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Handling Guilt

I recently had the opportunity to share the story of how my trauma unfolded with Army staff NCO's and Officers.  One of the things that I talked about was the sense of guilt that comes up when you've experienced trauma.  It's not something I completely understand to this day, but it's something worth exploring.  There is a tremendous sense of guilt that comes over a person who has been through any type of trauma.  I've met many soldiers who were riddled with inconsolable guilt for situations that were beyond their control.  The event could not have unfolded in any other way.  Let's also think about car accident victims who were in an accident that was not their fault, it was just something that happened in a split second to alter their lives.  Each of these scenarios creates as much guilt or sometimes even more than a situation where someone was at fault for the trauma they experienced, either due to negligence, duty, or a heat of the moment mistake.  The question is where does the guilt come from?  If we weren't at fault for the trauma, why feel such an intense feeling of guilt?   It really doesn't make a  whole lot of sense, but what I believe it to be is this:    When we are hard working people who are trained to get the job done and we have high standards for the quality of our work, which many military personnel, police, firefighters, etc. are trained for, there is also this expectation that we must have some kind of superhuman quality that should have allowed us to stop, change, or alter the outcome of a scenario.  When were rendered unable to do so, there is a tremendous sense of defeat.  We should have done A, B, or C to change the outcome of the event.  This is especially true if others were hurt in a situation and we were not.  I often use the term "we", not including myself as one of you who have served or are serving, but as a group of people who have experienced trauma.  I just like to clarify as I go for those who may be reading this blog for the first time.  It's something to ponder because guilt can be a bear to overcome.  It sits on top of you like a boulder and with all your might it continues to weigh you down.  Ponder what you feel guilty about?   Is it valid?  Or is it that you are internally expecting yourself to have been superhuman, when in fact, being ordinary is part of the lesson you are learning?  We all have expectations of ourselves, but sometimes they simply aren't realistic.  Maybe it's a matter of starting smaller and letting ourselves know that we can't serve our families and loved ones around us if we haven't learned to serve ourselves.  I can picture you reading that sentence a few times over making sure you heard me right.   It's okay, I had to say it out loud to make sure I was saying it the way that I meant it.  I have spoken correctly.  Self-serving sounds selfish and many of us struggle with the idea that something we are doing is selfish, but what you have to understand is that when you have PTSD or have been through trauma, it's important to care for your soul.  You have to because you are the only granted access to it.  You won't let anyone else in there and healing has to come from the inside out.  If you want to heal your relationships with family, friends, your life in general, begin to get comfortable with the idea of caring for you and examining you without judgment.  Each of the soldiers I've met are wonderfully brilliant, capable people, willing to go the course for our country, but we must also go the course for ourselves internally.  We change the world around us by first developing understanding of ourselves and our mark on the world.  Each day we have the power to grant hope or defeat.  I chose defeat for a long time until I realized I actually had a choice.  I've said in previous posts that when you have PTSD, you don't realize that you have choices because you certainly didn't sign up for PTSD.  We know that wasn't exactly a choice, but there are other choices and with that comes growth. 

*Photography by Janise Witt

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