Guilty (The Normal One, Part 3)Posted: February 11, 2012
I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt this week and, in particular, as it relates to a conversation with Jerri about our dad who was her only local support person when she lived in Winston-Salem. He was her money-manager, her occasional chauffeur, dog-sitter, and errand boy. She admits she took advantage. Dad felt guilty for not being more active in our lives as kids and Jerri used that to get him to do things for her even when it was inconvenient or inappropriate for her to ask. Early on in our renewed relationship, she assumed I also carried a hefty load of guilt. I denied it saying, “What do I have to feel guilty for? For believing Mom and Dad when they said you were an addict?”
The thing is I lied. I do feel guilty. For a lot of things. Dr. Safer discusses her own feelings of guilt in her book, The Normal One. In talking about her brother, Steven, she says,
The guilt I never felt also became unavoidable. He was the family scapegoat, and I colluded to keep him so. I cannot reverse the favoritism that was undeserved, nor the way it distorted both our lives and prevented any real trust or real love from developing between us.
This rings so true that when I first read it, it was like sticking my face into a Harry Potter-ish pensieve and viewing the silver, hair-like wisp of a memory that had been extracted from my own brain. The number one crime I feel guilty of is colluding with my parents to keep Jerri the scapegoat. In my own defense, it wasn’t a conscious decision, although there was a part of me that acknowledged as long as the heat was on Jerri, it was focused away from me. Growing up in our house, you were just glad NOT to be the focus. Unfortunately, I got so good at NOT being the focus, that even now when I want to be, I can’t seem to manage it.
I feel guilty about the favoritism our parents showed me. I did not seek it out. I didn’t even realize there was favoritism until long after I was an adult watching Mom apply the same methods to my nieces and nephews.
I feel guilty about Jerri’s living conditions. Her housing is modest but safe and comfortable. Still it’s in a bad often dangerous part of town. Her main mode of transportation is the bus system which is used primarily by the poor, people who are not just down on their luck, but often tough, street-wise predators who snack on people like Jerri. She is surrounded daily by those with complex and recalcitrant mental illness and has little exposure to mentally healthy people. She eats most of her meals at the nearby shelter which has an ongoing problem with bedbugs. On several occasions, she’s been violently attacked. Once, when walking home from the bus stop, she was hit in the head by a homeless man with schizophrenia because she asked him what he’d said–she thought he was talking to her and was just trying to treat him like a human being.
I felt guilty at work yesterday when I had to get off the phone with Jerri or miss the opportunity to grab lunch before the cafeteria closed. She’d just admitted she’d had nothing to eat all day and had already missed lunch at the shelter.
According to Dr. Safer, all siblings of “damaged” individuals experience guilt. When it comes to mental illness, I wager that it’s not just the siblings. I doubt anyone in the family escapes the guilt complex whether parent, sibling, or child. We all wonder if we might have some how done something to trigger the illness or at the very least, make it worse. We all know we have responded poorly and failed the one who is ill.
My friends and coworkers remind me on a regular basis of how much I do support her, but, frankly, it seems like too little too late. It falls way short of her actual needs. Just this week, a friend said, “what if you did all the things you think you ought to do – moved her into your own home, administered her meds every day, took care of her like she was your own child, paid for everything she needs – what if you dedicated your whole life to her and nothing changed? What if she continued to be just as sick, continued to get into just as many scrapes?”
My friend had a good point. Sometimes I forget that I’m not God. I can’t fix some things even if I throw my life at it. Dr. Safer makes this point:
There is a critical difference between assisting a damaged sibling and trying to undo accidents of fate and fortune you cannot help and did not cause. The former is brotherly or sisterly love and mature, if circumscribed, responsibility. The latter is compulsive self-sacrifice driven by the belief that you do not deserve your advantages. The one is sadly finite; the other never lets you go.
The word “circumscribed” is important. It means “to limit or confine.” When we are assisting with sisterly love and with mature responsibility, we recognize there are limits to what we can do. In fact, we define those limits. We feel sad about the limits but maintain them just the same. I’m trying to accept that I can’t undo the damage—all I can do is love Jerri the best I can. That is enough.