On Euthanasia, Suffering and Endurance (TW Suicide)
March 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
I have read this article several times. It’s a long, complicated, well written, well examined look at euthanasia through the lens of one family’s experiences, with plenty of details from outside that one case. I’m not here to try and expand upon it. It’s worth reading and thinking about.
I’m not against euthanasia. I generally believe that if life has become unendurable, it should be within the power of the person suffering to make the decision on that. As a survivor of a suicide attempt and a disabled man just now coming to terms with my disability (visual impairment – I’m blind in one eye and impaired severely in the other) I do have thoughts about the topic, however, and I want to share them.
The rest of this post is going behind a cut in case people don’t want to read or head about these topics.
I’m extremely leery of the idea that we should allow chronically depressed people to be euthanized. I have several reasons for this. The first is that I am chronically depressed. Have been for years. It’s part and parcel of my suicide attempt, in fact. The whole reason I put a gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger, the reason I am only now alive because that gun jammed, is because I was so depressed following the death of my mother that I couldn’t see a way out. The future was never going to get better. I was certain of this.
Depression, as a disorder, crushes certain kinds of thinking. Some say that depression lies. I prefer to think of it as a fault in my reasoning. Depression self-selects to confirm itself. Every thought you have that fits the narrative of your depression is highlighted, every thought that argues against it is rejected as meaningless. Thus depression confirms its own faulty worldview – you believe what it is telling you because you’re not capable of seeing what contradicts it. And because of this, it’s very hard to make proper decisions when you’re mired in it. Your friends and loved ones will tell you that you are loved, but you won’t really believe them, or you’ll think they only love you because they don’t know how truly awful you really are, or you’ll feel that being loved is unimportant.
This is a lot of generalizing and I can’t really speak for anyone but myself, of course. I realize that. But it’s still worthwhile to remember that depression keeps you from seeing things.
When I read that New Yorker article from two years ago, and imagine euthanizing a depressed woman in her sixties who is manifestly alienated from her loved ones without even talking to those loved ones about it, I am horrified. Her doctors did her a disservice. No, you can’t force her to talk to her estranged son and daughter. You can’t force her to make contact with her grandchildren. But depression isn’t, or at least doesn’t need to be, a death sentence. This isn’t meant to diminish how truly awful it can be. But the woman wrote how much she missed her grandchildren – at least attempt to reconnect them before you allow her to die, perhaps?
I feel that at times we undervalue life and overvalue the negation of pain.
What do I mean by that?
We have this idea that life should, must be as painless as possible. We create an array of medications aimed at reducing or palliating pain. We attempt to decrease suffering. And these are noble goals. We should strive to create as little suffering as possible and to reduce it when we can’t prevent it.
But there are times when life is worth pain.
It’s worth enduring the pain of our losses. It’s worth striving, it’s worth keeping going with life even when it hurts. Even when it hurts a great deal. In the arithmetic of suffering, we must not be quick or casual to resort to ending suffering by ending the life of the sufferer before we have exhausted every possible means to end that suffering without ending their lives. Every possible means. Because life itself has value. This is true whether you’re an agnostic (as I am), an atheist, or deeply religious. Life has value because it is the means by which everything is accomplished, every act ever committed was done so by the living. The dead only have what they did while they were alive.
There are certainly times when one might conclude that life isn’t worth living. I cede that argument. Those times highlight just how precious life is, an we must not be quick to assume otherwise.
I have never lost that sense of anguish I gained the day my mother died. And the big secret is, I never will. Her loss and the pain of that loss have stayed with me every day of my life since, and it will be three decades since it happened soon. Sooner than I want to admit. That pain is simply part of me, a loss I’ve never forgotten and never will. The other significant deaths of my life endure. The pain of having been sexually abused as a child hasn’t faded. It’s stamped onto me. It is part of who I became. I am literally made out of pain and that pain isn’t going to end. I do what I can to alleviate the worst of it, but in the end, I choose to go forward and live not despite of it, but because of it.
You are not less of a person because you suffer, no matter what it is you’re suffering from. No mental condition, no physical condition robs you of that humanity. Indeed, suffering and the endurance of same is a key part of what it is to be human.
Likewise, you are not less of a human because you are different. I’ve never been fond of the phrase ‘differently abled’ and I’m not fond of it now that I’m disabled. Because I am disabled. I can’t see as well as you. In time, I will not be able to see at all. That’s not ‘different’ it’s just plain less. But my being less able to see doesn’t make me less. If I suffer because of it? Perhaps do things to make my suffering easier to bear before you’re willing to kill me.
As I said before, I’m not anti-euthanasia. But I believe very strongly that it should be an absolute last resort, and that we should always focus on helping people deal with whatever they’re suffering from. If they’re suffering because our society treats them like shit, fix society. If they’re suffering because of a series of overlapping problems, attempt to reduce their suffering as much as you can and then see if they want to live. If you can make it possible for someone to endure, you should.
In addition I think we should tell people that they can endure more than they think. Not by the presumptive “Just toughen up, quitter” attitude that so many use, but rather by listening to them. Let people tell you what they’re going through, if they want to. A great many people have been far more willing to share their stories with me once they realized I wasn’t going to judge them for them, that I understood that life is a thing we struggle with and endure and that their pain is no less valid and no more a sign of failure than anyone else’s. Life hurts. It’s not a failing on anyone’s part to suffer.
In the end, though, life is all you have. Everything else derives from it. Everything you have done, you did because you could, because you were alive to do it. Everything you will do you’ll do while you’re alive. Once that’s gone, you can’t act. You can’t hope. You can’t help. You’re done. There are certainly times when that’s not to be feared, but we should never be quick to embrace it.
There are better, smarter people who will tell you how dangerous it is to start killing people because they’re depressed. How many people are depressed not just for medical reasons, but because they’re oppressed or marginalized in some way – because they’re the wrong race, gender, sexual identity for our society. Trans people commit suicide at astonishing rates. The best way to end their suffering isn’t to end them, it’s to stop the cruelty built into our society that demonizes and demoralizes them. I second all of those thoughts. You shouldn’t reach for death as a treatment before you’ve tried fixing how we treat people, whether they’re sick or just different. But I’m not qualified to really speak to that – I’m a cis white man, bisexual but married to a woman, and so I suffer relatively little from that sort of oppression. If I’m autistic (and I might be, my uncle was) it’s the kind that neurotypical people can ignore and not judge me overly harshly by, so I don’t have to endure how our society treats them, either.
All I can say is, making it easier for these people to die frightens me. Because our society has shown it will go for the easier approach so that it doesn’t have to change.
Life is valuable. Every human being is worthwhile. Yes, even shitheads. They might change. They might grow. They might not. Once they’re dead, they won’t be doing anything.
Euthanasia should exist. People who really are suffering so badly they can’t possibly endure it and can’t possibly be helped should have access to it. But the people who are making that possible need to be absolute in their vigilance and take every possible avenue that isn’t death before they reach for that, because it’s not a treatment you can recover from.
When I was eighteen I saw no way I could possibly go on with my life. I put a gun in my mouth and I pulled the trigger and it didn’t fire. I didn’t die. And now, I am forty-five years old and I did go on, and if my life has never forgotten what I endured, if the pain never went away, I can at least say that there has been some sweet in with the bitter. I loved. I hated. I created. I married and I treasured her as well as I could, because she was and is a miracle. I have run and I have walked and I have cried and laughed and I am alive, now, writing this. I have not changed the world, but I have lived in it. And that was of value. I was wrong. I could endure it. I could go on. Once you end a life, you end any chance of finding out what you can actually endure. You have to do everything you can first before you let someone die.
I have no answers for anyone, of course. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Hopefully now I will.