Recently my friend and colleague Jenni Schaefer sent me a link to her story of recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, aka PTSD.
Jenni and I have known each other for years….and yet until I read her post, I didn’t know she had been a victim of rape. I also didn’t know she had struggled for many years with PTSD as a result of the rape.
To hear Jenni tell it, for a long time she didn’t realize she had PTSD either.
To be honest, when I think of PTSD I usually think of military veterans. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a whole section of their website dedicated to PTSD.
According to the VA, a person can develop PTSD after being involved in a traumatic event. Involvement can mean it happened to you personally or that you witnessed it.
The reigning argument is that PTSD can be successfully treated, even cured, although results to date have been spotty.
In her post, Jenni asks the question, “Is PTSD incurable?”
It is a great question. It is also a very tough question, because just as no two cancer patients are alike, so too no two PTSD patients are alike. We don’t yet know – beyond all shadow of a doubt – why one in a set of identical twins will develop leukemia and one will not.
Nor do we know why some military veterans return home with PTSD that responds successfully to treatment and some return home with PTSD that not only continues to harm them, but extends that harm to others as well.
Likely for this very reason, recently the debate on the effectiveness of current PTSD treatment options has shifted to what happens when those options are not successful. The debate was sparked by the case of a young Netherlands sex abuse victim who requested euthanasia after her years-long recovery attempts failed to produce the hoped-for results.
I will be honest – I’m of two minds on this particular debate. I will share some reasons why….
When I read Jenni’s post and heard her story, and the story of another shared friend of ours, June Alexander, I felt so grateful both of them survived their PTSD and are still here to inspire us and befriend me!
Similarly, when I look back over my own 30-year battle with depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, trauma (from being molested as a child and raped in my 30’s) and incredibly low self-esteem, I can recall many moments of pondering whether the quality of my life as it was in those moments was worth continuing to live.
But in all that, even with the incredible absence of so many of the type of supportive resources available and commonly known about today for treating trauma and eating disorders, I also don’t see any instances where my past self ever would have requested assisted suicide.
I can even recall specific incidents when I really felt an urge to off myself, and witness how I didn’t ever once act on those urges. In fact, during my senior year in college I even called 911 and had a cop escort me to the emergency room because I was obsessively thinking about suicide.
Something in me had decided to live, and it wasn’t giving up.
I mention this because many of the current arguments against permitting assisted euthanasia (in this country or any country) highlight the lack of available resources and hope as a reason. I can see that – truly I can. But I have also been in that place – for years at a time – of feeling like no one understood and no resources existed and I am still here. I didn’t take my own life.
What I am getting at here again is simply this – I am me. I have had my own experience of recovery from certain diagnosed issues. But just because I happen to share a diagnosis in common with another person doesn’t mean I have any idea what their experience is like, how they feel inside, whether their quality of life is such to give them hope enough to keep fighting and when – for them – “enough is enough.”
So for those who are requesting to end their own lives, I have to wonder – is that a cry for help, for compassion, for someone to talk with, for someone who can talk them out of taking such a final step? Is it proof that we haven’t developed the right – or enough of the right – PTSD treatment options yet?
Or is it a simple matter of a human being exercising his or her right to choose at any stage of life whether to stay or go?
I truly do not know.
But I do believe that at some level we have to trust others when they say, “I want to keep fighting” or, alternately, “I have had enough.”
After all, assisted euthanasia is not only near-universally accepted for treasured pets whose quality of life has deteriorated, but is viewed as a compassionate and respectful gesture – in many ways, even a necessary part of choosing to share our life with a beloved non-human companion (for more on this topic, see the eye-opening book “Citizen Canine” by David Grimm).
Yet for humans, legally speaking, apparently we are required to hang in there no matter what, even if we are in miserable pain in one or every area of life, even if we have very little quality of life to live for, even if an end to the pain is all we want and all we ask for each and every day.
Otherwise, if we do take matters into our own hands, those who assist us may be penalized, ostracized and/or prosecuted. Those we leave behind will be judged. We will be judged.
On that note, patient groups diagnosed with PTSD and eating disorders, respectively, each have incredibly high suicide rates for a wide variety of reasons (Jenni’s post shares some statistics for each).
What I’m getting at here is this: if a person suffering from PTSD, or anorexia (which the Netherlands sex abuse victim also had), or something else awful, decided they wanted to take their own life, why ask for assisted euthanasia?
Why not just do it?
Are the drugs better? Is there more of a guarantee that the attempt will end in success? Is making the request an assurance that their loved ones won’t suffer from shame or guilt or ostracism after they are gone? Is it a cry for help?
Here again, I honestly don’t know.
Does the diagnosis make all the difference in whether a request for assisted suicide is respected, honored and granted or denounced and refused?
Terminal cancer patient Brittany Maynard garnered the support of 74 percent of Americans in making a decision to end her own life – calling it the “right to die.” So for a cancer patient who lacks hope, assisted euthanasia appears to be largely supportable (if not by law in all states yet, at least in spirit).
But if a PTSD or eating disorder patient requests assisted euthanasia, somehow this is viewed as a criminal offense – and the physicians who grant and assist with the request have “failed” the patient and then are said to be “killing” the patient, not simply making it possible for her to exercise her legal rights as a citizen.
Here is my confusion with that:
Medicine – for body or mind – is still much younger than we often realize. We know just enough to touch hope, just enough to be dangerous in some cases and miracle-workers in others. Often, when some treatment does work, we then have to go back and figure out why. When a treatment doesn’t work, we don’t often get a second chance to try again.
So I for one don’t see doctors who assist patients with requested euthanasia (legal or otherwise) as killers.
Doctors are trying to do what has never been done before and in some cases appears to be totally impossible. They are standing out there balanced on the cusp of what is known, which is still very little of all it is possible to know. In this they are not unlike the astronauts who one day soon will head off for Mars, perhaps never to return, in the name of stretching the boundary of what is possible for us all.
Yet it is easy to forget this when doctors try something new or less well-tested and it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t help that many of us have very strong feelings about whether it is okay to want to die (as a human or as a non-human) and to be supported in that decision. Some of us also dissect possible reasons for wanting to die in an attempt to make up our minds, trying in the process to identify which reasons are “okay” and which are not okay and how to tell the two apart.
Over the last decade or so, I have worked with people of all ages who struggle with eating disorders, depression, anxiety, PTSD, trauma and other serious and painful issues as well. In this work, I have learned there is no way to make a person want something different than what they want in the moment they want it.
What I am trying to say is, a person searching for hope – someone who wants to find hope – is quite likely to find it.
A person searching for an end to their suffering is also quite likely to find it.
Trying to talk a person who just wants their suffering to end NOW into waiting an indeterminate additional period of time to see if that occurs by more gradual means is less likely to happen.
Trying to talk a person who has become convinced death (legal or not, assisted or not, supported or not) is the only guaranteed way to find relief from suffering out of what they are about to do is also less likely, in my opinion, to be successful.
So ultimately, I guess what I am saying is that I support human choice as the ultimate mentor and guide for each and all of us.
In this, I also recognize it doesn’t matter if I support whatever-it-is that someone chooses or not – people will do what they want to do, whether it is legal or acceptable or supportable or supported or not.
I myself am a perfect example of this.
It is for this very reason that I would ultimately prefer to see as many choices as possible presented in the most humane, compassionate, supportive and supported way as possible.
If we can do this much for our non-human animal companions and pets, surely we can find some way to offer our suffering selves the same.
Today’s Takeaway: Please know I realize what a sensitive, potentially explosive topic this is and that this post is full of questions without answers. I share this for a couple of reasons: 1) Because I believe Jenni’s and June’s stories are worth sharing and may provide hope and new perspective for those who need it, and 2) Because I feel like it is always best for each of us to wrestle with these tough issues and find conclusions that feel right to us, rather than turning to hate or rage or fear or ignorance to make a conclusion for us. Having said that, if you have something to contribute that may be a productive source of contemplation and insight for us all, I would love for you to share it!