Dealing with the Guilt of Having Depression

Merely Me Health Guide
  • I rented an old time movie favorite of mine this week, Ordinary People.  Do you remember this movie?  It stars Donald Sutherland as the placating father, Mary Tyler Moore as the bitter mother, and a young Timothy Hutton who plays the guilt-ridden younger brother of Buck, the older brother and son who dies in a boating accident.  Timothy Hutton (Conrad) goes to see a shrink named Dr. Berger who is poignantly played by Judd Hirsch.  In this film we get to see the intimate dialogue between patient and therapist in dealing with issues pertaining to all humans, that of grief and guilt. 


    The character of Conrad is central to the movie and how he deals with his feelings of anger, guilt, and despair over having survived a boating accident when his brother did not.  In a scene you cannot forget if you have watched this movie, the two brothers are fighting for their lives in the middle of a storm, holding onto their overturned boat.  Buck, the older brother, lets go and drowns as Conrad is left to hold on after Buck has just consoled Conrad that "everything will be okay." 

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    With Kleenex at the ready, I watched the dramatic scene where Conrad calls his therapist in the middle of the night and meets him at his office.  (Nice therapist!)  Conrad has just found out that a friend from the hospital where he had been a patient previously has just committed suicide.  The feelings are overwhelming and lead to an emotional breakthrough.  He is angry at these people who have deserted him.  He is pissed off not only because they let go but that he held on.  He feels guilt for his anger and also for having survived what others did not. In a sweeping rage, Conrad knocks things to the ground and cries out to his deceased brother, "Why did you have to die, Bucky?"


    Dr. Berger speaks for Buck and answers, "Because I let go!"

    Conrad:  "Well screw you, you asshole!"

    Conrad:  "I just did one wrong thing."

    Dr. Berger:  "What was that?"

    Conrad:  "I survived."


    Doctor Berger seizes the moment to tell Conrad that these things were not his fault and that it is good to be alive.  And at this point in the movie I find myself letting go of my own tears.


    How many of us have felt the same things?  How many of us are survivors of loss and trauma and sometimes instead of feeling good about it, we feel guilty?  How did we survive this when someone else did not?  And why are we left to hold all the baggage?


    I can tell you that no matter how many years pass, we still hold onto that psychological residue of early losses.  I am now 43 years old.  I am now nine years older than my father was when he died.  My father passed away when he was 34 and I was four.  I barely had time to form many images of him.  But I knew I loved him and that he loved me.  Sadly, my father died of drinking too much.  His liver gave out after being warned by doctors that he would only have so many months to live if he didn't stop drinking.  His drinking did not stop and he did die.  My father left me and my mother to fend for ourselves and to live in poverty.  Although I did not get to know him very well, his ghost has haunted me for my whole life. 


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    I don't believe that when we lose someone, that grieving ever truly stops.  Perhaps we put things into a more logical order, we gain some perspective, and move along with our lives.  But we never stop thinking about the person and the what ifs.  I do often wonder about my father.  Why did he drink?  Why did he continue to do so after he was warned that he could lose his life?  The adult in me knows some of the answers.  I have personally worked with people having addictions.  Yes, I know it is a disease.  Yes I realize that he had a biological problem which he could not get control over.  The adult in me rationalizes and understands.  But the little girl who was left without a father, she does not understand.


    The little girl in me yells out like Conrad did in the movie, "Why did you have to die?  Why did you let go?"  And then the ultimate question comes out, "Was it me?  Was I not enough to keep you around?"  The little girl, who was left alone, can not quite understand what happened and that it wasn't her fault. 


    Part of depression is this neurotic guilt we feel for things which we know we logically had no control over, yet we feel responsible for anyway.  Emotions are tricky little things, elusive to the nature of our thinking and reason. 


    I feel that over the years I have come to somewhat of a tentative conclusion as to why we do this to ourselves.  I believe that much guilt comes from the wish to be able to control things.  If we are ultimately responsible for everything, then we have the super human power to change things.  We feel more in control in holding onto our guilt.  "Next time," we reason, "I won't let any bad things happen.  I will keep all the bad things at bay.  I will be better and therefore disaster will not strike again."  Depression gives us these illusions.  The truth of the matter is that bad things will happen again.  Things will certainly happen which are beyond our control.  To embrace the truth seems cruel.  Guilt seems a better solution. 


    I can tell you personally that it is not.  As Doctor Berger tells Conrad, "It is good to be alive."  There is no shame in survival.  You are not responsible for those things which you had no control over. 


    Grief, loss, guilt...I am still in the process of letting go.  I am not there yet.  I am merely reporting the process.  I do hope my words today have helped someone reading this to make that attempt to let go as well.


    It is not your fault.  You can live now.  Give yourself permission. 




Published On: August 30, 2008