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When Survivors Guilt Takes Over

Jul 24, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

I was married to a psychotic. Yes, I know everyone says that about their ex.  But my ex was actually diagnosed as mentally ill — and wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do what was needed to help his illness. We married young when I didn’t understand it. And, as sympathetic as I was, eventually he was so dangerous I had to leave and take my children.

When I got away from him, it was a great relief. I would like to say I did it quickly, but it was after many many years of knowing that nothing was going to change.  I don’t know why I didn’t leave earlier. I guess it was the four children we had. But even for them, the physical and emotional abuse from him took its toll. As much as I tried to protect them, they all have emotional fall-out from his fatherhood.

But regardless of when it happened, once I got away from him, things immediately started to improve for me. I was the very-poor-and-always-tired single mother of four, but every night I slept soundly knowing that we were safe.

When I got a job, I was thrilled to work in an office with adults. I got to dress in nice clothes, had a great boss and coworkers, and was able to continue my education. I was elated that I was so lucky.

So why did I feel guilty when things started to go well for me and so badly for him?

It didn’t matter that I worked my ass off. I dropped kids off at three different schools and daycare before I arrived at my job each morning. When I got home at night the second shift of dinner, homework, chores and bedtime started.   But still, my ex took a big nosedive without me there. And, my happiness over being free turned to dust in my mouth.  It was survivor’s guilt plain and simple.  I kept asking myself why I deserved better than him.  I was filled with sadness and worry over his situation. Oh sure, I hadn’t survived a natural disaster, or a terrible epidemic. But I had survivor’s guilt none-the-less.

Eventually I came to realize that it takes courage to see people you love fail. Every day I was looking in the mirror and telling myself to be brave about being a single Mom. And now I had another thing I had to be brave about every day.

No matter where it comes from, survivors guilt is real. Reason and logic can’t always help you through it.   It isn’t something you deserve, nor something you can logically turn-off.  So, if this happens to you, keep these things in mind as I did:

Recognition is Key:  I had to remember that I was also a sufferer, not the one who caused the suffering. I  reminded myself of that, until I believed it.

See a Therapist: A support group or a therapist may suggest things that will help. I wasn’t able to afford a therapist, but my doctor recommended several very helpful support groups. I attended regularly to work through my feelings.

Focus on Acceptance:  It’s tough when we are reminded in life that we don’t have control over other adults.  We can only change ourselves.  I found that focusing on the things we have the power to make better is the key.

I hope this is something you never experience. But if you do have survivor’s guilt- for any reason- there are things that will help to make life good again.   Let me know how you feel- and join the conversation. Visit me at and sign up for my newsletters. Sharing is the best way to life a good life.