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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Updated: Aug 17, 2019

I feel guilty all the time. Guilty that I only work part-time, guilty while my husband mows the lawn and I just read and take an accidental nap, guilty that I can't bring myself to spend more time with my mom. And so on. Guilt is my default. I immediately jump to it's all my fault. That gets into my body and takes up shop there. I feel bad for feeling bad when I know I shouldn't. It's worsened by the anxiety that comes from bipolar disorder; when I'm anxious, something as simple as a friend pointing out that my shoe's untied sends me into a frenzy of unwarranted apologies and panic as if I've done something wrong (yup, that happened). People don't understand why I'm overreacting.

My husband somehow manages to cleanse himself of any guilt almost immediately. Can't make our plans? Slightly inconvenience someone? Have to say no? Who cares? I admire him for it. Today, I told him I felt bad for making a student meet me earlier in the morning than usual to accommodate my schedule. "9:30's not that early," he reasoned.

I think the automatic assumption of guilt is a particularly female trait. Women tend to feel responsible for everything and everyone, want to smooth things over and make everyone feel comfortable and heard, expect too much of themselves. We end up feeling guilty for things we can't control, for not living up to impossible standards, or for things that aren't our fault at all.

Two and a half years ago, I tried to stage an intervention for my alcoholic mother. Let's just say it didn't go well. One of her responses to my asking her to seek help was that psychiatrists are a bunch of bullshit and psychology is pseudo science (this she said to her bipolar daughter whom she sent to a teen psych ward of a state hospital when she was 13, who struggles every day with her mental health). She refused to see the issue or do anything about it (a classic addict's response). Later, she wrote a three-page letter of grievances and read it to me over the phone while I sobbed, not because of her berating me, but because of the feeling that nothing would ever change and next time she fell down the stairs we wouldn't get as lucky as a traumatic brain injury from which she (largely, sort of) recovered or a couple black eyes (separate incidents)). When I told a dear friend, a recovering addict herself, about my sense of hopelessness and how I was convinced that my mother's drinking would kill her, she said that I can't control my mother's behavior, I can only control my own actions. She suggested drawing a line in the sand that I wouldn't be around my mother while she's drinking, and in the past two and a half years, I've mostly stuck with that. When I make an exception for a family gathering she (mostly, sort of) controls her drinking in front of me but I know puts back another bottle when I'm gone, and I don't hang around or spend much time there. When I see her (mostly) keeping it together - with a blip here and there, such as crying over nothing, arguing or repeating herself, or being unable to stand up/falling - I feel guilty over refusing to spend more time with her. Maybe I've blown things out of proportion, I think. Maybe's she's gotten better but I've put a wall up between us. Maybe our strained relationship is all my fault. I know this isn't true, but it doesn't stop the feeling. Then I'm reminded that the problem is just as bad as ever and I feel justified, but still heartbroken that I simply can't watch her killing herself and there's nothing I can do about it.

Guilt is a dangerous spiral. You blame yourself for something you can't change, then blame yourself for blaming yourself, then blame yourself some more. Telling yourself "Don't feel this way," or worse - "you shouldn't feel this way, something is wrong with you" - doesn't help. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do I feel responsible for everything that happens? Why do I always blame myself?

Last night, a scientist friend and I were talking about the ways self-blame and guilt manifest themselves in our bodies. "Your cells are listening," she said, which I think is a great reminder. That the stress of guilt weighs you down and can have physical, as well as emotional, impacts. So, ladies (and everyone else), let's try our best not to blame ourselves, and, when we do, try our best to forgive ourselves. Don't go down that guilt/shame spiral. Your cells are listening.

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