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When Anxiety and Depression Make You Hold On to Guilt

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When I was around 6 years old, my father took me for ice cream. He suggested the flavor I might like, bought me a cone and got one for himself. Leaving the shop, he warned me not to lick it in a certain way because it could make the ice cream fall from the cone; instead, I should push it down with my tongue first, to make sure it stays on. I didn’t listen. I licked it, and it fell to the ground.

Since I was so upset by this, he shared most of his ice cream with me.

Nice story, right? A heartwarming memory of a selfless act of kindness between father and son? Not when you live with the depression, anxiety and avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) I’ve been experiencing for most of my life. You see, I’m 30 years old now, and I’ve been carrying the guilt of that wayward ice cream for the past 24 years. It’s a guilt that’s only deepened in the years following my father’s death.

Once, my father and I were standing by a river. I was around 8 years old by this point. He made me a folded hat from a newspaper, and said, “Look, it can be a boat too. What do you want it to be? A boat, or a hat?”

I thought about it, and wanted it to be a boat. How cool would it be to watch it floating down the river? So, we dropped it into the stream. It steadied on the water, hit a rock and carried on downstream to its eventual fate at sea. Or, perhaps it got snagged on a rock and crumpled into a soggy piece of garbage. Who knows? The point is, I instantly regretted it. I made the wrong choice. I wanted a hat, not a boat. More than that, I wanted that hat. Not another one, which my father could have so easily made.

I feel guilty about that newspaper boat to this very day. I picked wrongly. I wanted a hat.

I struggle with guilt on a daily basis, be it from large or small events. Not only do I struggle with the ice cream incident; I struggle with the loss of cherished gifts, old friends and deceased pets. I lament the things I never said, the wrongs I did, so deeply even when all has been forgiven — even when I carry no responsibility, because I was a 6-year-old child who dropped his ice cream.

I feel guilty for not having said goodbye to our dog Zoe when I was 13, when I was warned by my parents that she may not survive through the night. I was so tired. I wanted to go to bed. More than that — I think I didn’t want to say goodbye. She died through the night.

I feel guilty for the loss of my childhood toys, which were damaged by water in a previous house.

I feel guilty for letting old friends down when they needed me most of all.

We ordered pizza last night. We got cookies too, but were so full by the time we finished everything that the cookies lay forgotten. This morning, I saw the cookies across the room. Boom. There was the guilt. I hadn’t eaten the cookies. I’m a bad person. What kind of person would not eat the damn cookies? I couldn’t eat them now, they’ve been sitting out of the fridge all night. But I should have them, right? I can’t be ungrateful. I can’t be a bad person.

Gratefulness factors highly into my struggle with guilt. If I feel I’ve appeared in the slightest way ungrateful, the associated guilt is punishing. I’ll apologize, and thank, and apologize, and thank, and apologize again until I feel certain the person has the message and knows how truly grateful I am. Was I ungrateful to my father when he put that newspaper hat in the river? Was I ungrateful when he gave me his ice cream? Was I ungrateful when I didn’t eat those cookies? Guilt, guilt, guilt.

I don’t know how to shake this guilt, but I try to remember that it’s not me. It’s not real. I struggle with depression, and anxiety, and AVPD, and this extreme sense of guilt factors somewhere into that. It has done for a long, long time. I know I need to forgive myself for the things I’ve done, particularly those as a child and those that have hurt other people, but I don’t know how to. I hold myself to a standard that says I can’t do wrong by anyone. It’s a standard that’s pretty hard to meet. So, therein comes the guilt. I feel it encroaching like a rumble of thunder before there’s barely the sign of rain. If I open myself to it, I fear I’ll drown in it. So, I bury it deep. I bury it where I don’t have to see it. I close my eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s not exactly the most effective of methods though, as we can clearly see.

Follow this journey on the author’s Twitter.

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Thinkstock photo via Christopher Robbins

Originally published: April 5, 2023
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