I Feel Guilty to be Alive
You’ve seen it in the headlines before;
“The sole survivor of a car accident”, or
“Only a few survivors from the earthquake that destroyed a city”
Or how about
“Today we are talking to the survivors of last week’s school shooting”
Have you ever imagined to yourselves how those survivor’s felt? Have you watched the hours of video footage from the World Trade Center towers and wondered how the people that were there that day felt? What they were thinking every day for the rest of their lives after witnessing something so horrific? I have.
In fact, whenever there is media coverage of a national traumatic event, I can’t pull myself away from the screen. I put myself in the shoes of the people that are there. I feel what they must have felt and I anguish over how they felt watching their loved ones die and then getting up and walking away from the scene.
For the first few years after surviving Leukemia, I was on top of the world. I was a 12, 13 and 14 year old girl that believed that I could conquer the world. After all, I was “special”. I had survived something that I was told I most likely would not survive. Every year that passed was another promise of the Leukemia not coming back. Every year was another promise of a future with unending possibilities.
Things changed drastically when I turned 15 years old. That year I was no longer the happy, smiley girl anymore with the world in my hands. A dark shadow cast over my life and I was suddenly depressed and anxious over everything. Being “special” no longer felt like a good thing, instead it felt like a very heavy burden riddled with expectations. I didn’t want to be “special” or different in any way, I just wanted to be as “normal” as the rest of my friends in high school. I wanted to be silly and young and not have a care in the world.
I no longer wanted to be the “girl that had Leukemia”. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with it. My mom was very active in the local Candlelighters for Childhood Cancer organization and I never wanted to go to the functions. I was withdrawn and angry and didn’t want to be home ever. I spent as much time as possible with school friends and as soon as I turned 15 1/2, got my permit and a part time job. Being at home was a constant reminder of what I had been through. I was surrounded by the people that went through it with me and although they wanted to help others and make a difference, I did not.
It was around this age that I started to realize something. Parents at the Candlelighter functions were starting to look at me differently. I was no longer the young girl that was still in danger of relapse, but was actually a growing teenager with her whole life ahead of her. This should have felt like a good thing, but instead I started to feel guilty being around the young children with cancer and their families. I was a reminder for some parents of what their children would never be, and a painful reminder at that. I felt guilty to be alive.
This was not something that I ever shared with anyone. I felt bad even saying it out loud, because that would mean I was selfish making what others had been through about me. How could I do that? How could I accurately express to anyone that I was depressed and angry because I was allowed to LIVE? What made me so special that I was allowed a second and third and even fourth chance at life when so many others did not (and still do not) even get a second chance?
I wish I had had someone sit me down and tell me all the things I should look for and expect after surviving Cancer as a child. I wish someone would have monitored me for years after and helped me know that the things I was feeling were completely normal and even common. I had no idea for years that there was an actual term for what I was feeling…..it’s called Survivor’s Guilt.
My parents tried to take me to talk with counselors but I was so angry. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I knew how it would sound. Here is this fortunate girl that is beyond blessed with every breath she is allowed to take, and she is complaining? How dare she!
Instead of talking, I retreated. I gave my parents attitude, I started to do bad in school, I hung out with bad crowds and dated boys that drank and weren’t LDS. I stopped going to church for about 6 months during my senior year in high school. I was pretty badly bullied throughout the last two years of high school and was at odds with my parents. I had nowhere I felt safe, nothing I felt happy about and bottled up years of unresolved feelings. By the time I was 17, I was suicidal.
One night when my family was away, I sat on the kitchen floor with a half written note in one hand and a knife in the other. I sat on that floor and cried for hours. I felt helpless, and alone and ignored. I not only no longer felt special, but felt that I was making mistake after mistake with this life I was given. I felt that I should be doing something monuments with such a gift and I was blowing it. I felt that I was disappointing all those children that had gone before me; that they were looking down on me and telling me that I was squandering what I was given.
I felt unloved and left behind and completely and utterly alone in this world. No one could possibly understand what I was going through, and those families that had lost so much would be so angry if they did know. I got up off of that floor for one reason, and one reason alone….more guilt. How could I do this? How could I do this to my family after all they had already been through with me? How could I do this to the children that lost their lives when they wanted so badly to live? How could I laugh in the face of God for allowing me another chance, only to throw it away like this?
I didn’t get off that floor feeling peace or contentment, I got up feeling more anger and despair. I knew I couldn’t bring myself to end it all, but I also knew that suicide had been my last resort. My only way to turn off the pain and the hurt and disappointment. The only way to quiet my head and make the pain go away permanently, and I couldn’t do it. So, instead I resolved that night that I would fake it as long as I could. That I would put a smile on my face so other’s would never question or wonder and I would pretend that everything was ok.
During my senior year in high school I tried everything I could to make myself feel like I was doing something “special” with my life. I started theatre and was the lead in our senior production at school, I tried modeling and acting. I wrote short stories and had jobs to save my own money. I had big dreams and big plans. I refused to be just “one of the pack”. I needed to do something extraordinary in my life to prove once and for all to all those around me that I was worthy of my second chance. To prove to everyone that I was needed and “special” and deserved to still be here.
*I want to add a quick side note. The picture above is the face of a 17 year old, severely depressed and suicidal girl. Depression takes on many forms. Some are in bed and feel it 24 hours a day, some are hospitalized and need around the clock care, others go about their daily lives trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. We need to always remember that smiles and appearances can be very deceiving. We don’t truly know what someone is going through just by looking on the outward appearance. I covered my face with a smile as often as I could, just to keep people from asking questions or prying into my life. I was trying desperately to “fit in” and be happy, but underneath was completely falling apart. I have lived a double life for most of my time on this Earth. I am sharing now in hopes that someone out there understands what I am writing about, and in turn feels a little less alone in the process.*
It took a long time and many, many failed attempts to realize I was looking in all the wrong places. I wanted others to tell me I was worthy and deserved. I wanted to hear from everyone around me that I was amazing at something, or so talented. I needed to know that I was not squandering my life away in dark corners with tears. I have had to realize that I needed to look inward and tell myself that it was not only not my fault, but that I didn’t need to prove worthy. I wasn’t “worthy” of a second chance, I was blessed with one. I needed to realize that that dark cloud hanging over me was one I’d placed there myself.
I have been blessed beyond measure in my life. I have been married to the love of my life, my biggest supporter, my best friend, for 16 years. We have three beautiful children. I am still Cancer/Leukemia free. I love my life and I thank my Father in Heaven every single day for this life and the amazing jobs I get as a mother and a wife. I love my life and wouldn’t change a thing for anything in this world. That dark cloud, however is still there all these years later.
I still get a pang of guilt and despair when I meet a new family who has lost a child to Cancer. I still feel the need to make something big out of my life. I feel a sense of obligation to make something happen that couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been here to do it. For years that has weighed me down and overwhelmed me and made me feel unworthy. For years I have allowed that dark shadow to swallow me whole and take over my life in many forms. For years, my family has had to watch me battle a demon that they knew nothing about, could never possibly understand, and could never figure out a way to help. Because of this, they have suffered in their own ways, and I feel deep sadness for that.
The difference now in my life, is that although that dark cloud is still a PART of my life, it no longer IS my life. I have learned to work around it and fight through it. I have learned that there will be many, many dark days ahead and that is okay. There will be times when it does take over again and I allow myself to get swallowed up. I have been on medications to help diminish some of my symptoms, but unfortunately I know I will have to deal with this the rest of my life. I know now however, that there is a break in the sun. I know that the dark cloud will recede and allow the sun to shine through again. I know that some days the only force that can make that happen is me. I also know that other days, the only force that can allow that to happen is God.
I have now found my voice. I have found the only way I know to push that shadow aside and take control again. I cannot change anything that has happened up until this moment. I cannot get back anyone that has been lost. I cannot get back the years I’ve wasted or the time I lost giving all I have to those I love. Neither can they. I can however, learn from it. I can take those years that I lost and make up for them with everything I have now. I can use every ounce that I have in me and use it to be the person I was always destined to be. I can live in the present, instead of allowing the past to bring me down. I can finally be ME.
We are so blessed in this day and age with the internet and all the very many resources that are available online. There are counselors and survivor groups that one can go to for help and support. The world is alive with these resources and we can help each other feel less alone. We can help each other know that there are others out there that feel the same and have experienced similar trauma. We can show the world that there is hope in the darkness, we just have to shine bright enough for all to see. We have to be heard.
The following are links for anyone that is dealing with emotional or mental health problems. Please know you are NOT alone and there is help available!
National Suicide Prevention 1-800-273-8255 www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Survivor’s Guilt for Cancer Survivors www.cancercenter.com www.cancer.net
Depression and Anxiety Anxiety and Depression Association of America