On July 3rd, 2012, sometime around 11 a.m., I was lying in bed on my right side with my knees drawn up and my arms crossed at my belly as if to hold life itself in; I had a notion run through my head like a cranky toddler trying to avoid getting a vaccination: Oh, God, this is why some people want to die.
I didn’t want to die; I was in serious pain and nauseated as hell, but in one fleeting moment I thought I understood why some people choose to end their lives rather than endure any more pain. I knew that sooner or later there would be at least a modicum of relief. Sooner or later the Spouse Thingy was going to come into the darkened bedroom armed with Percoset and Phenergan and that the edge of the knife of pain would have its blade dulled, and I would be able to get a little sleep. I was sicker than I had ever been, but eventually I would recover.
The longer it took for him to show up with the pain meds, the more I understood the need to crawl away from pain.
I’ve been in pain of varying degrees since 1997, but this was new; this was the sort of pain that chews you up and spits you out in large, semi-chewed bites, and keeps coming at you as if you’re a never ending buffet of sadistic culinary delights. This was pain that, had I not known that there would likely be an end point, might have sent me over the edge.
It’s stuck with me. This is why some people want to die.
Over time it’s also why I’ve come to understand, just a little bit, why addiction seems so prevalent. Why anyone would choose the risk that comes with taking that drug the first time.
No one ever thinks they’ll become addicted.
Yet I’m sure that for most, it’s the gateway to taking that knife blade and dulling the edge before it reaches the point where death is the better idea.
I was curled up in bed waiting for relief, waiting for the one thing that stood between agony and rest. The one thing I knew would make a difference.
No, I didn’t become addicted to it. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have. I was in considerable pain and it went on long enough that I can easily see how that could have happened. Another week, another month, who knows? It worked just well enough to keep me sane, and combined with the anti-nausea medication kept me asleep enough to avoid most of the emotional drainage that comes with being in that much pain.
As I felt better I was able to ease off the Percoset; I consider myself lucky for that.
Pain is pain; whether it’s physical, mental, emotional…it’s pain. It’s draining. It robs you of your ability to see past what hurts. It becomes an entity to which attention must be paid, and while you’re trying to wrestle with it, there’s not much left. You’re pretty much lost to yourself. There’s the shell of your existence, and the pain.
The agony that left me thinking I understood why some people want to die didn’t have to be physical; I don’t imagine it’s any different for someone in deep emotional pain or crushing mental disease. And the thing I knew was coming to me to help dull that agony is the same thing thousands of people in pain reach for.
I knew that drug was going to help, and all I wanted, from the moment the drugs I’d been given in the ER wore off until the Spouse Thingy came into the room, was that drug.
Yesterday as the news of the death of one hell of a talented actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was shared in stunned Facebook status updates and urgent-sounding Tweets and news bulletins, woven into the total shock came—as it always does—the grumbling from those who felt that he’d done this to himself, so there really should be no sympathy. He made a choice; he chose to take drugs in the first place, and he chose to fall off the proverbial wagon and go back to drug use.
Maybe he did.
I doubt it, though.
No one, save for those few who were privy to the personal demons of Hoffman, will ever know what made him reach for those first drugs.
The same could be said for any addict: no one takes that first drug thinking they’ll be addicted. But there’s almost always a reason they do reach for it, and I’m betting that at the bottom of the pile of detritus of their lives is a throbbing, relentless, oh-holy-hell knife of pain, the blade of which they only wanted to dull.
I don’t know the statistics; I don’t know how many people become addicted because they were young and stupid and just wanted to try sometime fun and it kicked back on them harder than they ever could have expected. I don’t know how many people slip from the occasional recreational drink to frequent social drinking to full bore alcoholism. I don’t know anything beyond my own experience and the small window it has allowed me to peek through.
There is pain so severe that you can just want to die. And there is the hope of relief so attainable that you willingly reach for it, and you simply don’t know what the end result will be.
You may recover and be able to leave the pharmaceutical help behind, or you may not. And when you’re in that kind of pain, I don’t think it’s your fault.
Sometimes you lose.
Sometimes, you die.
And when you do…it would be nice if it didn’t come with a lot of judgment, a lot of supposition about how and why, or with character assassinations.
Miss them, mourn them…but don’t judge them. Because one day it might be you curled up in a tight ball of oh-holy-hell, and you cannot, you absolutely cannot, predict how it will end.