Facing our Mortality

Since my feeble effort to raise funds for Prostate Cancer Ireland by growing a mustache during Movember, I have received news that another good friend of mine is undergoing tests for same. As one of the most frequently diagnosed forms, after lung and breast cancer, it is comforting to know that with early diagnosis, a 90% survival rate is now common. It still triggers fears for their mortality in the sufferer and it will only ease as a worry when they get the all clear.

Several of my friends and a first cousin have had encounters with this particular form over the last few years and thankfully, all are still with us enjoying life as survivors. While chemotherapy, radium treatment and radical surgery can have long term consequences for the survivor, especially in the bedroom, the price is a relatively small one as long as they can have a reasonable quality of life. An uncle of mine with lung cancer and another first cousin with breast cancer were not so lucky in the last few years.

Those of us lucky enough to have avoided the Big C have a responsibility to do our bit to help the experts develop further tests and treatments for this potentially killer disease which is no respector of status or privilege in society. Every citizen in this country has had contact with victims of cancer, either family members, close friends or acquaintences and has felt the pain of their loss when their life has been cruelly shortened by an insidious invader.

While I have escaped cancer so far, on another front, I have had to deal my mortality through my battle with Bi-Polar Disorder or Manic Depression. When I was diagnosed in my mid-20’s, I had gone through a summer of total madness, with episodes of extreme elation countered by deep depressions. In one of those depressions, the hole was so black, I could see no other way out than through the end of a shotgun. As you are reading this 30 years later, it didn’t happen.

With a lengthy stay in St. John of God’s Hospital,  Stillorgan, I responded to treatment and started the next phase of my life with a new badge to get used to. It took me a long time to accept that I was now offically a fruit cake, albeit one with a reasonable chance of living a normal life aided by medication. I thought I was cured after a few years and chose to live my life drug free. My coping mechanisms were reasonably strong and I survived some more minor episodes until a major disappointment triggered another deep depression about 10 years later. This time, I knew I was in trouble and took myself to hospital for treatment.

My psychiatrist convinced me to go on a different treatment this time – Lithium, a naturally occuring salt – and with him holding my hand, I tried it out and 20 years later, am still functioning reasonably well. It creates a balance in the brain’s electrical impulses, evening out the up/down episodes to allow us MD’s carry on reasonable lives. For me it has been a life saver.

Unfortunately, depression can also be triggered by relationship failures, job loss, financial worries, bullying and a host of other factors. Like the Big C, it is no respector of status either and can strike into the heart of the most robust families and groupings, causing grief and distress for those trying to cope with its knock on effects. Some sufferers are past masters at hiding the pain from their nearest and dearest, leaving those around them at a complete loss of understanding, if they take the ultimate step.

Such is a case that occurred in my circle of friends recently. My pal was a very outgoing bubbly sort of character, who had time for everyone and always had a joke or story whenever we met. He had a couple of businesses on the Main St. and everyone in the town knew and loved him. In our club, he had a long history of getting stuck in, having held all the senior positions over a number of years. Like many small businesses, the recession was hurting and he chose to close one of his shops after 21 years of trading.

Whether this was the trigger or some other issue unknown to us, he seems to have snapped and made a fatal decision to end it all by drowning himself. His wife, 3 children, father, brothers, sisters and extended family and large circle of friends are at a total loss as to why this should have happened. His funeral was one of largest ever seen in Wicklow and was testament to the high regard he and his family are held in the town.

Having tottered on the brink several times, I know what the darkness in my head was saying to me so I can only assume that the same darkness engulfed my pal, but he didn’t hesitate, unfortunately. With cancer, other illnessess or even a traffic accident, we can rationalise why we might lose a loved one. However, unless someone leaves a strong clue or note, a fatal depression often leaves nothing but angst and heartache. We tend to blame ourselves for not seeing the signs or maybe, for not responding to an issue that we think, in hindsight, might  have been simmering. The reality is, the person makes the decision for their own reasons and often, it has nothing to do with others in his/her immediate vicinity. It is selfish, it can be devastating and answers are rarely readily available to ease the pain of those left behind.

For myself, I went into a dark place for a few days after his funeral. With a long history of dealing with my own depressive episodes, I have developed coping mechanisms to help me through these darknesses. While it didn’t get to a nadir where I was facing my mortality again, I’m glad that now I know my vulnerability and can reach for my lifeline. My pal didn’t know that he had so many lifelines available to him and the darkness engulfed him suddenly, snuffing out a wonderful life long before its sell-by-date.

For whatever reason, we all have to face our mortality. The older we get, the more likely the grim reaper will be knocking. For those with terminal illnesses such as untreatable cancers, the end of the road is well mapped, often masking the pain in cocktails of drugs and family and friends are reconciled to the loss. Those taken suddenly through heart attacks, accidents, shootings etc., the loss is traumatic for those left behind but at least they usually can come to terms with the loss in time. Suicide rarely leaves any comfort factors and those left behind are often wracked by guilt, on top of all the other grief issues.

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