Euthanasia as a Cure for Alcoholism?

How is this for a crazy headline? At the same time, who among us has not thought of it?

By Dorri Olds 12/14/16

In the last two weeks of his life, Mark laughed, ate, and spoke honestly with the family for the first time in years. He was lighter, looking forward to death.

A grave with yellow flowers

There was no pain, no struggle—just relief

Mark Langedijk, a 41-year-old alcoholic, did not want to live anymore. He was euthanized, legally, in the Netherlands on July 14. His heartbroken older brother Marcel, a journalist, published a poignant essay (in Dutch) in the magazine Linda on November 15.

Why did the Netherlands legally permit putting Mark to death? Before you slap a harsh judgment on what a foreign country allowed to happen, you need to understand the whole story with all of its complex circumstances. This was not a callous, immoral decision by an uncaring government. This was a begged-for mercy killing.

Shouldn’t a person whose life is filled with pain be allowed to say, “Enough is enough”? I think so.

I was intrigued by this story the second I stumbled upon it on November 28. Throughout much of my life, I would have jumped at the option of euthanasia. Like Mark, there was something wrong with my brain. For me it was a combination of PTSD and bad wiring.

Langedijk went through an agonizing eight years that included 21 hospital and rehab admissions. Desperate to understand what happened, I scoured the internet to find his older brother Marcel Langedijk. I found out he was 44 and living in Amsterdam with his wife Carlijn and their infant daughter, Sammie. I contacted Marcel and asked for an interview.

He wrote back, “I would like the story of my brother and his addiction and the euthanasia to be read by as many people as possible. It won’t be any problem to answer your questions.” I am grateful that he was willing to confide in me by phone and email, but this was not a conversation that came easily. He is still shattered by his tremendous loss.

“This wasn’t sudden,” said Marcel, wanting to make it clear that euthanasia was not a rash, careless decision. “It took one and a half years of planning with a doctor. At first the doctor said ‘No,’ but Mark kept talking to her, pleading with her. He was suffering. He’d had a successful hearing aids company but couldn’t work anymore. He’d lost his wife and their two boys—now 11 and 9.”

Marcel said Mark wasn’t a “typical alcoholic.” I asked him what he meant.

“He wasn’t like those smelly, dirty people living on the street, always desperate, and begging for money.” I didn’t stop him to explain how many alcoholics don’t look like that.

Marcel said, “My brother always took care of himself but, emotionally, he just couldn’t cope. He had so many fears. It was mental illness.”

“Was Mark bipolar?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Marcel, “that was part of it.”

During Mark’s eight years of deterioration into the depths of alcoholism, his family grew angry with him. Mark hadn’t confided the details of what his life had become and his family did not understand what alcoholism was. As a result, they could not figure out why Mark behaved as he did. Still, love overrode their frustration. They did what they could—offered emotional support, made suggestions, gave money. Marcel said his parents always hoped Mark would get better, “especially my mother.” Mark went back to live with their parents when his marriage fell apart.

Marcel said, “We didn’t understand what was happening because he hadn’t let us in on the details until it was too late.”

He, Mark, and their sister Angela grew up in Overijssel, a small town in the Netherlands. Marcel described a happy childhood with loving parents, a life that was quiet, easygoing, fun.

“Nothing in our lives could’ve explained what happened,” Marcel told me. “There was nothing we did to cause it. It was a problem in his head—his brain didn’t work right. Then his body was breaking down. He had cirrhosis.”

Mark was always very social. “He knew how to get people to help him.” But he was also able to hide his problems for a long time because “he had a very good income and insurance from his hearing aids company,” said Marcel. “Then when he needed more help, our parents and the government paid a lot of money to help him.”

After getting Mark to rehab after rehab, but seeing it fail each time, “the family took some distance.” They hoped that if Mark saw that he could lose all of them, he would make himself stop drinking. Despite wanting desperately to get better, he was unable to.

On June 18, just 26 days before his death, Marcel and his wife Carlijn had gone out to dinner, leaving their one-month-old daughter Sammie with his parents. As they babysat at Marcel’s home, Mark called. His mother answered. He was calling from a police station and said he had nowhere to go.

“My parents said, ‘Come to us, to the house of your brother.’ What else could they say?” said Marcel. When Mark arrived he was still drunk. It was the first time he met his new niece, Sammie. Marcel and Carlijn hurried home and found Mark ashamed and in pain—physically and mentally exhausted. Mark told his family that he wanted to die by euthanasia.

In Marcel’s article he said that their family didn’t take it seriously at first. “Euthanasia was for people with cancer. Not for alcoholics.” But Marcel described staring at his brother seated on the couch next to their mother; he saw him moaning in pain and shaking. He needed vodka to stop the delirium tremens. After a couple of glasses of vodka, he cried out to his family, “This is no life.”

Over a year before he died, Mark had gone to Dr. Marijke and begged her to euthanize him. She was skeptical at first, afraid he was just a self-pitying alcoholic seeking attention. The doctor asked why he didn’t just commit suicide.

Marcel said to me, “It would have been cruel to force my brother into taking his own life. How should he have done it? Jump in front of a train? Jump from a building. That would’ve been so violent.”

Dr. Marijke continued to talk to Mark, and also sent him to see other doctors, psychiatrists, and insisted he keep a daily journal. Marcel said it detailed how unbearable life was. He described every day as the same. He was in pain, he drank, loneliness dripped from every page. Mark went through the normal channels and finally it was a doctor at the Support and Consultation on Euthanasia in the Netherlands that gave the approval.

Being put to death in the Netherlands is legal through the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act. Marcel wanted me to understand that the country doesn’t just kill alcoholics on a regular basis. When we got off the phone I Googled statistics. I found that in 2002, euthanasia in the Netherlands was legalized for those with “unbearable suffering and no prospect of improvement.” According to the UK’s The Telegraph, during the past five years, euthanasia cases in the Netherlands increased from 3,136 in 2010 to 5,516 last year. That is a 75% increase. For cases based on mental illness, it went from two people in 2010 (0.1%) to 56 people in 2015 (1%).

In Marcel’s article he described the last two weeks of his brother’s life as surreal. There was a bed set up for Mark in the living room of their parents’ home, the house Marcel and his siblings grew up in. Mark joked about being a “dead man walking.” He laughed, ate, and spoke honestly with the family for the first time in years. He spoke of how he had managed to keep his alcohol abuse hidden from everyone, how unhappy he’d been. It was like having the Mark they used to know back with them. He was lighter, looking forward to death.

He barely cried, there was no pain, no struggle—just relief. Marcel told me about his brother’s last night on earth. “He slept like a baby. I couldn’t understand it, how he could sleep so well.” Marcel was on the couch all night next to Mark, listening to him snore while he stayed awake with the horrid reality that his brother would be gone “in a few more hours.”

On the day of, Marcel said his hands were clammy and his head buzzed from lack of sleep and emotional overload. Weather-wise, it was a beautiful day. They laughed, drank, smoked, ate ham and cheese sandwiches. Dr. Marijke rang the bell. She was dressed in a black dress and sneakers. The jokes stopped. Dr. Marijke explained that there would be three syringes. The first was a saline solution, the second would make him sleep, and the third would stop his heart.

Everyone started to cry, even Mark, but his tears were not from sadness. Mark cried with empathy, seeing his family so grief-stricken. Marcel told me that even though he hadn’t included it in his article, the doctor was crying, too.

She asked him two more times if he was sure. Marcel said that his head was screaming, “No!” but Mark said, yes, he was sure. When Dr. Marijke emptied the third syringe, Mark’s face lost color and he was gone.

Marcel told me that he never planned to write about the ordeal. “I didn’t want my brother to die but when he did, I am a journalist so I wrote about this.” The Dutch article in Linda went viral and Marcel received a lot of feedback suggesting that he write a book about it. Now, he has three chapters written and a publisher. His book will be out in 2017.

As is always the case when stories go viral, Marcel saw a lot of harsh criticism. He Facebook messaged me on December 3 to say, “The BBC did an interview with me. I decided to do that because there was so much bullshit—sorry for that word—written online that I felt I had to say something.” He sent me a link to the short BBC video.

In the video he said, “It’s a weird kind of day [as] you can imagine.” He wiped away tears, composed himself and said, “Okay, let me try to do this again. My name is Marcel Langedijk.” He described July 14, the day of Mark’s death as “ridiculously hot. We went outside and he said, ‘Well, this is my last morning.’ We just drank some wine. He had a favorite wine we drank once before. Then he smoked one more cigarette and we went inside. My parents now got the time to say their goodbyes and he got the time to say his goodbye. If he just would have shot himself or stand in front of a train, that would have been so different. That would have been so cruel. The thing that disturbs me the most right now is that my family and I and even my brother are made to look like we just ended it because it was convenient. Let me tell you, this is in no way convenient. We don’t take it lightly. It’s not like in Holland we go around killing alcoholics. It’s very complicated and it’s difficult and it’s a huge step. For me it’s very important to make sure that everyone knows that we did everything and some people just aren’t curable. If you don’t help them with it, they will eventually kill themselves.”

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