride Parade. While I can walk short distances using a cane, I can no longer walk long distances without the use of a wheelchair or motorized cart. The degeneration in my spine, hips, shoulders, and arms, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to operate a wheelchair without help. Polly or one of my sons usually pushes my sorry ass around. My youngest son got the privilege and honor to push me along the parade route. The road was rough in spots, causing me excruciating pain. I knew this is the way it would be, but supporting LGBTQ people mattered more to me than pain. I endured.
A dear friend of mine told me that he could tell I was in a lot of pain. I tried to hide my suffering, but my face said to him that my pain levels were high. I appreciated the fact that he understood what I was going through on that day. The next day, we had dinner, a monthly event for myself and three other men. We now call ourselves “The Woke Mob.” Getting together with them is one of the highlights of each month. I rarely get out of the house these days. Thanks to declining motor skills, I can no longer drive. The last time I drove an automobile was in March 2020 — over three years ago.
After dinner, my friend said to me, “you look better today.” I smiled and replied, “narcotics, and the use of modern pharmaceuticals.” You see, I always want to “look better.” I don’t want to be pitied. I want to be perceived as the virile, strong-as-an-ox Bruce of yesteryear, even though I know this is the absurd fantasy of a crippled, broken-down old man.
My pain levels were the same on both days, but what was different on the second day was a significant increase in suicidal thoughts. My friend couldn’t know this. I didn’t give off any signs that suggested that I was struggling with making it another day. Even when talking with my therapist, it is not always easy for her to suss out whether I have increased suicidal thoughts. I see her tomorrow, which is good. The edge of the cliff is getting too close for comfort.
Many people wrongly think that those with suicidal ideation have exact plans as to how they will do themselves in. While I have a good idea of what means I will use to kill myself, I really don’t sit around thinking about it. It is the small, insignificant things in life that often drive my suicidal thoughts. Let me explain.
My life has a rhythm to it; what I call my “new normal.” This normal changes over time, as disease and pain continue to ravage my body. Two years ago, when an MRI and CT scan of my thoracic spine revealed:
- Disc herniation (T7,T8)
- Disc herniation (T6,T7)
- Central spinal canal stenosis (T9/T10, T10/T11)
- Foraminal stenosis (T5,T6)
- Disc degeneration/spondylosis (T1/T2 through T10/T11)
- Facet Arthropathy throughout the spine, particularly at T2/T3, T3/T4, T5/T6, and T7/T8 through the T12/L1 levels.
- Hypertrophic arthropathy at T9/T10
I adapted to my new normal. I had already been diagnosed with widespread osteoarthritis (joint pain), fibromyalgia (muscle pain, weakness, and fatigue), and gastroparesis (a debilitating, incurable stomach disease). I also have diabetes and high blood pressure — both of which are well-managed. On any given day, I spend my time managing my health, writing, and spending time with my family. Some days, I have doctor’s appointments or we go grocery shopping. On other days, I try to do things around the house or in the yard. Our backyard is teeming with wildlife and feral/stray cats. I enjoy watching them from the living room window. We have a new outside cat, Binx is his name. You know, the strays that don’t go away. He and I are now friends, so I will spend some time petting him or feeding him tuna fish. This is my normal.
Typically, I have a four- to five-hour window to productively work. After that, I lose my starch, and I retire to my recliner for the night and read, watch TV, or cheer on the Cincinnati Reds (I watch every game). Polly comes home from work at 2:30 am. Then comes bed, the worst part of my day. Yet, I have come to accept that this is my “normal.” It takes me twelve hours to get seven or eight hours of sleep, and even then I am never rested. At best, I live to see another day. Tired, fatigued, in pain — but alive.
It is what it is, a cliché I often tell myself as I try to navigate a life of pain and suffering. However, there are unexpected things that happen, small things that can quickly increase suicidal thoughts. My life is like a spinning plate full of food held on one finger above my head. Okay, I can handle this, I tell myself, but then along comes someone or something that is thrown on my plate, and my life spins out of control. All of a sudden, I find myself thinking about whether I want to keep living. But it was such a small thing that caused your plate to spin out of control. And therein lies the problem. When small, insignificant things accumulate, collectively they can be overwhelming. A bowel problem, incontinency, phantom smells attack, blurred vision, Morton’s neuroma flare-up, a fall, memory problems, unexpected bills, not hearing from my children or seeing my grandchildren as often as I want (need), edema so bad I can’t put on my shoes, getting out of the house so I can attend a sprint car race, only to get hit in the head with a rock thrown off one of the car’s wheels, stepping on Legos, tripping over the cat, finding out I have a yeast infection from taking an antibiotic for a toe infection, losing my glasses, being so weak I can’t lower the footrest on my recliner, eating food at a restaurant that immediately causes me to vomit, finding out someone ate the last of the peanut butter, or a host of other small things. To the healthy, and to the strong, these circumstances may seem insignificant; and they are when taken in isolation. However, when it takes every bit of your strength and energy to just get through the day, small things tend to overwhelm you and leave you questioning whether you want to live another day.
This is not a plea for help, nor is it an opportunity for readers to send me unsolicited medical advice. Please don’t. If my friend and I had more time together, maybe I would have shared with him where I really am in life; how close to the cliff I am actually standing. Or maybe not.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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