Friday, October 10, 2008


I'm reluctant to write about this offensive subject, but it has been bothering me, and hard to put a finger on unless I flush it out into the open.

I struggle with envy a lot. So when a friend of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer, I was not surprised when this chief sin pushed its way into the picture. I was and am concerned for his well-being but cannot help being envious of his diagnosis, and harboring disdain for my own.

First came jealously of the diagnosis itself. Innocent people victimized by a merciless disease, cancer elicits sympathy and understanding. Cancer is an 'other,' something that can be fought against. It incites hope, and purpose, and inspiration.

Largely, though, it is the prospect of a possible early death that I envy the most. Cancer is a death sentence with the possibility for moratoriums and acquittals. Mental illness is a life sentence. There is nothing to kill, there is no foreign invader; the destruction comes from within. It is a holistic disfigurement of the self. Those who do attempt to kill off what feels like a torturous parasite are able to do so only by killing the physical self, which in the face of the bleakest despair and agony, is not an uncommon occurrence.

I've always been fascinated by the story of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who was struck through the skull and brain by a 1 1/4" iron rod and survived. It's amazing he survived and regained his mobility, but I was struck more by how his personality degenerated after the accident to such a degree that his friends said he was "no longer Gage."Gage was not made a better person as a result of his injury; quite the opposite--he became a monster. Mental illness works in a similar way: it makes monsters out of people.

I cannot morally support euthanasia. I hate the fact that I can't. Why do we fight so hard to stay in this wretched world? Everyone has their reasons, I suppose. I wish I had more. When I think about having to continue living, day after day, for another 40, 50, 60 years, I am overcome by weariness. I am envious of cancer's ability to bring out the best in people, to incite appreciation for each day, love for living, gratitude, by providing an estimated end date.

Depression, in particular, seems only to bring out the worst. It incites feelings of helplessness and confusion, anger, embarrassment, and hurt in friends and family put in its wake. It puts distance between friends and strains marriages and family life. There is no concrete enemy to rally against, no cure to be raced for. No end in site.

I feel very guilty about this self-absorption, like I am sinning against my friend. I guess that is why this is a confession. If I could trade places with a dying person, someone maybe who is not yet ready to leave this world, I would. I would only hope I would be given the opportunity. Maybe then my expiration would be less an act of disdain for living in this world and more an act of love. After all, "there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends."

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