survivor guilt…

Posted on Saturday 30 April 2011

I’ve heard the term "survivor guilt" for years and I thought I knew what it meant. Back half my life ago, as it came time for my 11 years of deferments from the draft to finally run out of juice [college, medical school, internship, residency], I had become increasingly opposed to the Viet Nam War – specifically that war. And so as my time to become a reluctant soldier approached, I obsessed about what to do if assigned to Southeast Asia. On the one hand, my father’s family had immigrated from starvation and were the kind of patriots that was grounded in true gratitude. On the other, I thought our engagement in Viet Nam was wrong absolutely – an attempt to supress a much needed liberation movement. Big conflict that disappeared when I got assigned to Europe. But in spite of the relief, the conflict remained [remains]. When I’m around friends who were in that war or remember a particular friend who died there, I feel guilty [the patriot thing]. When I’m around people who resisted the draft, I feel guilty [a principles thing]. When I’m around people who "beat the draft or were lucky in the lottery," I feel confused. Nothing feels right, so I thought that was survivor guilt.

Several weeks back when the tornado ripped through our daughter’s town in North Carolina, we got an iPhone picture of her in her closet. The tornado skipped her place, but touched down within blocks of either direction, so for days, she was out helping people move trees etc. We felt proud she joined in the effort.

That weather picture I posted earlier is a phone picture of our tv screen before we started cleaning out a hall closet to get into it. That chaos on the left-most part of the storm is the tornado as it crossed the Interstate – the same one that was so destructive in Alabama, but we didn’t know it that night [even though it says it on the screen in that picture – "if you are in the path of this tornado take cove…"]. All we had was hail and lightning and dimming lights. Scary enough, but not life-changing. But I guess it bounced right over us. The next morning, everything was intact – some ignorable hail damage. Then I turned on the television and saw those videos of the monster and its destruction. Then I found out that it had touched down here [actually right after that picture was snapped] and destroyed 20 homes and damaged 100 more [in an area of our county where homes are pretty sparse – mostly farms]. Compared to Alabama, the damage was slight – no one killed.

I think I know what survivor guilt really feels like now. The Viet Nam feeling was cognitive, This one is visceral. If I feel glad it missed us, I feel guilty. If I feel frightened by what could have happened, I feel like I’m being melodramatic. I’m neither an outsider nor an insider, neither participant nor  observer. People call to check on us, and I appreciate their concern, but it feels funny [as in odd]. I see why they call it "survivor guilt." I feel guilty for not being hit by a tornado. A very strange feeling. But under it all, I think it’s a way of dealing with terror, because that’s what sneaks through momentarily when I think back on that night. And I look at those houses in Alabama and realize how little help it would’ve been to be in that hall closet. Then there’s a picture of a log cabin like ours in our local paper that stood up in spite of losing its roof, and I feel comfort. But there’s an irrational feeling like I’ve heard people with PTSD talk about – it’s just a matter of time until it really happens [Kafka-esque, as in being a marked man like K., but not knowing quite why]…

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