Every year, around this time of the year, ‘survivor guilt’ rears its ugly head and fills mine with torment. Survivor guilt is classified as a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. The repetitive thought that fills my waking moments and disturbs my sleep is: “Why did I live when other people who died were only a few feet away from me?” The impact of this is the development of anxiety and then depression. I served in the British Armed Forces, and my traumatic experience was during my military service.
It’s not just service personnel who are vulnerable to survivor guilt; anyone who experiences any traumatic situation can be. The traumatic situation can be anything from surviving a collision in a vehicle or public transport, terrorism events, through to the death of a sibling or losing a partner or someone close to suicide. There is a strong link between people dying of cancer and a surviving family member experiencing survivor guilt. The situations are wide and varied, but the common denominator is having shared a traumatic experience where a person or people have died, but you have not.
Survivor guilt is painful. It in itself can be traumatic. It can cause anxiety, depression and insomnia. In the very worst of situations, it can lead to suicide. It is classified as a mental condition and can be part of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I find it difficult at this time of year as it is the anniversary of the traumatic event and two weeks later, it is Remembrance Day in the UK. On this day, I take time out to remember those who died in that event and I honour their lives. But, I spend the latter part of October, and most of November/December enveloped in that guilt again. It doesn’t ever go away; the switch just dims throughout the other months of the year.
I get hit with the depression caused by the impact of the clock change on my circadian rhythm disorder, and the depression of survivor guilt. It is a miserable time of the year for many, but it is the absolute worst time of the year for me. I find it very hard to get enthusiastic about Christmas which is a shame for my family. The circumstances often trigger bipolar episodes, but I have made it through every winter, and each year I get a little stronger thanks to psychological intervention. It was expensive but worth every penny. Maybe one year I will be able to wear my poppy with pride and not feel guilty at the same time.
If you think you might be suffering from survivor guilt, I would recommend seeing a counsellor or psychologist as a good starting place. In serious cases, seeing a psychiatrist may be advisable, as the symptoms may be part of the larger diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is no shame, or need to feel weak if suffering from survivor guilt; it is a real and serious condition that requires treatment. I am living testimony that treatment does work.
Photo: Can Stock Photos