WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS. There has been a lot of press regarding the new film, Me Before You, which was released in theaters yesterday. I have not seen the film, but I did read JoJo Moyes’s novel by the same name. And I thought it was sad. I thought it was a tragic story being passed off as a romantically-packaged tale championing the Right to Die.
The story centers around an adventurous, vibrant, sexy young man, Will, in the prime of his life who suffers an accident and, as a result, becomes a quadriplegic. This complete and total humbling of his body and subsequent utter reliance on others is morally repugnant for him. He becomes deeply depressed, focusing his thoughts on how much his life has lost and how he can never again be “whole”. So he chooses to die, planning a trip to a Swiss clinic to be given a pill that will end his life.
His parents, however, are against his plan and hire Lou, a girl who is desperate for employment. Initially repulsed by Will’s unpleasant manner, Lou eventually comes to see Will as a funny, interesting – lovable – man who has much to offer the world despite his crippled body. When she learns of his plan to die, she is horrified, and, with the assistance of Will’s parents, devises a plan to make Will realize that life is still worth living.
At this point, the story could pan out to be a fantastic tale of triumph over adversity, the acceptance of things we cannot change, and a powerful message about the sanctity of human life. While I was reading, I really, really, wanted this outcome. I hoped that Lou and Will would fall in love, he would realize he loved her too much to willingly leave her, they would both find renewed purpose in life, and would live happily ever after. Or something like that.
Let me break it to you, though. That is not how the story ends.
I read this book for a book club I belonged to, and the overwhelming feeling was one of sadness. I will say that we were all reading the book from a Christian viewpoint, but most people were unnerved with Will’s total belief that death was the answer. He had no faith that God (or any higher power) had a plan for him. If I can’t live my life the way I want to, I might as well die. Also troubling was the belief that if our lives don’t resemble our “ideal” they (and we) are not worth living.
Blessedly, I am not physically disabled, so I don’t know the mental struggle that goes on day after day, or the bodily pains or daily indignities that characterize those lives. But I do consider myself well-versed in how it feels to question the worthiness of my life. (Come on, is there anyone out there who has not?) What if you suffer from depression? Anxiety? PTSD? Eating disorders? Cancer? Anyone who has suffered from any chronic illness, mental or physical, has probably at one time or another felt that they were burdening others, they weren’t happy or making others happy, and maybe? Maybe it would be better for all involved if I could just disappear. Happiness, freedom from pain, and the ability to make your own decisions makes life worth living, right? Oh and the ability to not be a burden.
That’s why I find Me Before You so troubling. Because it touts the assisted suicide route as a compassionate choice. Will’s decision is, for the most part, selfish. He is only thinking of his pain, his loss of mobility, his dashed hopes and dreams. The feelings of those who love him are not considered, or if they are, it is an afterthought. Critics argue that every human should be able to make the choice when and how to end their own lives. Because that is dignity. That is compassionate. That is the most selfless route. But the problem with this thinking is that it persuades society that suicide is attractive.
By N. Renaud from Ottawa, Canada – , CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10411862
I suffer from depression. Well-managed and medicated, to be sure, but always with me. During my darkest moments I have had all those thoughts, that I wasn’t worthy of life, that it would be easier for my loved ones if I weren’t around, that it would be cheaper to not have to pay those therapist bills, or those anti-depressant prescription fees. What if I had given in during those moments of weakness? What if I really had convinced myself that suicide was the most attractive choice? In that dark time, it might have been, but that was because I was depressed. I wasn’t thinking normally.
But what if I had a doctor who was tired of treating me? What if I told my doctor I wanted to die? That I felt it wasn’t worth it, wasn’t fair to keep making minuscule progress in my mental illness just to fall back into depression again and again. Isn’t this a sign that I am suffering from something incurable? I will probably never completely be “whole”, I will have to take medication to treat this illness the rest of my life. I may get really bad again and have to be hospitalized. Not all suicide attempts end in death, either. What if I attempted to die and ended up with horrible wounds that required thousands of dollars of medical treatment? Or stay in a nursing home because I caused myself to suffer brain damage? A doctor weighing all these options may just give me the go-ahead to take a trip next door to Oregon and end my pitiable existence. [Well, it might give American assisted-suicide providers pause that I was suffering from depression (at least for now) but it wouldn’t probably bother them in Europe.]
Recently, I was saddened to learn of this story of a woman with a history of mental illness being helped to die in Holland. Some might argue that she could have easily ended her own life without the help from the authorities. And I would agree. But the tacit acceptance from her health-care providers that her mental anguish was all-encompassing, total, and incurable is the very antithesis of mental healthcare. A depressed person’s disordered thoughts leads them to believe their suffering is global, complete and fatal. I don’t argue that this Dutch patient felt all of that. I don’t argue that the injuries inflicted upon her were not horrific and devastating. But I do argue that there was hope. There is always hope. The minute you, as a mental health patient, have your (possibly exhausted and frustrated – because they are human, too) doctors start agreeing with you that you are a hopeless case, all is lost. The march toward treatment only becomes a march toward death. And this is becoming reality in our messed-up world.
I will always champion the idea to sufferers of depression that THERE IS HOPE. You are not a hopeless case, a lost cause. I bring myself to tears sometimes thinking about how much I would have missed if I had packed it all in back several years ago and decided to end it all. My sweet daughter reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to her precious little sister at the table as I write this. My handsome son and his handsome daddy playing football at a festive and lovely graduation party last evening. My silly younger boy talking about how he is going to tell God he should have created us with only one foot (because putting two shoes on is such a pain, don’t cha know?). The gorgeous setting sun as it illuminates the mountains out my back window.
LIFE IS WORTH LIVING. Suffering happens. There is no way to sugar-coat that. But it is also what makes us human. The moment we decide that our humanness is a liability is the moment we condemn our culture to assisted suicide.