Saturday, March 12, 2011

Dead Right  
In some situations, suicide can be a dignified,
 rational, generous and courageous act.
    It was very sporting of the Founding Fathers to let us have the right to life and liberty, but I am claiming a human right that is just as fundamental, which is the right to die, whenever I decide I want out. I refuse to be bound by any official criteria (“terminally ill"), or to seek anyone‘s permission, or to travel halfway around the world to get it taken care of “legally.” My life is mine and only mine -- it doesn‘t belong to the state (that‘s a medieval concept that we can “live“ without). My right is not subject to the ideologies of those who regard suicide as immoral or those who believe we are obliged to bear our burdens with dignity and humility until a “natural death" comes to the rescue. Go ahead, if that’s what you’re into. But leave me -- and everyone else who disagrees with you -- out of it  What we do with our lives is none of your business.

    When I stated in my post this past Sunday that I don't have any favorite "things," I hadn't thought it through. I do indeed have a favorite thing, which I refer to as my "suicide stash." I love it, I cherish it, I would be very distressed if I somehow lost it. I would begin immediately to restock it. It has been a great comfort to me since I was in my thirties. I think of it as my escape hatch.
    I believe that suicide kits should be legally available at the drugstore. There should be safeguards, of course, but the kits should not be regarded as controlled substances, requiring a doctor‘s authorization. The kits shouldn’t be sold to anyone under 25. There should be a “cooling off” period -- I think two weeks is plenty -- after the individual registers with the vendor his desire to purchase the kit. And I would favor a mandatory counseling session, which might help save a lot of people.
    A great deal of pain and suffering, humiliation and trauma could be avoided if a simple, clean, “guaranteed effective” elixir or packet of pills were available to those who are desperate for an end to their suffering. There are those who will certainly see this as barbaric. I regard it as civilized, and I believe it will eventually be an accepted aspect of our law and culture.
   I am not a suicide advocate. That would be ridiculous. But I am committed to the notion that if you can’t stand being here anymore -- if every day, every moment, is torture -- you should be allowed to go.
    Years ago, a friend in New York threw a lovely little party in his Greenwich Village apartment.  As usual, he was a delightful host, bringing out platter after platter of gorgeously designed finger food to go with our martinis. As always, though, his eyes were sad in a way that gay men’s eyes tended to be back then.  After we all hugged him and left, he walked to the 14th Street station and leapt in front of a subway train.
    Michael was not an exhibitionist, and he couldn’t bear the sight of blood. I’m sure he would have preferred a less messy and less terrifying way of ending his life, but I guess he saw this as his best option.
    Another friend, an older woman here in Salt Lake City, went home from work one day to find her beloved husband, who had been living with chronic pain for years, dead in the bathtub, his wrists slit and the tracks of his tears still visible on his soft black cheeks. He, too, would undoubtedly have preferred a less agonizing way to go.
   The son of a friend took a bunch of pills and put a plastic bag over his head. He threw up the pills and was in the process of strangling on his vomit when his brother rescued him. The next time he tried it, he had done his research, and it went off without a hitch. Rest in peace, Bobby.
    A therapist I saw for a few months in the ‘80s -- a gentle, gracious woman in her fifties -- drove herself into the mountains one night, laid down in the snow and went to “sleep,“ leaving behind an anguished note. I felt guilty, and I expect many of her other patients did as well, for inflicting my problems on her. In one way, though, she was lucky. She had access to any pills she wanted, so she didn’t have to suffer in order to die, notwithstanding the suffering she must have been enduring in her life.
    In addition to deserving the right to end our lives when we have the mental and physical capacity to take care of it ourselves, I believe that we should be able to mandate assisted suicide in our living wills -- whether a physician is involved or not -- if and when our physical or intellectual condition reaches a point that we characterize as unacceptable. For example, if I develop dementia, and I decline to the stage where I can no longer recognize or interact with my loved ones, I want to be eased into that Eternal Slumber. If I get ALS, and I can’t breathe on my own or swallow or talk or move, then please, please Let Me Go!
    I have been more or less obsessed with suicide for at least 25 years, which is when I assembled the “stash” I mentioned earlier. I hoarded barbituates until I had enough to kill myself totally dead about 12 times, and I placed them in a blue velvet-lined cedar box that I bought at a thrift shop for a dollar. I also got some potassium chloride, just to make sure. Every few years, I order some fresh pills from Lisbon, where you can get anything you want, without a prescription.
   For several months, I got my stash out of the closet each morning, while I was having my coffee, and debated whether to proceed with my day or end it all forever. I think it was a helpful exercise. In choosing to proceed, I was expressing a modicum of hope and faith, or at least resignation. Having the option not to proceed was -- and remains -- a great comfort to me.
   I imagine that normal, healthy people can’t conceive of choosing to end their lives. But for many others, each day is a torment, engulfing them in waves of dread, anxiety, fear, horrific imagery and hopelessness. Even during phases when I am able to get great pleasure from people, nature, reading, music, exercise, food, etc., it really never comes close to outweighing the pain that has become the core of who I am.
   My suicide obsession is ironic in a couple of ways. First, whenever I hear that a suicide has been committed, my thought is always that it is the saddest thing imaginable. I wish I could have been there to talk to him. I could have helped him -- I could have saved him! When I imagine the thought process of someone who has killed himself, I am overwhelmed with compassion and pathos.
   The other irony is that I acquired an overwhelming fear of death before I even started elementary school, and it has haunted me most of my life. So it might seem paradoxical that I would be the enabler of my own death. I think that in a way, I just want to get it over with. It’s going to happen -- why wait around for it, especially when the waiting is so pointless and arduous. 
    Imagine being helpless, in terrible pain with no end in sight, and being denied the right to be “released.” A PBS program recently chronicled the journey to the Netherlands of an American man with terminal ALS. It was incredibly perverse that this profoundly suffering man -- who was paralyzed and strapped into a wheelchair, with tubes up his nose and in his mouth -- had to endure such a complex and protracted trip to another country just to be allowed to die with dignity. Jack Kevorkian, a true hero in my opinion, was imprisoned for more than eight years after videotaping his 1998 assisted suicide involving a man with advanced ALS. In a very real sense, he was a political prisoner.
        It is legal in Oregon for a doctor to prescribe the medications necessary for you to end your life, but you must be a certified resident of the state and have a doctor licensed in the state. This, like flying all the way to Scandinavia, places an undue burden on someone who is desperate for relief. Montana and Washington have similar setups. None of these states has reported an increase in the number of suicides, but polls have indicated that the mere right to assisted suicide has provided great comfort and renewed energy to those who are critically ill.
     Several years ago, when I first heard the term “suicide by cop,”  I was shocked and bewildered that anyone would choose this way to die. It seemed gruesome and terrifying. I’m starting to find it appealing, though -- the idea of being “blown away.” I guess I like the violence of it somewhat, but (much to my surprise) I have actually begun to imagine all those bullets as feeling beautiful  --  sort of like acupuncture, except that the pain relief would be permanent.
   Three or four times in the past couple of years, I have become so obsessed with suicide that I sought help. I was thinking constantly about when, where and how to do it. Sometimes, I felt a sense of enjoyment and relief during these fantasies. At other times, it was just annoying. I was surprised that I could be prescribed a pill that almost immediately rid me of this obsession, even though I was as unhappy as ever. How does that work?  I  had been reading suicide message boards, and they are scary. People were describing one botched attempt after another, some resulting in permanent cognitive or motor damage. I felt physically ill reading these accounts and decided that pills might not be so easy after all.
    So many times, I have heard suicidal people say that their families and friends would be better off if they were dead. This always seemed rather melodramatic to me. But I get it now, and I feel the same way. People in general, and the few people I still have in my life, are happy and productive, creative and adventurous, always hugging and laughing and making plans. I have no doubt that my presence -- and even my existence -- casts a pall, even if only a minor one, over their lives. So, yes: I do think people would be better off if I were gone. I should have taken care of it years ago. I would have been proud of myself. In some situations, suicide can be a dignified, rational, generous and courageous act. If you can’t comprehend that, consider yourself lucky. But don’t consider yourself superior.
    When my father died last May, the obsession returned. It wasn’t my agonizing grief that was the cause. What happened was that I was holding his hand and touching his cheek when he breathed his last breath. It seemed appealing to be free, to be gone. Even though I do not believe in an afterlife, the phrase kept repeating itself in my mind for months: I want to go and be with Daddy.