About a year and a half I opened up about something that I rarely had talked to anyone about before: dealing with survivor’s guilt and anxiety. It was a really hard post for me to write, but it was therapeutic as well. I finally felt like I was in a place in life where I could openly admit that I was dealing with those things and that there was no need to be ashamed of them.
Last March, I opened up again and talked about how cancer complicates my birthday. For the last nine years, I have had a really hard time wanting to celebrate my birthday because the survivor’s guilt was so heavy. I would find myself in a deep depression during the month of March and last year was specifically really hard because Maddie would have been turning 18. It was one of the roughest months of my life post-cancer and mentally, I wasn’t in a safe place.
I had hit my breaking point and during a tear-filled evening in the arms of my husband, I told him I needed help. I needed to get my anxiety, my PTSD, my depression, and my survivor’s guilt under control because I was drowning. I couldn’t keep my head above the water anymore and I was terrified. So, I embarked on a new journey to learn coping techniques and strategies so I could carry the weight of it all a bit easier.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and do not claim that THIS is the only way to deal with survivor’s guilt. I am sharing my own experiences and what helps me. Please seek a professional opinion if you need help dealing with survivor’s guilt or PTSD (because that is what I did!)
5 Ways to Cope with Survivor’s Guilt
One. I’m allowing myself to talk about it more. Before, I would refuse to talk about how I was feeling because I was afraid that others would think I was looking for attention. I was traumatized by my time in high school where I would be bullied for talking about cancer and didn’t feel safe opening up about it unless it was to my best friend or husband. Over the last year, I’ve realized that I’ve surrounded myself with people who really care about me and how I am feeling. They won’t shame me or make me feel bad for talking about something traumatic, even if it happened 10 years ago. I’ve also felt so much support from the community at HTC and feel like I can be more open and honest on my blog and not be shamed.
This year, as March rolled around and my birthday approached, I tried to be more open to everyone about how I was feeling. And, more importantly, I talked about Maddy more. I wanted my friends and family to know her, to appreciate her, and to remember her. Knowing that she was being celebrated helped me cope with the guilt of being alive. It opened my eyes up to – that I can help make sure that she is remembered and celebrated by those who have never met her.
Maddie’s birthday is always hard for me, as it’s 10 days before mine. This year, however, we found out that our final counteroffer on the house had been accepted on Maddie’s birthday. It was a tender mercy and it felt like a little hug from her and gave me the push to keep my head up high.
Two. I’m staying busy. I mean, we were in the middle of buying our house (which was the biggest nightmare of a process) so that definitely kept me busy and distracted. But on top of that, I filled my weekends with family dinners, shopping, reading, and taking Rosie and Cooper out for adventures. And now that we’re in the house, I make sure that I am tackling at least one “to-do” from our never-ending list when my afternoons slow down.
It’s really hard for me to want to stay busy because I get really tired and worn down quickly. But, I have found that it’s really easy for me to find myself slipping back into destructive thoughts and habits when I spend too much time sitting in front of the tv or just laying on the bed. The busier I am, the easier it is for me to feel accomplished and successful.
Three. I went back to work. I actually have a whole post in drafts talking about why I decided to go back to work after working on my blog full time for almost two years. Managing my survivor’s guilt and anxiety was a big part of that decision. I needed a reason to get up in the mornings and I needed something to get me out of the house. I decided to only go back to work part-time so that I could continue to work on my blog, and while the adjustment has been rough, it’s been on of the best things I could have done for myself.
I love what I do (I work in Human Resources and corporate training at a really hip tech company that does SEO and social media for small businesess online) and I love the people I work with. I’m learning a ton, I’m getting out of my comfort zone and I feel like I’m contributing to my team in meaningful ways. I have a new purpose in life with my job and don’t have time to sit and think about answers to dark questions.
Four. I focused in on an old hobby. It’s no secret that I’ve dabbled in photography for a long while, but back in my college days, I actually did a lot on the side. I kind of lost sight of my passion for photography when I started dealing with my ugly demons that I had been ignoring for a long time. But, back in January, Dustin spoiled me by getting me a new lens for my camera and several additional pieces of camera gear. I started experimenting again and before I knew it, I was finding myself behind the camera more and more.
It’s only May and I’ve already done more shoots in the last 4 months than I did the year before. I mean, two family sessions, three engagement shoots, AND two weddings, with two family portraits sessions on the schedule for this month?! I’m up to my eyes in editing and I’m not even mad. I still have a ton to learn, but I love what I’ve been able to do so far and can’t wait to see what the rest of the year holds for my photography gig.
Five. I am seeking professional help. Because there is really nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think half the reason why I started having issues with anxiety and survivor’s guilt in the first place (you know, besides the fact that something traumatic happened to me) was because I stopped seeing my psychologist. Well, it wasn’t really intentional- My psychologist moved to a different state and I didn’t pursue finding a new one because it was hard to think about talking to someone else after being with my psychologist for 4 years. Plus, I thought that the worst of it was behind me and that I didn’t need help anymore.
I was wrong. I actually may always need a little help, because cancer will always be a part of me and my life. And while I was really afraid and ashamed to admit that I needed help at first, I’m learning that there is no reason for those feelings. Something traumatic happened to me, and there is no guidebook to read on how to process it. So, going back to talk to someone is the next best thing. I am not ashamed of that anymore.
I guess my whole point in writing this post is to let anyone who might be dealing their scars (whatever they may be) that you don’t have to let them weigh you down. While I can never make mine disappear, I can figure out how to live with them. It’s not always easy (so don’t think that I’m saying it is.) It’s often ugly and I don’t always win the battle. But, I’m doing my best and I think, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
I am doing my best.