Why me? Survivor’s guilt and EDs
I was always told that if I worked hard enough, I could recover. With hard work and time, the treatment centers told me, I would get well.
I am, by most measures, doing well. I’m not “fully recovered,” nor do I really understand what that term means. But I am doing well. It’s a fact I’m told I should be proud of. It’s a measure of how hard I worked, how I stuck with it, how I Worked The Program. I can pat myself on the back for a job well done.
Which is why feeling guilty about all of this is so bewildering.
There is, of course, the stereotypical ED sufferer’s feeling guilty about everything that happens, regardless of whether they should. But that’s not what this is. I feel guilty that I’m doing better and so many others that I know aren’t. I don’t understand why I’m doing well, why it is me that is doing well and not other people. It’s a classic case of survivor’s guilt.
Sometime in the 1960s, researchers began to notice that people who survived traumatic events, from surviving the Holocaust to returning from military combat, were experiencing intense guilt about the fact that they were alive when so many people who were in the same situation weren’t. The question “Why me?” plays over and over in their heads. It’s so common that survivor’s guilt is one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
An eating disorder is no different.
- Why am I able to be in recovery?
- Why is my health relatively intact?
- Why did my parents/treatment team not give up on me?
- Why didn’t I die when I probably should have?
- Why did I have the chance to get well?
The most frustrating part is that these questions generally don’t have good answers. Why didn’t I die? I have no idea. I really don’t. I did some truly boneheaded things in the name of my disorder, not to mention the medical complications and near misses. I don’t know why my parents and treatment team didn’t give up on me. I don’t know why I got well when others didn’t.
If there was a reason–a good reason–the questions might not be so tormenting. But sometimes the answers have to do more with the vagaries of chance than anything about me or everyone else. Humans want the world to make sense. We want this so much that we create elaborate myths, deities, and superstitions to explain the inexplicable. For the answers of why we survived or why we got well, these answers are lacking.
I know that luck played a big role. I had parents whose own mental health issues and peccadilloes didn’t prevent them from engaging in my treatment and helping me get well. I had the financial resources to access treatment. My family and I had the acumen to know to look for better treatment when nothing was working. I was lucky. This wasn’t anything that I did or worked hard at (as so many professionals would have you believe). I was just lucky.
This isn’t to say that recovery isn’t hard work or you should depend on luck to get well. I know people who had the deck stacked well in their favor and who are still sick today. I have also seen the reverse at work. But someone doesn’t fail to recover because they didn’t work hard enough, which is what must be the case if hard work gets you well.
I can rationalize all this, tell myself that other people’s relapses and deaths have nothing to do with me and my own recovery. I get that. Logically, it makes perfect sense. That doesn’t stop the regular onslaught of guilt, however. It often doesn’t make sense. If so-and-so died, then I should have died, too. Maybe it would have been better if they were well and I were still sick. Maybe I would feel less awful about all of this if I were sick again. Maybe the constant gnaw of hunger is better than the constant knaw of guilt and regret.
Guilt can make you crazy like this.
I searched through the literature and there are no answers about this, scientific or otherwise. Sometimes the guilt goes away, sometimes it doesn’t. Like so many things in life, I think most of us with survivor’s guilt try to accept our newfound companion and quiet its voice and influence, letting it walk along beside us without actually affecting where we travel.
I still don’t have an answer to the why me question, but knowing that there will never be an answer at least keeps me from wasting too much time looking.