I’ve heard of it before, this phenomenon where the ones who survive the unthinkable wrestle with immense guilt for the very act of surviving, to a point where they find it difficult to celebrate being alive. Survivor’s guilt, they call it. It’s something I never quite understood until it happened to me; I am a suicide survivor.
Late on the evening of March 4th, or perhaps early in the morning of March 5th (there is no public death record, so the date and time are approximate), my good friend from college passed away from suicide. As someone who has come inches away, a single choice away, from making that same, permanent, life-ending decision, I quickly became well-acquainted with survivor’s guilt.
Upon hearing the news, there was shock. There were days and days of re-reading the same text over and over again wondering if it was real, if it was true. Over time this shock gradually turned to anger, frustration, grief. “IT’S NOT FAIR!” I would scream as I drove down the road, pounding my fists against the steering wheel. “IT’S NOT FAIR! HE NEVER GOT TO EXPERIENCE WHAT I HAVE… HE NEVER GOT TO EXPERIENCE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO COME OUT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF DEPRESSION… IT’S NOT FAIR!”
I hate this. I hate that I got to find my way out of the darkness, and he didn’t. I hate that I get to live to see another beautiful sunrise, and he doesn’t. I hate that I get to earn my diploma and walk with my friends at graduation, and he doesn’t. To say “it’s not fair” is a mere understatement.
Then the thoughts come… if he couldn’t do it, what if I can’t? If he gave into suicide, what if I do? What if I can’t resist? What is the point of trying or fighting, if I’m ultimately just going to give in? I drive home from work every day with the temptation to give up growing stronger and stronger.
Amidst the turmoil of grief and shame we often lose sight of the fundamental truth that we have not only a right, but a duty, to be alive. Our thoughts would love to convince us that survivor’s guilt is some sort of currency we owe to those who have passed on. As someone who has always struggled with guilt and shame, I embraced this lie as my truth. The thing is, however, no matter how frustrated or guilty one feels for continuing to exist, it does not redeem the lives lost.
It is only through our living that their memories are kept alive. It is only through our living that we can be a voice for those fighting in silence. It is only through our living that we can share our own stories with the world, wreaking havoc on the stigma that surrounds mental illness. To choose to survive is to boldly stare our mental illness in the face and say, “You don’t own me.”
You are worthy of life, of survival, of peace. Wherever you are in your journey, whatever struggles you have faced, you are a living, breathing story. A story worth protecting, a story worth telling, and a story worth keeping alive.