An essay on suicide, chronic suicidality, and ghosts.
I Google “mothers who kill themselves in movies” and find a list of “suicides in fiction.” Causes of death: “stabs herself; drowns herself; slits her wrists; swallows pills.” I look for how my mother died—“suffocation with helium and bag over head”—but only find mentions of “asphyxiation in car” or “shoves sock down throat and suffocates.” I wanted a movie that acted out my mother’s death, but there seemed to be none.
“Bonnie Jareth Dreisinger: intelligent, caring, creative, plagued with health issues, loving, curious, witty,” her sister announces during her funeral. The night she dies, I drive around the backroads of my small town blasting David Bowie’s 5:15 The Angels Have Gone. I read somewhere that David Bowie had a half-brother, Terry, who killed himself by jumping in front of a train. Terry had schizophrenia and spent the last sixteen years of his life in a psychiatric institution. David had mostly cut ties with his brother (allegedly due to his own fears of going mad one day) and I couldn’t help drifting into the years of grief I felt over abandoning my mother to live in her illness alone. We never talk anymore. Forever I will adore you, Bowie sings.
My mother spent time in psychiatric wards, then health rehabs, and later, spiritual retreats, retreats that taught her meaningless things like “The Eight Laws of Natural Health” or “N.E.W.S.T.A.R.T.”
Trust in God
I suppose the Laws of Natural Health felt more effective, to her, than the years of electroconvulsive therapy and psych meds, but N.E.W.S.T.A.R.T was just another treatment that didn’t work.
Sometime after my mother’s funeral, I Google “suicide with helium.” One of the top hits leads me to Final Exit, a network of affiliated right-to-die websites shilling out annual $25 memberships. The site’s front page advertises the titular Final Exit, a best-selling how-to suicide manual, with an updated guide on how to make your own at-home helium hood. Before her death, I didn’t know a person could die in this way—with a bag over their head filling with helium. Suddenly, now, there was an entire network instructing how you could do it. I buy a used third edition copy of Final Exit, the one my mother may have read before her death, and continue scrolling through the website.
Derek Humphry, the network’s founder, assisted his first wife, Jean, in her suicide. (The first of many, as you will see.) Dying of breast cancer, she wanted to take death into her own hands. The year is 1975 and assisted suicide is illegal. With the help of Derek, Jean takes a lethal dose of pills stirred into a cup of coffee.
Less than a year after Jean’s assisted suicide, Derek marries a woman named Ann Wickett. The two pen Jean’s Way: A True Love Story, a memoir about Jean’s decision to die and her final days. Penning a memoir about his first wife’s suicide is a little weird, let alone with his new wife, and to call it a “true love story” is unsettling.
After Jean’s Way, things take off for Derek. Together with Ann, Derek founds the Hemlock Society—a right-to-die advocacy organization for the terminally ill—in 1980, finding growing success in their message. But things get more and more complicated. There is another breast cancer diagnosis (Ann’s), a public divorce and lawsuit, another suicide (Ann’s), and a third remarriage (to a woman named Gretchen). Although Ann’s breast cancer is non-terminal, Derek leaves. Two years later, Ann swallows an overdose of barbiturates.
The right-to-die movement had been gaining traction alongside the AIDS crisis. As people with AIDS were neglected, denied treatment, and left to die, some turned to assisted suicide. (Homophobic, racist, and anti-drug rhetoric, combined with ableist policies, left them with few other options.) But why Derek, of all people, became the leading advocate of assisted suicide remains a mystery to me. Launching off of his first wife’s death, I wondered if it was ever Jean’s message to begin with? Would Jean have wanted all of this? Did he kill Jean? (Ann certainly thought so.) And what’s with this rhetoric of assisted suicide as some sort of “self-deliverance”? Self-deliverance from what, exactly? A world that hates sick people? Derek’s slogans like “Good Life, Good Death” and “Death With Dignity” make illness out as something undignified, uncompassionate, and offer assisted suicide as an act of care. Wouldn’t care mean better healthcare, better attendant services, better housing, better policies for the sick? What about the right to live? What Derek is really saying, then, is that the sick are better off dead.
It is his second wife Ann who voices these concerns. In a self-taped video, dated a day before her suicide, Ann discusses her fears that, if legalized, assisted suicide may become involuntary. Poor people, disabled people, old people, people without medical insurance may be pressured to end their lives. Insurance companies and healthcare providers may prefer to opt-in for assisted suicide rather than pursue and cover costly medical treatments. Armed with her first-hand experience of cancer, Ann was beginning to understand the pressure one felt to get out of the way of the healthy—she felt the pressure to die.
The pressure goes deeper. In 1986, Derek aided Ann in the double assisted suicide of her parents, their deaths later haunting Ann (becoming the subject of her book Double Exit, published three years later). “I knew my mother was not ready to die . . . I knew she felt pressure,” Ann confesses in the tape.
Ann’s suicide is written off by Derek: “Sadly, for much of her life Ann was dogged by emotional problems . . . her life was a series of peaks and troughs.” In other words, she was crazy. A final memoir is published, this time by Ann’s longtime friend and anti-euthanasia advocate Rita Marker. Deadly Compassion: The Shocking True Story of Ann Humphry's Suicide hits the shelves in 1995. It’s a fight from the grave.
I wonder if my mom felt pressure to die. I’m certain she felt pressure to be healthy—something that could lead to wanting to die in the face of living with an illness that very few people understand. Upon returning from the hospital after surgery to his chest, the novelist Thomas Bernhard writes:
When a sick person returns home after a long absence, he finds everything strange, and the process of familiarizing himself with it again, of resuming possession of everything, is long and arduous. Having lost everything, he has to rediscover it. And because a sick person is always deserted—to say anything else would be a gross lie—he must try to develop a quite superhuman energy if he wants to carry on from where he left off months before (or even years before, as I have had to do more than once). A healthy person cannot understand this and immediately becomes impatient, and by his impatience he only makes life harder for the returning invalid, though he ought to be making it easier.
Bernhard had contracted tuberculosis as a teenager, spending his life in and out of sanatoriums, later developing sarcoidosis in his forties. “The sick,” Bernhard continues, “do not understand the healthy and the healthy do not understand the sick.”
Did I understand my mother? No, not really. Not when she was alive, anyway. It was not until I became sick several years later, and began to experience the loneliness of illness, that I came closer to knowing what her life may have been like. Compulsory healthiness is alienating. A sick person is always behind, living on a separate timeline to the healthy.
My mother would often disappear to some psychiatric ward or another and my dad would also leave us behind for work. There was a calendar on the fridge that we could refer to to see where our dad was. (“Dad gone” always greatly outnumbered the “dad home” days.) But where was mom? Was mom gone or home? Her room had become a hospital, one that didn’t like to take visitors, so sometimes it was hard to tell. When she still lived at home, I would open the door to her bedroom and squint into the dark empty space to see if there was a lump in the bed, but I was never sure if it was my mother, or a pile of blankets that needed washing. And there never seemed to be anyone else around to ask about her whereabouts or willing to talk about her current state of health. People were so tight-lipped about her illnesses, and my mother’s time home or away went unrecorded.
Like my mother, I had become “plagued with health issues” in my early twenties. In 2018, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, two and half years after the onset of mysteriously disabling symptoms. Cognitive dysfunction, profound exhaustion, stomach problems, sleeping problems, vertigo, and widespread pain had suddenly awakened in my body after a short but rather difficult bout of viral illness. I am reluctant to name my diagnosis because it is a diagnosis made by exclusion: other diagnoses had to be ruled out before this one was given. This diagnosis is, in fact, a diagnosis of the unknown, a medically unexplainable illness.
Medically unexplained illnesses are sometimes referred to as a wastebasket diagnosis—a physician’s last attempt to find a diagnostic category to throw the symptoms in. A substantial number of publications bemoan the patient with medically unexplained symptoms. In much of the medical literature, people with unexplainable symptoms are described by healthcare providers as “needy,” “demanding,” or “downright annoying.” As a group, they are “impossible to help.” More disparaging terms include “frequent flyers,” “thick folder patients,” or “heavy-cost patients.” Patient behaviours—frequent doctor visits, chronic complaints undetectable by medical tests, or patient distress that never diminishes—become pathological.
As the phrase suggests, there are physical symptoms that have yet to be explained (or may never be explained) by modern medicine. But all this medical uncertainty made what I felt less certain and made me less credible to everyone around me. Every symptom became something to doubt. “The worst illness in the world,” writes Tom Delbanco, professor of medicine, “is uncertainty.”
Doctors discouraged me from my pursuit of diagnosis. I didn’t know back then that chronic fatigue syndrome has been referred to as the “yuppie flu” or “shirker syndrome” by skeptics. Symptoms are attributed to a lack of character rather than the presence of real biological disease. Looking back, I can see that they were trying to warn me that it was a diagnosis to nowhere, a diagnosis that would create problems, not solve them.
In a handwritten amendment to her will, dated two years before her death, my mother writes that she wanted an “article written and published in paper to bring awareness about chronic fatigue syndrome + fibromyalgia and the importance of hope, perseverance, and need for doctors to promote skills and not mistreat with psychiatric medications.” Maybe I could carry out this final wish of hers—to bring awareness to her life—although I didn’t have much to go off of.
Most things I know about my mother are things you could note after a lunch with her. She had thick, dark-blonde hair. She had an attractive face, with bright green eyes. Her body, like her fingers, was tall and thin. When she spoke, it was clear that she was smart, and wickedly honest. She was the youngest of five kids, left-handed, and endured years of braces to correct her horrible teeth. She was forty-four when she died.
Then, there are the handful of things that only I know about her. As a teenager, she wrote stories where characters committed suicide, visited psychiatrists, or got drunk and left their families. They were unbelievably funny. She liked to borrow movies from the local library and buy make-up at Shoppers Drug Mart. She liked Thai food. Mexico was her favourite vacation destination.
She had four children whom she did not interact with much. I had slowly, then suddenly, stopped talking to her altogether a few years before her final suicide. Her diagnoses were as follows: clinical depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and borderline personality disorder. She intermittently experienced psychosis, and had endured an eating disorder throughout high school. She spent most of her time in her room. Ironically, her name Bonnie means "healthy.”
According to my father, her diagnoses were never definitive. (Diagnosis is not as rigid a category as one would think.) Doctors were often stabbing at the unknowable with my mother—and I suppose I was always doing the same too.
At the beginning of COVID, I join a “gigs from home” Facebook group set up by one of my internet friends. Sourced from Craigslist ads posted across North America, there are gigs for mock jurors, app testers, and focus groups. Now the whole world was living from their bedrooms and realizing it wasn’t all that great. I could have told them that. The first gig I do involves watching a screener for an independent crime thriller 100 Days to Live. I open my laptop at 5am and click the screener link.
The film opens with a woman mysteriously disappearing, a photo album labelled “X Was Saved” left behind at the crime scene. A serial killer, nicknamed “The Saviour,” is behind the recent string of disappearances, stalking his victims for 100 days before murdering them. The film cuts forward to introduce us to the protagonist, Rebecca, and her fiancé Gabriel. Rebecca works as a crisis counsellor, her mother’s past suicide pushing her into the profession. She meets Gabriel at one of her support groups and the two quickly fall in love. One hundred days later, on the day of their engagement, Gabriel mysteriously disappears. Distraught, Rebecca turns to the police, only to learn that Gabriel has become the latest victim of The Saviour. After going through the other victim files, Rebecca realizes that the victims have something in common—they’ve all attempted suicide in the past.
Shortly thereafter, Victor—Rebecca’s former co-worker at a suicide prevention hotline—is revealed to be the serial killer. In a series of flashbacks, Victor is portrayed as overly involved with his clients, eventually going rogue when he realizes he can’t save everybody. Failing to give them a reason to live, Victor finds a reason for them to die.
At first, Rebecca suspects that Victor kills his victims when they are finally happy, “recovered” from their past suicidal ideations. But like most thrillers, there’s a twist—the victims have consented to their own murders. Victor gives them 100 days to live to prove a point: no matter what, no matter how much happiness they may experience, at the end of the 100 days, they’ll still want to die.
I’m not sure why his victims, if you can call them that now, are arbitrarily given 100 days to live, or why Victor abruptly switches from saving people to killing them, his own failed suicide attempt triggering the sudden change of heart. But in Victor’s mind, he is saving them. He’s saving them from their inescapable emptiness—he’s offering them a way out. Is this a thriller about euthanasia? A pro right-to-die film? I google the director, a wealthy CEO of a non-stick coating company. I wonder how he came up with this concept—or why.
I fill out a form, providing feedback on the film. “Did you find the subject matter offensive?” Somehow, I didn’t. The film didn’t understand chronic suicidality at all, but on some level it did understand that suicide haunts you. Like Rebecca, my mother’s suicide haunts me. It follows me around. It changes me.
And, like Victor, when you fail others, you turn into a monster. You want the string of suicide attempts to be over. Obviously, you want them to live, but if they have to die, then so be it. Anything to end the cycle.
The day my mother died, my father called us into his bedroom to break the news. I remember laughing a little, thinking it’s finally over. It wasn’t relief (or maybe it was). Part of me was thankful she was gone. My life would be easier and, in a way, that was true. There would be no more of her daily suicidal monologuing over phone calls or recorded voice messages; no more repeated suicide attempts (over seventeen of them); no more angry emails sent to our father typed out in all caps, her fingers screaming: ASSHOLE BASTARD. I could get on with my life. (A monstrous thought, I know.)
After watching the film screener, I try to go back to sleep but I can’t stop thinking about Rebecca. In 100 Days to Live, Rebecca attempts suicide too—nine years after her mother. Then she does it again. And again. “I’m cursed,” she tells Gabriel during a flashback, slumped on the floor of his bathroom. “Even when things are going great, I get really down.” Loving Gabriel won’t save her—she still wants to die.
Did suicide run in families, I wondered. That is to say, would Rebecca be living a normal life if her mother was still alive, free of suicidal ideation? I wondered, too, if my own suicidality had something to do with my mother’s death. A Google search for “suicide in families” yields inconclusive results: that a person may be twice as likely to commit suicide if a family member has, but that the reasons behind suicide remain complicated. But I do know that when my mother’s suicide attempts became more frequent, a wound opened up inside of me. I felt—suicidal.
I wouldn’t describe being suicidal as a thought process, but more of a feeling (one “feels suicidal”). For me, there is no plan. In many ways, feeling suicidal feels like a horror movie: something that is not-me is coming for me, and there’s no real motive, only that someone needs to die. An uneasy feeling is in the air. The leaves blow in a particular way across the ground. You start to suspect you are being followed. And, whatever it is, it knows your every move. Only you can feel it: an invisible, murderous force. Sometimes I begin to think it’s the same thing that relentlessly chased down my mother.
I’m hiding in the movie theatre. Brad Pitt is punching the shit out of someone on the screen. If things got really bad, and I did feel unsafe with myself, I’d usually sit inside a movie theatre and let the feelings go through me until I started to feel a little more in control of myself. Putting myself in public spaces was important—whatever was coming for me didn’t like to strike in crowds.
Once I had tried sitting in a mall, but the bright fluorescents made me feel increasingly unhinged and exposed, and I worried that someone would come up to me and ask me if anything was wrong. And if someone asked me that, then I might become hysterical. No, no, no, I projected to the shoppers, nothing was the matter (a draining exercise). It was better to sit in the dark, attention blazingly focused towards Brad Pitt or Adam Driver or a cyborg battle-angel beautifully executing a hidden, ancient machine combat coded into her machine-human DNA.
The suicidal spells would only last for a day and then would suddenly timeout. I would be safe. I just needed to survive until the sun went down.
The film ends and I step back out onto the street, the daylight reminding me I still have many more hours to go until I can let my guard down. I thrust myself violently through the city, trying to outpace the suicidal mania right behind me. My body becomes painless, almost god-like, as my feet make contact in another universe and the hours pass and the moon comes up. I buy two hotdogs at 7-Eleven and return to my apartment. I’d won this time.
I don’t want my suicidality to be pathologized. I can’t speak for other suicidal people. (We are not a homogenous group.) I can only speak to how I feel. (People are suicidal for so many different reasons.) There is no good reason behind it. Maybe a homicidal ghost is picking my family off one by one. I do want to die constantly, but it’s not an actionable desire. I’m passively suicidal. Most days, I think about being hit by a car or jumping from a window—deaths that require no elaborate planning. Other days, the really bad days, I cut myself—a sort of temporary blood offering to the suicide ghost—so I can keep living a little longer. Faded hatch marks cover the inside of my ankles; I do what I can to stay alive.
The first and only time I call a suicide hotline, a man picks up and I ask to speak to a woman. The man tells me I need to hang up and call back, but that I might get another man and would have to repeat the process until I got a woman. I hang up and walk up a mountain with a razor blade in my pocket. I am too embarrassed to call back and have to possibly tell another person, “Hello, I am in danger of killing myself, but I would like to speak to a woman.” I had never formally talked to anyone about being suicidal. I didn’t want to. There was nothing anyone could really say or do for me to keep me from the feeling. In “Wanting to Die,” the poet Anne Sexton voices the fuzzy logic of suicides: “Since you ask, most days I cannot remember. / I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage. / Then the almost unnameable lust returns.” Sexton died in her garage at the age of forty-five—her car running—giving in to that unnameable lust. In the poem, Sexton admits that she had “nothing against life.” I have nothing against life either, but that suicidal feeling remains.
The same year Ann and Derek Humphry were double-suiciding Ann’s parents in 1986, a woman named Elizabeth Bouvia was petitioning the courts for the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment. Bouvia had been undergoing force-feeding at a public hospital in order to prevent death from intended self-starvation. She wanted the nasogastric tube removed.
This was not her first time seeking assisted suicide. In 1983, Bouvia checked herself into Riverside Hospital seeking to end her life through self-starvation. The hospital refused to comply with her requests to administer morphine in order to make self-starvation bearable. Bouvia v. Riverside Hospital followed. She lost the first case, but won the second.
Bouvia was a white woman in her late twenties with cerebral palsy, a wheelchair user, and visibly disabled. She wasn’t terminally ill. She was, however, chronically depressed and in chronic pain.
Richard Scott, a co-founder of the Hemlock Society, legally represented Bouvia on both high-profile cases. To Scott, and many others, Bouvia was a tragically disabled person. She was “helpless” and “imprisoned” in her body. Of course, she didn’t have anything to live for. Who wouldn’t want to die if they were in her position? A disabled life isn’t worth living. That Bouvia was visibly disabled made her an easy mark for these predictably ableist opinions.
Bouvia ignited a nation-wide debate, becoming both the poster woman for the right-to-die movement and a sort of anti-poster woman for the disability community fighting against assisted suicide legislation. Disability activists sent letters to Bouvia and camped outside the hospital in the hopes of convincing Bouvia her life was worth living, that it was society that was the problem. “Elizabeth Bouvia had more help to die than to live,” as one disability activist put it.
But underneath, there is a different story: a story about a disabled woman in a world that didn’t want her. Bouvia’s plans to attend a master’s program were effectively blocked when her state insurance repossessed her accessible van. Employers weren’t willing to hire Bouvia due to her disability. She had also suffered a miscarriage alongside a recent divorce, and had experienced years of institutionalization as both a child and an adult. After her divorce, she returned home to live with her father, who apparently did not want her there. “Do I want to die?” Bouvia told the press from her hospital bed. “I feel that’s a very hard question to answer. I feel like my quality of life is over.”
Her attorney Richard Scott later commits suicide in 1992, a year after Ann Wickett. Reports cite depression for the cause of suicide. He is survived by Bouvia, who is, by all accounts, still alive today. Narratives about suicide are not straightforward.
A week or so before her death, my mother ordered two helium tanks to her home. Her ex-husband happened to be driving by when they were being delivered. Distraught, he removed the helium tanks and stored them in his attic. “Well I can just order more,” my mother said to him as her tanks were wheeled away. And she did. She died in her room, where she had spent so much of her time, wearing her favourite pair of pajamas.
Derek’s organization has been referred to by opponents as a death cult. Dogged by suicides from those without terminal health conditions—two of the four original founders dead by suicide—one may wonder why Derek continues to stand by his current message.
In her video tape, Ann alleges that Derek had purchased some five hundred pills from a Swiss pharmacy without a prescription and handed them out to his Hemlock members. Derek, Ann tells us, had become an “agent of death and dying,” and she began to fear the organization’s ideologies.
Like Ann, I don’t trust Derek. In fact, I find Derek dangerous. His website, his organizations, his books—it’s just Derek grifting death. But my mother bought what he was selling: a way out of her pain. And I don’t blame her at all.
While writing this essay, an internet friend emails me a scanned pdf of a suicide intervention zine “for weirdos, freaks, and queers.” On how to help a suicidal person, the zine says this: “here is the bad news—there is no secret recipe, no magic spell, that will guarantee that all the people you love who struggle with suicide will stick around.” “It is not your job to keep someone alive,” the zine declares, “and sometimes you can’t. if that happens to you in the future, or if it has happened already, it is not your fault. really and truly. it is not your fault.” The zine invites the reader to say this affirmation out loud: It is not my fault.
Maybe it’s easier to talk about my mother’s suicide within this death network—her death adding to the count. My mother never left a suicide note—which aren’t as common as one would assume—except for instructions to her ex-husband to call 911 and not come upstairs. “To a brave, beautiful, and loving woman,” her ex-husband writes in her death notice, “you are missed!”
You are missed.
Derek is alive today as I write this. He’s ninety-one.
*A physical copy of this essay in pocketbook form can be purchased here.*
**Update: the physical copy is sold out. Download a pdf version for free here.*