MAID and mental disorders: Cathy’s story

Personal Stories | October 13, 2023 | Cathy Van Buskirk

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A photo of Cathy outside near trees.

Note from DWDC: If your sole underlying medical condition is a mental disorder, you are not eligible to apply for medical assistance in dying (MAID) until March 17, 2027. Learn more

Warning: This blog post mentions suicide.

I am speaking up about the medical assistance in dying (MAID) for mental disorders; I hope it will bring awareness to how much suffering mental disorders can bring. I know there is a lot of opposition to MAID for mental health, but there is a great need for this. When people, like me, become resistant to treatment and the medications no longer work, we deserve the same end-of-life options as those who suffer from physical conditions.

In my late twenties, I was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder which included major depression and anxiety. After much suffering, I finally went for help. I began seeing Doc. Lee and he would see me regularly for the next 26 years. 

He prescribed medication and counselling. The treatment worked and I started to feel better. Over the next twenty years, I was able to go back to the job I loved and resume a fairly normal life. There were times when the medication stopped working so we tried different ones and were always able to find something that worked. This allowed me to go back to work and enjoy my life again. 

After 20 years the medications stopped working. I was no longer able to go to the job I loved or do things that once brought me pleasure. Over the next three years we tried every medication and combination of medications. I had 12 shock therapies, 12 ketamine infusions, cognitive behaviour therapy, exposure therapy and light therapy. I spent a week in a psych ward, but nothing worked!  

I am virtually housebound. My obsession is with my hair and how awful it looks. I think people are staring at me thinking how funny I look. It is very difficult for me to go out and the burden falls on my husband to get our groceries, my medications and personal items. I had to sell my car because I am too anxious to drive. 

I wake up in the morning and immediately start crying and literally shaking with anxiety not knowing how I am going to make it through another day. Then the ritual of showering starts and trying to fix my hair begins. There are days when I will spend hours in the bathroom showering and re-showering trying to style my hair until it looks right. Some days I will do this for hours, becoming hysterical when I cannot get it to go right. Recently, I cut my hair and made such a mess that I had to get a wig, and even that did not help.  

Every bone in my body aches from standing at the mirror for so long. One day I did my hair until 10.00 p.m., went to bed, woke at 4:00 a.m. and started all over again. Even though my body is aching, and I can barely stand up, I CANNOT STOP. I have headaches every day and feel sick to my stomach. I am so sick and exhausted I lie in bed most days, often wanting to die. 

When I was well, I painted and made cards that I sold at craft shows. I wrote poetry and had a couple published. I enjoyed gardening, travelling, reading and visiting with friends and family. I am no longer able to do the things I loved. My days are filled with sadness and emptiness. In the last two years I have had three suicide attempts, two of them ending up in the hospital and once in the ICU. 

When I heard that MAID for people suffering with mental health would be an option in March of 2022, I discussed it with my doctors and family. Of course, they did not want to lose me, but they all knew how much I have suffered and supported me in my decision. When it was postponed for another year, I was devastated. I think about ending my life every day, I can no longer feel any joy or happiness, only misery and suffering. 

I want the option to die peacefully instead of taking a bunch of pills and alcohol which I did recently. My husband found me stumbling around barely able to walk. I was incoherent and could not talk so he called an ambulance. I did not remember any of this after waking up in the emergency department. After recovering in the hospital, I spent a week in the psych ward. 

The next suicide attempt came 11 months later. My husband found me unconscious in bed after taking more pills and alcohol. I ended up in the ICU and spent a week in the hospital. When I came home from the hospital, I became gravely ill. It’s possible that I damaged the lining of my stomach, but all I could do was lay in bed for months not able to eat, and I lost 40 pounds. During this time my dad became very ill and passed away. I was too sick to see him or attend his service. 

My mom is palliative and at home with my sister. Some days because of my illness, I am not able to see her. I feel so bad that I cannot help my sister more with her care. 

I feel isolated. I have not left the house to see my friends in years nor have I had them over because I am too sick to visit; I do not want them to see me like this. 

I know that there is a lot of opposition towards MAID for mental health and it is not suitable for everyone, but with careful screening it should be available. My illness is just as difficult and debilitating as a physical one. I should be given the same choice to end my suffering. I want to die peacefully with my family by my side.  

Note from Dying With Dignity Canada (DWDC)

DWDC is sharing the perspectives of those with lived experience who are considering applying for an assisted death when the sunset clause ends.

When the sunset clause on MAID for mental disorders concludes, individuals whose sole underlying medical condition is a mental disorder will be eligible to apply for medical assistance in dying. This does not, however, mean that anyone with a mental disorder who applies for MAID will be found eligible. Clinicians will be looking for evidence of the longstanding nature of the illness, a history of interventions and treatment attempts, and the voluntary, repeated nature of the request by the person in question (being 18 years of age or older). 

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