There are two kinds of guilt I’ve experienced a lot lately. The first is my own, deeply personal and totally irrational. I feel guilty for cancelling plans, guilty for catching the flu, guilty for my panic attacks and guilty for mistakes I make when stressed and struggling with cognitive tasks and memory.
The second is a bit more complicated, because it’s not mine. It’s the guilt that my partner, my friends and my family feel.
I don’t know the degree to which they feel it, because I’m not in their heads, but I see it clear as day when it flickers across their faces. Guilt that ranges in severity from ‘oh, drat, I forgot she probably doesn’t want to talk about how she’s feeling’* to ‘oh, double-drat, I’ve just said the wrong thing and now she’s weeping like a hungry, angry baby’.
I’m going to separate this post into two, because believe it or not, I’ve been on both sides of this fence. Someone I love dearly – I’m going to call her Cake, because she’s sweet and everyone gets annoyed if I show up to parties without her – has been through, and is still going through, a long battle with her mental health. Part one is for all you anxious, depressed people, fighting with your feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Part two is for you to give to the people who love you, and who you know feel guilty about what you’re going through, though you know – and they do, deep down – that none of this is their fault.
Part One: Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Part of the stigma that surrounds mental illness is the idea that somewhere along the lines, someone must have screwed you up. Mental illness is irrational by its very nature, and people like to shove sufferers into neat little boxes. As with most human-boxing, it’s unhelpful at best and deeply harmful at worst. No one likes to be reduced down to one fact about themselves, be it their nationality, sexuality or favourite sports team.
In the case of mental illness, there tends to be a desire to assign blame. The blame is on your parents, your abuser, fashion magazines, pop culture… the list is endless, and some of those might absolutely be amongst your personal battles, that is undisputed. The issue is that this culture of blame plays right into your anxiety’s wheelhouse.
If you’re not feeling well, it’s your fault for not eating well or exercising enough.
If your partner is annoyed, you must be a terrible person.
If someone seems disinterested, you must be uninteresting.
At its worse, you might start to blame yourself for your mental illness to the point where you can’t see a way out, because after all, how are you supposed to help your mind heal when you’re the thing that’s gone bad?
So here’s what I suggest, and it’s not terribly revolutionary but it’s fairly effective:
If you feel guilt, acknowledge it. Then do your best Professor McGonnegal impression and tell your brain, emphatically, that’s enough. I see your point, brain *rolls eyes at camera*. Your guilt is coming from an unhelpful, idiotic place, and it’s trying its best to bully you into feeling even worse.
Like all bullies, it won’t stand up to being laughed at.
In the end, it all comes down to something I say, over and over. Never say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to your best friend. If the thought crossing your mind is terrible, guilt-ridden and mean, don’t gratify it with your interest and focus. Imagine yourself in the playground, shoving your anxiety away from your cowering friend and telling it to get lost.
It has no right being there. There are some things in life you should feel guilty about, but being sick isn’t one of them, and it can seriously hinder your progress. Don’t give it the satisfaction.
Good luck, and let me know how you get on.
Part Two: Love in a Time of Sorrow
When Cake was sick, none of us knew how to handle it. I’d had depression before, some of her friends had, but her anxiety disorder was something different. It was messy, and loud, and it didn’t respond to the same stimulus that depression responded to.
When I was depressed, I was withdrawn and quiet, needing to be left alone. When Cake was anxious, she needed company, and to be distracted.
I had a lot of free time the year she got sick, for various reasons, and I took it upon myself to take care of her. I drove her to the stationary store for posterboard, to the pet shop to look at bunnies, to the cinema five times a week. She never seemed to panic in the car, or in the cinema, so that’s where we spent a lot of our time. I monologued at her, I cleaned her room while she lay in a cocoon of YouTube and M&S biscuits. Some days, the only thing she felt like eating was a salt beef sandwich from the supermarket, so I would buy them on my way back from university and keep a store of them.
I’m a mother hen by nature, so I enjoyed having someone rely on me so thoroughly. I liked the feeling of being needed, I liked spending time with her and bonding, I liked being the one who knew just what to do when she was struggling. I focused on her, and when all of my strategies failed, I felt irrationally guilty.
Intellectually, I knew there was no real reason for her panic attacks or her bad days, they just came and went, but my own neuroses wouldn’t let me see it like that. I constantly felt like I should be doing more, should be working harder. I felt like I should be able to keep her safe.
Basically, I veered a little bit too far into the ‘mother’ part of mother-hen, and though I don’t regret a moment of it, my point is this: you’re doing everything you can. You’re learning about your loved one’s illness, you’re developing coping mechanisms.
You are not to blame. You are not the cause, even if you are the focus.
Stay kind, both to your loved one and to yourself, because misery loves company and it’s too easy to miss signs of depression in yourself when you’re caring for someone else.
As long as you keep talking to each other, it will be fine. I promise. So much of looking after someone with a mental illness is just in showing up – just being there, when their brain is trying to drive everyone away.
Good luck, and let me know how both of you are doing. Cake, if you’re reading this – I love you, and we totally need to go pet more bunnies soon. That was amazing.
With love, always,
*(n.b: I think this blog is a pretty decent indication that I like talking about how I’m feeling, I think it starts interesting conversations)