My Right to Die
by Beth Swain
“I have a problem about wanting to die.”
I struggled to get the words out while sounding casual. After months of thinking about suicide, this was my first attempt at talking about it. Maybe sounding casual would soften the impact of my disclosure in this, my first counseling session.
“You mean kill yourself?” Her rapid, nervous response lacked the counselor composure I expected. When I nodded, her body tensed. “Really,” she questioned, “I’ve never felt suicidal, so it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to do that.”
My heart sank. Maybe there was no help for someone like me.
“Have you thought of how you would do it?” She sounded accusing, as if she didn’t believe I was serious.
“Pills,” I replied, unwilling to incriminate myself further.
“You mean like overdosing on aspirin?” Her nervous smile seemed to mock me. I nodded, too embarrassed to name the specific drugs I had stockpiled.
“Beth, everyone knows you can’t kill yourself with aspirin.” No, I didn’t know that. I just figured a bunch of pills would work. Shamed by her reaction, I avoided eye contact.
“Here’s some homework. I want you to read everything you can find on suicide. Go to the library, find articles — whatever you what. Then come back in a week and tell me what you learned.” Her knowing smile told me that she expected me to find reasons to abandon my irrational thinking.
A loaded gun
Unfortunately, the books from the library were like handing me a loaded gun. Some books took me into a world where killing myself was not only permissible but legal — my right. I discovered that an organization, the Hemlock Society, advocated “self-deliverance,” a soft way of saying suicide. Family members told of how they helped to end a loved one’s suffering. That’s all I wanted — an end to my suffering. I figured that if they could do it, so could I.
I found step-by-step instructions, complete with eyewitness accounts of suicides conducted by these methods. It looked so logical and doable. I found an article about a suicide using the type of pill I had accumulated. My plan was lethal afterall. No longer as naive, I now knew several ways to make a suicide “successful.” No one will laugh at my method next time, I told myself.
Ashamed that I still wanted to die, I didn’t tell the counselor about the library information, nor did she ever ask again about my suicidal plans. After two years of trying to change, I gave up counseling. Though I knew the right things to think and say, my depression remained.
From my friends’ advice, I tried exercise, better nutrition, and extra vitamins. I prayed more and had the church leaders pray for me. I put more time into Bible study. When someone said he used to feel like me but cured himself by helping others, I added countless hours of helping. Nothing worked.
Like an addict who ruminates about getting his drug, I rehearsed dying. As I awoke each day, I plotted the steps to one suicide plan. It became a morning “fix” that helped me get up. No matter what I was doing during the day — teaching, talking to my friends, caring for my children — I envisioned myself dying. Whenever I felt I couldn’t go on, I reminded myself that I had a way out.
At night I fell asleep with images of self-inflicted death and the comfort of ending my exhaustion. Without these thoughts, I couldn’t sleep. Some nights I begged God to let me die.
After four long years of continual struggle, a friend urged me to see a counselor again. This time I wouldn’t hide my desires; I would prove that suicide was right.
Determined and guarded, I met with a counselor. I expected he would have no answers, proving suicide was my only option. “Look, this is my life,” I began slowly. “It’s my right to decide when and how I die. I’ve tried to feel better for so long — for years. Nothing helps a person like me.”
After asking a few questions about my struggle, he responded. “Anyone who has been through as much as you is apt to feel like committing suicide. You’re battling some painful memories and severe depression. It’s a natural reaction to pain that seems as if it will never end.”
His sensitivity surprised me. Were these counselor-building-rapport tactics he learned in school? Did he actually care? Suspicious, I remained silent and refused to look at him.
“It’s hard to think clearly when you’re depressed. You’re choosing a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and that would be a shame. Your life is too valuable to destroy. It takes time, but your pain will go away and you will feel better.”
Yeah, right, like you have a clue about my life, I thought. Aloud, I muttered, “I’ve tried.”
“I know you have; you’ve tried more than most people. The problem is, you haven’t had the right kind of help. You need a doctor to check for physical causes for the depression and to prescribe an antidepressant.”
“I’m not interested. I’ve made my decision.”
Even sitting several feet from me, his six foot-three-inch frame seemed to tower over me as he leaned forward. “I can’t let you do that. I’ll do whatever is necessary to keep you safe. That’s my job, even if I have to go against your wishes.”
Then his voice softened. “Have you thought about how you would kill yourself?”
Having never forgotten my first counselor’s laugh, I wondered if he would take me seriously. I gave few details, just in case he took me too seriously and tried to hospitalize me. After hearing my sketchy plan, he asked, “Do you have the means?”
I was scared of what he would do if I said yes and more afraid of what I would do if I said no, so I admitted I’d saved up a prescription drug.
“You’ll have to get rid of it,” he instructed.
“I can’t. I need the prescription.”
“Then you’ll give it to me and I will give you a week’s supply at a time. You can hand it over or we can talk about hospitalization.”
Infuriated by his take-charge attitude, I stayed silent, staring at the floor for several minutes. My anger barely covered my fear. I stiffened, trying to hide my trembling body. Thoughts collided inside me: What if I really do kill myself? What if I give up my only chance for peace? What if he sends me to a psychiatric unit? Above all, I feared that this counselor would refuse to help me because I refused to cooperate.
Confused and exhausted, I couldn’t figure out what to do. I didn’t have to; the counselor stepped in.
“Where are the pills?”
“At my house,” I mumbled.
“I can be at your house in two hours. Or you can bring them here. This is hard, I know, but you need to let me help. It may not make sense now, but you will feel a sense of relief after you give me the pills.”
I agreed to let the counselor pick up the pills at my church. Then he had one final issue.
“For now, we need to agree on a contract that you won’t do anything to hurt yourself between now and your next appointment, which needs to be within a few days.”
Though I wanted his help, agreeing to give up my emotional escape plan felt like someone had pulled my baby out of my arms.
His imposing style unnerved me, yet I wondered if finally, after so many years, I had found a person who could help me. That thin thread of hope eased my turmoil. He was right: I began feeling some relief as soon as I let go of the pills.
Beginning of healing
At my counseling sessions, I began to experience healing through the counselor’s compassion and challenge. His unwavering stand against suicide upset my right-to-die notion. Prodded, I began looking at difficulties that contributed to my depression. Some painful experiences had left me believing that my life didn’t matter.
“Are you sure your life doesn’t matter to anyone?” he questioned. “Name a few people who care about you.” I bristled; he persisted. A meager few came to my mind.
“Come on. I could name you more people than that!” Then he added, “In case you aren’t sure, I care and pray for you — and not just because you are a client.”
Seeing past depression’s fog to consider my meaningful relationships with people — people who cared — encouraged me to reconsider.
“As hard as it has been, you held back from suicide. How come?”
“My children — three kids under the age of seven. I know how destructive it would be to them. Whenever I get close, I feel overwhelmed by the grief of losing them and the pain I would cause them. I just can’t do it. I’ll concentrate as hard as I can on details of committing suicide, and then an overpowering urge to hold my children hits me. I try to ignore it, but I can’t. It’s like a power greater than me is doing battle over my life. I think God is doing that.”
God had touched my life before. He had protected me twice as a child when I almost died. He gave me abilities and a healthy family. During financial difficulties when we’ve done everything we could think of, He met our needs in unexplainable ways. Remembering God’s kindness encouraged me.
Through friends who demonstrated God’s love, I began to see that my staying alive mattered. I had worth in God’s eyes, not based on my efforts but on God’s efforts toward me. This truth changed my thinking and began my spiritual healing. I decided to let God be in charge of my life and my death.
Counseling set my feet on a path of emotional healing. I came to peace with some painful memories, and my emotional health improved. After months of trial and error with medication, my physical condition improved as well. The combination of two drugs alleviated much depression and confirmed that a chemical imbalance was one cause of my depression.
These three experiences — healing spiritually, emotionally, and physically — have given me life again. Despite occasional bouts with depression, I no longer advocate the right to end my life. I’d rather enjoy the life God has given me.