From Griffith REVIEW Edition 17: Staying Alive
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Susan Varga
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Susan Varga's biography and other articles by this writer
For many Australians, suicide is still a secret, shameful business. Like incest and child abuse, it doesn't happen to us. The secrecy lies, I think, in its universal and seductive power. It can tempt anyone at any time, as the logical answer to unbearable difficulty. For most of us, the pull of life outweighs it in an instant or an hour, but for a few of us the call becomes imperative. Those few, driven to commit the final, irrevocable act, those few who could have been you or me, are difficult to talk about. Outside the language of reports and statistics, suicide remains lace-curtain hush-hush territory.
But all that is set to change as our population ages and as the Baby Boomers begin to contemplate the extraordinary fact that they too will die. Having fought for greater choice than their parents had in the way they live, they are starting to fight for greater choice in the way they will die. Suicide is starting to come out of the closet.
There has been a tendency to assume that merely living in this country is enough to inoculate us against suicide. Life here is good: we just have to grasp it with both hands. Suicide is more understandable in a country like Hungary, for instance, where a notorious national melancholy combined with years of oppressive Soviet rule. Understandable, too, in a country like the former East Germany, when neighbours spied on each other regularly and the moral universe slipped bizarrely askew. But not here, not in our "lucky" country.
And yet, and yet ... we have a higher suicide rate than the United States and the United Kingdom; we come thirty-fifth out of a hundred countries. More recently, our farmers – defeated and driven desperate by drought – have been killing themselves at the rate of one a day. In the 1990s, youth suicide was reaching frightening proportions. And now it's the elderly who have started taking centre stage.
When youth suicide was the hot topic, it was relatively easy to discuss; most journalists and commentators were talking of an alien generation with whom they had ceased to identify long ago. Farmers are a tragic statistic too, but it's happening "out there" in our vast, sparsely populated hinterland, not to the majority clinging to the coast. The more dangerous, fraught – and increasingly topical – subject is suicide for the ageing and the aged. When the discussion begins to teeter around our own generation or the generation preceding it – our own parents – the fault lines open up. Not only are we starting to think about something as intensely personal as our own mortality, we're also entering an area mined with legal and moral shibboleths. Suicide. Assisted suicide. Euthanasia.
THE "RIGHT TO DIE" QUESTION is thrown into unbearable focus once you've witnessed the suffering of someone you love nearing the end of their life. My own mother was in her eighties, in good spirits and relatively robust health when my father died unexpectedly. The physical and mental malaise that hit her after his death was a tornado from hell. No one, least of all she, could have anticipated it. In a very short time, she became consumed by the wish to die. After several unsuccessful attempts at suicide by gentler means, she threw herself under a train.
What happened to my mother fits no neat category. She had never been a depressive, so a diagnosis of "clinical depression" was not (for me at least) convincing. And, while she became ill and suffered intensely, there was no clear and definite physical diagnosis, far less a terminal illness. Even if our laws had allowed for euthanasia (as they do in Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, parts of South America, and in the state of Oregon), she would not have been eligible under the stringent euthanasia criteria. Frail, ill and deeply unhappy, she had to die by her own efforts.
In the months before her final successful attempt, I argued constantly with her that she should stay alive, that there was hope for a good last few years. I and other members of our family took every preventive measure we could think of to keep her alive and get her better. Yet, despite that, I never questioned her right to make her own decision and to end her life as she chose.
But the thing is, she did not have any decent choices. Taking your own life, especially if you are old and ill, forces you into dark and terrible back alleys of secrecy and unwished-for violence.
Suicide for the elderly is not easy to achieve, and it's become harder. It's not a matter, as it might have been some years ago, of taking enough barbiturates and lying down in your own bed hoping never to wake up again. That's how we'd all prefer to do it – perhaps with someone we love dearly at our side. But that's out of the question, on two counts: barbiturates are no longer legally available (you have to travel elsewhere and smuggle them in) and your loved helper or witness is put at risk of prosecution. Other legally available options like quantities of sleeping pills or anti-depressants are often ineffective. Phillip Nitschke may have a suggestion or two towards a civilised means of death, but our government has chosen to make it illegal for him to convey his thoughts on the phone or online to the thousands who look to him for help. There is a $100,000 fine for online communications and Nitschke's book, The Peaceful Pill, is banned.
According to Marshal Perron, who pushed through the short-lived euthanasia legislation in the Northern Territory, three old people over seventy-five kill themselves each week, and most of them are forced into unpleasant and lonely options – hanging, drowning, throwing themselves in front of a car or train or out a window. Only the truly determined will take on the planning and subterfuge needed. My mother was such a woman.