In my late teens, I sometimes thought about suicide, believing that I was too weak to try. It was a word shunned in the media at that time in the late 1960s, a subject few people ever discussed and a taboo in our quasi-secular society. I never did attempt suicide or really even want to die, just felt sad about so many things at that time despite being a success at work in my job as a journalist. I also had many friends, boys to date and a pretty good social life. Still living at home, my family life was a “ mad nightmare” of sorts; crazed yelling and screaming by my father, depressed isolation by my mother, a sister who was never home and perpetrating lies about her non-Jewish boyfriend and a pain inside that I realised I could only ease by getting away from it. Journalism had many problems for me, too, even though I was doing very well, with enough money to even save to travel, enough clothes and finances weren’t the issue. My family’s complete lack of interest in me hurt like hell. I never thought about suicide again personally until 1984, the story of which I documented in WHOSE MENTAL MADNESS?
When I was 20, my female cousin who had been a very close friend during my adolescence had a breakdown and was diagnosed as a manic-depressive. On one occasion visiting her some months later, she told me she had tried to commit suicide but it hadn’t worked. I was astounded. Was I happy it hadn’t worked? I don’t remember if I thought about that at all. It reminded me about another female who had successfully killed herself when I was about 15. This woman was about 21 at the time, a close friend of my older sister who was studying medicine. The friend had recently become engaged to a very nice young man, was very pretty, a student at Melbourne University studying psychology, and lived at home with her parents in the affluent suburb of North Balwyn. She had visited our home just a few weeks before with her fiancé and I soon realised there was something wrong with her. (She had been a visitor to my home for many years previously as a good friend of my sister). She was gabbling rather than talking in such a fast pace I couldn’t follow what she was saying. I wasn’t really surprised, even shocked, when she did commit suicide. No one at home discussed it with me, but I always remembered her with so much to live for, or so it seemed. What was death all about for me as a young teenager? Or even later? I’m not sure I ever really thought about it that much, so desperate I felt to just live and be happy. That was the challenge of life for me; not about dying per se.
A few weeks ago in the newspaper were several articles about a middle aged man, not terminally ill or in suffering pain at least physically, who was assisted by a medical doctor to die and commit voluntary euthanasia. The man was under suspicion for having murdered his wife and the doctor has been a tireless campaigner to legalise voluntary euthanasia. Subsequently, the doctor was suspended by the Australian Medical Association. About 18 months ago, a woman in her early 80s was also assisted to take her own life. She was elderly, but not suffering unbearable pain physically either and she made a very conscious decision to end her life on a high. She penned her own story in the newspaper and of course, while there was much support for her suicide, there were the predictable outcries that she shouldn’t have been given the Nembutal to overdose on.
Does anyone, should anyone, have control over another person’s right to die? And is it a human right at all? I’ve read other sociological treatises about suicide and once researched a documentary about The Right to Live, The Right To Die when I was just 25. It made me think about our right to die and moreover our right to live. I still ask though about just what is the right to live, how to live and in what way? With how much money and good health in peaceful and harmonious environs? What about our quality of life? Is our right to live implicit in being human; and just what price, human life? What attitudes, what values and what perspective do we have on the right to live as thinking, feeling, strong, confident and capable human beings? So many millions, maybe even billions of people just subsist; poverty, starvation and disease are intrinsic in their lives and I’ve often thought: why and just how do they go on living? What for? I can’t answer these questions of course, but I do believe that our so-called regard for human life emanates from ancient religious instruction that heralded human life as precious; a gift from God, the whole Judaic-Christian morality that enshrines life till the bitter end. And is also anti-abortion. But that notion about the precocity of life seems embedded in all manner of social milieus so that to commit suicide is still regarded as a tragedy.
Is there implicit in being human the same right to die as there is in the right to live? And is it inspired by not love of self and others which enrich our lives, but an innate sense of self-hate and hate of others turned in on itself? A male friend of mine committed suicide at 54. I had known him for more than 30 years; initially as a quasi-boyfriend I was never attracted to and for decades, a very good platonic mate. I wasn’t surprised at all by his suicide. He had already told me when I first met him at 21 years of age that he got into journalism through his father who was a very well-known high status solicitor in Brisbane, Queensland. My friend, at just 18, about five years before I met him, had attempted suicide by gassing himself with carbon monoxide in his parents’ home garage. His father found him still alive, and soon after, got him a job on the Brisbane Courier Mail as a cadet. Moreover, he had had the most expensive education at a private college and his parents were wealthy indeed. I met him in Melbourne where he was a journalist on the same paper I was. He told me that attempted suicide story as he lay crying in bed with me after a failed attempt at sex; failed because he couldn’t get an erection and lamented the small size of his penis. It was heart-breaking for me to listen to and I just can’t remember what I said at all. Years later, he travelled overseas, became an alcoholic and buried his pain in a bottle. I always felt he hated himself inside; like many men I met in the media during my younger years. Most are dead, having died young through natural causes. I still often think about my friend; and the documentary research I did at 25 was not about suicide per se, but rather, about why prolong life when there’s no quality of life? It focused on a few individual people around the world who had been in comas for decades kept alive by ventilators. One woman in America had been in a coma for 34 years or thereabouts. Her family didn’t want to turn off the ventilator. A surgeon I interviewed for the documentary in Edinburgh, Scotland, told me that many doctors do indeed, facilitate death when prolonged suffering and no quality of life are apparent or likely to be in the future. He told me over the phone before I had travelled to see him from Leeds, agreeing that he’d be interviewed by a reporter for the documentary. (I was the researcher). Arriving in Edinburgh many hours later, he told me he had changed his mind and would not say it for TV. I was very disappointed and upset as he admitted it was quite common practice but was in some ways, a well-known secret in medical circles. So how far do we take that notion? And who can define our own individual quality of life? What is regarded as quality of life for one person may be insignificant to another; meaningless and worthless when you may want to live a life so different from theirs? Who has the right to determine about suffering? Physical only? I’ve reflected on my friend’s suicide many times over the nearly 14 years since it happened, and I’m not so sure he really was full of self-hatred, albeit unconscious. Can we really ever know why someone commits suicide? And why someone else doesn’t, as if you look at their life, you can only wonder why they indeed keep on living? Is it strength of purpose just to stay alive, love of self and others, or some religious conviction that it is up to God when and how one dies. Suicide bombers are an interesting horror of recent times but they are supposedly doing it in the name of Allah; Holy Jihad; sanctioned by the Almighty Himself! Does suicide in non-combative situations imply heresy? Or I could go further to suggest some people who do try and commit suicide are really in a combative situation with themselves; however disguised and out of sight their internal civil war might be. Do we ever have the right to interfere? Control their destiny? Their fate? Just how human is our right to die?
It’s also pertinent when you think how modern western society uses the word ‘euthanasia’. The Macquarie Dictionary defines it thus – painless death, the putting of a person to death painlessly, esp a person suffering from an incurable and painful disease. It begs the question is it just for physical suffering? And if you preface the word with ‘voluntary’, what’s the difference with suicide? Suicide is defined as one who intentionally takes his own life. Doctors may be able to facilitate an end to physical suffering, but they are remiss and often go to the other extreme of controlling someone’s life when it is about mental suffering. Keep them alive at any cost, no matter these doctors, often called shrinks, have absolutely no idea as to the mental suffering experienced by another. They are consciously projecting their unconscious religious (among other aspects) tenets about the sanctity of life onto others whose mental and emotional pain could be akin to torture. They think they know best for someone else based on what? As specialists in suffering? Experts in pain? They can control our lives as I sadly experienced myself at St Vincent’s, tortured by them themselves by locking me up in prison. It’s horrifying to me that these people can control our lives; not that I even thought once about suicide; just that I nearly died because of them. I live in spite of them. Moreover, when psychological research et al suggests that so much, if not all of our actions, thoughts, feelings and beliefs originate in our minds, how can we allow others to control our minds? Even heart attacks, strokes and cancer are often blamed on mental stress, so shouldn’t we be taking care of our minds individually not to allow others to stress us out by attempting to exert their power over us? What is the link between mental and physical pain and suffering? Who on this planet can ultimately decide which pain is the worst, permitting some to die by their own hand and not others? Do the shrinks play at being God when they try to control our lives? Or is it just a totalitarian approach to so-called medical practice? (next blog – keep posted) As a mature adult, I believe it is every person’s right to live or die as they choose; we partake of so many illicit drugs, legalised alcohol and cigarettes which most rational and thinking people know could kill them one day but we go on doing it. And the governments in the western world make billions of dollars in taxes from these potentially lethal habits. Is life any less precious in some of the developing worlds in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America where cigarettes and alcohol are so much cheaper than here? And is it the dollar driving our consumption here and elsewhere? The great accolades apportioned to the former Labor Government when it succeeded in introducing plain packaging for cigarettes with ugly photos of decaying humans on the front designed to reduce smoking has, apparently according to research carried out, not made one iota of difference in the numbers of people smoking. And what of a my mad shrink DR C who when I told him I need help to stop smoking which I knew could kill me, he remarked – that’s the least of your problems. And my sister, a doctor, can only comment, not that they will kill me, but that I’d have more money if I didn’t smoke. So much for life, heh? At 64 now, I don’t even think anymore about stopping, but my limited finances have helped me cut down but I enjoy smoking and now want to live with some quality of life that I do indeed find happy and satisfying. I have a different attitude than 32 years ago to death as I do get older, but will I ever take my own life? I know or feel I’m not afraid of dying, but suffering physically in agony with pain that’s terminal, I have already decided I will if I can, decide for myself to end it all. It should be my decision and mine alone, as it should be anyone who can still rationally make the decision about life or death. It is I think, the right of every human being, adults I’ll qualify it, to decide for themselves to live or die and no one can really feel where the shoe of another pinches. As much as physical suffering is individual, so too, is mental and/or emotional suffering, and I believe it is implicit in being human that the choice to live or die should be our own.