Suicide and Pain

One of the primal human instincts is that of survival. Even in the case of a person who has deliberately decided to kill themselves, something in the person's subconscious may work to sabotage the attempt.

The theme song from the movie M-A-S-H is titled "Suicide," and the lyrics go: "Suicide is painless, It brings on many changes. .  . ." The reality however is that many suicides are botched and leave the person in pain, disabled or disfigured.

The New England Journal of Medicine (Feb 22, 2001, Vol. 344, No. 8) dealing with physician assisted euthanasia shows that even with expert medical advice, things can and do go wrong. The study was conducted in the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal. Some of the statistics reported:
  • In 16% of cases where patients tried to kill themselves with drugs prescribed by a doctor, the medication did not work as expected
  • Technical problems or unexpected side effects occurred 7% of the time
  • Problems occurred so often that in 18% of cases a doctor had to intervene to ensure death
  • Even when a doctor performed the procedure, patients took longer to die than expected or awoke from a drug-induced coma that was meant to be fatal in 6% of cases
If a physician can't pull off a perfect suicide, what are the odds that you will?

Surviving an attempt
The best is that you will live to discover the truth about depression: that it really is a temporary condition. Circumstances change and medications work. The old saying that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem is sage advice. When the blinders of depression are lifted you see very clearly how true this is.

The worst result of a failed suicide is that you will be worse off than you were before. Consider these facts:
  • If your brain goes without an oxygen supply for more than about three minutes, you will suffer permanent brain damage
  • Gunshot wounds that miss will leave you with permanent disfigurement and disability
  • Overdoses on many substances will leave you with damage to kidneys and liver
  • People who have swallowed caustic substances like lye can survive with severe burns to their GI tract
Just about all suicide methods have the risk of severe, possibly prolonged pain if things go awry.

The Hurt Doesn't Go Away
Perhaps the most common reason people commit suicide is to stop the pain the are feeling inside. The thing is, the pain doesn't go away. It gets transferred to those you love. Your parents, your spouse or significant other, your kids, your friends and acquaintances.

Everybody you know is touched to some extent by suicide. Grief is one of the strongest emotions a person can feel. Do you really want to make your loved ones feel the sort of pain you are feeling? Think about it. If you are convinced that people will be better off without you, you are dead wrong.

Dangers of drug overdoses and chemicals
Most suicides and suicide attempts take the form of drug overdoses. Writer Art Kleiner describes what happens:

The danger in all drug overdoses is that the brain may not get enough oxygen. The airway to the lungs may get blocked off by the patient's vomit, or by the tongue falling back into the throat, or by drug-induced slow­down in the part of the deep brain that controls the rate and depth of breathing.

Permanent brain damage occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen for three to five minutes. Higher brain functions are the first to go -- memory is destroyed, verbal skills are impaired -- and the longer the oxygen starvation goes on, the more severe the retardation.

Aspirin is one of the most common drugs used in botched suicide attempts, probably because of its wide availability and our ignorance about the terminal effectiveness of an overdose. One pharmacologist calls aspirin "one of the messiest, most complicated overdoses you ever hope to see." Aspirin can burn the gastrointestinal tract and can damage the kidneys, lungs, and liver. Aspirin in sufficient quantity can produce a fever and seizures. People who survive aspirin overdoses can suffer permanent liver damage and sometimes suffer deafness or tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

Tylenol (or acetaminophen) poisoning also destroys the liver This can result in an especially painful death because patients often sleep off the initial sickness, recover enough to realize they didn't really want to die, then slowly slip off into a coma after five days because the liver has been destroyed.

Sedatives and alcohol are a common and dangerous combination in suicide attempts. When taken together, alcohol and Valium, Seconal, or other sedatives and mild tranquilizers produce nausea and vomiting. Instead of drifting off into death, the suicidal person sucks vomit into the lungs. If the person doesn't drown in vomit, they can become infected and develop pneumonia and irreversible lung damage.

The most painful form of a suicide attempt is swallowing lye, Drano, oven cleaner, or some other form of household caustic agent. Very few people die from swallowing lye or other caustics. "If they do die," says one physician, "it's days, weeks, or even months later; of infection." Caustics like lye burn the mouth, tongue, and may burn holes through the esophagus and into the chest cavity. The resulting scar tissue can obstruct the gastrointestinal tract, and patients may have to undergo years of painful corrective surgery.

Dangers of violent methods
"Violent death is so often portrayed as sudden and painless," Kleiner reports, "but the human body is harder to kill than it seems." 

Slitting the wrists, for example, rarely results in death. More often, tendons and nerves are damaged, and the would-he suicide ends up with a weak or deformed hand.

Those who cut their throats rarely die. They cut the nerve that controls their voice box and larynx and end up voiceless. 

Gunshot wounds can kill outright, but, remarkably enough, people frequently miss the brain and blow out an eye or part of a jaw. People can live for hours with a hole in the head the size of a half-dollar. One doctor said, "One man I treated is completely paralyzed on his left side, and can't speak, walk, or feed himself. It's as if he had a major stroke. He hit the area of the brain which controls motor function."

While brain death comes fairly rapidly with oxygen deprivation, the brain can survive bizarre assaults. 

Hanging may seem to offer a fairly rapid demise, but those who try to hang themselves may dangle and slowly choke. They don't always die but, like other failed suicides, end up with irreversible brain damage.

Jumping from a high place can cause a nonfatal, but painful and permanent injury.

In 1986, a world-class runner dropped out of the middle of a race and jumped off a bridge. She did not kill herself, but her jump caused irreversible injuries --she became quadriplegic. According to those who have studied suicide attempts, people can fall over a hundred feet --and sometimes more -- without killing themselves. Jumpers who survive suffer multiple fractures -- crushed and shattered bones -- and ruptured internal organs. Because of the fragility of the spine and brain, jumpers may be left totally paralyzed.

Botched suicides happen so frequently and have such unexpected and horrible consequences.