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  • Claire Freeman

SUICIDE, STRESS AND A BROKEN HEALTHCARE MENTALITY


I am C5/6 incomplete tetraplegic as a result of a car accident, age 17. On paper, it doesn’t look great. All four limbs are affected, I use a wheelchair for mobility and all the hidden issues such as pain, bladder and bowel control are problematic. Yet in person, I have been told I come across as a bubbly, smart individual, with a dry wit and a sharp, honest tongue. I strive to look as good as I can because it gives me confidence to do so. Happiness for me is being with people, helping people. Trying to practice kindness with a dream of changing the world for the better.

So wind back a few years. It is 2010 and Christchurch has a major 7.1 magnitude earthquake. It is the city where I live, and at the same time, I am dealing with a marriage break-up so am living alone for the first time in my life. I start to have reoccurring nightmares of being in a room which starts spinning and shaking, then the room is mobile and we are falling off a cliff to my death. I am unable to sleep. After a few weeks of severe sleep deprivation, I am prescribed some sleeping pills and decide I need a sleep. A good long sleep. Not thinking of the ramifications, a friend fortuitously stops by my place before I take the pills. The next day, she takes me to Emergency Psych Services. I am immediately diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the nightmares are said to be a combination of suppressed feelings of impending death by the rolling car which broke my neck and the same feeling of helplessness felt during an earthquake. I have a meeting with a psychiatrist. His parting words are that for some people who are beyond help, suicide is the best answer. Some people are just ‘too damaged’. And I’m left wondering, is he referring to me?

I take leave of 6 weeks from my work as a full time graphic designer for the District Health Board. I fly to Europe to get away from the earthquakes and stay with my sister in Switzerland. I start to sleep again and am nurtured by her. I return feeling fresh and somewhat happier. I go back to work, I resume all my habits, and the earthquakes keep coming. In the December earthquake, I fall out of my chair and rip some muscles off my right leg. Then the building I work in is suddenly condemned and I am moved into town. On the lower ground floor of the hospital is where I’m situated. Unfortunately, there is no toilet down there. I stop drinking while starting the process of trying to convince management I need a disabled toilet. I even offer to pay for it. Over 2 years later, one is finally put in, but I’m sick.

I wake at 5 am after maybe a 3-4 hour sleep if I’m lucky, I shower and get ready for work – this can sometimes take me 2 hours. I go to work making sure I haven’t been drinking. I finally get home after 6pm, have a drink, make dinner and start on other projects to occupy my mind during the hours I’m not sleeping, thinking that by keeping my mind active, I’m helping my increasingly fragmented situation. I design and project manage the build of a house away from Burwood and the badly damaged east side of Christchurch city where I lived. And once again, I am exhausted.

I got home one day. It had been a difficult day with management even though my work colleagues are always supportive towards me. I’m exhausted, and I once again think I need sleep. A long sleep. Not death, just sleep. Just to stop. This time I take the pills and end up in hospital. I awake to my life, my stress, and I decide I’ve had enough. As with all attempted suicides I see a psychologist at the suicide outreach clinic. He reads my notes and asks me bluntly, will I attempt suicide again? I say no. It’s too dangerous and unpredictable, but that my plan is to join Dignitis, an assisted suicide programme in Switzerland. I am told, given my situation, with ‘my injury’, he would do the same thing. I am discharged without follow up to my mothers horror and despair. During that time, I had had enough. I was mentally exhausted, my job was emotionally taxing I couldn’t see any other way to fix the problems. No one asked me why I was exhausted. The only feedback I received was that the best option for me was assisted suicide given ‘my injury’. No one placed any value on my life, so why should I? They were the professionals, if they knew a way to help, wouldn’t they have done so?

The only reason I didn’t go through with my Dignitis plan, was because I had surgery to replace the metalwork in my neck and as an unintended consequence, I lost movement in my left arm due to a screw being placed in the wrong position. I was unable to go back to my former job as now I couldn’t perform the intricate movements needed as the damage to my spinal cord had meant I could not use my triceps or wrist flexion.

I had lost the one thing in my life that I thought had given me a sense of purpose – my job and career. Yet over the year following the surgery, I made new goals, had the opportunity to sleep and for the first time, I worked on my eroded self-esteem issues. It took me to become more disabled and to lose something so profound such as crucial muscle groups in order to value what I had. By becoming more disabled, I had found happiness for the first time in 22 years.

It was after reading Barbara Gibson’s book ‘Rehabilitation: A Post-critical Approach‘ that the true tragedy became clear to me. Yes I was arrogant in that I didn’t believe I could change my way of thinking. But to be told by health professionals that my life was not worth living because of my spinal injury, to me, that is criminal negligence. I hesitate to write this as I know the stigma attached to people who fail at suicide attempts, but this is greater than that. I needed help, I sought that help but was told the value of my life was not worth living because I have a spinal injury. Yet the injury was just a symptom of the issues at play. The problem was my mind, my awareness of self, my distorted sense of identity and my misguided coping mechanisms. For no one to question that, makes me heartbroken that this is how our society perceives people with injuries like mine. The first step to changing that perception is to acknowledge the problem. And there is a problem.

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