“The problem with surviving was that you ended up with the ghosts of everyone you’d ever left behind riding on your shoulders.”
― Paolo Bacigalupi, The Drowned Cities
Guilt…..guilt of all kinds does not feel good. That feeling inside of us when something is wrong. I think you have to be basically a good human to feel guilt. We have to have the self awareness that our actions or even simply our thoughts, might have caused harm; to other humans, to our planet, to the animals, even to ourselves. So I guess guilt can be a useful tool on the road to growth and self knowledge. It helps us see what feels right and what does not sit well.
This is what is coming up for me, Survivors Guilt. Yes I used capitals, yes it feels big. This guilt was not brought on me by anyone but myself. And it comes out of love. I tried to talk about it in class the other night and I could not move the words out of my body, Maybe I can write them out.
Here is the deal. my sister had a stroke last fall. She is not really recovering well. She is in pain every day. Her left side is compromised and she does not have much use of her left arm and hand. Yes, she goes to therapy, yes there has been improvement, but the truth for today is that life is hard for her. And I feel horrible. And I don’t know how to step out of that place. She is my best friend, cradle to grave, she is my girl.
So I try to give her what she needs. It seems what she needs most is space. I can’t really get close to her. I try, I call, I ask to stop by, I invite her places. Mostly she shuts me down. She is in pain and all of those things make it worse. So we text, maybe talk on the phone. Yesterday for instance, it is a beautiful day here. I am headed out for a walk at the lake. I text her to see if I can stop by and visit. She says no, hard day, going back to bed.
Okay, I go ahead with my day, but there is a sadness and heaviness in my heart. Because I am out there in this beautiful day with people, and sunshine and laughter. I am engaging in life, I feel good. And my sister, my best friend, is laying in bed in pain. How the fuck am I supposed to feel good? I know it serves no purpose to feel guilty about my good day. I know she does not want that. But when I love someone it is hard to be joyful and happy when they are in such a difficult place. Even though I know it is her path, not mine, I cannot separate my feelings and my humanness. I have to figure out a way to move forward in my life, but it feels like I am leaving her behind. And it is breaking me.
I have felt this before, when I was married. Eight years into my marriage my husband was in a car accident. He had head injuries. He was never the same. Physically he pretty much recovered but mentally there was a disconnect. There I was, 26 years old, healthy, looking to the future and my husband was changed, damaged, and the man I had married was gone. What do you do? Well I stayed in the marriage another 12 years until his alcoholism killed our marriage. But honestly, the accident killed our marriage. He felt less than the man he had been. Finally, for myself and my son, I knew I had to survive. It was not safe or healthy for us to live in an alcoholic household. But I knew I was leaving behind someone who who had his chance for a full life stunted. And I felt horrible guilt. Guilt that I wanted everything that life had to offer. And to have that I would have to sever our relationship. So I did. There is still, 20 years later, a wistful sadness around that.
Another time I felt this to a lesser degree was when my Mom had a terminal cancer diagnosis. I remember a short period of thinking this should be me and not her. But that passed pretty quickly. I think even in my distress and craziness I realized that thought had no basis or substance. It was a reaction to everything and my way of trying to take on her pain. To save her. I could not save her, no one could. I recognize those thoughts as an emotional reaction to a extreme situation. And everything after her diagnosis happened so fast the guilt did not have any time to cling to me.
Okay so in writing this I can see my survivor guilt comes up when I truly love the person. I have friends that are fighting cancer or have other big challenges in their lives. I feel compassion and caring. I send love and positive thoughts their way. I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel it should be me and not them. I have a healthy boundary around it. But let it be my close loves and I feel bad that I get to be whole, happy and healthy when they are suffering. I don’t know how to fix this. This situation with my sister is a long term process. I want to move through it with grace and ease. I want to help her, but also be okay with having joy in my day. I want to understand that no one (least of all her) want or need me to suffer also. And I do know this mentally, but emotionally I am struggling .
I know her path is her own. I know i cannot walk that for her. I know sacrificing my joys serve no one. So I move forward in my day and in my life. I see my friends, I connect with family. I talk with God. I meditate, I walk. I laugh. I find joy, humor and love out there. But somewhere inside of me is this little place that knows while I am out celebrating life my best girl is home, in pain and struggling. And I feel guilty, guilty she does not have the same chance to enjoy her life like I do.
I am working through this, writing it out helps. So if you stayed with me this long, thank you. Life is here to teach us, we are here to grow and create. This is a lesson on my path. Once I learn it, truly learn it, I can release it. As with everything, baby steps.