Of all the consequences that accompany chronic pain, none other is as heartbreaking as suicide. While the physical impacts of pain are recognized and can often be improved, the stress associated with chronic pain, social stigma, and feelings of hopelessness can be overwhelming, sometimes leading a person to feel that life is no longer worth living.
Ann Nuttall and Michael Peterson married as teenagers and expected to live healthy and happy lives together. But two years into a loving partnership, they faced what would become a lifelong obstacle: pain.
Michael was prone to intestinal blockages and had undergone surgeries as a child to fix them, but the resulting scar tissue caused him to have frequent bouts of severe abdominal pains from partial obstructions. His pain was worsened when a co-worker ran and tripped into Michael, dislodging a bone fragment from his spine that began impinging on a nerve. This simple accident resulted in four back surgeries and years of pain for Michael as well as much hardship for his wife.
As a devout believer in Mormon teachings, Ann felt it was her duty to care for Michael. When life got especially tough, she occasionally contemplated divorce, but her faith would not let her consider it for long. She cared for Michael as best she could by managing his medicine and by assisting him with tasks he could not do on his own. Her most comforting task was simply listening to him.
Despite all of Ann’s work and the many medical efforts to provide Michael with relief, the pain gradually took over his personality and outlook on life. His normal fun-loving energy was replaced with constant commentary on death, sometimes including hints of violence toward others as well as himself. Eventually, Ann moved away from him for the sake of her own safety and that of her children.
Unfortunately, like so many others who struggle with chronic pain in their everyday lives, Michael’s story did not end well. Depression, mental fatigue, and pain drove him to take his own life.
Michael had social support that many people in severe chronic pain never experience. Ann was a faithful caregiver to him for decades. Yet in the end even her love was not enough to keep him in this life.
Though rarely discussed, suicide with people in chronic pain occurs often. Estimates of the number of people with chronic pain who think seriously about taking their lives range from 20 to 50 percent. It is believed that out of the approximately 36,000 people who complete suicides every year in the United States, at least 10 to 15 percent are people suffering from chronic pain.
Michael, Ann, and all those living with pain and depression are the reason why increased funding for alternative care for relieving chronic pain is essential. The burden of chronic pain too often exceeds the human will to live. This is the ultimate tragedy of chronic pain for both the person in pain and the caregiver.
My book, “The Painful Truth,” was released in September 2015