My Experience with Chronic Illness and Suicidal Ideation: Ode to Robin Williams

The room was dark, with only the bathroom light peeking through.  I rocked back and forth in the fetal position, paralyzed with the worst nausea imaginable.  No medicine could control the feeling of my insides becoming entangled and trying to become my outsides.  Every few minutes, I would break into a cold sweat, my stomach would contract and I would vomit up nothing but bile and the anti-nausea medications, finally getting moments of relief.  But, a minute later, the torment would begin again, and all I could think was, “I just want to die.”

“I could take all my Fentanyl (an opioid 100x stronger than morphine) patches and put them on.  Then, I could take all my dilaudid, vicodin, tramadol, clonapan, xanax, and marinol to overdose.  Take some phenergan so I don’t vomit, drink some milk to coat my stomach, and put a plastic bag over my head so I fade away from asphyxiation.”  I had it all planned out, but something kept me from doing it.  It was so hard to stay alive and suffer day in and day out, minute after minute, but taking my own life seemed like an even harder feat.  What if there was something better in the future.  Maybe this plague would end?

The eighth time I entered into sepsis in nine months, I thought this is God’s way of letting me die without making me do it myself.  I was tired…exhausted rather.  My fever was 104.  My heart rate lying down was 138 beats per minute.  My blood pressure was getting lower by the minute.  I was entering death.  I said to my mother, “It’s time, Mom.  I’m ready.”  She looked at me and stoically said, “c’mon, let’s get you to the hospital.”  

We arrived to the hospital, and once I got to the hospital, it was motzeh shabbat (after the sabbath), and I emailed my rabbi: “Rabbi Kelman:  I’m back in the hospital again with sepsis and c-diff (colostrim difficil colitis).  I’m just tired, and cannot bear to endure this anymore.  This is my eighth round of sepsis and fifth round of c-diff in nine months.  I’m ready to go on to the next life.  Am I permitted, halakhically (by jewish law) to decline life-saving treatment?”  

I hoped and prayed that he would just email back, “yes, you may,” but within seconds, my phone rang.  I was too tired and too weak to speak.  So I couldn’t answer, but in less than a minute, my mother’s phone rang, and it was my rabbi.   “Karen, please tell her to hold on.  If she needs, I will come down there myself and make sure she gets the healthcare she needs.  She will get through this.  Please beg her to take the medicine.  Things will improve.  I will get her through this personally.  I will fly down there myself if I have to.  She cannot die.  She is too precious.”

My mother delivered his words, and they brought tears to my eyes.  I was precious to someone.  Was enough to live through suffering?  I wasn’t sure yet.  I asked the doctor if they could just keep me comfortable and not give me the antibiotics I needed to stay alive.  The doctor said that it was always my choice, but, of course suggested to put a psychiatrist on my case.  Once my rabbi began getting doctors at duke involved in my case, I began to think there could be hope for my future, and, so, I agreed, temporarily to receive the antibiotics.

The first morning of my hospital stay, the doctors made their rounds and announced that they were going to, once again, put me on antibiotics for six weeks.  Antibiotics, my enemy.  The one thing that could make me even sicker and more nauseated than I was in my normal state.  “How many times do I have to get c-diff and go into septic shock before you let me get a fecal transplant?!!,” I yelled at the gastrointerologist.  The doctor was taken aback that this seemingly meek patient, hooked up to wires and tubes monitoring her heart and delivering IV drugs and fluids, could have so much gumption to yell.  She responded, “well, I think maybe we should try antibiotics one more time.”  To this, I responded, “well, then, I don’t want the antibiotics.  Take me off of them.  I wish to go comfortably.  I won’t be made to suffer even more than I do now.”  

She, thus, ordered the psychiatrist to come in.  “Are you depressed?”  Yes?  “Do you want to die?”  Yes.  “Do you contemplate suicide?”  Yes.  “Do you have weapons in your house?”  Yes.  “What kind of weapons?”  Guns.  Opioids.  “Are you safe in your home?”  Yes.  “I think we should put you on an antidepressant.”  Do what you have to do, but it’s not going to take away my suffering, my nausea, my cdiff, or my sepsis.  “No, it won’t, but it might make you feel a little more like living.”  If only I could believe you.

The next day the doctors did their rounds, and the gastrointerologist, who the day before I absconded, announced, “we’ve decided that you are a good candidate for a fecal transplant, and our brother hospital at the University performs them.  We aren’t approved by the FDA to perform them here.”  Ahhh, so that’s why they wouldn’t give me one all the previous times….business…money.

The hospital stabilized me until I was no longer septic and could keep down fluids and solids.  They discharged me with a new drug for nausea and a new drug for depression and an appointment to get a fecal transplant.  The transplant changed my life in many ways.  I felt like I was finally going to live again after only three days.  The nausea began to subside somewhat, and my bowels began to feel much less painful, but the depression continued nonetheless.

Living with chronic illness and having had endured septic shock eight times in nine months, ten surgical procedures, being hospitalized for six months over nine months, living in constant excruciating pain in my face, back and abdomen, and experiencing nausea, which was worse than any motion sickness you could imagine which never subsided, didn’t just disappear overnight.  

My health continues to improve with every day, but my mental health took quite a toll from the physical damage my body endured.  As a result of all the illness and pain, I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which for many months after the transplant, continued to make me suicidal, sometimes to the point of planning out the act.  

Chronic Illness or Terminal Illness, as in the case of Robin Williams, who had Parkinsons, doesn’t simply attack the body, but also infects the brain.  It envelops the brain with adrenaline causing the brain to store memories on the wrong side of the brain, making traumatic memories feel like they are persistently in the present.  And, it deprives the body of dopamine, making the mind and body depressed and suicidal, believing that death is better than life.  And, indeed, at that moment, the sentiment is true.

While, thank God, I no longer have suicidal ideations, suicide is not the easy way out or the cowardly thing to do.  I always felt like I was a coward because I never had the strength to take my own life.  It takes strong will, a weak body and an unsound mind to take one’s own life.  

I’m happy today that I did not take my own life or that I was unsuccessful in convincing a family member to help me in the act.  While it takes strength to commit suicide, I now know why it is so forbidden in all religions – because once you get to the other side of the suffering, the reward is that much sweeter.  But, if you perform an act reserved only for God, you’ll never taste the sweetness that is to come.


9 thoughts on “My Experience with Chronic Illness and Suicidal Ideation: Ode to Robin Williams

  1. Wow- great article and so happy you wrote about this for our better understanding- As always, you are such a hero to me! xxxooo

  2. You are a special soul that has touched so many of us in a positive way and you have so many more people to affect and positively influence in the future. We are all blessed you are in this world and in our lives.

  3. Thank you, I needed this. I googled suicide and c.diff. Your story is so similar to mine. I’m so tired of fighting. Thank you for your honesty.

  4. You’re an amazing and incredible woman and please G-d should receive and find physical and mental comfort and elimination of all your pain in olam ha zeh. If you haven’t listened to Rabbi Tatz before he gives beautiful classes that are all available for free and I find inspiring and uplifting. He talks on themes that are appropriate to your experience. Here are two links that might be interesting and take a look at his page of all his talks. He also has a very calm and pleasing voice to listen to. Sometimes having words of torah in your ear can be uplifting, even if you aren’t in the moment to concentrate on what is being said.

  5. I am just dumbfounded at the amount of suffering the hospital and doctors were willing to allow you to endure when a treatment which could help was available but not at their facility! We human beings can really be deaf to the suffering of others for whom we are responsible sometimes.

    Related to pain and suicide, I have a lot of empathy for you there. I spent decades wanting to end my life due to the pain and complications of fibromyalgia. I’m very grateful that things started to improve quite a lot about 5 years ago and so i haven’t really thought about suicide much since then, but right at 5 years ago i was very ready to end my life. The only reason I didn’t (or at least, the reason that i consciously held at the time for why i didn’t) was that it would cause my children more pain than they should ever have to bear to know their father killed himself. It kept me alive until things improved, and for that I a forever grateful.

    But pain still is an issue, more because it robs me of sleep a lot of days now than anything else; and even the sleep i am able to regain many days by taking a nap, but that does cause me to go to work 1 or 2 hours late many days.

    I’ve sort of done my own internal exploring to get relief from the pain, and it has helped immensely, but sometimes at its own cost.

    But it does help me to be patient and understanding with fellow sufferers, and gradually i guess i’m learning how to be with such friends in ways that help them to feel a little better even if only momentarily, and maybe even enjoy life a little bit more. Again, for this I’m grateful because in this way i get to meet some truly wonderful people 🙂

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