I have a crushing sense of guilt, one that seizes on any occasion to make me feel sad, worthless and powerless. I don't quite know how this all started. Maybe it began when my brother Thomas died? He was one day old when he died of a birth defect. I remember how we found out he had a birth defect before he was born. I remember how upset my mum was. I even remember lying in bed, unable to sleep, trying to bargain with God. If He took me, maybe he could heal Thomas? I wanted more than anything else to have my family happy and whole again, and if that meant me dying so that my brother lived, I was ok with that.
Of course, God notoriously doesn't do bargains, and I found myself stubbornly alive while my brother died one day after birth. In the time that followed, I tried my hardest to hold the family together, to be a good big sister and daughter. I remember trying to take over as much cooking as possible, trying to keep my siblings happy and trying not to bother my heart-broken mother. I resolutely crushed down my own feelings of grief out of a sense of responsibility towards my family.
All my efforts seemed to be in vain however. I couldn't mend broken hearts, no matter how much cooking I did. I felt guilty that I couldn't do more. And, as I grew up, this sense of guilt grew and expanded. Looking back, I realise I was developing bipolar disorder, which was causing havoc with my emotions. But at the time, all I could see was me betraying my stoic, responsible ideal with these stupid emotions. I wanted so much to be good, to be the perfect daughter, but I felt so bad.
Eventually I started using this sense of guilt as a motivator. Any time I found myself oppressed by sadness, or tired, or sick, I would beat myself up mentally. I would remind myself of every failure, mocking myself until I would go and achieve things out of a sick sense of guilt. It worked, to a degree... until I found myself just too overwhelmed by these feelings to do anything but cry. And when the tears subsided, I would begin the cycle all over again.
I can't remember exactly when I realised this, but eventually I internalised this feeling of guilt to a point where I was no longer consciously mocking myself. It came naturally, a little voice that nagged and nitpicked every action, every thought. I thought, however, that it was just how I was, that this was what adults lived with.
When I was 21, I began going to a counsellor. She helped me realise just how hard I had been on myself, and explained that it was much healthier to be gentle when it came to my emotions. She encouraged me to acknowledge emotions such as sadness without repressing them, and tried to make me understand that it was normal and healthy to feel them. I was told to treat myself like I was a hurt little child - with gentleness and patience.
Sick and tired, I agreed and tried my best to change my patterns of thought. It was difficult. I would find myself subconsciously acting in ways I was used to, and I would have to try to change my thoughts. But it felt good to allow myself to cry, to feel sad, and even to feel good on occasion.
But I found something happening that scared me. That little voice of guilt never left. No matter how much I tried to be positive, that voice was at the back of my mind, mocking and hurting me. And as I tried to ignore it, the voice got louder. I had thought this voice was part of me, under my control. But it wasn't. And as I tried to let myself heal, I found my mind was constantly under attack.
At one point I went on a weekend retreat. I thought the peace and quiet of some time out would help me. But what I had intended to be a weekend of prayer turned into a hell. That little voice of guilt started shouting at me. I would be trying to speak to people, only to have a voice in my mind telling me: "I hate you! You are worthless! They hate you too! Go and die!"
I knew I shouldn't listen to it, but it was so loud and frightening. I didn't know what to do about it and I was ashamed to let anyone else know, so I retreated to my room. I needed something to block it out, so I got my iPod out and listened to music, turning the volume up to ear-splitting levels. I listened to one song over and over.
I woke up in a dream today
To the cold of the static, and put my cold feet on the floor
Forgot all about yesterday
Remembering I’m pretending to be where I’m not anymore
A little taste of hypocrisy
And I’m left in the wake of the mistake, slow to react
So even though you’re so close to me
You’re still so distant
And I can’t bring you back
It’s true the way I feel
Was promised by your face
The sound of your voice
Painted on my memories
Even if you’re not with me
I’m with you
Now I see keeping everything inside
Now I see
Even when I close my eyes
(Linkin Park, With You)
Anyone looking in on me would have seen me, crouched on the bed, muttering to myself: "I'm not bad... I'm ok... No! Be quiet! I'm not listening to you!"
By the time I got home, I was ready to kill myself, to do anything to shut that voice up. Eventually I rang my psychologist and poured out my heart to her. She listened, and she said she could help me. I needed medication. Relieved that she believed me, I filled in the prescription and took the tablets exactly as directed.
Gradually the voice subsided, and the weight of guilt it had put upon me started to lift. I was able to admit I had some good in me, and that I wasn't a complete failure. I was able to see that the voice was probably psychotic. It wasn't me, it wasn't normal, it was a symptom of sickness. With an anti-psychotic medication, I was able to to start healing.
Today, that little voice of guilt hasn't quite gone away. It's always there, ready to mock and guilt me if I fail at something. But it is much quieter now, and I don't listen anymore. I know how to distract myself from it, and there are even periods of time when it goes away altogether.
I have failed at a lot of stuff in life. But while I can feel remorse for what I have done badly, I don't think I am meant to live my life crushed by my guilt. So much of my guilt was for things I had no control over, or for things I couldn't change. So today I live my life without guilt. What has happened is in the past, and I can't change that with all the guilt in the world. I do take things I do wrong seriously, and I will ask forgiveness from any person I think I may have hurt, but afterwards I try not to dwell on it. My voice of guilt has taught me just how dangerous it can be to hold onto these feelings, and I am determined not to listen to it again.