Making Amends With Yourself When You’ve Defeated Your Addiction, But A Loved One Hasn’t

Why me? Why did I make it, and he didn’t?

If you’ve ever asked yourself this question on your road to recovery, then you may be experiencing survivor’s guilt. Maybe your partner or best friend began recovery with you, but they have relapsed, left treatment or passed away. There’s no reason you can think of that you are going strong, and he or she isn’t. And instead of feeling hopeful, compassionate or even self-righteous, you feel … guilty.

This is survivor’s guilt. And even though it feels overwhelming and heartbreaking, it is perfectly normal. However, knowing that might not make experiencing it any easier. This guide will help you understand your feelings, learn to accept your grief, and begin moving forward.

What is Survivor’s Guilt?

You endure a particularly traumatic experience — as you do when you endure a relapse, sexual assault or other kind of violence, or a loved one’s sudden, unexpected death — when someone you love dies or suffers while you pull through. You know this isn’t your fault. You know you didn’t cause this. But you still feel unsettled in the pit of your stomach with an overwhelming sense of guilt that won’t go away. Due to the unpredictable and unstable nature of addiction, it’s not uncommon for people succeeding in recovery to feel guilty about their positive outcome while others they care about still struggle — or worse.

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Survivor’s Guilt and Addiction

Addiction is such a complex illness that you may feel survivor’s guilt for a variety of reasons. You may feel in control of your own progress but out of control when it comes to helping others, and this can be confusing or even frustrating. You might feel like you haven’t earned your success or that failure is lurking around every corner. It’s likely you think that you have done something wrong, something unfair, for surviving when others do not. You may even think you didn’t do enough; you could have done something more or differently to help others. All of these feelings can range from frequent pangs of sadness to depression and despair.

For people dealing with addiction, survivor’s guilt often accompanies times when:

  • You become friends or companions with someone also in treatment who seems fine one day, and then leaves the program the next.
  • You have few or no relapses, while others in your program or support group often struggle to stay sober.
  • A loved one succumbs to their addiction, and dies while you are in treatment or working on your recovery.

Losing a loved one during recovery can knock the wind out of you, especially if it is unexpected. That sense of disillusionment and despair often leads to survivor’s guilt. If you don’t work through these feelings, you will get stuck in negative patterns and may even become vulnerable to those familiar, yet dangerous, cravings.

Acknowledging Survivor’s Guilt

The first step — which will likely sound familiar to you — is acknowledging that you are having these feelings and that they are meaningful. If you don’t name your emotions, you might not be able to process your feelings, leaving room for the guilt to eat away at you. This might start because you feel like you deserve to feel guilty. It’s the price you pay to be sober while loved ones are not. Once you are able to recognize that these feelings, while natural, aren’t reflecting reality, you are able to open yourself up to the possibility of moving forward.

Coping with Survivor’s Guilt

Now that you have named your emotions and acknowledged that you are dealing with survivor’s guilt (which is no easy feat in and of itself), use this as an opportunity to really embody the lessons you are learning in recovery. Here are a few ideas for coping with survivor’s guilt.

Change How You Talk to Yourself

When you think about your loved, you might initially feel shame that you didn’t do more. You might say to yourself:

I am neglectful. I could have done more. I abandoned them. I do not deserve this sobriety. I do not deserve to be alive.

Now is the time to change the negative narrative you are creating. What you focus on is what you will feel. Instead of thinking about neglect or abandonment, think about the times you supported that person or someone in a similar situation. When you feel unworthy, make a list of all the hard changes you have made, and remind yourself that you are not here by accident. You are here because of perseverance.

Reframe Your Emotions

Recovery isn’t a straight line. It’s a path with winds, turns and curves, and it will probably be that way for a long, long time. If you allow survivor’s guilt to swallow you whole, you are risking the temptation of relapse or worse. Give yourself permission to celebrate your success by replacing negative emotions with positive affirmations. When knowing a loved one is still wrapped in addiction, instead of feeling ashamed of your sobriety, try feeling compassion for the other person. Then, maybe feel compassion for yourself. A loving-kindness meditation is a wonderful practice for reframing emotions.

Support Others In Grief

Addiction can be the cause of intense pain and suffering for the person struggling with a substance abuse disorder, as well as their friends and family. If someone you know needs compassion, engage them more. Don’t be silent. Don’t just sit by. Be supportive as an attentive listener and a judgment-free safe space. Many of the things that you would say to comfort them are the very same things that you yourself need to hear.

Talk To Others

Though you may feel alone in this, you are not. That’s why group meetings, treatment organizations and recovery programs exist. There is a community of help out there for you, filled with people who have had similar experiences to yours. Don’t be afraid to open up to a counselor, a support group or a friend when you’re struggling. Bottling up your emotions tied to survivor’s guilt will keep you stagnant, blocking your path to processing your feelings and preventing you from gaining insight and moving forward.

Dive Into A Routine

Allow yourself to feel your feelings, but don’t get stuck in them. Keep up with your routine. Show up at work, and put your heart into your projects. Attend group meetings, and open up when you can. Volunteer to give your life a deeper sense of purpose, and start exercising — especially outdoors — to help yourself deal with the stress. While continuing your routine can help stabilize your emotions, it might be tempting to focus on work or exercise as a way to mask pain. Indulging in occasional guilt isn’t a bad thing; it can help release some emotional pressure. Just be sure to continue to move forward, even in the midst of your pain.

Have A Healthy Sense of Responsibility

You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you are wracked with guilt, despair and shame because you have survived when someone else didn’t, then you are manifesting negativity into the world around you. Look deep within your heart and ask yourself why you feel responsible for this other person’s life. You care deeply, but if you are hung up on the guilt of this situation, you are not free to help people who need you.

Life Beyond Survivor’s Guilt

Moving forward in life doesn’t mean you stop honoring the memory of the loved one who has passed away or caring for someone who still wrestles with drug or alcohol use. It does not mean you give up. But it does mean that you don’t linger on what-ifs, and stand up to needless feelings of guilt and shame. Moving on is natural, and may be the best path forward if you’re being held back by a toxic relationship or destructive emotions.

There’s no immediate off-switch for survivor’s guilt. Work on acknowledging and processing your emotions so your mind and heart can become more open. You’ll find a balance between celebrating your success and supporting those you love the most.