Is this how I’m going to die?
That was the inconvenient question that popped into my mind this morning as the nurse told me to relax and plunged a syringe into my upper arm.
You see, I’m one of a rather significant number of people who receive a free ‘flu’ shot each year. It’s free because my immune system is a tad dodgy. I’m one of those people who are chronically ill, constantly in pain. It’s not something I like to talk about – indeed, I try to soldier on, as no one likes a wet blanket – but there are moves afoot to legalise euthanasia where I live, and my medical condition makes me a potential victim.
Victim. That’s right, victim, because there’s no other honest way of putting it. Euthanasia is the administration of “prescribed medication” to kill someone. I don’t think I’m “eligible” yet according to the provisions of the bill that’s currently under consideration by the Tasmanian parliament, but a clever lawyer could argue it. After all, I already suffer from an “incurable and irreversible” disease. As much as I don’t like to admit it, it does cause me “persistent suffering”. There’s also no “reasonable prospect of permanent improvement” in my medical condition.
The truth is: every day is a battle. If it weren’t for so many people depending on me, I might slide into a malaise that would gradually poison my mind into thinking that life is not worth living. (Parenthood is hell, but it teaches you that self-sacrifice is worth it.) If it weren’t for the fact that I’m stubborn and implacable in my determination to experience life (even with all its pain and suffering), I might have given up living with this disease a long time ago. I look back at my younger self and recognise that twenty years ago I would possibly have chosen oblivion over the daily battle I now face.
You may wonder why I am not bothering to elucidate all the moral arguments against euthanasia as is my usual wont, but at the end of the day it is our personal experiences that shape us. Perhaps we shouldn’t, but most of us make decisions based on the way we feel, and as rational as I am I can’t and won’t ignore the power of gut instinct. It is gut instinct (or conscience) that often tells us something is wrong before we even know why it is wrong, and that is where I want to begin.
My point is that being unwell affects the way we see the world and our place in it. When I am sick – or, more to the point, when I am extra sick because I am sick all the time – all I can see are my failures. I’m useless, hopeless, and everything is pointless. I think my children would be better off without me, I imagine no one reads what I write, and the household chores are not only endless but impossible. I imagine I am the ugliest and most repulsive woman on the planet.
Chronic illness takes those periodic feelings of depression and magnifies them. It draws them out… forever. It makes us vulnerable to the most destructive of thoughts.
The lure of suicide, of escape from it all, is enough of a problem in our society. I think we all know someone who has succumbed. We wonder if we’d spent more time with them, listened more, or simply not left them alone, that perhaps they might still be with us. So why would we want to validate it, enable it, and empower it? Why would we want to not only endorse suicide but legislate a raft of measures that disguise killing as mercy?
A friend of mine lost her husband not so long ago. He was not euthanised, but he wasn’t resuscitated. Despite her tearful pleadings, and even though they were newlyweds with a beautiful two-year-old son, medical staff decided his chances of a full recovery at his age (early fifties) were too low. He adored his wife and young son, and I am certain he would have gladly lived bedridden or in a wheelchair in order to watch his son grow up and be part of their lives, but the doctors decided it would be more merciful to let him die. And that’s the sort of mercy I think we can do without.
The euthanasia mentality is already with us, poisoning the way we think about life and the people around us. So many of my friends suffer from depression. I know I am not alone. But there are people who lift me up and give me strength. Some of them are concentration camp survivors. Their passion for life was strongest when they were suffering most. In the midst of the most unspeakable torture, they clung to life and fought for it with a strength they had no idea they possessed. They fought with every last breath to stay alive, because it was worth it, even to see one more ray of sunlight on the wall, a patch of blue sky through puffy white clouds, or the face of the one they loved.
They’re not small-minded politicians whose response to human misery is to get rid of the problem. They defied their pain and suffering and embraced life, and that’s the sort of person I want to be. That’s the sort of person I want all of us to be. I don’t want to put a metaphorical gun to someone’s head and put them out of their misery. I don’t want to turn doctors who save lives into state-sanctioned killers. I want to help people enjoy life, despite the pain, throughout the suffering. I want them to appreciate the small mercies that make it all worthwhile. Is that really too much to hope for?