The Ones Left Behind

Survivor’s guilt is a painful aspect of recovery that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, says Jamie Gratton.

Recovery - survivors guiltOne of the things they never prepare you for when entering into recovery is survivor’s guilt – a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died. The truth of the matter is if you decide to enter into recovery, you will most likely have friends and acquaintances who continue to use. 

When you get sober, you’ll make friends with other people in the recovery community, and the sad truth is that some of these amazing souls are likely to relapse, with tragic consequences. 

Jamie Gratton is operations director at Staywell Derby CIC
Jamie Gratton is operations director at Staywell Derby CIC

I’ll never forget the first time I felt survivor’s guilt during my recovery. I was a few months into my recovery journey, and it was around that time that I experienced what many people feel when substances leave their bodies and their minds clear. I was starting to feel at ease in my new sober skin, and for the first time in a long time my entire body felt alive. The people and environment around me felt electric, and I felt like a child again – everything I was experiencing was like I was seeing life in colour for the first time. And in some ways, I was – so much of my life had been lost due to substances and mental health issues. 

It was at this time that a great friend and peer mentor, Paul, who had been in recovery for about three years, lapsed due to life and family issues. He started to spiral out of control and very quickly we lost him. And the truth of the matter is, this is a very common story. This is when the survivor’s guilt first hit me. Why did I not see the signs? I should have been there – it should have been me. And being truthful, I didn’t handle these feelings of guilt very well.

Even after 25 years in recovery, I still haven’t found a way to deal with this. Yes, I can cope and work through it, but every time it hits me. It brings doubts and raises questions like, ‘Why me – why have I managed to get clean and someone else didn’t? What makes my story different? Why do I deserve to live and they don’t?’ 

Your thought process spirals and you can end up analysing everything. Could I have done anything different? Maybe if I hadn’t walked away from them, I could have saved them. If only I’d tried harder to get them in recovery. Now logically, I know that no one can be in charge of someone else’s recovery, and no matter how much you try to help someone, only they can take the steps needed. But the feelings of guilt, if not dealt with, could lead to lapsing on your own recovery journey, so it’s really important to not only acknowledge these feelings but to do something about them.

This is where I have found focusing on my emotional recovery comes into play. 

Emotional recovery often includes establishing a self-care habit. Moving your body on a regular basis, engaging in calming or relaxing activities, eating well, and getting enough rest are all staples of self-care routines. Having someone to lean on while dealing with survivor guilt is also very important. A person might feel more understood by talking to others who’ve been through the same thing – joining a support group, or seeing a trusted mentor. 

Even finding a method to remember or celebrate the departed may be therapeutic for some people. All these things help me deal with that guilt I get when someone I know passes away due to addiction. Now I’m not sure if I’ll get to the time in my life and recovery where I don’t feel like this, but if I am truthful, it’s one of the reasons behind what I do and why I’m passionate about recovery and shout about how recovery not only changes lives but saves lives.

So, I’ll leave you with this – survivors’ guilt is a part of recovery, but you can also learn to control how you react to it. Remember that we may lose people in our recovery journey, but you are worth your recovery, you deserve your recovery, and you have control over your recovery, no matter what. 

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