No easy answer: Anorexia and the right to die

A few people have asked about my opinion of this case in New Jersey where a judge ruled that a 29 year-old woman cannot be force-fed against her wishes; instead she will receive palliative care. Honestly, I have no simple opinion on this matter. It’s way too murky for me to say one way or another whether or not this is the best choice. I would love to be the optimist who says, “Anyone is capable of recovery, this woman included,” but do I really believe that? I’ll admit my overall opinion of recovery has shifted over the past several months. I used to think that everyone had a kind of a pre-destined “recovery potential” that dictated the maximum level of recovery they could ever achieve given the best case scenario. I now see things a little less black-and-white. I used to think this was about as good as it would ever get for me, and now I think differently. I believe I’m capable of more, and I hope to get there one day.

Some of my closest friends have severe eating disorders and I can’t imagine myself ever giving the “okay” for them to give in and settle for palliative care at such a young age. Part of this has to do with knowing the profound effect that malnutrition has on the brain. It’s pretty much impossible not to be intensely depressed when you’re starving. However, I’ve watched people I love make dramatic transformations through re-feeding– not just physical transformations but mental and cognitive transformations as well. I’ve also experienced this myself. When you’re drastically underweight and malnourished, simple food will have a much bigger impact on your mood and thinking than any antidepressant will (and actually, most antidepressants probably won’t work at all when your body is that compromised).

On the flip side, anorexia is an illness not unlike many physical diseases that, when determined to be terminal, have led to approved physician-assisted suicide. Have I ever felt defeated enough by my illness to wish death upon myself? Absolutely, more times than I can count throughout the course of  my eating disorder. However, I honestly don’t think any judge would have granted me permission to die (or to give up on treatment) had I asked for it at the time. As sick as I was at times, I had never done such irreversible damage to my body that it would have seemed warranted. Obviously I don’t know the details of this woman’s case, but I’m guessing her body has deteriorated to a degree that they believe she has little chance of ever making a full physical recovery. Re-feeding can be extremely dangerous when a person has gotten to such a grave physical state, so much that many hospitals won’t admit patients who are below a certain BMI. The places that can treat patients with single-digit BMIs or serious medical complications is very limited. For all I know, this woman may have exhausted all her options and is now just looking for any kind of relief– relief that only palliative care may be able to give her (I also can’t help but note that the article states she suffers from binge/purge type anorexia, which, at least in my experience, is like double the horror).

It’s depressing for me to even be writing about this. I’ve watched more than a few people die from this illness. Some of those people had clear wishes to die and others died very unexpectedly. I worry about my current friends and acquaintances with eating disorders every single day. I hate that this illness takes so many lives, whatever the circumstance, and I wish everyone could be as lucky as I’ve been to experience such a life-changing shift in perspective on the prospects of recovery.

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