In Western culture suicide has long been considered taboo. In fact, many religions consider it such a sin that they will not allow someone who has committed suicide to be buried in “hallowed” ground. Families will go to great lengths to hide a suicide and there is tremendous shame associated with the act. It is considered a sign of weakness or cowardice.
There are many reasons that people take their own lives. Today, because of modern medical miracles, people are able to live longer with fatal diseases; this brings up quality-of-life issues. In end-stage cancer, for example, patients knows that they are dying, but the pain may be so overwhelming, and their abilities so limited, they no longer feel their life is worth living. This is one area where research is actively being pursued and statistics are being compiled on suicide.
There is a very big difference between living with a chronic disease such as CRPS/RSD and actively dying with a disease such as cancer. Although a literature search reveals claims that CRPS/RSD patients have an extraordinarily high incidence of suicide, and a CRPS/RSD patient actually read testimony into a Subcommittee on Health in June of 2001, saying that CRPS/RSD leads to death and the leading cause of that death is suicide, there is absolutely no evidence to support these statements, in fact there are no statistics at all on CRPS/RSD and suicide. When asked about it in 2001, Dr. Robert Schwartzman said, “…there is no data on RSD and suicide. It clearly happens and is almost always attributed to other causes.” He adds that out of 73,500 patients, he has had only three that he is sure did commit suicide.
What Our Members Have Said About Suicide
I have received so many questions about CRPS/RSD and suicide that I sent an alert via the RSDSA website, asking anyone with CRPS/RSD who had seriously attempted suicide, thought about suicide, or knew of someone with the disease who had committed suicide to contact me. Within three hours I had 50 responses.
The results of this very informal survey were very revealing. The most interesting to me was that there were just about an equal amount of responses from males and females. About 15% said they had made serious suicide attempts. Of that number all but one reported that they were terribly grateful to be alive. Most got psychiatric help, some committed themselves voluntarily to an in-patient psychiatric facility.
A common thread was that respondents realized how much they loved their families and how selfish their act was because if they had been successful, the victims would have been their loved ones.
I got the feeling that none of them really wanted to die, they just wanted their situations to change. It was not just the pain that was a trigger, but the feeling of being useless- or even worse- that they were a burden to others.
Most of the responses were from people who said they thought about suicide with some frequency, though they doubted they would ever go through with it. Some felt that CRPS/RSD had taken away so much control from their own lives that thinking about suicide was a way of reclaiming that control, of feeling that if things ever got to be too much they could be in charge of their own body again by ending their lives. This was presented as a comforting thought, and actually helped them live more successfully with the CRPS/RSD. Others said that their religion prevented them from killing themselves. Many of those who contemplate suicide seem to already have established some kind of lifeline to help them.
There are several lessons that can be taken both from the patients who wrote in and from other sources on suicide. Living with a chronic pain disease such as CRPS/RSD is very difficult. It is easy to feel depressed or even hopeless. This does put CRPS/RSD patients at a higher risk for suicide than the general population. But there are also many things that can be done to help ourselves want to live. Unlike the terminally ill, we have a choice. Just like in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, think of all that would be different if you were not here. Think of the advice you gave your best friend which prevented her from making a terrible mistake. Remember the smiles of encouragement you gave to someone who was trying very hard to learn a new task. Think about how others depend on you, not because of what you can do for them physically, but for the love you give them, the patience you show in listening to their problems. There are probably lives that you affected without even realizing it. It is not uncommon for someone to say just the right thing at the right time that can help change someone else’s life.
Think about all the things you can still accomplish. Our value as a human being is not measured so much by grand acts as it is by the little things we do and say each day. At the same time, remember the things that give you pleasure: laughing with friends and family, the smile of a child, even the taste of a good meal. The other thing to hold on to is that CRPS/RSD does not remain static. Our pain is not always a 10. We do have some days that are better than others. And most of all, remember that CRPS/RSD is not a terminal disease. There is more hope than ever that medicine will find ways to help make our lives better. But we need to be here for that to happen.
Hotlines and Crisis Intervention
There are times when none of this may be enough and you find yourself in a crisis situation, a time when you go from thinking about suicide to actually formulating a plan. Hopefully you will not be alone and someone will pick up on the signals that you are sending. It is very hard at what might be the lowest point in your life to save yourself. But in most cases there is still a tiny voice telling you that you really want to live, that what you actually want is to feel no more pain, but not necessarily to die. Try to listen to that voice.
There are now many wonderful 24-hour suicide prevention hotlines with well-trained and compassionate staff ready to listen to you. I particularly recommend the Samaritans, who are non-sectarian, totally non-judgmental and have a presence in many cities around the world. You can check the Internet for one that is in your area. Also, you can look in your telephone book for your local hotline number. Keep it in several places so that you don’t need to go looking for it. To take away some of the fear of calling in a crisis, call when you are feeling low just to see what it is like. You do not need to be at the breaking point to make the call.
There are many signs to look for if you think someone you know may be suicidal. Remember, you should always take it seriously when someone says they wish they were dead. In the next issue I will write more about these signs, what causes someone to want to commit suicide, what places someone at risk for suicide and how a family can learn to live with a suicide’s death.
Please continue to e-mail me on this topic. Send questions that you may have. Talking about suicide does not increase the chances that you will do it. Sometimes bringing it out in the open, no matter how painful, can make the difference between life and death. CRPS/RSD has taken away a lot from all of us. Don’t let it take away our lives.
Note: I am very thankful to all who took the time to respond and to share such personal information with me. I wish I could answer each of you individually, but the numbers were so overwhelming that it would be impossible.
Useful websites for Information on Suicide
Suicide and suicide prevention
American Association of Suicidology
Samaritans Suicide Prevention Hotline of NY
National Strategy for Suicide Prevention
Suicide Prevention Action Network