Wrestling with survivor's guilt in a crazy world


By Jeanene Harlick

OPINION This is one of the ways you become that person who wants to take his or her life.

It happens slowly. You've always known you were different. Everyone always told you that you were too "sensitive." But it's not about that. It's about how you feel things: viscerally. When you hurt in your mind, you hurt everywhere.

All of a sudden you're branded — you're mentally ill or an addict or anorexic or whatever. And that's when society starts taking your power away.

You try to change — because everyone says you have to, you have to fit the mold. You go through treatment after treatment, and then you come back and try to rebuild your life and career.

But then there are too many gaps in your resume, you have those labels attached to you, and nobody will hire you. So you spend your empty days turning back to the old addictions because you don't know how else to turn your pain into something tangible that you can tame to get through the day.

You gradually become insane because you see yourself becoming something to the outer world that you're not. You see yourself acting in ways you never thought possible because it's what you have to do to survive. You shoplift. You do really mean things to others. You never drank but you do now, at night, to forget the vile person you've become. And when you're drunk, you call the people you love and say cruel things to them that can never be taken back.

The next morning, you wake up and can't bear that you continue to cause these people pain.

You lock yourself in your closet — it's perfect, as utterly pitch-black as your contaminated soul — for hours each day to block out the world, to block out the media's voices and the tribunals inside your head constantly telling you how much you've failed.

You're 40 and you live by yourself and you have failed to achieve any of the usual markers of success. You go days without talking to a single human being and you start to lose it.

The utter powerlessness and voicelessness are what makes you craziest. You have so much to say and to write, but it's hard to get yourself to do it when you're pretty sure no one's going to listen. And that twists the knife in your stomach a little deeper. You see people all around you with the discipline to turn their pain into something productive, something that helps others — but for some reason you lack the strength or work ethic to do it.

And then, you see someone like Robin Williams — someone who did turn his pain into art, who made a slice of the world a better place. You see someone like that take his life, when it should have been you. And that's when you get much, much closer to the line. The line between sanity and insanity; the line between life and death. And that's when you start thinking, "maybe I'll actually go through with it this time."