To be or not, as Shakespeare said, or to live or not to live. That was the question which plagued me. I was now seventy-seven years old. Did I want to live into my very senior years, given that I had developed neuropathy which was hampering my ability to walk and causing me great pain? Then, a further question appeared; would it take more courage to commit suicide, and avoid the painful future which would include a lessening of my faculties, both physical and intellectual, and would include requiring someone to look after me, or to choose to live, and accept the years and changes to come, as a challenge?
I had always been healthy, strong, and independent. Thus the concept of not walking, and needing someone to look after my daily needs was an anathema to me. The neuropathy had probably been developing over many years, as I can now recall getting tired faster, and not being able to walk as far. Also there appeared a numbness and tingling sensation in my legs, along with pain up my legs and into my back. As well, the tingling had begun in my fingertips. So now fear really set in. How long would it be before I would no longer be able to walk my beloved companion of almost twelve years, my Shi Tzu, Angel? She had volunteered with me for ten years, seven days a week bringing joy to patients, staff, and visitors in a Long Term Care Facility for the Aged. How long before I would be in a wheelchair? How long before I could no longer design, and make the knitted and crocheted articles which I sold in the Handicrafts Store in which I volunteered at that same facility?
The other aspect to my dilemma was my relationship with my family. I had married at the age of seventeen. I had my first child at eighteen and then my second at twenty-one. My daughter had moved to Israel and my son lived in California. I divorced my first husband after forty years of an unhappy marriage. I remarried a man I loved, but after being on his own for twenty-five years, he found it hard to adjust to having a wife, and we also divorced, although we did keep in touch until his death a year ago. In my early twenties, I realized I was not content to be only a housewife and mother. I tried volunteering, worked in retail for awhile, then decided to go back to school and become a teacher. This literally saved my life. I had been a foster parent for twenty-five years, mainly for troubled teenagers, and even taught the night school course for foster parents. I subsequently got an Honours Degree in Sociology, and a Specialist Degree in Teaching, specifically for Gifted Children. I taught for thirty-five years until I had to retire at sixty-five, during the time when that was mandatory. That was when I became a full-time volunteer.
My relationship with my children was not good. Each had behaved in ways that had brought me great pain. I am the eldest of four, having two brothers and a sister. However we are a dysfunctional group, and they do not offer emotional support for me. It is two friends who have been there for me for thirty years, and without whom I would have had even more pain in the past turmoil and heartaches in my life.
Depression is genetic in my family. My father, whom I loved, committed suicide at the age of eighty-two. I knew all my adult life that he was unhappy. We were very close, and he confided in me. If I suggested that he seek help, he claimed no one could help him. My son attempted suicide twice and my daughter once. If thoughts of suicide entered my mind during my earlier periods of unhappiness, I did not seriously consider acting on them. I often wished I could become a victim of a serious disease, or have an accident and die, but I would not bring it about.
So why did I finally plan to die? And was I depressed when I did so? I do not agree with the opinion that I was depressed, I believe I made a rational decision. I felt that the coming years could only bring me more pain – physically and emotionally. I wanted to leave this world on top. I felt alone and unloved, except by my dog. So I made my plans. I settled all my financial dealings, appointed a new Power of Attorney, made a new will, made my bequests for charity. I disposed of all my goods – jewellery, furniture, dishes, crystal, sterling, even most of my clothes. I found a wonderful person to adopt my dog, a woman with whom I had walked every Saturday and Sunday, she with her dog and me with mine. We set the date for Angel to move to her apartment. I sobbed bitterly on that day. I told my co-worker the numbers to call in case I did not show up for work on time.
Then the night came. I had my pills ready, the liquor to drink with them, and the plastic bag to put over my head and die, so I would suffocate painlessly after falling asleep. I remember it all, but I fell asleep too soon. I recall trying to tie the bag, and then no more. I have been asked what my last thoughts were. I had none. I was on automatic pilot. I only asked my father, “Daddy, was it hard for you to take your pills?” This was the only time in my life that I have failed. I came to in the hospital about thirty-six hours later, looked up and saw my daughter and my cousin, my Power of Attorney. I had someone guarding me twenty-four hours a day, to make certain that I made no further attempt. But I did anyways. I still very much wanted to die. I refused to eat. I was going to starve myself to death. I felt no hunger. That night I tried to break the lenses out of my glasses, so I could cut my wrists, but I only succeeded in breaking the frames. After another day, my daughter told me that my potassium level was dropping and that if it continued to drop, I would be tied down, and force-fed. That shocked me. I had signed papers to not use any means of resuscitation, so why should I be forced to live? But I felt too weak to fight. I said, “I’m worth too much tied down. Bring me a cup of coffee.” So I began my way back to living.
I moved to the wing of the hospital which was locked, and was under constant surveillance for several days. I was accompanied to the washroom and shower. My daughter came from Israel, my son came from California, and he and his sister met and spoke for the first time in twenty-five years. I do not know if they will continue to correspond when they leave for their own homes. I hope so, but I doubt it. I was eventually allowed to enter a more open wing, but still a mental ward, and I was given some freedom. They took my apartment from me; I could leave the ward, but not the building. During that first night, had I had my keys in my possession, I would have run away. It was frightening. Two patients had a loud verbal altercation, which I thought would lead to blows. Others sat around, looking glazed and unresponsive. When the line-ups for medications formed at the nurses’ station, I felt I was in the midst of those movies I had seen of asylums. I was not on any medication, and so did not have to line-up. I found the following days and nights extremely boring. What did surprise me was the number of visitors I had, people with whom I had come into contact while carrying out my volunteer duties. I was extremely pleased that they came from top staff to those in menial positions. This was evidence, I felt, of my belief that we are all equal and that I was a friend to all. There were two instances of improper behaviour by one of the night nurses. I reported this and disciplinary action was taken. Also, before discharge, I panicked when I discovered that I had been given eye drops which belonged to another patient with a similar name. Fortunately, they were the same medication, and this episode served as a teaching opportunity.
After several days, I left the floor and began taking part in the few activities offered, and had my first appointment with the psychiatrist who would look after me. We would meet five days a week. He was honest in that he wanted me to take medication to help ease the pain and the depression. I was against this because I had researched the topic and discussed this with my neurologist. He agreed that with my history of depression and suicide, medication was not necessary. However, after further discussion, I agreed that since I was in a safe place, I would try the meds. One day later, I was a different person. Where I had been in good spirits, I was now listless with no energy. I felt low but with no alleviation of pain. We tried a second. This was even worse. I hallucinated, thought I was dying, and refused to eat. I was back where I had been the day of my attempted suicide. I cried for them to take me to the Palliative Floor, and bring my dog to see me once more before I died. After a few hours, it wore off, and I began the trip back. It took several days for all the meds to leave my system. The doctor recommended a third; I researched it, and said, “NO!” I will do this on my own with help from the doctor and my therapist.
So now that I had survived and escaped death, how was I to live? I decided that while there are countless people who will do anything to stay alive even when they are terminal, and in pain, I would not waste the life I was given. I will live out my years in whatever pain I am in, and help as many people as I can, in whatever way I can.