Monday, November 3, 2014

Brittany Maynard, terminal illness and assisted Suicide

     Recently, a young women, Brittany Maynard ended her life as she entered the final stages of suffering from an untreatable stage 4 brain cancer. Her actions were to avoid prolonging an inevitable agonizing death. This finished a story of how, after receiving the diagnosis of her terminal condition, she made what many consider a courageous, but controversial decision, to hasten her demise with assisted suicide.
     As a mental health advocate, and one who advocates on the issue of suicide prevention, it would be easy to assume that I would be pounding the pavement in opposition to what many consider to be her immoral decision. Like many assumptions, it would be wrong. This is not about suicide; it is about death with dignity. It is about facing the inevitability that their last days will be in torturous pain while lacking a clear mind. Additionally, mental illness, which is the cause of nearly every suicide, is treatable, while her affliction was not.   
     Many who oppose this method of death, will speak up and announce that there is always the possibility of a miraculous recovery by way of a divine intervention. The last miracle I have seen was not the miracle Mets in 1969, nor the USA hockey teams stunning upset win over the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. They were just sports teams that turned out to be better than any prognosticators could have foreseen. In reality, what I have witnessed in life is that real miracles as taught in the bible, just do not occur.
     It bears mentioning that in many ways, we as humans treat animals more humanly than we treat those with terminal afflictions. If a pet has a disorder, and it becomes painful, we then euthanize the animal to spare its suffering. Additionally, we openly criticize those that do not end the animal’s torment and categorize those non-actions as animal abuse. The same is not said with assisted suicide.  
     When I think Christian beliefs of being against ending one’s life, I think about the immorality of unending suffering and physical torment. As a young child, I came to understand the desperation that many feel when given the nightmarish news that the expiration date on their existence was rapidly approaching.      
     Much of my conviction on not being critical of her decision is based on the most traumatic event of my life, the death of my mother on Christmas Day 1965. What I recall about her battle with bone cancer was her being bedridden and in pain for about a year before she finally succumbed. Additionally, her final months were spent either in the hospital or being confined to a rented hospital bed in the dining room of our home at East 104th Street on Cleveland’s southeast side. To say she had a minimal quality of life at her end would be an understatement.
     As kids, we always believed that she would eventually recover and be the mother we loved dearly. We still looked forward to the day she would be able to take us once again on the family trips to Euclid Beach Park to celebrate her heritage at the Irish picnic. Next would be a post office day at Geauga Lake Park for my father’s job. None of the five of us were old enough, ages 7 through 13, to understand terminal illness or death. We could never grasp the idea that she was never going to survive this affliction.
     My mother was a strong Irish woman, and a devout Roman Catholic, who took all of us to Sunday morning services. We would all sit together at the old Saint Catherine’s Church off of E. 93rd Street. It was her undeniable love for her family and her strong belief in God that compelled her to battle this condition. We have no way of knowing with certainty if she understood her grave diagnosis, but there were indications that as she was being hospitalized for the final time, she knew the outcome.
     My oldest sister, Sharon Staursky Smoak, vividly recollects the pain and distress our mother endured. Her last memory of seeing her was two months before she died, and she was hooked up to many tubes, with one arm taped down. She remembers her suffering and in a great deal of pain. Sadly, even two months before her death, she was no longer aware of her surroundings. My father once told me that there were times that if you just touched her, she would scream in agony.  
     My sister also recalls the burden on my father. His schedule would be to wake up at 4:30 in the morning, go to work, come home, cook dinner, wash clothes, and then go to the hospital to spend the evening caring for our mother. My sister reiterated that she did not believe that he ever missed one day going to the hospital. Additionally, while raising the five of us, he never once complained about this herculean task he faced with courage.
     Looking at Brittany’s death from a personal view it is easy to wonder. As my mother entered the final painful stage of her battle, if she would have told us kids that she wanted to spare herself and her family from her painful result, and elected assisted suicide we would have screamed, no don’t give up. We would have told her we would pray harder and that one never knows the eventual outcome. We did not grasp that medical science is the realism of life. They do not deal with spirituality; it is strictly biology. There is no actual divine intervention that would have cured her condition, only the inevitable painful and degrading end.
     However, as an adult, if she would have told me she wanted to do what Brittany Maynard did, I would have responded with, I will be there at the end. I would have wanted to spare her the suffering; I would have wanted a chance to be with her before her condition worsened to the point of her not even being conscious to the people who loved her. Lastly, I would have wanted her to meet her end with dignity and empathy.
     My sister Sharon was not sure if she would have chosen that course mainly because of the five kids involved. She did say “I do know the final couple of months of her life were not worth the pain and agony she went through and the hardship on dad.” When asked if she would have chosen assisted suicide, she would have agreed with any decision she made, and added that she would have liked to have that as an option.
     When people think of Brittany Maynard, many misconceptions are drawn. Like my mother, she did not wish to die, quite the contrary. From all news accounts, she had a zest for life, but she also possessed the courage to accept her diagnosis, and the fate from her illness. Her actions spared not only the pain she would suffer, but her family would not have to witness all the she would have to endure. Her actions should be construed as totally unselfish. 
     Many will consider this article an exercise in hypocrisy, but it is not. I am neither condoning nor encouraging her decision, nor will I condemn her choice. In a recent People Magazine interview, she stressed that she did not believe she was committing suicide. Neither should anyone. What she decided should be viewed as a method of sparing one and their loved ones possibly months of pain and agony, just to witness the same outcome. She died with dignity and in a compassionate fashion. That is the way all of us deserve to leave this existence. God bless you Brittany Maynard, may you rest in peace!th. bible assume that iw ould beMyrtle Beach outh Carolina, recalls the pain she would witnesdeath. bible assume that iw ould be

Monday, August 18, 2014

Governor Kasich, Jim Tressel, and bigotry of the mentally ill!

     There is an old saying, “show me who you are with, and I will tell you who you are!”
     It was recently announced that Governor John Kasich, a man who claims to be one who cares about the mentally ill, will share a stage with disgraced former football coach Jim Tressel, as he is installed as president of Youngstown State University. This is another example of the wealthy ethically failing upwards and being rewarded handsomely for acting as if the rules do not apply. Mr. Kasich’s appearance appears to endorse Tressel’s past lack of moral standard, and his personal contempt of the mentally ill.
     Years ago, not long after Ohio State won the National championship, the first of numerous scandals involving Tressel at that school occurred. This consisted of possible academic fraud by several players, including the star, running back Maurice Clarret.
     During a class, a young teaching assistant, Norma McGil, witnessed what she felt was preferential treatment of those players. She took this information to her superiors, who turned around and began to incite a modern day lynching of this girl. Since she did suffer from depression, it became open season on her from not only the ones on campus, but all of buckeye nation. Her suffering with a socially unacceptable disease made her an easy target, especially by the cowards in the school administration.
     While the campus erupted with derogatory description’s attacking this women’s struggle with mental illness, statements such as crazy black bitch and referring to her as a mental freak were the norm. During this episode, Tressel stood in a silence, hoping that Clarret could play again. He never did!
      The teaching assistant, after facing false and slanderous accusations, along with the many dehumanizing and ignorant characterizations, finally surrendered and left the school. Though Ohio State has since reached out to both Tressel and, once he served his time for a felony, Clarret, no evidence exists that they done the same for that teaching assistant. Efforts to get answer as to why from the schools media relations department have been met with silence.
     However, to his credit, though Tressel stood in silence while this girl was being tarred and feathered, he did it with a valid driver’s license which made that behavior acceptable in the eyes of the Kasich followers. To them, it appears that was more important than the safety and well-being of a student.
     Many of Tressel’s apologists immediately run to his defense when he is being held accountable. In a previous column, one women attacked my premise that he knew anything about what this girl endured or even reported. To answer, first, he was questioned by the NCAA about her allegations and he stood by his assertion that Clarret was an exemplary student athlete. Lastly, his ignorance to what happened to her is about as likely as the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s claims that he knew nothing of the years of child molestation by his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. It is just beyond the realm of believability.
     Another defender of Tressel’s attacked me for comparing his ethical lapses with those of Former President Richard Nixon. I was told that it was despicable for a comparison such as that and I owe him an apology. To that I agree, that was a disgusting analogy. Soon, I will be sending that deserved apology to the Nixon family.
     In a conversation with Governor’s office, they insisted that this appearance was not about Jim Tressel, it was about Youngstown State. The spokeswomen insisted this was about a new President being installed.  I asked that if a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan was being installed as President of an Ohio College if Mr. Kasich would give the same response. I was told they would not be dealing with hypotheticals.
     Next his spokesperson delved into how Governor Kasich was a real friend of the mentally ill. Often, they point to his support of the expansion of the Medicaid program. His offices theatrics aside, his pillar was not about assisting those in need, but about saving money. This expansion was paid for by the Federal Government and this freed up state tax revenue. This can best be termed a shallow accomplishment and would have never occurred without federal intervention and a financial benefit to his backers.
.    Mr. Kasich did have the opportunity to step up and truly put the mentally ill first as he has proclaimed in the past. However, he failed miserably and to use a football metaphor, he punted the problem into oblivion.
.    In 2011, shortly after taking office, he killed the plans to build a new public mental health facility in Cleveland. This would have served the state’s largest group of homeless mentally ill, but the governor decided they could go to Summit County for help. What was ignored is that many of these family members live below the poverty level which makes travel nearly impossible. To this day, Cuyahoga County, with the states greatest need for public Health beds, has none to offer. That is inexcusable and is a major blemish on Governor Kasich’s record!  
     Now that he is safely ahead in the polls, Governor Kasich will sip champagne and feast on a taxpayer funded meal with the new President of Youngstown State University. He will gleefully make this trip to garner support for his re-election campaign, and find plenty of time to mingle with his financial backers, while taxpayers foot the bill.
     One group that Kasich did not have time for, were the families of the poor in Cleveland who desperately needed that facility to provide treatment to their severely mentally ill loved ones. He did not have the time to explain his motivation for his belief that they had no real value. He refused overtures to explain this poor decision that he made involving those that are most vulnerable. They did not have champagne to offer him, nor an expensive meal, all they could do was try to convince him that the mentally ill are human beings, ones that developed an illness and need treatment. However, he did not have the time.
     It has been said that describing the actions of these individuals as bigotry is being overly harsh and misguided. My answer is what do you call the persecution of a mentally ill girl who was doing her job and then was terrorized by the backers of the school’s football team, harmless hazing? When a Governor refuses to fund a much needed treatment facility that could save lives, do you compare him to Mother Teresa? In both cases, no, they should not be glossed over, they are what they are, hateful and filled with an abundance of discrimination.
     Jim Tressel has made it well known that he looks forward to being part of academia and assisting the students. If his actions during that past scandal is any indication of what he plans, it has the potential for a tragic outcome. That Governor Kasich, would not be something one would want on their campaign literature. Or is it?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams verses mental illness and the disease wins again!!!

     “I dream of angels, but I live with demons,” are simple words from an episode of “Law and Order, Special Victims Unit." This scripted line can easily be construed as a metaphor for those living within the confines of mental illness. It speaks volumes of the normalcy we all strive for, but often eludes those that suffer from a relentless disease. These disorders stand as a significant roadblock to ones desire to achieve ultimate happiness. This alternate path of life which is well-traveled, wears out its victim attempting to transverse the terrain, and once again, it claimed another victim.
     The headline was short and direct, “Comedian Robin Williams dead of an apparent suicide!” Many similar titles were posted throughout the evening as the shock of this tragedy took the nation by storm. So many comments such as, a talented actor, a man who could make us all laugh, were some of the most-common themes. However, the caption was not an accurate depiction of what transpired.
     An actual headline should have read, “Robin Williams, a man who did not wish to die, lost his battle with mental illness and addiction!” This heading flies into the conventional but false belief that people end their lives because they chose too. The real cause of his death, which mirror those of the nearly 40,000 Americans who do commit suicide annually, is the fierce and unrelenting emotional pain brought on by major depression. It is unlikely he had a desire to end his life. However, the question on the minds of his fans is simply why? The answers are not always clear, nor are they readily understood.
     It is imperative to understand that those with healthy minds do not voluntarily end their lives. They would find the concept of self-murder an unwarranted ending, simply because they fail to see life through the prism of mental illness. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Head of Psychiatry at John Hopkins Hospital, sums it up in her book,” Night Falls Fast," “Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities…” In essence, the afflicted ones feel they have run out of options.
     Personally, I understand her reasoning. It was about 13 years ago that I nearly lost my personal battle with this dreaded disease Robin Williams, and I shared, bipolar disorder. I recall just dreaming and fighting the urge to put a gun to my head and pulling the trigger. While in a delusional state, I would hear voices encouraging me to end my life and reinforce that it was the only option left to end the many years of torturous pain. The suffering was so intense that I would just lay in bed and cry from its affects. Like most afflicted, all I wanted was the agony to finally end. Those thoughts manifested themselves in such a manner, that it led to eventual attempts to end my life. It was only dumb luck that I survived. As Dr. Jamison pointed out, because of clouded thinking, I could not envision an alternative, as up until then, treatment continuously failed.
     Unless one experiences the symptoms, it is impossible to grasp the dark valleys of depression that many confront and lose hope that they can ever discover happiness. The afflicted suffers unendurable pain, loneliness, and with a desperate desire to find a way to end their suffering. Even those such as myself who recover, still live with a sense of foreboding that the symptoms may one-day return.
     It is no secret that Robin Williams fought both bipolar disorder and drug addiction. This dual diagnosis is a difficult challenge to confront. They feed off one another. The drugs treat the symptoms, which exacerbates the need for them, which creates the individual’s desire for further self-medication. A full sixty percent of those with mental illness do develop a chemical dependency. His drug of choice was cocaine, but others use an assortment of illicit drugs and/or alcohol.  It is worth adding that 20% of all people who develop bipolar disorder do eventually kill themselves.
     Robin Williams did indeed typify the concept of the “tears of a clown," smile on the outside and crying on the inside. While he was performing for millions of fans and bringing them entertainment and laughter, it is likely that he was sobbing on the inside. The public only witnessed his manic side, his high voltage personality, but not the subsidiary of pain from the inevitable depression that follows. That is a common trait of those stricken, as many develop the ability to hide their true emotions.
     As with other similar deaths, a great deal of empathy is expressed but it also brings out those with ignorance of what the victims confront. One simple clichĂ© always finds its way into the conversation. It is “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem!” To clear up this misconception; depression is not a problem, it is a relentless and deadly disease that attacks indiscriminately and left untreated, or is treatment resistant, does destroy its targets!!
     One comment that stood out with its vile and vicious stupidity was “to kill oneself is very selfish…it is a coward’s way out…” Those that battle mental illness are not cowards, quite the contrary, they fight a valiant battle daily not only with the illness, but against ignorance of those who have not taken the time to understand its symptomology. Robin Williams was no coward; he bravely fought a lifetime battle, to which he finally succumbed. His courageous openness about his struggle unblocked the door for others to not be ashamed and to also seek treatment. No doubt, his response to his challenge has saved countless lives!
     To better illustrate how many of those who suffer feel, some individuals go to bed with the irrational fear that they will never wake up. Those who are in the throes of a deep depression go to bed with the fear that they “will” wake up and have to face another day of suffering. It is not a pleasant existence, and it is one that millions of Americans face daily.
     As a way to honor his memory, take the time to understand these afflictions. Most importantly, be aware of the warning signs of potential suicides. Many at risk feel a sense of detachment from family and friends, they have out of character mood swings, or they express a desire to end their lives. This person is not engaging in drama; it is often a cry for help. Respond with empathy, not pity. Most importantly, never define a person by their illness, the symptoms are an involuntary reaction. 
     Finally, next time the Indians sell-out Progressive field, remember that is the about the number of people who commit suicide in this country every year. Look around and examine the faces of those in attendance, because they are the doppelgängers of the real victims. The mentally ill are average citizens trying to get through life struggles and at the same time, have the added burden of the demons of a socially unacceptable disease. Most seek nothing more than understanding and acceptance.
     With the death of Robin Williams, I feel as if I lost a teammate. His apparent suicide has left his fans devastated and feeling very alone.  No, I am not an actor, nor have I even met this great and talented entertainer.  He and I shared a camaraderie of being afflicted with mental illness, specifically, bipolar disorder. For me, his death opened the doors of a past wrought with pain which still haunt me. This created a strong sense of compassion for him as I am acutely familiar with the desperation he felt that proceeded his fatal act. No one has a right to judge him by this method of death, only honor his life and remember the entertainment he brought us all.
     Rest in Peace Robin Williams, you have left your demons behind!