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How I'm Fighting Back Against Decades of Survivor's Guilt

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

“Wear your tragedies as armor, not shackles.” Anonymous

All I knew was that I was stuck. I was stuck for so long. It was really frustrating, too, because I was doing so much work to try to heal from everything that had happened in my life. I had done all of the things I know to do: talk therapy, EFT, CBT, NLP, energy healing of all kinds, meditation, mindfulness, somatic therapies, inner child healing, shadow work, dream work, hypnotherapy… you name it, I had tried it all, and for over 25 years of my life. Yet, I was still stuck in patterns of self-loathing and self-sabotage. I could not seem to get out of my own way, no matter how hard I tried.

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Now, mind you, a lot had changed for me over the years, to be sure. My life had changed so much and in so many amazing ways. I was not the scared little girl anymore and had become more confident than I had ever believed was possible for me. I had helped a lot of people in my healing work and made a lot of headway in creating a life I really loved. All of the changes that had taken place in my life were wonderful changes for sure, and I was grateful for it all. Even so, there was a way in which I still very much hated myself and held myself responsible for my mother’s death, and I still felt very stuck.

I must digress. I suppose I need to start way in the past to catch you up on what actually brought me to this terrible state of survivor’s guilt. I grew up in an alcoholic home with mentally ill parents, and there was a lot of abuse and neglect during my entire childhood, but there was one primary event that was the biggest turning point for me. It was the moment that would change my life forever. When I was just 8 years old, my mother died by suicide.

I, of course, did not know how to handle what had happened, and to be fair, I question whether or not anyone ever knows how to handle such a terrible thing. It is something that is just not supposed to happen, ever. It is an unnatural event that we are just not designed to be able to face and deal with at all. When someone we love makes a choice like that, such a permanent choice, it actually is a choice they make for all of us. It is a choice that impacts all of the suicide victim’s family and friends, and for the remainder of their lives. I don’t believe we ever fully recover from such a loss. We merely learn to compensate for the loss, which is truly all that we can do.

I was only a little girl, so there is absolutely no way I was going to be able to fully understand the gravity of the horrible events that had transpired. In addition, I was surrounded by less than competent adults, none of whom adequately explained to me then or ever just where my mother had gone and why she wasn’t coming back. What’s worse still is the fact that once we arrived home, my grieving father leaned on my shoulder, literally and figuratively, for support and solace. Being the natural healer I was from the get-go, and the daughter who worshipped him blindly, I of course did my best to comfort the man. As if this weren’t enough unfair pressure on me, he proceeded to tell me he was not sure that she had actually died…that he, in fact, had not seen her body in order to identify her, that my aunt was the only one who saw her, and she was less than trustworthy. Now, as I sit here typing this to you, I cannot imagine being such a selfish person as he was, to lean on a child who had lost her mother and to tell her that she may not even be dead! From that moment on, for years, I believed she would one day come back home, and so any grief I would have been capable of actually feeling was denied. Right from the get-go, I learned denial, straight from my father.

Years went by, and it was as if my mother had never existed. Her things were sold, put away, pictures packed in boxes…there was little trace of her anywhere, and when my stepmother moved in shortly after her death, my mother’s place in our lives seemed to be taken as well. They really did attempt to wipe any trace of her from our lives, even trying to convince me at one point that my stepmother was my real mother. It didn’t work. Thankfully, at 9 years old, I was already too smart for their manipulations, at least some of them anyway.

Now remember, I didn’t realize that I had survivor’s guilt. I didn’t even know of such a thing, and nobody told me about it, even until far into my adulthood. Our society is so fearful of confronting death, we act as if it will never happen to us or anyone we love, even though death lurks around every corner. All I knew was I felt terribly responsible for my mother’s death as if I should have saved her and that if I had been a good enough daughter to her she wouldn’t have made the fatal choice she made. I believed that because it happened, it surely meant that I was worthless, bad and deserved to be punished. This is the very definition of survivor’s guilt, but again, I didn’t know until recent years there was such a thing. These ideas I had were encouraged by my stepmother and father, who verbally told me I was stupid, I would never amount to anything and I would end up dead like my mother. In addition to that, their actions towards me supported my beliefs about myself. There was no love, no care, no regard for my feelings or my emotional well-being. None at all, and so, I took this as further proof of what I believed was true. I was no good, and I deserved to be punished.

I lived most of my life as a person who hates themselves and feels they deserve punishment. I was lost, empty, afraid and desperate for love. I partied too much, I took whatever “friend” or person who came along… I took whoever would have me, and a lot of the time, it was poisonous people like my parents. I got myself into trouble with the law when I was young, got involved in the sex industry, did too many drugs, was promiscuous, had too much debt and generally made a lot of not-so-great choices. Why? I made a lot of not so great choices because that is what people who hate themselves do… they try to destroy themselves, and I was doing that for sure. It was weird, though, because I also wanted help. I also wanted another way, because living the way I was living was intolerable. I had created massive suffering for myself that was built on top of the already painful trauma and pain from my abusive childhood. It felt like it was too much to bear, and I needed a way out.

Things began taking a dramatic turn about six years ago when I left a horrible, dead-end relationship with someone who was very much like my father. We had nothing meaningful in common, in fact, I was forced to hide parts of myself in order to remain in the relationship. It was terribly unfulfilling and I felt alone and stuck. Once I finally did manage to leave, I realized how much I had lost over the years with him… my home, most of my business, money, my health, my well-being, my self-respect and worst of all, I lost my will to live. I was suicidal. I was in a constant trauma response, and I felt afraid and alone.

When I left, I began to recognize the parallels between my life and my mother’s life. The similarities were profound. I was just like her. The only difference was that for me, suicide was not an option, and so I was forced to make the decision to live. This was a pivotal point, truly. I made the choice then and there, in December of 2015, that I would live, not merely exist, but I would do anything and everything necessary in order to create a life that I loved. With that choice, I would stop settling for less than I deserved and I would be my own advocate, no matter how challenging it might be — and it was challenging.

I shed the toxic relationships, habits and situations, one by one, and it took time. I started making better choices for myself. I found a wonderful man who is good for me. A lot changed. As these changes were taking place, I was doing a lot of healing work on my relationship with my mother’s death. In particular, I was working to let go of the responsibility for it I had taken for so long, and little by little, the pattern was falling away. I began to see more clearly that I actually had nothing to do with the death of my mother, she made the choices she made and none of those choices had anything to do with me. None of the responsibility belonged to me. It was not mine to compensate for, to make up for, to correct or to beat myself up over. I did not have to allow it to continue to run my life. Finally, it all fell away. It was extremely painful, and yet, it was quite possibly the best thing that has ever happened.

It has taken a few months for me to adjust to what happened, to the event that felt like a breakdown… the breakdown that was years in building up, and the almost lifelong pattern of coping that would collapse all in one moment. Now I am free to be who I am and there is nothing left to prove or make right. Now I finally get to live my life for myself.

Photo by Kevin Jesus Horacio on Unsplash

Originally published: February 22, 2021
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