In the days and weeks following my family’s airplane crash, people kept assuring me I’d be fine. “You’re young,” they’d say. “You’ll bounce back in no time.” It would be a different story for my parents, these same people confided. A parent should never have to bury his child. One day when I had children of my own I’d understand, they promised. Losing a sister just wasn’t the same. And I still had my whole life ahead of me. I was lucky to be alive!
I listened. I tried to feel lucky. But all I could think was: Nancy is dead. I wasn’t even wearing my seatbelt. Why am I still here?
When my father told me he wished Nancy had been the one to survive, the guilt bloomed inside of me like a fungus. Gradually, I made myself a living corpse. I took shallow sips of air I didn’t deserve to breathe. I slogged through heavily freighted days.
Survivor syndrome emerged in the 1960s as psychotherapists began to identify a pattern of symptoms present in Holocaust survivors: depression and persistent anxiety, social withdrawal, emotional numbness, nightmares, mood swings, loss of physical drive. Survivors of natural disasters, warfare and terrorist attacks often suffer the same conditions. Our traumas differ, but we shoulder a common guilt at having lived through the horror that killed others around us.
I was forty years old when I finally began to invite myself back to life. First my therapist gave me the words “survivor guilt.” Then she gave me the eye movement therapy EMDR. (Hang on to your hats. There is much to come about EMDR in subsequent posts.)
Six months into therapy I wrote in my journal: “If everything I do has to be good enough to justify my LIFE, my having been allowed to live when Nancy died, how do I even get out of bed in the morning?” I was beginning to plumb the depths of my guilty self-punishment. Beginning to sense that every single day might not require me to defend my existence.
At the same time, I was realizing that my second father was not the only one who wanted to negate my life. My earliest childhood memories predate the plane crash by at least a decade. In them, my first father tells me again and again that my life has no value. To him or anyone else.
Survivor guilt gave me language to explore a big part of what had happened in my life. It helped explain why I behaved as if I didn’t deserve to occupy my own skin. But there was more. That guilt was compounded by the message I received from both of my fathers: We don’t want you.
My journal entry ended this way: “I’ve been raised by men who, given the choice, wouldn’t have had me live. Now I have to grow up, grow out from under them, grow past them, tell them to BACK OFF because I’m here to stay.”