A short Stay in Switzerland / 5 February 2009
Julie Walters starred in a one-off drama on BBC One on 25 January, inspired by the true story of Dr Anne Turner, who in 2006 took her own life in a Zurich clinic having developed an incurable degenerative disease.
It's a cliched beginning. Moving, moody, pity-inducing music. Man in wheelchair, eyes sad. Immobility. Comments fly - he's suffering, he's 'reduced to this'. This is Dr Anne Turner's husband. He dies after the first 5 minutes of some 'neurological' issue.
When Anne gets PSP, we're on the roller coaster, or should I say, rapid flight path towards that famous Swiss clinic, Dignatas. Where, as Anne comments brusquely, 'they let you die if you want to, they have the decency to let you do that.'
This is clearly the medicalised route to chosen death. The cliches of tests and scans, reaffirming this is a doctor in a doctor's world. As she writes the letter to Dignitas, asking to make that final appointment, she details that she needs help dressing, she has no power in her legs, she's prone to outbursts and irrational behaviour. Clearly, that's a lot of us ready for the extermination list then. It makes me wonder what this woman made of her disabled patients? Is impairment always a situation to be managed by 'others', and never 'you'? I am alarmed to note, that even at the end, if the portrayal is accurate, Anne Turner had more movement in her body than I've had in my living memory which has a sobering implication.
Of course, Julie Walters', an actor I have long admired, gives a performance that is strident and genuine, of a woman confronting the new challenges sudden impairment does present. Yet it's basically a predictable portrayal of a 'fit', non-disabled person going through the 'worst nightmare'. A galloping through 'the fear of the fear' of multiple impairment, and the dread all that might bring.
She attempts to shovel the pills down her throat and put a bag ove her head,not long after her first clutch at a walking stick, which I have to admit, having already become sick of her rude outbursts and whining, I find myself thinking, yes put us all out of our misery as well as you. Clare, the best friend, is the only dissenting voice, and she is given about a minute to put an opposing argument along with a request that she is allowed to pray for her friend.
I remember seeing the reports of the 'real' Anne Turner, and one of the most alarming comments she made was something along the lines that she would not let herself end up in a wheelchair. Well hello, that's telling us then, isn't it? There's a lot of this view in the programme, an underlying disparagement towards living with a disability. She has a violent rant at the idea of living in a bungalow – to what, living on one level? I was screaming at the telly, get a fucking lift then, some decent adaptions, and a good Personal Assistant for fuck sake.
It is discomforting to know that this drama is a story based on a real person, with a family who are no doubt still coming to terms with the pain caused by this situation. I am aware of wanting to respect this. If this were my monther, if I were to be in the heart of these dilemmas I would be ripped to pieces looking for resolutions and I certainly would not have an easy answer.
Yet I am, as always, most troubled by the broader, core context to this issue, which is there is no counter-balance, no opposite side to this story, no loud, proud, defiance against this view. Which means it feeds into the idea that any of us in this situation, near to or approaching it, will feel the same, and if we don't, the pressure to take on this belief we have to die, increases with the broadcasting of this type of story, when exposed across the media.
There is also something deeply disquieting in all this, highlighting how society slyly and increasingly values and encourages suicide above the desire in many to simple Be, to thrive, in defiance of all challenges. The serious lack of balance in the whole of the media, of any mainstream representation of disabled people wanting life, who are fierce, proud and celebratory in who they are and what they do. Fighting the barriers, loving life, and enriching society, of which we are a part and always will be.
I am not of any religious orthodoxy, I have no pro-life fundamentalism. I actually believe as individuals we all have a right to die, (preferably quietly, with privacy) but I do not and never will support the idea that suicide is an automatic response to impairment of any kind, which is the implicit message in this drama.
I am a disabled person. I am proud of the adventure I've had and am still having. I am proud of my body and my identity – all formed and influenced, good and bad by the crazy journey this labelling of disability brings me. I love my life and the gift I believe it is. Pain and suffering, I've had that. Love and pleasure too.
That's what it's all about – isn't it?
You can see programme details at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00h62w9