This is the fifth in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.
My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.
January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships
Unlike other emotions like anger, guilt is usually triggered by our own actions, not those of other people. We all have certain ideas about the kind of people we are, or, at least, the kind of people we want to be. We expect certain things of ourselves, and we believe we know ourselves well enough to predict how we will behave in any given situation. Sometimes, we create idealised versions of ourselves in our minds, causing us to believe that we would never act in a manner that would be hurtful to someone else, because we believe we’re better than that.
We hear about someone doing something we perceive as wrong and think, “I would never do that.” In some cases, like serious criminal offences, that is probably true, but there are grey areas of morality that make it difficult to judge how we would behave in a particular situation unless we actually experience it ourselves.
Guilt is the emotion that plagues us when we fall short of our own expectations. When we make poor choices or behave in a manner that is at odds with the person we thought we were, or believe we should be, we can feel shame and a sense of failure. We admonish ourselves for not doing or saying something differently, and become frustrated with our inability to change the past and take a different path.
If this guilt is the result of a mistake we have made, then our only recourse is to try to make amends for any hurt we have caused and to resolve to learn from the experience and behave differently in the future. If, on the other hand, guilt is the result of a perceived failing on our part that only we believe to be true, it is much harder to expunge.
What do we do when we feel guilt over how we have behaved towards someone, even if that person does not believe that we have done anything wrong? In that situation, we cannot ask for forgiveness because the other person believes there is nothing to forgive. So where do we turn to deal with our self-imposed guilt? I’ve been struggling with that question a lot recently, and it’s what I want to talk about in this post.
As I have mentioned in earlier posts, my mother has terminal brain cancer. For better or worse she is currently the central focus of my life and I have been forced to confront many difficult emotions in the 2 months since her diagnosis. One of those emotions is guilt about the kind of daughter I believe myself to be.
My mum and I have always been very close, and I have supported her as much as she has supported me. When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago, I took her hand in the doctor’s office and promised myself I would be there for her no matter what happened. For the most part, I have kept that promise.
I sat with her through every chemo appointment, and stayed up with her all night when it made her sick. I managed her medication schedule and made sure she took care of herself. I gave her gifts as a reward after every chemo session, and surprise bouquets of her favourite flowers when I thought she needed cheering up.
I did anything and everything she asked of me, but there is one thing I couldn’t do, and still can’t.
I can’t look at her without her wig on.
I tried in the beginning. I forced myself to sit there and watch her get all her hair cut off when it started to fall out. She coped so well and even made a joke of it, but I could barely hold it together. Afterwards, mum chose to wear caps and headscarves in the house, and I tried to be okay with that, but I just couldn’t do it. I hated myself for not being strong enough to face such a stark reminder of her cancer and the threat it posed to her life. Now that she has been given a terminal diagnosis, it’s virtually impossible for me to even try.
I hate that there’s a barrier between us when I need to knock on the door to give her time to put her wig on before I enter a room she’s in. I hate that she feels guilty whenever she accidentally forgets to wear her wig around me, as if she’s let me down rather than the other way around. I’m angry with myself for not being able to push past my anxiety and sadness so that I can be around her no matter what she looks like. I feel guilty that I’m not stronger than this.
On the few occasions I’ve seen her without her wig, it has triggered a cascade of emotion that has sent me into a spiral of panic, pain and sadness. She has been given radiotherapy to her head in an effort to give her more time, so she has very little hair at all now, and when I look at her without her wig I can’t help but see the cancer that’s going to take her from me, and I can’t bear that.
If she had alopecia, or decided to shave her head for charity, this wouldn’t be an issue. I would accept those things. But this isn’t about her appearance. The hair loss itself is not the issue, but rather what it represents. I’ve had people say, “Hair or no hair, she’s still your mother.” Of course she is. That is not in question and never will be, but it doesn’t change the visceral response I have whenever I see her without her wig.
I know there will come a time when she’ll be too tired to want to bother with it. By then the reality of her prognosis will be inescapable and we will all have far greater concerns. Until then, I need her to look like my mum for as long as possible while we continue to make good memories and spend valuable time together.
One of the reasons we’re so close is because she understands me so well, and we have talked at length about this and how best to deal with it together. I was willing to try to learn how to cope with her hair loss, but she sat me down and told me that she knows this isn’t about her appearance and that my struggle to accept it runs far deeper than that.
She has stood beside me through the years as I’ve fought so hard to stabilise my mental health and fight my way back from clinical depression and the night I planned my suicide. Losing my mum will be an even bigger challenge than that, and she loves me enough to want to do everything possible to make that easier for me. When I told her that I was worried that other people would think I was being selfish, she told me, “The hell with other people. This is about you and me and what works for us. This is my choice and I want to do this for you, so who cares what other people think? ”I love her so much for that.
Mum is the most genuine person I have ever met and she has never gotten a lie past me since I stopped believing in Santa Claus, so I know she’s telling me the truth and not just saying what she thinks I need to hear. So why, after all the times she has reassured me that the wig is comfortable to wear, that she understands why I feel this way and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about it, can I still not shake the feeling that I’m failing her?
The only answer is that the guilt is coming from inside me. I always believed I was a great daughter who would (and could) do anything for her mother, but my inability to see her without her wig has forced me to re-evaluate that belief – a painful and terribly confronting experience.
Just like the anger I discussed in last month’s post, I don’t want anything to taint the time I have left with my mum, so I’ve had to find a way to live with this guilt and accept the way I’m handling her hair loss and what it represents.
I have had to learn to accept that I can only take so much. That if I’m going to keep getting out of bed every morning, holding down a job, maintaining my friendships, supporting mum while managing my own health problems and living my life the way mum wants to see me do, then something has to give. I have to adjust my own perceptions of the kind of person I am, because expecting so much of myself all the time is just asking for anger, disappointment and even more guilt.
I am harder on myself than anyone else around me, and I know many of you facing similar challenges can say the same. When there is so much weighing us down already, the worst thing we can do is add to the load by constantly admonishing ourselves when we are not able to do everything we wish we could.
We are not perfect. We cannot be strong every second of the day. We all have our limits of tolerance that we cannot exceed. That is human nature, and something we have to learn to forgive ourselves for. It is only possible to absolve ourselves of our self-imposed guilt if we are willing to accept the parts of ourselves that make us less than perfect. But as long as we do the best we can and keep going, then we have nothing to feel guilty for. If we can do that, then our best will be more than good enough.