Me Before You: Considering Suicide After Disability

Me Before You: Considering Suicide After Disability

What would you do if a tragic accident suddenly left you physically disabled?  Do you think you could cope with the onset of a disability that would inevitably impact every facet of your life? Would you turn to suicide in an effort to escape your new ill-fated reality? Could you choose to “live boldly?” SPOILER ALERT:  If you have any intention of seeing this film, be advised you should stop reading here. These are just some of the questions audiences pondered this weekend as they flocked to theaters to see the new film, Me Before You. Based on JoJo Moyer’s successful romance novel, the movie depicts the story of wealthy playboy, Will Traynor, played by Sam Claflin, who becomes a quadriplegic after an accident. Will’s affluent family, hires Louisa Clark (AKA Game of Thrones HOTTIE, actress Emilia Clarke) as a part time caregiver/ companion to their newly disabled son. Despite falling in love with Clark, Will inevitably decides he would rather commit suicide via assisted euthanasia rather than live as a wheelchair bound quad.

Disability advocates across the globe have expressed utter outrage about the film’s plot, calling for a boycott of the movie based on principles of ableism and the politically charged religious debate surrounding assisted suicide. As someone who became disabled after a long battle with breast cancer throughout most of my 20’s, I wanted to “see” or should I say “hear” the film for myself before deciding on my respective bandwagon.

Allow me to explain,

I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 19.  Back in the late 1990’s, my cancer was deemed an anomaly by the medical community. Doctors urged me to use chemotherapy and radiation to combat the disease as opposed to having a double mastectomy that so many women electively pursue today. Being young and quite possibly stupidly naive, I followed my medical team’s advice, only to have the cancer return again in my mid twenties, attacking my milk ducts before spreading to both my nipples in the form of Paget’s disease.

By the time I was 28 years old, I had lost my hair more times that I could count. I had undergone over 17 breast surgeries, had done multiple rounds of chemotherapy and was convinced I had undergone enough radiation therapy to practically glow in the dark.  When my oncologists finally declared I was in remission, I thought I was going to conquer the world. I felt I had been given a second chance at life and I fully intended to “live boldly,” taking advantage of every precious moment. That’s when the unexpected happened.

Over the course of several months, I began to notice changes in my vision coupled with chronic frontal lobe headaches. I once again began spending an enormous amount of time in doctor’s offices, searching for an answer about my sight issues and head pain. After numerous tests and scans, I was told that I was “going blind.”  The combination of chemotherapy, radiation and a prior history of ocular hypertension caused a rare neurological condition, where in essence my optic nerves were having trouble communicating with my brain.

Various eye drops were prescribed and I was given more medication for the headaches and pain I was experiencing. I began seeing an optic neurologist on a regular basis.  At first the vision loss was subtle. I slowly became color blind. Then, it became more difficult to see at night.  Finally, I lost my depth perception, tripping over stairs and curbs and regularly experiencing minor injuries in the process.  My doctor estimated my eyesight would be completely gone within several years, giving me time to adapt to each change incrementally. My husband I tried to prepare ourselves for what appeared to be the inevitable.

On January 3, 2012, I began my day much like any other. I woke up, got dressed and headed to my job as a school social worker. Throughout the day I battled another terrible headache. When I finally got home, my husband suggested I take a nap and to help alleviate my pain. I woke up an hour later, completely blind. I was 32 years old.

The conservative estimates doctors had given me were a gross miscalculation, and the severe vision loss I experienced had come to fruition in less than a year.  Over the next several months, my entire life changed. I lost my job.  I lost many friends.  I was forced to rely on my husband to do everything for me.  The State of New York provided me with several “free” services and technology to assist me with this difficult transition, but psychologically and emotionally, adjusting to life in the dark was far from easy.

Try closing your eyes and sending an email.

Making a sandwich.

Folding laundry.

 

Think about crossing the street or suddenly being unable to drive. Everywhere I went, people treated me like a child, a “thing” in need of supervision.  My previous professional identity, the fact that I was a highly educated psychotherapist with two Masters Degrees, one from an ivy league school, had been forgotten.  Despite the love and support of my husband, I seriously contemplated suicide.

I felt like a burden to a man who had already been with me through a ten-year battle with breast cancer. The ocular pain I was experiencing was excruciating and having to re-learn simple tasks was infuriating for this once academic over achiever.

That is why I was so intrigued by Me Before You. I don’t have a spinal cord injury and I’m not wheelchair bound, but I do know what it’s like to make the transition into the world of the disabled.

 

MeBeforeYou

In the front row of a fairly crowded theater, I could hear the voices of chatty college girls, old women and several disgruntled husbands.  They were there to see a romance; I was there to see what all the ableism talk was about.

Rather quickly, it became apparent that this movie was no “epic romance.” When I think “epic” I think Scarlett and Rhett, Heathcliff and Catherine, and even Jack and Rose.  Will and Louisa, AKA Clark, are not even in the same league as these other literary lovers.  Sadly, what you have is a miserable, shell of a man, who’s mad at the world because life dealt him the ultimate shitty hand. Will Traynor is in a power wheelchair, only being able to move from the chest up.  His male nurse, Nathan, cares for him daily, as he lives with his parents in the London estate.

Louisa Clark embodies the usual “do-gooder” role most people associate with those who become partners or spouses for the disabled. Her Snow White persona and annoying quirkiness actually made her appear quite ignorant throughout the film.  Her own personal life in an invariable shit show.  She’s involved with an ungrateful boyfriend to whom she caters. Her parents allude to Louisa being a disappointment, but continue to lean on her for financial support after dear ol’ dad has lost his job.

By any feminist’s standards, Louisa Clark is an utter disgrace. The fact that she can only feel self-worth by being an incessant people pleaser makes me pity her… way more than the guy in the wheelchair.  Where’s the hashtag campaign for stupid female characters that set back the women’s movement by a good sixty years?

As the movie continues, the audience is told about the physical pain associated with Will’s condition. He has had four bouts of pneumonia in the span of two years. Will requires medication to regulate his blood pressure and has a very low resistance to any form of bacteria or infection. He undergoes physical therapy exercises to prevent muscular atrophy, despite no change in his ability to increase movement to any part of his body.  Will is not getting better.  He knows it and his medical staff has confirmed it.  He would rather die than live disabled; his family’s money and Clark can’t change his mind.

The disabled community takes issue with Will’s belief that his life “isn’t worth living” because he’s become quadriplegic. For spinal cord and quadriplegic individuals born with this form of disability, I absolutely see how Me Before You could cause them to feel misrepresented and prejudiced. No doubt, these people are currently living, happy and fulfilling lives, like so many other disabled individuals.

However, why then, can’t these same members of the disabled community see the alternate side of the equation?

Why are those of us who “become” disabled through illness or accident considered “outcasts” or “part of the problem” if we admit we’ve contemplated suicide as opposed to living with our disability?

 

Admitting that I wanted to die rather than live as a blind woman does not make me a weak, perpetuator of ableism. Me Before You, opens up a bigger conversation about how individuals who “become” disabled require help to psychologically cope with this difficult transition.

Me Before You – Where was the therapeutic support? 

Instead of harping on Will’s decision to die, shouldn’t the bigger question be, “Where was Will’s therapeutic intervention?” Despite his family’s fortune, did he really have all the help he needed to monitor his mental health? If he did, the film didn’t mention it.

A psychologist once told me I needed to grieve the loss of my eyesight after I was declared blind.  It was the simplest and most significant piece of therapeutic advice I had ever received.  Once I went through the grieving process, I was able to focus on what I needed to do to become a functional member of my family and in turn society.

I didn’t pity Will because he was in a wheelchair; I pitied him because I believe he should have been provided with better psychological treatment. In a country currently experiencing so many mental health issues, how is this not an equally important issue in conjunction with ableism?

Seeing Me Before You, triggered painful memories of when I believed my disability meant my life was no longer worth living.  Thankfully, I was able to seek the professional mental health support I needed. I also leaned on my faith during that difficult time, asking God to guide me through my journey.  Perhaps his answer came in my unexpected pregnancy six months after I became blind. My daughter, now three, will live her life as the child of a disabled mother, who will not be ashamed to discuss how I once considered ending my life in response to my blindness.

There is no one who can deny that being disabled won’t complicate your life. Having thoughts of suicide after becoming disabled doesn’t make you weak; it doesn’t mean you’re feeding into the cycle of ableism. It makes you human. Each of us who “becomes” disabled deserves the right to mourn our old lives.  We should not feel ashamed to ask for help during the adjustment.

I wish some members of the disabled community with stop vilifying those of us who need the time to discover life can attain a level of normalcy again.

Will Traynor had only been paralyzed for two years before making the decision to end his life. Adjustment is an individual process. Perhaps if given more time and counseling, Moyer’s book could have had a more desirable ending.

Quadriplegia is not the worst disability in the world.  But ask yourself, what is for you?  Would it be losing a limb? Spending your life in a wheelchair? Losing your eye sight?  How would you cope?  How could you not mourn the life you once had?

 

I can still remember the colors of fall leaves, the twinkle of Christmas lights, and every contour of my husband’s face. Four years later, I still feel robbed that a side effect from my cancer took my eyesight.  As my children grow (I now have two daughters), I worry about being a burden to them.

Being blind isn’t just about being unable to see.  It’s learning to cope with the Pandora’s box of problems that come with vision loss and I’m not ashamed to say; it’s been hard.  However, thoughts of death being a better option as opposed to living as a blind woman have long been put to rest.

My heart is full.  My life is full.  Me Before You had no impact on that.  The film was merely a gentle reminder of how far I’ve come since becoming disabled and solidified my belief in how psychological interventions can prevent suicide, assisted or otherwise, relating to disability.

If you or someone you know is having difficulty adjusting to a new disability, reach out to a medical provider or licensed mental health professional.  Contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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3 Comments

  1. Hey there!

    From what I’ve heard, most people have taken issue with the fact that Will, in the book and movie, has not been fleshed into a complete human being. He is his disability; he is a plot tool, nothing more. There were also issues with how everyone treated Will. They didn’t treat him as a human being, but as something to be “managed”. And the only issues I’ve heard people having with him committing suicide in the end was related back to not enough psych help and how he wasn’t humanized in the book. But it’s interesting to hear some people have had an issue with other aspects. Personally, I support the right to assisted suicide. With my disability, I know that there is a point where, if my health deteriorates past that point, I will not continue the life-extending treatment options available and will–as gracefully as possible–exit this world. But there was a time, at the beginning of my disability, where death sounded like a great idea. And truthfully, there are still days where my health is so bad it seems like a great idea. But I’ve learned what Will might have learned with adequate health care: life can still have meaning and value and purpose even if you don’t meet society’s expectations of normal and healthy, and can no longer be a “productive member of society”.

    I think I got a bit rambly at the end, but I hope I made my point clear.

  2. Holly, I went blind after a car wreck at age 31 severed both optic nerves. That was 22 years ago and so much has changed since then, but found myself nodding along with your running commentary about how you adjusted to the life changing realities of your vision loss. I also considered suicide, during a dark bout of depression. The main thing that kept me from following through on that was knowing that the one who would find my dead body would be most likely one of my parents when they came to check on me at my home, as they did every day or two, and to read my mail to me. I couldn’t do that to them. I was hospitalized for three and a half months, with two of those in a coma. I knew they never quit on me then and I rationalized that I couldn’t quit on them now. I knew it was depression making me feel this way and would pass in time, and I was correct. I later pursued my BS and MA in psychology and I felt the earth move when I learned about Kubler-Ross and her grief theory. I sat there in awe, realizing that this was my whole experience laid out in those stages, and I knew just how true that importance was in reaching the point of acceptance.

    You write a very powerful blog and you have a new fan. I just shared your post on FB. PS: I learned about your blog through your introductory post on the Blind Penpals group!

    1. Ron: Thank you for your lovely comments. Kubler-Ross Model all the way for those of us who become disabled. As a mental health professional and as someone who lived it – we really need time to grieve and adjust! And we have to be patient with ourselves. It’s a process.

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