LUXURY PART TWO--THE CURE-part b
YOU CAN'T AFFORD THE LUXURY OF A NEGATIVE THOUGHT-THE CURE
Suicide(an optional chapter)
In time, life takes care of death; we don't need to help it along. That's why this is an optional chapter. Still, a discussion of suicide can be useful--as much to point out its life-affirming aspects as its death-hastening ones.
We can consciously end our life almost any time we choose. This ability is an endowment--like laughing and blushing--given to no other animal. Although suicide gives us the power of personal destruction, it also provides the power of personal life affirmation.
In any given moment, by not exercising the option of suicide, we are choosing to live.
Many people have put suicide in a forbidden-under-any-circumstances category because they were taught to, not because it was thought through. Blind obedience to custom robs these people of the option to choose life. (I am not referring, of course, to those who have made a religious, spiritual, or philosophical decision based on extensive soul-searching, but to those who thoughtlessly accept this cultural taboo.)
As this is an optional chapter, please allow me to state my personal views on suicide. In so doing, I do not wish to challenge your views on the subject. Something as precious as our life must be an individual, personal, and carefully considered choice. I'm just chatting with you here, friend to friend.
First, I think suicide should never be used to escape the pain of loss. I have been through enough losses to know the feeling that life is no longer worth living; the anger, when I was certain only my death could adequately punish those who hurt me; and the hurt that made me believe: "I can't take this one moment longer!" And yet, I held in there--and I survived. Now I can't even remember the names ofsome of the people who had me contemplating suicide.
Since writing (with Drs. Colgrove and Bloomfield) How to Survive the Loss of a Love in 1976, I have received thousands of letters telling me of losses so tragic I cannot even comprehend the pain the people went through. Yet each of them survived, and each took the time to write a letter saying so, asking me to pass on the message that has been passed on from one survivor to another throughout history: you will survive.
I am reminded of the dialogue between Zorba and his young friend, a writer:
ZORBA: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die?
WRITER: I don't know.
ZORBA: What is the use of all your damn books, then? If they don't tell you that, what the hell do they tell you?
WRITER: They tell me of the agony of men who cannot answer questions like yours.
Often we don't know why a loss happens--especially when it happens to the young or innocent--but we can hold firm to the truth (often forgotten in times of loss) that we will survive.
Following a loss, thoughts of suicide are a naturalpart of the healing process. Acting on those thoughts, however, is never advisable, even when the losses cause inevitable and perhaps permanent changes in one's life--such as major financial loss or physical disability. Just because we won't have the same life as before is, in my estimation, no reason to end life.
When, then, would I consider suicide? When death is inevitable and the quality of life has become unbearable.
Please understand that, even at this point, I do not recommend suicide to others; I am simply saying this is the point at which I would consider it for myself. Whether I would do it or not I do not know.
Does considering suicide under these particular circumstances run counter to the message of this book? I think not. We all must die some time, and some of us will die from diseases. This is not a book promising (or even recommending) physical immortality. This is a book for those who may have found life painful at some point and created an intention to die, an intention that may now be manifesting in a life-threatening illness. Facing death in all its forms--including at one's own hand--can help us live more fully now. Living more fully now can help reverse an intention to die, and the method of death (the disease) can thus be reversed along with it.
Hearing that we have a life-threatening illness is a loss--even if we are quite certain we can overcome it. Overcoming takes work--work that we had not anticipated or planned for. Some of our best-laid other plans, then, will have to go a-gley.A-gley means, essentially, "down the toilet." But merely getting the news of a life-threatening illness is no reason to go shopping for a tank of carbon monoxide.
When I was diagnosed with AIDS and cancer in March 1996, suicide certainly
crossed my mind. At one point, I had less than a ten percent chance to live. I chose, however, to set suicide aside for the moment and peruse recovery. I used the cutting edge of medical technology (chemotherapy and radiation for the cancer, protease inhibitors and antivirals for the AIDS, prescription antidepressants for the depression), and two ancient herbs (St. John's wort for the depression and marijuana for nausea, pain, and depression). Well, it's 1998 and I'm still here. The cancer is in remission and the AIDS is in check until a cure can be found.
I say I set suicide aside; I did not rule it out. In fact, considering the kind of cancer I had, I planned on it. I carefully questioned my oncologist about the progression of the illness and its stages toward death. I chose a point that, according to my doctor, was several points beyond the point of no return and a point in which I was no longer useful to myself or others, other than delaying the inevitable. I chose my method (nitrous oxide--might as well go out with a laugh), the place, who I would invite, the legal steps I would take to protect those I invited from criminal prosecution (some of the state anti-suicide laws are so silly), and so on.
I legally made all my body parts available immediately after my death, although having AIDS made them not highly prized. If my body parts would be helpful to others, I would probably commit suicide in a car (or a large, rented Winebago so I could have a deathbed scene) in the parking lot of a hospital where people are waiting for organ transplants. I would not tell the hospital my plans, of course, but I would make sure all transplant consent forms were on file and the hospital transplant coordinator (the person in charge of locating body parts) was on duty. (It is perfectly legitimate, especially if you have a life-threatening illness, to choose ahead of time the hospital that your body is to be rushed whether you die of suicide or of the illness. Your body, now dead, can save several other lives before it is burned or buried.) I would make certain a reliable and efficient person had copies of consent forms and the phone number of the transplant coordinator.
I had already selected my "final resting place" (a niche for my ashes with Marilyn Monroe twenty feet to the left of me and Oscar Levant twenty feet to the right of me) and forbade a funeral (a waste of time and money, in my view). I thought about having my head frozen for future high school science classes to practice cloning on, but wouldn't have done it then. If I have the money, I might do it when I eventually do die. (There are several people who would gladly pay to have me head frozen, provided I do it at once.) The jury's still out on that one.
Whatever my views on suicide are, however, I donot want to force them on someone else, nor do I want someone else's views enforced upon me-- especially by law.
Laws that prohibit the terminally ill from obtaining a peaceful, painless death are barbaric. That early death, of course, must always be the patient's choice--or the choice of someone designated by the patient (in writing and witnessed) to make that choice for the patient should he or she become mentally incapacitated. To force people to die slow, agonizing deaths when they are ready to die, willing to die, and wanting to die--but cannot do it themselves due to physical incapacity--is inhuman. And yet, that's the law in almost every state in this country.
Many people do not so much fear death as the pain of dying. If we choose to consider suicide an option, we know that the length and degree of our suffering will be--as it always has been--our personal choice.
How to Die
The final lesson in my crash course on dying is ten suggestions on how to die. You can file these away until you need them.
Get things in order. Things you don't want people to see? Destroy them. Things you want people to have? Give them away. ("Let the season of giving be yours and not that of your inheritors"-- Gibran, The Prophet.) Pay debts. Make notes of what you've done. Make it easy for whomever you choose to take care of things after.
Make a will. Of things that weren't given away, decide who gets what. Put it in writing. Make it legal. Choose an executor. Do you want to be cremated or buried? Decide what kind of funeral--if any--you want. Bette Davis said, "I don't want donations made to any charities in my name. I want lots and lots of flowers!" If that's how you feel about it, say so. In writing. And don't forget to make out a "living will" if you don't want extraordinary medical measures used to prolong your life.
Say good-bye. Good-byes don't all have to take place on your deathbed. You can say good-bye to people, and then see them every day for the next fifty years. Tell people what you would want them to know if you never saw them again. Give them the opportunity to do the same. Usually, it boils down to simply, "I love you."
Don't spend time with people you don't want to spend time with. When people hear someone is dying, they all want to make a pilgrimage. Many of these people you haven't seen in years and, if you lived another hundred years, would probably never see again. Say good-bye on the phone. Tell them you're just not up to a visit. You don't owe anyone anything.
Spend time alone. Reflect on your life. Make peace with it. Come to terms with it. Forgive yourself for everything. Learn what you can from what's happened, and let the rest go. Mourn the loss of your life. Come to a place of understanding and acceptance. You may be surprised how quickly you get there.
Enjoy yourself. Make a list of all the movies you want to see or see again. Rent them. Watch them. Read the books you never got around to. Listen to your favorite music.
Relax. Sleep. Do nothing. Lie around. Recline. Goof off.
Pray. Listen. It is said people are closest to God at birth and at death. If you missed God the first time around, catch the diety on the return. Whatever inspirational or spiritual beliefs you hold dear, hold them even closer. You are being held close, too.
Enjoy each moment. Appreciate what is, here and now. That is where eternity is found. You may only have a few here-and-now moments, but it's a few more than most people will ever have.
When it's time to go, go. Let go. Say one last good-bye and mean it. Say good-bye so completely that you'll never want to come back, you'll never even look back. All the good you take with you. The rest is good-bye and moving on.
Do most of these sound more like suggestions for living than for dying? That's because they are. The best way to die is to live each moment fully. Then, when the time for death comes--be it next week or fifty years from now--it's just another event in an already eventful life.
Copyright © 1988-1996 Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press, Inc.