I thought about it constantly as a kid, after I moved out of my mom’s house – leaving her behind to defend herself from my stepfather’s fist.
I beat myself up over it during my first year at college, when I was working so hard to excel academically knowing that my dad was home, contemplating suicide after my stepmother left him for another guy.
The depression, self-loathing and self-punishment I experienced is a little something called Survivor’s Guilt.
In each situation in my life – whether it was my brother living as an addict, my mom being a full blown alcoholic living with my violent stepfather or my dad getting duped by my stepmother – I felt like I had somehow, unfairly, escaped the doom and gloom that seemed to prey upon the people that I loved the most. And sometimes I even believed that I caused it.
As a result, I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy trying to answer these questions –
Why them and not me?
Why is my brother an addict and not me?
How did my mom end up with an abusive husband and not me?
Am I allowed to enjoy my life while my dad is drunk, depressed and miserable?
If you’ve ever experienced the pain of Survivor’s Guilt (which is not uncommon in the world of addiction) then today’s post is for you.
I’m not claiming to have completely wiped that guilty feeling from my life, or my mind, but I’ve come a long way in understanding the quirks of Survivor’s Guilt and I’m sharing what I’ve learned with you below.
Here we go –
I Asked Myself A New Set Of Questions
It took me years to recognize the symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt. I’d always assumed that Survivor’s Guilt was uniquely reserved just for people who survived car accidents or lost companions in war.
But as it turns out, Survivor’s Guilt exists in the world of addiction as well.
Parents who lose a child to an overdose will often wrestle with this gnawing guilt. And even siblings that thrive or bypass the addiction gene, while their brother or sister is drowning in booze, will often beat themselves up with questions like – Why them and not me? How come I’m not an addict to?
Once I discovered that I was experiencing Survivor’s Guilt, I was able to make sense of my tendency to underperform, the guilt I carried with me while on vacation and why I downplayed every success that I earned in order to avoid offending the people in my life that were struggling. And from there I started asking myself a new set of questions that shifted my perspective. Questions like –
If I don’t go on vacation, will that really have any impact on my brother choosing to take his next hit?
If I keep playing small in my life, will that somehow inspire my mom to leave her abusive husband and stop drinking?
The answer to both of those questions was and still is a big fat NO!
By asking myself a new set of questions, I’ve been able to see that holding back and feeling guilty really has no impact on the choices my loved ones make. New questions show me that I’m really not that powerful when it comes to other people’s lives. Even if I love them.
I Finally Realized That I’ll Never Be Able To Feel Guilty Enough
You’ve probably heard this one before but it’s worth repeating here, you’ll never be able to feel guilty enough to change your loved one’s situation. I know it sucks to hear that but it’s true. The only person your guilty feelings are holding back and hurting are you.
I’m not saying it’s easy to deal with guilt. And I’m not even sure that it’s possible to completely rid yourself of it but you can live with it. The key here is to get help if you need it and if you feel guilty for getting help through a therapist or a support group – do it anyway. The more you do it, the less intense the guilty feelings will be.
I Wrote A Letter
You don’t have to send it. You never have to share it with another soul. You can even bury it in a pile of mud or flush it down the toilet when you’re done but writing a letter about the guilt you feel, to the person that triggers your guilty feelings can relieve you of some of the emotional pressure you’re experiencing.
How do I know?
Because I wrote a letter once to my dad about the guilt I felt after my stepmom left him for another guy.
After the affair was exposed, I knew my dad was crushed and I kept trying to help him but he didn’t want my help. I ended up feeling so guilty every time I felt happy – knowing that my dad was hurting so bad. I gave up my social life and became miserable right along with him. And as you probably already figured out – my efforts changed nothing.
So one day I sat down with a pen and paper and wrote him a letter. In the letter I told him I couldn’t feel guilty anymore. I told him that I was here for him, if and when he wanted my help but I wasn’t willing to carry around the guilt anymore.
I gave my dad the letter and he never responded but that didn’t matter. I got it out there, on paper and out of my head.
The letter didn’t change anything in my dad and that’s okay because it changed me.
And I was and still am the only one in that situation that I had and will ever have control over.
If you have a friend or family member or know of someone in your support group that needs a little help dealing with Survivor’s Guilt, then please send them this post.
Also if you’re on Facebook, stop by the Growing Up Chaotic page and join in on the fun. Our community is growing and expanding every day and I’d love for you to be a part of it. The more the merrier:)
Thanks for reading and sharing.