Is suicide the solution?

Me Before You has attracted controversy the world over. Now it has debuted in South Africa, meaning that the debate surrounding assisted suicide for people with disabilities has taken on a local flavour. CHARLEEN CLARKE discovers that, while opinion is mixed, it’s uniformly vehement …

The ending of Me Before You is the worst-kept secret on the planet. Even before the movie opened in South Africa, we all knew the ending: Will Traynor chooses assisted suicide rather than life as a quadriplegic. Not surprisingly, this story line has elicited strong reactions.

Not everyone has slammed the movie. Phillip Thompson, the foremost specialist in the field of environmental accessibility and universal design within South Africa, says one needs to consider that a lot of people with spinal injuries do consider suicide. “Maybe this movie is an accurate reflection of the despair experienced by some people with disabilities. After my spinal injury I was hospitalised with a fireman who was really upbeat and positive around the ward. He offered a lot of support to the other spinal-injured patients at the then HF Verwoerd Hospital. He was discharged before me and, three days after the discharge, we got feedback that he had committed suicide at home!” reveals Thompson.

“While we can never support suicide as a defendable option for someone who has experienced spinal injury trauma, I wonder what the statistics show both locally and globally? Maybe there is more reality in this movie than we would like to admit?” he questions.

Heinrich Grimsehl, medical orthotist prosthetist at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital, concurs. “The movie is not offensive. It deals with reality; I have seen this scenario play out in real life,” he says.

But others are disappointed. QASA CEO Ari Seirlis is one. “While this is the reality of filmmaking, it’s sad that the lead actor is not quadriplegic and that the director spent no time at all talking to high-level quadriplegics about life or the choice of death over life. I guess the screenplay sounded perfect for a romantic blockbuster with buckets of tears at the end. After his tragic accident, Christopher Reeve played a lead part as a quadriplegic in a murder thriller and did it well. Opportunity missed,” Seirlis tells Rolling Inspiration.

However, it is the ending that really troubles Seirlis. “It is sad that – as per the ending in Million Dollar Baby – a quadriplegic chooses death rather than to continue with life.”

Seirlis says this isn’t necessarily a realistic scenario. “In my experience over the last 32 years, interacting with many quadriplegics and paraplegics, I have seldom come across somebody who would prefer to be dead rather than live the life they are living now. Yes, you really have to be brave and resilient to continue your life with a spinal cord injury. It’s not actually about the wheelchair; it’s about many other things – incontinence, health risk, autonomic dysreflexia, sexuality adjustment, spasm, pain and the insensitive members of the public (not all, but most). Sometimes, the greatest pain is felt every day, when experiencing the ignorance of people shown in many different ways,” he reveals.

“The ending does not do justice to the will of us with spinal cord injuries,” Seirlis insists. “There is no doubt in my mind that some moviegoers will think that it is not worth living as a quadriplegic. Hopefully the inspiration of the Paralympics will soon get rid of the lasting thoughts of Me Before You,” he says.

Melanie Harding, physiotherapist and clinical head of the rehabilitation unit at Muelmed Hospital Pretoria, agrees. “I have worked with quadriplegic persons for many years. I know that most have a determined will to live even through the hard times. Suicide is such a waste of a life that could be meaningful and productive; that is why we provide rehabilitation for these amazing people who survive spinal cord injury. I know so many successful quads who live amazing full lives! This movie portrays the outside world’s opinion that there is no hope after spinal injury. I do not accept this belief; in fact, I oppose it vehemently,” she tells Rolling Inspiration.

Motivational speaker Tracy Todd expresses similar sentiments (check out her superb blog, writingtracytodd.wordpress.com). “The movie has caused outrage among many in the disability sector. Most of the quads I know are tired of the media portraying our disability in a negative light and really wish that the storytellers in our world would do more research before creating unrealistic characters who pander to their own ignorance and insecurities. We don’t all want to die. Many of us are living full, meaningful lives and contributing positively to society and some are doing more than a lot of able-bodied folk. Most of us are too busy living to get busy dying!” she stresses.

Todd says that the movie sends out the wrong messages. “Do people think that I should also just kill myself because I am paralysed from the neck down? I keep reminding myself that this is only a story with one fictional character’s negative outlook on life. It certainly doesn’t represent who I am as a proud quadriplegic woman,” she comments.

While Me Before You has its disadvantages, Todd believes that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. “The controversy over this movie has highlighted the plight of quadriplegics the world over and ignited discussions around disability in general. That in itself is a good thing,” she points out.

“The good thing is that movies like this create awareness and opens doors for people like me to share our stories, which in contrast could have a powerful, positive impact and make a real difference to people’s mindsets. The mere fact that many of us haven’t given up and don’t intend to any time soon can give society a new appreciation for our daily struggles and in turn become stories of hope and promise rather than abandonment and despair. As, after all, disability can reach out and pull anyone of you into its nasty club at any time.

“I think that the film producers missed a perfect opportunity here to make a real difference to our world. Think about how powerful and transforming this movie could have been if it had had a different outcome? And, I’ve no doubt that the story would still have been a massive hit,” she contends.

At the end of the day, Todd notes that Me Before You is a story about one character’s freedom of choice. “Isn’t that what many of us fight for? Our freedom to choose. Who are we to judge? It does worry me, however, that his choice is presented not as selfish and cowardly, but as sacrificial, brave and even noble. Should I also be sparing my family the burden of caring for me? Am I the one being selfish by choosing to live?” she questions.

Ultimately Todd insists that she wants people to know that there is life (and love) after a devastating spinal cord injury. “It can be a good quality life, depending on one’s attitude. I certainly don’t want to kill myself or be pitied in any way. What happened to fairy-tales with happy endings? They do exist in real life. I know because I’m lucky enough to be living one at present,” she concludes.

It’s a pity that the Will Traynor character doesn’t share her sentiments…

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