4. The Question

This post is going to be hard to write. It is also going to be difficult for you to read as it concerns the heavy subject of suicide. But I hope to make it worth your while and, with any luck, we’ll be able to think about it, marvel at it, despise it, take our leave of it and then go on, peacefully and thankfully, with the rest of our day. I, for one, plan on having a cold beer later at the White Horse Tavern in the West Village, one of the very oldest bars in New York where Dylan Thomas drank all the time. After the last time he went there in 1953, he went back to his hotel room, summoned a doctor and said, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies… I think that’s the record!” Those were to be his last words!

Whoa! What a crazy way to go out. Nice one Dylan!

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So… if you’re a human who is alive and has experienced pain, you have thought about and contemplated suicide. I needn’t tell you about the feelings of anguish and anger and resentment that it leaves those of us who survive the deceased. I needn’t tell you the reasons that people, from time to time, do it. I needn’t remind you that many of our most wonderful and brilliant thinkers and artists have “opted out.” Kurt Cobain putting a shotgun between his teeth and sucking out the stars… Elliot Smith stabbing himself between the ribs with a knife like some tragic Greek actor… Hunter S. Thompson walking out into the desert with a handgun to get it over with. You are well aware. You are well aware because you have already given plenty of thought to what suicide means. That is because you are a human who is alive and has experienced pain. And you are just as smart as me. But neither of us is as smart as Shakespeare.

HAMLET: To be, or not to be–that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–

No more–and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–

To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause…

Plenty of people have thought this and, while they haven’t put it so eloquently as William, they oughtn’t be ashamed for having had it cross their mind. Similarly, Camus (who was and is a total rockstar, by the way- a generous and funny doctor of the soul) wrote, “There is a but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” He also said, “Sometimes it takes more courage to live than to shoot yourself.” At the heart of Camus’ brilliant existentialism was this perpetual question: Why not kill yourself tonight? It is THE question and one for which you need a really solid answer.

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Firstly, let me make it very clear that I don’t believe suicide to be a sin. I abhor the phrase “committing suicide” as though one is committing murder or committing adultery or committing a crime. It can be selfish, sure. It can deeply wound everyone who might care about you. It can be an act that is not well informed, that is naive, that doesn’t take into regard unforeseen possibilities in the future. And, like poor Hamlet, you must give pause because you don’t know what actually happens when you die or whether it will be any better than it is now. But, in my opinion, we ought to do our best to forgive those good folk for whom life felt like a terminal sickness to which they were only seeking a state of relief.

Suicide for the suffering can be like medicine. I’m proud to be a native Oregonian, a noble state where “death with dignity” or “physician assisted suicide” laws were pioneered. The laws have been vigorously opposed by religious communities but upheld by the Supreme Court. They were designed and championed by a flabbergastingly beautiful man named Dr. Peter Goodwin.

Dr. Goodwin became interested in the concept when he had a patient with a spinal condition who was in excruciating, perpetual and incurable pain. The patient’s wife, mercifully, asked Dr. Goodwin to give her husband a fatal dose of drugs to end the pain. Dr. Goodwin had to tell her no because it was against the law, perceived as a violation of the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” When the law was being considered, he told the Oregon legislature that his inability to act when the man was in pain made him feel like a coward.

Having performed hospice care for two clients, I know how the good doctor feels. I would look at my client, who was in a state of intense suffering, and believe in my heart that the best thing would be to put a pillow on the face and have it over with. Afterall, why would we deny our loved ones a mercy that we give out readily to horses? Of course, I never really came close to having the guts to, as the law defines it, murder someone. But I’m not ashamed that it crossed my mind.

My beloved mother and my beautiful sister are both incredible nurses and they have to contend with this particular difficulty all the time. They are tasked with caring for a 90 year old man who has no chance of regaining a viable quality of life but the family refuses to let him go and order the surgeons to perform a triple bypass heart surgery. This is the most dispiriting and disturbing situation for people whose job it is to make sick patients better. It is a form of cruelty manifested by an intense and selfish love. It’s almost like torture that my mom and sister have to watch.

As Maya Angelou so wisely put it: “There is a thin line between loving life and being greedy for it.”

So, when a reasonable and rational person realizes that only pain awaits, the best thing is to stand on stage as the curtain opens and take your bows. When the audience stands in ovation, cheering your name, you can take another bow if you like. They will throw roses at the stage for you and stomp the floor. You should take a final bow, shake the hand of your fellow performers, take your leave by way of the theater’s back door and go home. To sleep perchance to dream.

Dr. Peter Goodwin did just this on March 13th, 2012. At the ripe age of 82, he was diagnosed with a fatal brain disease which his doctors estimated would kill him within six months. So the pioneer of death with dignity decided with his family that the best thing would be to go quickly and painlessly. He opted to utilize the law he helped create. In accordance with the law, he had to administer the medicine himself and was gone within 30 minutes.

He gave his final interview to Time Magazine. I suppose I could paraphrase some of what he said but he is much more well spoken and intellegent than me and so I will let Dr. Goodwin speak for himself. Are you ready to cry? Watch this video of Dr. Goodwin’s last interview.

http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/14/peter-goodwin-the-dying-doctors-last-interview/ 

Now that is a man who knows death! That knowledge makes him humble and wise and also makes him so thankful (to the point of heartbreaking tears) for every moment gifted to him. God! Don’t you just want to throw your arms around that beautiful old man?!

While there are important differences, even crucial differences, between the physiological pains that lead to doctor assisted suicide and the psychological distress that might bring a person to decide to end their own life the “old fashioned way,” there are also a number of striking similarities. The biggest is that suicide often comes, or tries to come, as an act of mercy, as a way of alleviating pain. Also, and I should say this explicitly, if you think you want or should commit suicide, you might want to think about staying alive just prove yourself wrong. So as to tell yourself “I told you so.” So that, as an old person, you can totally stick it to your younger self.

I myself have contemplated suicide a couple times in my life. And I don’t mean thinking about it in a philosophical sense like we’re doing now but actually wondering if it might not be a bad idea to go through with it. I won’t get into specifics right now, but at the time I was 14 or so and enduring a rather intense form of abuse. [Side note: I once wrote a 200 page book about that abuse but it’s so spectacularly personal that I’ll probably only have it published once I’m dead.] Anyhow…

I was a kid, being abused in a very nightmarish way for many years, and no one knew but me. I was totally alone in my severe anguish. But when I thought about wanting to die, I didn’t think about it in terms of the abuse (I tried never to think about that), I thought, “I just really don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” It would have been really nice not to have to wake up and catch the bus in the morning.

My parents had gone on a trip and my sister was at a sleepover so I had the privacy that I needed. I went through the cabinets and drawers and got out all the pills in the house. I poured them out over the coffee table in the family room and looked at them. It would be so easy. I could take them all with one glass of water and could get the day off from school forever. It would be so quick.

Do you believe in miracles? I think I kind of do. Especially because one happened to me.

While I was filling a glass of water in the kitchen sink, I was half-watching Comedy Central. It was an old re-run of Saturday Night Live from the 80’s. As I filled my glass in the sink, the musical guest for that long-ago live show came on and they were called Big Country. They were a band from Dunfermline, Scotland that played their guitars like bagpipes. They played their one hit wonder “In A Big Country” and played with so much life that it felt as though someone was reaching through the television and slapping me square in the face.

Now, imagine yourself as a fourteen year old kid in a state of excruciating spiritual suffering. Now imagine that, in the moment you’re about to “do the deed,” you hear someone singing their guts out and singing these exact words:

I’ve never seen you look like this without a reason,

Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you.

I never took the smile away from anybody’s face,

And that’s a desperate way to look for someone who is still a child.

And in a big country, dreams stay with you,

Like a lover’s voice, fires the mountainside..

Stay alive…

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert,

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime..

And in a big country, dreams stay with you,

Like a lover’s voice, fires the mountainside..

Stay alive…

So take that look out of here, it doesn’t fit you.

Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded.

Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming.

Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted.

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered.

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert,

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime…

And in a big country, dreams stay with you,

Like a lover’s voice, fires the mountainside..

Stay alive…

At first, I was just tapping my foot, nodding my head. And then I was flailing with my whole body, leaping on the couch, kicking all the pills to the floor, sliding around on the linoleum in my socks, screaming, crying, laughing. I danced as though my life depended on it because it did! The song literally says, over and over, “Stay alive!” My eyes were closed and my hands were out like birds. The whole world turned on the singer’s voice. The sky only held on by the thread of the guitar line. Life was having a fistfight with suicide and it felt as if this no-name Scottish band from the 80’s was galloping like a neon-colored army on horseback to re-conquer my tortured heart. It was so baddass. It was a miracle.

This is not an exaggeration.

Once the song was over and the show went to commercial, I gathered up each pill and put them back, individually, into their containers and put the containers back in the cabinets with the labels facing the same way as I had found them. That was the closest I ever came to death. And, to all of my artistic compatriots, to my musician and dancer and visual and poet friends, know this: You may feel as though your life’s work is pointless, that you should have become a doctor, but ART CAN LITERALLY SAVE LIVES. SO ARTISTS, WORK HARDER! Even some dumb pop song. Even some TV show. Even 30 years later. There are some situations in which only an artist can help the afflicted.

All the joy that I have experienced since that crucial afternoon, I owe to the band Big Country. Since that day, I learned that I am a poet and musician. Since that day, I have seen Mexico and Canada and India and New Orleans and Spain and England. Since that day, I have moved to New York City and eaten a piece of the best pizza while gazing at the Statue of Liberty’s mighty frown. Since that day, I have had a first kiss and gone on wild band tours to almost all the states and went swimming in both oceans, the rivers, the lakes. Since that day, I have recorded my own joyful songs. Since that day, I have metabolized most of the abuse inflicted upon me. Since that day, I have driven a car to the city alone for the first time as the sun was setting, I have danced until five in the morning, I have finally owned a dog (named Augie), I have put my hand into the waters of the Mississippi Delta. Since that day, I have met my favorite person in the world and somehow tricked her into marrying me and our wedding day was (so far) the happiest day of my life. All of that, to some degree, I owe to the obscure Scotish band, Big Country.

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Then, one day while I was taking a good friend to the emergency room (long story!) I was watching TV in the lobby and saw on the news that Stuart Adamson, the singer who wrote the song that saved my life, had hung himself in a hotel room in Hawaii. Reader, give pause.

A man who I have never met, who never knew I existed, combated his own suffering by making beautiful art. That music was so beautiful that, many years later, across the Atlantic Ocean, a young boy in a state of suffering heard it and decided not to kill himself and was thusly given the gift of EVERYTHING. Then, the artist, never knowing that he had saved someone’s life, could not bear the hurt of his own mortality any longer and decided to put a stop to it.

None of this is made up.

I’ve actually got tears running down my face as I write this (which sucks because I’m in a public place and people are totally looking at me). I owe an immeasurable debt that I will never be able to repay. I do not blame him for ending his life. I don’t think it was a sin. I only feel sadness because I will never get to put my arms around him and tell him that he really and actually saved my life. I suppose I would have made a fool of myself, crying onto his shoulder. Well. Wherever and whatever he is now, a goodly part of my happiness and joy belongs to him.

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At his funeral, The Edge, the guitarist of U2, gave the eulogy and said that Big Country played the songs that he wishes U2 could have written. Good on you, Stuart. The biggest band in the world wishes that they were you!

The saddest thing about suicide is that, currently, it is keeping Stuart and I from going over to the White Horse Tavern together to have a pint where Dylan Thomas drank his last 18 whiskies. It’s a nice evening for it too. The heat of the day has faded and the sky is turning purple. Babies are in their strollers, girls are in their summer skirts, old men are wearing their white hats, the hot dog vendor has a look of relief on his face and the enticing scent of flowers hangs suspended like an unanswered question on the air of the West Village.

At the moment, continuing to live seems to me like a really, really good idea.

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(White Horse Tavern bartender Taylor with long-time regular Bill. The White Horse was founded in 1880.)

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About psychopompkaleidoscope

Is a mortal who will not live forever.
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