Going through a traumatic illness or experience is unimaginably difficult – so making it through the other side is something to celebrate, right? But what people often struggle to vocalise is the confusing mixture of feelings that accompany this, and the burden of guilt that can, unfairly, weigh heavy on you
I remember the first time I heard the words ‘survivor’s guilt’. It caught my attention because it was finally a phrase that I could put to how I had been feeling for the last decade of my life.
For a little context, I’ve had 15 surgeries and, in many ways, shouldn’t have survived. If I had been born a few years earlier, or in a family with less financial privilege to afford the medical care I did, I would not be alive, and I have been acutely aware of that fact since the age of 11.
The problem is, at 11, it is a very adult problem to have when you are still very much a child, and with the limitations of the vocabulary of a child, and the confusion that comes with not being able to articulate how you feel. At 11 years old, I had been in the ICU for three months, and because the ICU was where the most ill children were in the hospital, I witnessed more deaths of children from six months to 15 years old than one should ever experience, and as each death occurred, it often made me wonder why I was still here. Why was I surviving? What was so special about me?
The only way I found to console myself at that age was to tell myself that I would do my best to compensate for those lives by spending my own trying to help as many people as humanly possible… I hoped that it would make up for it, and decided to never vocalise this guilt.
As much as it’s called survivor’s guilt, there are many other emotions encompassed in it, and the other main one was shame. Shame breeds silence, and so this became my deep dark secret, and ultimately led to me working so hard to overcompensate for all the lives lost.
I was often told in hospital ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and this made the guilt so much worse. It forced me to try to make meaning out of something that has no meaning and doesn’t make sense. When someone tells you that everything happens for a reason, and you can’t find one, you begin to believe the reason is you, and that’s where the blame comes, along with the shame. Survivor’s guilt is nonsensical. Logically and rationally, you can understand you did not do anything to cause their death, but emotionally, it feels unjust and unfair.
What I wish someone had told me back then was that it was not my responsibility. It was not my fault that others had died and I had lived and, most of all, no one should have to earn their right to life. The fact is there is nothing special about me. There isn’t a reason why I survived and others didn’t, and the most peace I have found is understanding that sometimes shitty things happen, and not everything has a reason or a purpose.
I only began processing all of this while writing my first book, Am I Ugly?, and discussing it in depth meant I finally put words to how I’d felt for decades, and those wo