The concept of trauma and its effects have been written about since the ancient Greeks. Today we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and it exists in many varied forms.
It can affect people directly involved and those indirectly. An interesting by-product of trauma is survivor guilt. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died”. So I feel somewhat disrespectful in how I am talking about it today. I mean no offence to anyone who has experienced survivor’s guilt, but as yet I’ve not found a better term to explain how I feel about my own personal survival of mental illness.
I was asked recently to describe where I was in my mental health journey. I would like to think I am at the end of it, but I’ve been living with it for over 30 years and am not naive enough to believe it has truly gone for good.
Some may use the word recovery, remission, return to function. It doesn’t really matter. My answer was that I feel like I did 22 years ago, when I was young. I had a career and was starting a family; before the Post Natal Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder blindsided me. Twenty-two years. I feel great. My life has purpose. I have an emerging career, different from the nursing one I left behind. My children are in their young 20s, taking their first steps forward in adulthood and my mental health is awesome. So why do I feel guilty?
There are many “consumers” in my family and social life and many of them are still in that black pit of despair, that isolated hurricane of disjointed thinking, that ground-hog-day-existence of dismal mental health. And while part of me wants to celebrate my return, another part doesn’t.
I feel guilty that I have it and they don’t. Talking about where I am now, sharing the “wins” I am experiencing is hard. I feel like to do so is to throw it in their faces, that life is so good for me right now. But they have all been a part of my journey at one stage or another and I know that they are happy for me.
So this is why I do talk about it. I blog and talk and advocate and activise. Because I remember when I was experiencing poor mental health. I remember hearing other survivors tell of their journeys of when they were in the black pit of despair, the isolated hurricane... well you know how it goes... and how they got themselves back. It gave me hope, a goal, even if that goal was just to get through to tomorrow.
Why does it feel like survivor’s guilt to me? I guess it’s because I care and because I don’t want to see another human being go through what I went through.
Mental illness has taken the lives of people I loved and cared about, and almost took mine. But, thankfully, I survived and if that means feeling guilty at times, so be it. It’s worth it to have my life back and to be in a place where I can hopefully help others get theirs back too.
Fiona L Browning