Given the choice

After seeing the film Still Alice, I had a recurring dream about being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (never let it be said I don’t take things to heart). Every time, my reaction was the same – I would run. Out of sheer terror, I would just run. I’m not surprised the film burrowed itself so deep in my head; having seen the decline of DB’s grandparents, who both have different forms of dementia, the worst parts of growing old have been very apparent in the last few months. The violence with which illnesses like dementia tear identities apart – and anyone who’s witnessed it in a family member will know what an utter mauling it is – can’t be hammered home hard enough.

The rejection of the Assisted Dying Bill on Friday was perhaps not entirely a surprise, but it certainly made me do something of a mental double-take. If nothing else, the last few months have taught me that if something horrible and incurable should befall me – if I should permanently lose my grip on reality, or be rendered physically unable to do most of what I can do now – I would very much like the choice as to whether or not I proceed with this life. I am strongly in favour, should the need arise, of a Plan. Calmly made, with love and careful thought.

I understand the reservations that led to the rejection – sanctity of life, the issue of elderly/terminally ill people feeling as though they’re a ‘burden’ on their families, does it mean we’re essentially supporting suicide? Et cetera, et cetera – but in 2015, you’d think we might be doing better on this one. Why is it such a taboo, a place we mustn’t go? If we are ill, and there’s no chance of recovery or cure, and quality of life is draining away hour by hour, and we know that we’re ready – why not? Why must we stay? It’s flippant to trot out the old “we treat our animals better” line, but there’s also some truth in it. If Roly the aging Labrador is looking a bit peaky one day, and the next the vet tells us poor Roly’s riddled with cancer and is only going to get sicker and weaker from now on, what do we do? We take Roly home for one last dinner, lots of doggy treats and cuddles, and then back he goes to the vet for a nice long sleep in the great kennel in the sky (I’m quite hungover, so writing this bit has made me a little tearful. Poor Roly. Poor fictional Roly). The essentials are not miles apart – it’s about not having to live in agony, not having to die a drawn-out, painful death that’s incredibly distressing for everyone involved.
As DB pointed out when we were talking about it (our Friday nights are wild), the survival instinct is pretty ferocious. It takes a lot to overcome it, to make someone decide that they just don’t want to live anymore. “I don’t know about you, but I’m quite a fan of this living thing. It’s pretty good. Can you imagine just not wanting to do it anymore? How bad would your life have to be? How much pain would you be in?” So when someone says they’ve had enough, we should believe them. We should trust them. It’s not a decision you’d make lightly.

Humans have always tried to maintain some control over life and death – there has never not been suicide or abortion. It seems almost cruel that we don’t have a legitimate option, a plan we can offfer someone whose quality of life is so poor that they want out. You can legislate to make these things safer and more controlled – or you can make it harder; you can treat all death as shameful and drive it underground, to unsafe, feral territory.

I read this story in another paper a few weeks ago, and it’s the words of the coroner that stuck with me – “Part of me thinks, good on you”. There’s something about the case that’s stayed with me – I think of that couple, together for four decades, making the quiet decision to go together, before life became pain and one had to live without the other. And I wholeheartedly agree with the coroner. Because wouldn’t we all go like that, given the choice? One last hurrah – Paris, the opera, an exquisite five course meal, a decadent hotel, whatever you like – the person you love, and then nothing at all. We’d toast the years we’d had with the finest champagne and remember all the best times, all the laughter, all the love that shone true and gold.

Politicians have to think in worst-case scenarios – that’s how legislation works, I suppose; you figure out what’s going to go wrong and work backwards from there. But changing the laws on assisted suicide would be a good thing. No-one’s saying they want a free-for-all, they just want an option. The way it’s worked in Oregon since 1997 should be used as a model. Perhaps I’m being woefully naive, but I think with the right procedure – having the decision assessed and signed off by two doctors and two psychiatrists, for example – it wouldn’t be abused.

It would only ever be an act of love.

Charity singles get a bad rap, and they shouldn’t really, because they’re actually a great fundraising idea – you pay about a quid, which goes to a good cause, and you get a song out of it. The trouble with most charity singles now is that they’re usually a shit cover version of a song that wasn’t good to begin with, featuring a hastily-cobbled-together bunch of below-average singers that almost always includes Rita Ora.

Not this song, though – this one’s different (and no, it isn’t the one you think it’s going to be).

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