I am perhaps not alone at least among people with a depressive tendency, in finding myself in certain situations (not as much now, frankly, but a lot when I was a kid) thinking I am useless and the world would be better off without me.
This was exacerbated, when I got pneumonia, at 33 – I was then a relatively young, unpublished (though working really hard at writing) mother of two, one just five years old, the other just past one – and the doctors told me this over and over in more or less explicit terms.
To make things clear, they wanted to do a biopsy (I had atypical intercellular pneumonia, but it was pneumonia and it reacted well to IV antibiotics the first two days, but then the doctors got fascinated with the fact that it was unusual. I don’t honestly know if this was made worse by my having an accent) not to euthanize me. However, as weakened as I was, my sister in law in Portugal (who is a medical doctor and whom my husband was speaking to on the phone sometimes three times a day) thought there was a good chance even a biopsy would kill me. And the doctors weren’t reinstating the antibiotic, even though I’d reacted well to it the first two days. Instead, as I refused the biopsy, they tried to convince me by pointing out even if I died it would be better for my family. After all, what was I doing for them? I didn’t even make any money, and my husband was missing days of work to be with me in the hospital.
When they convinced me to sign the authorization, while I was groggy from a laparoscopy (I think. Whatever it is when they put a tube down your throat) which had caused a heart episode (I told them that if I was tachycardic it would be a really stupid idea give me atropine, but they told me not to worry my pretty head about it), my husband came back in time to revoke it and tell them he would sue them if they carried it on under the circumstances. And then he told me to get up and get dressed, we were going to the other hospital in town, where they might give me the antibiotic and stop the nonsense.
This is where the fact that, by choice, I promised to obey him in my wedding vows comes in. (I did this because we’re both very hard headed and every association needs an ultimate boss. Since we were moving to his country, where he knew the rules better, he was better suited to be the ultimate boss. Oh, and you should have heard the hush that fell on the wedding guests when they heard me promise that.) I thought he was out of his mind, and I was hooked to oxygen and IV feeding, and the last thing I thought I could do was get up. But I’d promised to obey my husband, and he was giving me a direct order, for the first (and last, he knows better than to abuse it) time. So I sat up, removed the stuff I was attached to, got up and went towards the locker with my clothes. At which point the doctor screamed “Stop, we’ll give her antibiotics.”
They did, and I walked out of there under my own power a week later and was fully recovered save for exhaustion about a month later. (I want to emphasize here that Dan wasn’t making these decisions on his own, but he was faxing my process, page by page to my sister in law who is a respected pathologist and also that because I was being treated by a team of six where no one was in charge, the mix up in doctor’s orders had already got me to stop breathing twice.)
I’m relating this not to illustrate how awful my care was at the time (it was pretty bad) but to illustrate that third parties, from the outside, bring their own biases to what other people are worth.
The bias might be “earning power” which seemed to be big with those doctors, as illustrated by the fact that they kept telling me I was doing nothing for my family. (I still don’t understand how their families ran, but I presume they had nannies or something? When I first came in and I told them I’d mostly been lying down for the last week – I was very ill, and we’d got a babysitter/friend to help – they did an ultrasound of my legs, because they were convinced my sedentary lifestyle had led to a blod clot in my lungs. Again, I had a five and a one year old, with the one year old just starting to walk. And I had a 2k square foot home that I cleaned myself (I still clean my home myself.) And I did all the cooking and yard care, and most of the shopping for the family. How they imagined that I had been lying down long enough and immobile enough to develop a blood clot is beyond me.) But the other part of it was also “you’ll never be able to do anything for them. You’re just a housewife.”
This was a value judgment. And back then, when I was really ill, it was a terrible judgment, that made me feel that I shouldn’t be alive, and that I was a millstone around my family’s necks.
My husband told me it was nonsense, but of course I couldn’t believe it.
This echoes all the times in adolescence when I thought I was useless.
Now, some of this feeling of “born owing something” seems to be a brokenness inherent in everyone who achieves something. Why, yes, we have something to prove.
Maybe if you could cure us completely of it, we would not ever achieve anything. It was after that episode in the hospital that I started working hard enough to sell and eventually to make a modest living from it.
But at the same time, there are two caveats, one particularly important right now in the time of Obamacare when doctors and indifferent bureaucrats might decide you’re not worth the trouble of keeping alive: first, you have inherent value, and you should always advocate for yourself and your right to treatment and to stay alive; second, they don’t have a right to think you’re worthless – and you are worth far more than your economic contributions.
Looking back, if I’d died then, my younger son would probably have dropped out of sixth grade and left school – with who knows what future. My older son would probably be different too. And Dan would have been much lonelier not to mention harassed with the two boys to raise. But also, I would never have been published. Perhaps I flatter myself that my stories have helped or at least amused some of you. If I’d died then, Athena would never have been written, or Kyrie, or Luce. I like to believe it’s good I lived to write them.
The same applies to my depressive episodes in adolescence. If I’d died then – and I often wanted to – I’d never have met Dan or got to have my boys. I’d never have come to America. I’d never have known my friends or read all the books I’ve read since. I’d have missed the pleasurable moments in the last thirty some years – and I’d have missed what I’ve done that other people enjoyed since.
Since Dan and I are quite happily married – thank you – I think his life would have been sadder if I’d died at twelve or fifteen.
But even if I’d done nothing but exist, the very fact of existing makes an impact in the world, and if I don’t go out of my way to be nasty, (I try not to) that impact is mostly positive.
You are worth it. You deserve to be alive.
Look, I’m not going to talk of lilies in the field who don’t toil – I’m not that good at flowers – but Dan and I have had – so far – ten cats.
I don’t know what use cats are. They are not particularly productive from an economic point of view. (What they are productive of explains my obsession with litter boxes.) But they are loveable, and we have loved them. Just by being themselves, with their clown antics and their purring and the occasional cuddle on a cold night, they were worth more than the price of their food, and the occasional disasters caused by claws and marking.
You are worth at least as much as a cat, and perhaps more. Even if you feel all you are is a burden on others, that’s unlikely to be true. It takes a very barren mind and heart to be nothing but a burden. Even if all you can give is a smile now and then, that might be the smile someone else needs to keep going. And sometimes, even just the fact that you need help, is enough to give structure and meaning to someone else’s life. We all know people who were caretakers for other people and who became better for it.
You are not useless. You are never valueless.
The problem with our ever-more top-down and bureaucracy-controlled world is that people make decisions for/about other people’s lives based on economic value or other external markers.
But no measure can truly capture the value of a life (even a cat life.) And if you’re alive and thinking and capable of even smiling, you are not valueless. And you should never believe anyone who tells you that you are.
Tell the bureaucrats to take a hike. And tell the internal voices telling you that you’re valueless to take a hike too.
And you, keep going with what you’re supposed to do. You don’t know how wonderful things might be in the future – or what you might accomplish that you can’t even dream of.