Thursday, December 5, 2013

Survivor's Guilt

I feel guilty about my health crisis in 2009, when I lay in ICU attached to tubes and wires, my husband having to sit there and watch me die. Because I was dying. The surgeons told him so.

When I survived despite the dire predictions, I still had a long way to go to recover. I feel guilty for not being able to do anything at all when I was weak. He had to take care of all the chores and me. I could barely lift myself off the toilet. He changed my ileostomy bag for me, cleaned up my shit, soothed me and took care of me after I vomited up all the food he took the time to make for me. I feel guilty that he had to drop everything just to take care of me. I feel both guilty and amazed at his goodness, his care of me.

I feel guilty because my drastic illness caused friends and family to worry about me, to stop all of the things they needed to do in their own lives in order to help us out. Dear friends were afraid to open their newspapers every day for fear they would find my obituary. This is what I put people through.

During my recovery a friend, who had been caring and comforting during my health crisis, died. He was someone who was such an important part of my literary community and a great person, a brilliant writer and musician. I and a number of our mutual friends still feel his loss keenly. A work colleague of my husband's, someone he knew for decades, also died at the same time. When we attended memorial services and funerals, I felt guilty that I am still here when they aren't. I feel guilty for being so very glad to be alive.

Since then friends have lost parents or siblings, while others have had close calls themselves. And here I am completely healthy. This is a good thing, obviously, but it's hard not to experience a feeling of guilt over my good health and my good fortune. 

I feel guilty about feeling guilty over my health crisis when I am so damn lucky to be here. I feel confused by the fact that I can feel both guilt and elation. This post is awkward & barely articulate because I don't really know how to explain these feelings and I'm not comfortable talking about them.


I haven't explored guilt as much in my fiction as others have. I don't know how to put these feelings into a work of fiction. They seem too abstract to me. "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," Emily Dickinson tells us. I am still too numb to use my own guilt as fodder for the world of my imagination. 

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing all that so beautifully. Survivor's guilt takes guilt to a whole new level, feeling guilty for things you could in no way have prevented. That's such a complex issue that it seems to go beyond our general cultural predisposition to guilt and come from a much deeper place.

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    1. thanks for reading, Sacchi & for your comment. writing about it feels awkward, but kind of helps.

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  2. My deepest sympathies, Amanda. You already know Momma X had many of the same things go sideways as you did. I never felt any resentment towards her for the twelve years of major surgeries and near-death experiences, yes, all the things you mention--- plus middle-of -the-night hospital runs, doctors coming out in the hall with me, shaking their herds over this poor twenty-something hippie couple that was going through so much for so long.

    Then in 2004, it was her turn to take care of me through not only cancer and a liver transplant, but a full year of Interferon/Ribavirin treatment where I was in constant pain and nearly incapacitated the entire time. I had to think hard to decide to get up and go to the bathroom, let alone be helpful with any household chores. Then there was my triple bypass in 2010. Then there was her total revision of her continent illeostomy, changed to a standard one last spring. Guilt is such a powerful entity, but illness is part of life. Such a shame that we can't just be pragmatic, realize that our loved ones would feel guilty themselves if they couldn't feel they could do something to ease our trauma. Wish we could just throw that unproductive emotion away. Too bad it's so much more complicated than that.

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    1. complicated is right. i hear you. i had to take care of my husband briefly last year when he was down with pneumonia. i don't think that any emotion is unproductive. an exploration of how guilt has found its way into great art, music & literature would likely prove otherwise.

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  3. Yes, Amanda- I have no aversion to the inspirations to art, no matter what the genesis. Until quite recently, art almost by definition was religious art. War, pestilence, bigotry, mental illness, starvation, revenge and jealousy, have all spawned great art, but I'd be hesitant to recommend any of that as a way of life.
    Guess it goes back to the old existential quandary: Is it necessary for the artist to experience starvation to be considered qualified to express it in her art? Do we have to experience the situation to be able to write about it?

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    1. the point i believe is that art, & i am including literature within art, contains the emotions of its artists. to appreciate it is, in part, to empathize with them, to have compassion for their struggles, for all our struggles. not to recommend struggle as a way of life, but to recognize that it exists for all of us. art exists because & in spite of these struggles. this is something to celebrate.

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  4. Amanda - thanks for sharing this, hard as I suspect it was. Obviously guilt can be triggered by things we could in no way prevent.

    Sometimes I feel guilty for having such a fortunate life - great family, wonderful relationship, fascinating job, opportunities to travel, enough money to not worry TOO much. I have a close friend who has been struggling for decades. I'm reluctant to even tell her about my latest blessings.

    But that's just plain silly. (Not that labeling it that way necessarily makes the guilt go away.) I am not responsible for her bad luck, any more than for my own good luck.

    One reason for coupling is to provide support and help to your partner when the need arises. You know, "in sickness and in health". We hope for the latter, but when we get the former, we deal with it.

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  5. Right on, Amanda-
    That's the ticket. We count our blessings every day.

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  6. Amanda, I'm sure your husband is glad he still has you with him! Daddy X, your story of mutual support is inspiring.

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