Social Question

SuperMouse's avatar

Is this woman's suicide any different than the average suicide? (Details inside.)

Asked by SuperMouse (30713 points ) February 20th, 2012

I came across this article about a woman who was quadriplegic and starved herself to death because she could not adjust to her new life and no longer wanted to be a “burden” to her friends and family. She did deal with some health issues related to her disability, in the end though, it was about not adjusting to her new body and not wanting to be a burden. I have known a couple of people who committed suicide, all of whom were healthy and able-bodied; their reasons for taking their own lives were essentially the same, life was too much to stand and they couldn’t go on burdening others with their problems.

So why are we calling this woman and others like her noble when people without disabilities are called selfish and short-sighted for taking their own life? Is there a difference? If there is, what do you think the difference is?

FYI, it is my understanding that she broke her neck at the C6 level. At that level typically there is no finger or thumb movement, but there is arm and shoulder movement and paralysis is usually from approximately the armpits down. It looked as though she could breathe on her own without a ventilator. As a comparison, Christopher Reeves’ injury was at C2.

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31 Answers

whitenoise's avatar

It is easier to understand for outsiders why her life has become unbearable. Psychological suffering may be just as bad or worse even, but is harder to understand for people.

Psychological suffering is also more threatening to outsiders as it could happen to them as well. That creates a lot of temptation to blame the victim.

and wow – what a heart breaking story. Sad from whatever view you take.

wundayatta's avatar

Her choice is her choice. I don’t know what I would do in her situation. But I have to wonder if her choice would have been different if her family and friends had been totally supportive. What if they told her day in and day out that they loved caring for her. It made them feel good. They were blessed to have her around. Would that have made her feel any different?

When I wanted to die it was for similar reasons. I knew there was no reason for me to be around. I only caused people problems. I hurt people. I only made other people’s lives worse. I made nothing positive for anyone. No one could love me because I was not lovable.

I knew these things were true and would always be true. What was the point of continuing to live?

I was wrong, though. Perhaps Christina was wrong, too. Perhaps with the right support, she could have come to see she was wrong.

I guess, to answer your question, I don’t think her suicide was any different. It was her choice. It was a shame. I can not judge her for doing it. It might have been avoidable.

zenvelo's avatar

I think there is a big difference, because most suicidal people are depressed and cannot see the light, but if they wait things can get better. This woman was trapped in a body that would never get better, that was a constant reminder of how her life had changed for the worse.

I certainly can’t judge her, she did a lot of consultation with doctors and therapists before making her decision. It’s a sad story all around.

wundayatta's avatar

@zenvelo Neither of us were privilege to her sensations, but I think it is arguable that she could have had a different attitude about her life. There was nothing inevitable about feeling like a burden. Yes, her body would not change, but her attitude towards life in the body she had could change.

linguaphile's avatar

I read the article, her blog and looked at her pictures on Flickr. Her life and suicide is far, far from average.

The part that struck me the most is where she and her sister mention complete lack of support after her injury from her father and STEP-mother [sic]. Apparently, they were her first caretakers right after her injury and were verbally abusive, punitive, critical and judgmental.

Often it is not the incident itself that’s as destructive as what happens afterwards, in terms of support, message giving and perception. I know this from personal experience—the incident is sometimes not as bad as what happens afterwards.

I wonder how much of her guilt, regret and self-hatred comes from what happened with her dad and stepmom? How would things be different if she had been with someone who forgave, support and embraced her, even as a broken person? There’s no way to know, really. After 30 minutes of this, I need a break. Whow…

thorninmud's avatar

There’s a peculiar dichotomy in how society looks at this: There are certain principles that we consider to be so important that life without them seems subhuman and, arguably, not worth living. For instance, Patrick Henry is remembered as a hero for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death!”. We also tend to put dignity in that category of basic requisites for a truly human life.

On the other hand, one is supposed to be able to just deal with suffering. Our ideals of what it means to be virtuous would have it that you just tough it through whatever shit life throws at you.

This case could be seen from either of these perspectives, which is why it’s controversial. If you frame it as a refusal to live a life without dignity and freedom, it takes on a noble quality. If you frame it as not wanting to bear up under suffering, then it looks cowardly and selfish.

There was a very good Spanish film based on a similar true story, The Sea Inside, that dealt with this subject. I highly recommend it.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

To me, very few suicides are noble and most suicides are neutral, imo.

blueiiznh's avatar

There is no way one article can tell us all the facts that make up her story.
IMHO suicide is a function of an inability to cope and have strength to look past what the issues are. I do not believe it is an answer in any stuation.
While depression plays a huge role in suicide, having the correct support structure is the antidote to that.

SuperMouse's avatar

@blueiiznh I originally found this story linked from another site I frequent for people living with spinal cord injury. Many involved in the discussion said pretty much what you did, that there is no way of knowing the whole story. What I found interesting over there is that participants in the thread were almost split down the middle between those who came right out and said they would rather be dead then live with this injury and those who would never even consider such a thing.

@thorninmud I think your answer is brilliant and I totally agree with your description of what makes taking one’s life look noble and what makes the act look cowardly.

@wundayatta you totally nailed the reason I asked this question. I just wonder how different your suffering was from this young woman’s suffering. It seems that because hers is out there on display for the whole world to see and yours is a more personal torment, hers is given more patience and nobility. Out of curiosity, do you feel that living with a mental illness has robbed you of any of your dignity?

I am sure most everyone on here knows my husband is quadriplegic – his injury is actually higher than that of the woman in the article, so the this is somewhat personal for me. I know my husband has not contemplated suicide before or since his accident.

blueiiznh's avatar

@SuperMouse I agree that there may be a split in how people feel when they are faced with devestating changes like this. I have seen both sides personally with people close to me after being diagnosed with cancer. The initial feelings is that they do not know how to continue.
That is why support, therapy, etc is so important to having the best quality of life that one can have.
Without hope and support, it can certanly be very opposite.

keobooks's avatar

Here is an article about this very story written by a man who has a spinal cord injury one vertebrate higher than Christina’s. The blog Not Dead Yet is an activist group consisting almost entirely of severely disabled adults who think that treating suicide differently for a disabled person than an able-bodied person is a form of dehumanization.

I think this article posts some serious questions for society to think about and is from a point of view that most people ignore – the severely disabled person who fears that one day they will get depressed about life (as we all have a chance of doing) and instead of getting help to get out of their depression and encouragement to go on living, they’ll get encouraged to think suicidal thoughts and help dying.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m glad to hear other people talk about support. I felt that was a key omission for this woman, and that had her parents behaved differently, she may have felt differently about herself. When we’re depressed, we want to be loved more than anything, and this woman didn’t get that love. I don’t usually find myself wishing ill on anyone, but I kind of hope her parents are feeling guilty.

@SuperMouse No. Mental illness has not taken my dignity. I’m not sure how much I had in the first place, but it’s no different now than before. Really, only one person has expressed doubts about me as a person they can trust due to my mental illness. Remember, not a lot of people know about it. Perhaps some have doubts, but except for the one person, everyone else kept them to themselves, if they had them.

The one who did mention them, mentioned them long afterwards, and I never felt I was being somehow condescended to. It was an honest question. I feel no less for having been asked that kind of question.

keobooks's avatar

Here is another interesting article. This guy talks about the fact that these cases get so much attention and able bodied people seem to assume that almost everyone who is paralyzed wants to die. You don’t hear much about the 5.5 million people in the US who are paralyzed in varying degrees and don’t want to die, but instead lead boring average lives pretty similar to the rest of us.

SuperMouse's avatar

@keobooks the second article you linked was linked in this thread on the board where I originally heard this story. I thought he made some great points about society’s views of the disabled. I also think your first post makes a great point about how society’s attitude toward people with disabilities may incline them more toward drastic measures then treatment to improve their state of mind. In his book Moving Violations, John Hockenberry talks about friends asking his mom shortly after his accident if she planned to help him kill himself. I couldn’t find the exact level of his injury, but I am fairly certain Hockenberry’s is at the thoracic level.

I know my husband had zero in the way of a support system after he broke his neck, but by the same token he had no one telling him what a burden he was to them or how it was his fault that their lives were so bad. I can’t even imagine how this woman dealt with her family saying such awful things to her.

MollyMcGuire's avatar

I didn’t read your long narrative. I just want to say there is no such thing as an average suicide.

SuperMouse's avatar

@MollyMcGuire reading the long narrative would give you an insight into the question and an understanding of what I meant by using the word “average.”

keobooks's avatar

@MollyMcGuire the whole point of the question was this:

If an able bodied person attempts or commits suicide, people will react with deep sorrow or anger. People generally try to talk able bodied people out of suicide and encourage them to get counseling.

But when a disabled person commits or attempts suicide, people talk about how it’s brave or dignified. People think it’s the right and good thing to do for the disabled person, their family and society.

BTW, after years of reading different stories about this, I am still surprised about how many abled bodied people say life wouldn’t be worth living if they couldn’t wipe their own butts. Really? I had no idea that was the end all and be all of living. Here I was trying to appreciate good food, good friends, beautiful works of art poetry, music and nature, when all along, the only real reason worth staying alive is the joy of using the toilet.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

It’s no different. One is a physical disability, and it could be argued, one is a mental disability. People can see one, but not the other. When they see it, they can’t imagine living that way. When they can’t see it, it must not be real, so, “how stupid”.

wundayatta's avatar

@keobooks Most people don’t think about the disabled and what life is really like for them unless they become disabled. And why should they? Most of us don’t spend time thinking about things that are not relevant to our lives. Given the lack of empathy I think most people have for the disabled, and the lack of imagination that makes it impossible for them to imagine themselves ever being disabled, I am not one bit surprised that most people have never thought about it.

linguaphile's avatar

Oh yeah… @wundayatta, you’re right. I want to add that, yes, there’s a huge lack of empathy and if anyone dares to say they don’t mind being disabled, if they don’t play into the pitiful, “I want to be cured” meme but take pride and strength in their disability, a good number of “normal” people attack them for being that way. Not only is there a lack of empathy, there’s also a deep set expectation that the disabled should be victims, steely jawed martyrs or whatever.

Think about it—what if all bipolar people stopped being apologetic and defeatist about their bipolar-ness and embraced it, wore it proudly and fought for it to be a legitimate way to live? How many people would flip and be freaked out: “How can you even want to be that way??!!”

I use bipolar as an example, but it applies to any “disability,” including my deafness. Many find it heart-stopping appalling that I like my ears exactly the way they are.

I do not presume to judge how someone with paralysis feels because I’m not in their shoes, but if someone strongly embraced their paralysis and fought for it to be a legitimate way to live, there will be another fighting for it not to be.

CWOTUS's avatar

I’ve been learning first hand (as an observer) about end-of-life issues for the past two-and-a-half months. I’m temporarily staying with my 87-year-old uncle in his home while his daughter and son-in-law, who normally live with him, are out of state.

My uncle, to put it very plainly, wants to die.

He won’t take active steps in that direction. It wouldn’t be particularly difficult. He could walk outside during the day (when I’m not here with him) and simply freeze to death in his back yard. He could pretty easily starve himself (he often has to be encouraged to eat as it is). He doesn’t drive, but he has the keys to his car, and an enclosed garage. He could take that route.

I think a lot of his problem right now, aside from the obvious physical issues that make him frail, is that he’s simply bored. There’s no one here with him during the day (except my dorg, Willow) and so many of his old friends have already died. When I get home in the evening it’s the high point of his day, then he has a small meal and goes to sleep again. I’d want to die, too, I think, if I felt as he feels. I suspect that I would take more active steps.

I wonder if this is the case with a lot of suicides. They’re already in a bad place for one reason or another: health, personal or professional shame, finances or whatever, and then something adds to that load of negativity, and bam! – they take active steps to achieve an end.

linguaphile's avatar

@CWOTUS Wow. That sounds frustrating and lonely for your uncle—I’d go nuts, too and would be looking for stimulation. You sound like you are really aware and sympathetic to his situation. Does he use the Internet? Are there any places on the Internet he would like to keep him occupied, even if it’s online games?

CWOTUS's avatar

Oh, we’ve been having discussions about the Internet since… just about forever (in terms of the Internet, anyway). No, he retired from work before computers took over the office, and he’s taken it as a form of foolish pride that he’s “never touched one of those damn things”. And he never will. (It doesn’t help that he also never learned to type.)

I agree that if he had ever wanted to be interested, there’s no telling what he could find to capture his interest now. But that time has passed. He can’t hear or see well, so reading is out, even watching television is difficult (not to mention that modern culture has him reeling more often than not).

When I’m not taking him for a ride on the weekend, which he still enjoys, we watch Military TV and talk about World War II, or listen to classical music. But even his memories are fading, his grasp of language is slipping, and he’s incredibly frustrated about not being able to think of a word that’s on the tip of his tongue – all the time, not just once in a while. He can’t even tell time now. I mean, he can’t tell AM from PM. (The other day he made a call to his former tax preparer about an issue with this year’s return… at 4AM.)

And he’s not interested enough to even take the Senior Center bus ride into town to visit with other folks there. I’m sure that he’d enjoy it, but he simply won’t, and that’s that.

So I can understand “wanting to be done with it all.” Even though outside observers (myself, both his daughters, his friends) can see “things that he could still do”, he cannot or will not. So that doesn’t leave much, does it?

linguaphile's avatar

@CWOTUS Umm.. It comes back to whether the will to live is a conscious personal choice.

When my student died in January, I talked to someone who told me that we all make the choice to live or die and when someone’s gotten their minds set (like the girl that sparked this discussion) that they’re done, it is next to impossible to convince them otherwise. It’s amazing to me how resilient some minds are, and how fixed some others are. Talking to this person really changed my perception of the ‘will to live.’

Sending strength to you as a caretaker—it is a huge job to be the source of quality of life for someone even in small ways, and I respect you for it. Take care.

rooeytoo's avatar

If I reach the point where I cannot live my life in a manner I deem satisfactory then I feel I have the right to end it. I think everyone has that right. Granted, it is hard on those left behind but they are not my primary concern.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

As a lot of people here already know, my best friend killed himself a little over three years ago. I don’t think it’s as simple as having or not having the will to live. There are many things to take into consideration – such as clinical depression. In my opinion, in suicides that involve clinical depression, choice does not exist. Suicide, much like life, isn’t black and white. Each one can be as different as any individual. Reasons, no reasons, will or no will… I don’t so much think there are answers. We’re all individuals, with individual reasons, who will never fully comprehend life outside of Self. We know ourselves and that is it. If someone decides, for whatever reason, that life is too painful… Well, that was their choice.

keobooks's avatar

@DrasticDreamer : I am really sorry about your loss. I’m sorry that your friend had to go that way and that you had to experience it.

You mentioned that suicide due to clinical depression is different from having a reason to commit suicide. I’ve had clinical depression most of my adult life, and the problem with your reasoning is that when you are clinically depressed, there always seems to be a reason to be depressed that’s outside yourself. And once you have chronic long term depression, it affects your ability to keep a job and maintain family, friends and romantic relationships. So clinical depression can lead to having concrete reasons to want to die. So you can’t really separate clinical depression from other reasons people want to die. It’s rarely isolated from the rest of someone’s psyche. You can get clinically depressed when terrible things happen and terrible things can happen because you are clinically depressed.

People also forget that aside from the disability, people with disabilities aren’t so different from everyone else. There are people with disabilities who go for years without feeling depressed and then one day, for whatever reason, they get clinical depression. And even if the depression originally started because a friend or family member died or they lost their boyfriend or their job, their reasons for being depressed grew and the person kept adding more and more reasons why life is depression. So even if being disabled wasn’t depressing to them for several years, the disability becomes one of many reasons for them to justify feeling depressed.

A problem is that many able bodied people can’t imagine anyone being disabled and happy, so they assume that being disabled is a good enough reason to want to commit suicide. They conveniently ignore that the person may have been happy—disabilities and all—for several years before they felt suicidal.

I think all people deserve treatment for depression if they feel suicidal for ANY reason. I would hate to turn to a friend or family member and say “I feel like killing myself” and instead of getting support or encouragement, my friend or family member says “Yeah.. your life really DOES suck. Here let me help you out there..”

CWOTUS's avatar

Thanks, @linguaphile. It has been helping me feel better about myself on a personal level this winter. Like, I may not be doing much, but at least I’m doing this thing.

You’re right about the “conscious choice to live”, too. I’ve always been amazed by stories of the will to survive: the hiker in Utah who cut off his arm to walk out of the wilderness, and the story much closer to home of a man in West Hartford, CT who performed his own arm amputation in the basement of his home when he was trapped there.

Speaking of which, I read one of the most amazing stories of raw courage last year in Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, the story of Louis Zamperini’s ordeal in World War II. Not only did he and a companion survive a 47-day trans-Pacific drift in an open raft with nearly no food and water, but after their capture by the Japanese he survived the subsequent beatings, privation and torture at various prison camps, much of it targeted directly at him because of his attitude of defiance, and because of his relative celebrity as an Olympic athlete.

Hillenbrand herself is facing some tough challenges.

With examples like that – and my uncle, too, even as ornery as he can be from time to time – it’s easy to be grateful for how easy my own life is. I think I’m going to choose to be happy for as long as I can, however I can.

wundayatta's avatar

This discussion is making me think of the nature of disability—what the idea means. It is a statistical concept, I think. Which is to say, it is a measure of comparison. We can only be “disabled” in comparison to a group of others who have more ability on this particular measure.

What that means, though, is that everyone can be considered “disabled” in comparison to someone else who is better abled than they are. Even those who are the best abled on some measure are certainly disabled on another. We simply can’t all be best or even good at everything.

So “Disability” is a social term. We place the label on skills where we have a general consensus that we must be able to do these things in order to have an acceptable quality of life. Of course, “acceptable” is a moving target. So are the sets of skills that are deemed “essential.”

What that means is that “disability” is a moving target. It is susceptible to different ideas. It is not inevitable. One person might think something is a disability and the next person might not consider it one. Outsiders might look on the disabled and label them disabled, but the person so labeled may not think they have any problem that is much different from anyone else.

@linguaphile mentioned bipolar disorder and deafness as examples of “disabilities” that might not be considered disabilities by those with the diagnoses. In fact, @linguaphile took it another step further, and said some people with these “disabilities” might actually consider them valuable abilities.

I don’t consider my bipolar disorder to be a disability. It hasn’t really harmed me all that much. Yes, it led me close to suicide, but I didn’t kill myself and I got treated and now I’m just as capable as I ever was. More capable, in fact, because my journey through this illness actually taught me some very important things. I got a lot out of it.

I don’t know what else to do about it, other than to get what I can from it. I don’t have a choice about having it, so I might as well see what it has to give me. As it happens: a lot!

So much so, that I am proud of having the disorder. I am proud of being crazy. Or at least of having crazy inside me. I don’t feel like I’m crazy, except in certain, positive ways. I think the disorder plays a role in my creativity. I was always willing to think differently, but now I use my disorder as an excuse to not stop myself from thinking the way I do. This kind of thinking is my strength, and if others don’t think it is a strength, at least it is entertaining, to me.

Bipolar is also associated with intelligence, whatever that is. I choose to think of it as an ability to solve more kinds of problems than most people can solve. It’s not up to me to say if I am intelligent, but I do think that the feedback I get justifies the idea that I am a pretty good problem solver.

If I didn’t have the genes for bipolar disorder, would I be as good a problem solver? Would I be as creative? I think there is a good chance that I wouldn’t be. So I can embrace this “disability” which for me, is a special ability.

There’s more than one way of looking at anything. If you’re depressed, you will look at things negatively. If not, positively. If I’m depressed, I will deny my abilities. I won’t even see them. They will become negatives: reasons to die.

There is nothing inevitable about how we look at ourselves. It’s up to us… our creativity… and our brain chemistry. We can choose to see things as we want, insofar as brain chemistry allows.

Brain chemistry can be changed. It can be changed by meds. It can be changed by social support. It can be changed by love. When I was sick, I instinctually sought out love. Perhaps it kept me alive until I could get a diagnosis and meds.

Therapy and yoga and exercise and meditation can also change brain chemistry. Belief (as in religious and/or spiritual belief) can change brain chemistry. I used all of these techniques to try to stay alive. I was committed. Even when I was ready to die, I was still committed to life. My mind was a strange place to be in those days. I never really wanted to die. I only wanted to stop the pain. Death seemed like the only way to do that, but I did not want to die. I don’t know if that makes sense. It was weird.

If someone came along and told me I could get some gene modifications that would reduce the risk of further episodes, would I take it? I don’t think so. I would be able to stop taking lithium, a chemical that could be killing my kidneys. But what would happen to my problem solving and my creativity? What would happen to those moments where I feel brilliant and clever? Where I can keep people laughing as if they had buttons to push to make them laugh?

Even paralysis has gifts. I don’t know what they are. But a person who is paralyzed and who has the right attitude can tell us. Every human condition has gifts. The trick is learning how to see them, and not being pollyannaish, but in finding the sincere positive elements to any particular condition. Even torture gives us gifts, I believe.

This is not to say that I want to be paralyzed or tortured or to have bipolar. But if I have to be in these conditions, then I want to get something out of it because that’s the only way I know of surviving them.

linguaphile's avatar

@wundayatta I wish I could give you 1000 great answer and lurves for that. A big, big happy dance for your answer—I love it!

You said exactly how I felt, but in a nice, calm, accessible way. I’m still pissed off at the number of jellies who have told me that my experience as a deaf person has little value, that I don’t know what I am talking about, and discredited my views here and in PMs even though they haven’t spent a minute as a deaf person… I’d be directing my venom to them if I tried to say the same thing, and I knew it would be pointless because they’ll just roll their eyes anyway… so, here you are! Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto!!!!!

CWOTUS's avatar

@linguaphile I never knew until today that you were deaf – not that it matters for these purposes. Years ago I used to always be tickled by the Ed McBain novels of the fictional 87th Precinct (presumably in New York City’s identical twin) whose (normal) main character, Detective Steve Carella, was married to a beautiful woman who happened to be totally deaf. He used to describe how Steve and his wife would occasionally argue – in total silence – until she would end the argument voluntarily. Having been an occasional victim of the silent treatment myself, I could appreciate Det. Carella’s predicament in attempting to carry on a conversation with his loving wife when she simply chose not to “hear” him – and could do that simply by shutting her eyes.

I don’t know if that’s the least bit accurate, but I used to love the stories, those scenes in particular. And in her case, to simply shut her eyes to avoid being influenced or swayed by her husband’s impassioned and perfectly logical arguments sure seemed like an advantage (and it certainly was an advantage as a plot device).

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