Posted by: Kate | February 10, 2008

Survivor Guilt

Mental health isn’t easy. I know. I’ve been ill – self-destructively ill, disturbingly so – and spent many years just stuck that way. I’d guess from about age 12 to 20 were the worst years, when, if I was willing to accept any help at all, it was in a begrudging and half-assed manner. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I finally took control of my own baggage and started working through it, one pill and one therapy session at a time. I wouldn’t consider myself perfectly balanced and regulated now, but since about age 23 or so I think I’ve been about as good as I’ll get.

The biggest change for me, with all that self-reflection and mindfulness and deep thinking, is that I’ve become sort of unruffled. Not serene and Madonnalike (the religious icon, not the cone-bra one), but just less prone to anxiety and less reactive to the world around me. One of my college professors referred to it as “shaking the tree” – some people, it’s easy to shake their tree, and others are less prone to rocking with the smallest, or even bigger, gust of wind.

It took hard work. And most of the time, I’m proud of how far I’ve come. I’m proud that I can walk through the woods without automatically hyperventilating; that I can give myself over and truly need other people in my life, instead of maintaining surface friendships but refusing to really rely on anyone; that I can have sex without dissociating. I can love my children and my husband unabashedly, and trust my friends without reservation. Those weren’t natural things for me, for many years.

And yet, despite the pride, every once in a while I feel guilty about it. I’m better, sure, but look at how many people out there did not get the help I did. Look how many rape victims can’t have sex with the lights off, or on, or whatever the triggering detail might be. Look how many trauma survivors never truly allow themselves to trust and need someone in their lives. How come I get to recover and they don’t?

There’s no answer, of course. But the guilt sneaks in, once in a while, especially after I work with certain clients in the hospital whose stories are painfully close to my own.

I have survivor guilt in other areas, too. Like, aside from my own mental shtuff, I have a solid, reliable relationship with Willem. I trust him implicitly, love him simply and deeply, and need him in my life. This was not a given, from the start. We had a rocky, complicated start to our relationship, and we had a lot of big nasty things to work through. But we did work through, in fits and starts, one step forward and three steps back, over three or four years, and now I know that every moment of angst and doubt was worth it. No one else would have been quite right for me, so I’m glad we put in the effort.

(Note: I’ve been reprimanded by the resident mathematician, who feels that a better analogy would be “two steps forward, one step back,” because he would like to convey that things did improve over time, instead of a steady backslide… I think the truly most accurate analogy would be “one step forward, one step forward, one step forward, one step forward, one step forward, three steps back, one step forward, one step back, and so on in a nonrepeating but generally increasing fashion, such that each step back feels worse but is actually spaced farther apart and more surviable than the last.” Accuracy and pithiness don’t seem to coexist.)

But it doesn’t work for everyone. I know of a few couples who found themselves in similar circumstances and walked away from each other; that may have been right for them and I certainly can’t blame them, but I feel bad that a few stupid decisions ruined a potentially wonderful relationship. I have another friend who is struggling through a painfully similar situation, and I empathize and sympathize and hurt for her, and I can’t give her the right answer. It’s starting to look like the right answer for her is to walk away, at least for a short time, and I know what that feels like and can’t wish that on anyone. So there’s the guilt, that I was in a fixable relationship, and she might not be. How unfair, and how sad – and how sad for her husband, because he just made some bad decisions and can’t seem to understand that those decisions had bigger, longer-term consequences and some problems can’t just be fixed.

And then, of course, there’s the guilt that comes with fertility. I have two healthy, gorgeous kids, and I plan on having another. I have had three losses, to be sure, so that possibility exists; but in my head and in my heart, I have a simple confidence that I will be able to have that baby, myself, without much in the way of medical intervention. Such a gift, such a blessing… and so unfair, because I can list of half a dozen women off the top of my head who both want and deserve what I have, but know they can’t.

I don’t want to sound all woe-is-me with this. I live a charmed life, and I know it, and there’s really nothing significant about it that I would change if I could. But every once in a while, that survivor’s guilt pops up, that realization that I don’t deserve this stuff any more than anyone else does. So I let myself be aware of it, I acknowledge it when it happens, and I accept that basic “life isn’t fair” realization. And I return to my regular semi-serenity, because there’s not much else I can do.


  1. “How come I get to recover and they don’t?”

    Because “… I work with certain clients in the hospital whose stories are painfully close to my own.”

    That’s why. You got better so you could help them. And they are damned lucky to have you.

    Great post. Another reason I could never leave my ‘innernets’ completely.

  2. It sounds like you really know yourself and have done a lot of hard work. Serenity sure isn’t easy.

  3. Serenity in a hard won gift. I have glimpses of it here and there. I have to tease ya tho–how serene are ya gonna be when you have a 17yo, a 14yo and a 8yo? (Hey us moms of teens have to share our pain….)

  4. Everyone has it better and everyone has it worse. And there is not bottom of the barrel – or top of the barrel for that matter. One person’s hell is another’s Utopia.

  5. Hah, Janice… it won’t be a problem, because I’m stockpiling valium now in advance. 😉

  6. I used to have a friend who always said, “We go through this stuff so we can help other people go through this stuff.”

    And no one can empathize and understand better than someone who has survived the same type of experience.

    You’re in the perfect place to help others know they can survive their stuff, too. If you didn’t survive your own crises, you’d be no good to anyone now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: