Growing through guilt
Words by Isla Brentwood
I couldn't fathom if there was even any purpose to this feeling or if it was just the ultimate form of self-punishment?
Why did I agree to write about guilt? Of all the possible topics and of all the possible feelings, this is the one I’ve been asked to write about. In my opinion, it’s the worst. This is the one that no matter how much time passes, it still guts me like I’m right back there, reliving the stomach-churning remorse of year’s past. Guilt is sickening, appetite-suppressing dread. Sometimes it hits me in my day’s most wonderful, relaxed and mindful moments: just as I’m drifting off to sleep, as I stand under the shower stream, when I’m curled up on the couch with a purring cat on my belly or when I find my mind wandering back to joy filled memories from my childhood. When I was young, movie watching was a regular pastime in our house and whenever I was sprawled out, blissfully enjoying Back to the Future or The Neverending Story, my Dad would stick his finger in my ear and wiggle it as he walked past. Not always to annoy me, sometimes I think it was just to let me know he was there before he left for work or got lost tinkering in his shack outside. An action so loving and meaningful in its simplicity. This has always been one of my favourite times to look back on, but now, even my fondest memories have been marred. Guilt hits me like a ton of bricks reminding me that any little bubble of happiness I might have found is very easily burst. My Dad committed suicide a few years ago. Before he did, our family journeyed with him through a prolonged period of mental illness, alcohol abuse, multiple suicide attempts and hospitalisation and you best believe he was very creative in thinking of ways to kill himself: electrocution; carbon monoxide; freezing himself; throwing himself off a cliff. If you can think it, he probably tried it. I felt like I shut down during this time and I found it almost impossible to genuinely connect with anyone outside of our family unit. How could anyone understand what we were going through? I couldn’t even hold a proper conversation with Dad after he had come so close to dying at his own hands. Pleasantries and jokes were my go-to, tinged with a level of prickly defensiveness that I still employ to this day. Survivor’s guilt arrived soon after Dad’s final, successful attempt. My thoughts were spinning, nauseating mess: I should have done more. I’m responsible. I wasn’t powerful or special enough to prevent his death. He didn’t love me enough to want to stay. I should have had better conversations with him. I should have paid more attention. I should have been home more. I should never have left him alone. I should have been a better daughter to both Dad and Mum. I constantly replayed our last conversations over and over. I couldn’t fathom if there was even any purpose to this feeling or if it was just the ultimate form of self-punishment? Dad can never tell me it’s ok or that I did enough. He can’t tell me that he didn’t know how to communicate the depths of the lows he was experiencing. My family have learnt a lot and processed enough since his death but at the time we were just winging it. We didn’t know anything. We all had questions that couldn’t be answered even by the best medical professional or by Dad himself. Talking about the warning signs only increased the guilt we felt as it compounded that we should have been able to prevent it from happening; that we should have been doing more.
What I really want to know is why have we developed such shame and evasiveness around something that affects so very many of us?
For the longest time, I accepted that the remorse I felt about that time would never leave me and that there was no possible way I could ever forgive myself for my shortcomings when Dad needed me most. The only way I have been able to move on is to come to terms with the profound sense of my own limitations. I can safely say I will never be able to completely forgive myself but I'm learning to embrace that this is an opportunity to use my mistakes as a tool for growth. I can't tuck away my guilt, my grief, my shame because they will eventually catch up to me. Yes, I could have made better choices, and yes, I could have been there for him more but it may not have changed the outcome. Suicide is the result of an illness and, as with any sickness, we can love someone and still not be able to save that person from death. Our good friend guilt encourages us to avoid repeating shameful behaviours in the future as well as reminding us to foster our relationships so we stay connected to our loved ones. I made it my mission after Dad died to talk about him and what happened whenever I get a chance. I will never be able to go back and change what happened but I can use what I learned to help others. If someone asks, I don't shy away, I'm honest and I'm figuring out ways to discuss it that keep the conversation open and safe. I figure for every person I talk to, I'm breaking down one more barrier and taking steps to ease up on myself. However, what I really want to know is why have we developed such shame and evasiveness around something that affects so very many of us? Perhaps if there wasn't such a stigma around suicide and mental illness I would have felt more comfortable opening up at the time about what we were going through. I might have asked more questions and felt less apprehensive about asking for help. Maybe, I would have felt more inclined to seek therapy in the years after his death and been able to forgive him sooner and find some peace a little more readily. There are so many of us wracked by guilt and shame simply because the world, in general, can't accept that mental illness is simply that, an illness, that it should be treated with the same respect and care than any other medical condition is. I think the social conditioning of our men to 'man up' and 'be strong' is also a factor in this story as it has created generations who don't know how to talk about such a vulnerable and personal subject. Keeping the public conversation going is only going to aid in giving everyone the tools to get them through their darkest moments and know that they are not alone. This winter has been a hard one for me. It seems as soon as the sun leaves us for those few dark months every year, my personal sunshine leaves me too. And what compounds the situation is the voice in my head saying I'm a burden, I'm hard to live with and my own mental health journey is a trial for anyone that is on that path with me. I feel myself putting the shutters down again. But isn't this exactly what my Dad did to us? If Dad had wanted to talk to me more, I would never have turned away. I need to trust that the people who love me will be there for me and I also need to accept that I'm going to make mistakes but I can allow them to be opportunities to learn. Maybe I can let that be a couple less things I feel guilty about this week? I'm choosing to use this essay as my own personal f**k you to the mental illness stigma. I want to talk about it and I won't feel guilty for being a (super cute) flawed human who is still figuring it all out. Ultimately, I'm attempting to embrace the opportunity to not let my guilt define what happens in this chapter of my life and to treat myself with as much compassion and forgiveness as I would my family and loved ones.
Originally from New Zealand, Isla jumped the ditch and now calls Melbourne home. She has had a varied performing arts career: you might have seen her onstage, or on one of those TV singing shows; you could have heard her on a movie soundtrack, or at your local on a Sunday afternoon. She spends most of her free time patting cats, reading books, planning adventures and watching 70’s horror films. Equal human rights and mental health advocacy mean a lot to her and she’s currently in the process of making them part of her day to day. You can connect with Isla on Instagram: @islabrentwood.
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