Guilt Happens

guilt and depression

I sat in the hospital waiting room and felt insurmountable guilt.

My husband was sitting beside me, terrified. My mom and sister, who lived 45 minutes away, were weaving through end-of-rush-hour traffic to get to us.

As far as emergency room patients went, my exterior looked perfectly fine. No bleeding or broken bones. However, my internal state was another story as I battled destructive thoughts and negative emotions. At this moment, guilt was beating out sadness.

I was remorseful for letting myself get this unwell and I was deeply ashamed at how I burdened my husband and family.

I never thought I’d be waiting my turn in a frenetic city hospital sipping a warm ginger ale wondering what would happen next. When you show up to the ER with an injury, you know how they’ll fix a sprained ankle or a deep cut. I had no idea how they’d patch me up when I confessed I “wished I wasn’t here sometimes.”

Guilt All Day, Everyday

My therapist sent me to the ER that afternoon because I admitted I thought it would be easier if I wasn’t around anymore. I didn’t hurt myself or have a plan. What I thought was a throw-away comment ultimately set me on the path toward healing; I just didn’t know it at the time.

For now, I was consumed by guilt.

The depression I’d been coping with annihilated my self-esteem. I spent the majority of my time rehashing situations which always concluded with “and that’s why everything is my fault.” The depression also affected my ability to function normally and you can bet I was consumed with guilt over that.

When I’d choose sleep over just about everything, I felt tremendous shame for dragging my husband down with me. I struggled with knowing I was making his life so difficult.

I felt guilty when my sister or mom would see me acting out because I couldn’t describe what I was feeling.

I was convinced I ruined friendships despite evidence to the contrary.

Battling With Yourself

Most of my guilt was tied to how I was affecting others, but I lamented about how I was missing out on life.

There was this one Saturday I’ll never forget.

It was summer – my favorite season – and the weather was perfect. There was an outdoor concert playing along the Charles River, near my apartment. It had all the makings of an idyllic afternoon.

So I stayed in bed.

I’d spent the morning at a baby shower. When I arrived home, my husband’s friend stopped by. I willed myself to have more energy. I told myself going to the concert would be just what I needed and yet, I couldn’t leave the house. I sent my husband and his friend on their way and I spent the afternoon staring out the window wishing I could feel better.

My husband texted me every so often to see how I was doing. Cue the self-inflicted guilt for making him worry when he should have been having fun.

Around this same period, I struggled with socializing in general. It took all my energy to meet up with friends and not be outwardly depressed. Later, I’d spend the hours I should have been sleeping wondering if I’d offended anyone.

Family functions weren’t much better. After about an hour, I’d need to hide in a bedroom to take a breather.

I offered myself zero compassion and it took a long time to occur to me that something was deeply wrong. Instead, I spent months telling myself I deserved to feel guilty because I was an awful person and a burden to everyone around me.

When I told my therapist I was worried I was alienating my friends and family, she asked what I’d do if that were true. I took that as confirmation that I was, indeed, ruining the lives of those around me.

The vicious cycle of emotions was getting nastier: The guiltier I felt, the more depressed I became. As the severity of my depression grew and the less I could cope, the guiltier I felt.

Will the Guilt Pass?

It’s been nearly six years since I sat in that hospital waiting room. It was one of the darkest days for me, my husband and family. I feel terrible for putting them through such a dramatic experience, but without that breaking point, I wouldn’t have received the help I desperately needed.

Guilt is multi-faceted; it motivates us to do the right thing, but it can skew our perspective and cause deeper pain.

Time and treatment taught me how to identify when guilt is detrimental, not helpful. Using evidence, instead of negative self-talk, to make sense of situations has been crucial to staying healthy.

And I often think of a simple piece of advice I was once given, “If you didn’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to feel guilty about.”

Jen Jope

Jen Jope

Jen is founder and editor-in-chief of Depression Defined.
Jen Jope

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