Saturday, March 14, 2015

Survivor Guilt

Rocky Mountain Stroke Survivor
May 6, 2013

Sounds odd to have survivor guilt over something as personal as a stroke.  But a quick google search on survivor guilt turns up an article from The Brain Tumor Society on survivor guilt, so I must not be alone.  By definition, survivor guilt is experienced by those in life threatening situations who have survived.  There is an implied comparison.

It is because of this implied comparison that I experience survivor guilt at least three times a week.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I do various therapies with a group of stroke survivors, all of whom are worse off than me.  Some have aphasia so severe that they have difficulty carrying on a simple conversation.  Many have one limb that they can’t move.  Some have difficulty walking.  Only a few are able to drive.  I see them and feel guilty for coming through my strokes as well as I have.  I can drive…though not on the freeway.  I can work…even if it’s only for a couple hours at a time.  I can appear totally normal, function as a physician, and am even taking dance classes for part of my PT.  How can I possibly complain or grieve my situation when a slightly different location for my ischemia could have resulted in their lives instead of mine?

I know they are comparing too.  They ask questions about how long it’s been since my stroke, why I can use both arms, what I can and can’t do.  I’ve learned to answer with some variation on, “I’m very blessed, the stroke was posterior, in my cerebellum, so I can do things, just not in a coordinated way.  It makes it hard for me to live a normal life but I’m still blessed.”

I am tempted to completely minimize away my own loss because it is so much smaller than theirs.  I’ve been trying to remind myself to think about my situation without comparing it to others.  They have their losses; I have mine.  If someone had told me a year ago that the baby I was carrying in my belly would be raised by a mama who couldn’t care for her more than a few hours at a time, I would have been devastated.  If someone had told me five years ago that I was suffering through residency in order to end up depending on relatives to pay my hospital bills and the government to provide for my family’s food and ongoing medical needs, I would have given up.  This was not the life I imagined I would be living.

At the same time, I know I am blessed.  This has been an opportunity to really focus on what matters to us and learn important skills like living one day at a time.  I get to develop myself in directions I never did before.  As my husband pointed out, I used to consider my body merely a necessary piece of equipment to carry around my head and hands.  And I am certainly learning a lot about being human and taking care of myself.  I  am only away from my sweet family for a few hours at a time at the most.  So I am rich in what really matters.  And I am working to come to terms with an enormous loss as well.

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