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Surviving The Survivor Guilt

alec vanderboom

Tomorrow marks a 90 day anniversary of attending Co-dependents Anonymous meetings for me. It's a big milestone. What makes CODA so special to me is that, on the outside, our meetings seem so simple. I show up for meetings in a church's ordinary Sunday School room. I sit on a metal folding chair. I eat the Mini-Hershey Chocolate Bars that are passed around as a snack. I sip water from my water bottle. I listen. For one hour every week, I listen to people share stories that are eerily similar to my own autobiography. Sometimes I talk too. But mostly, I listen.

I've yet to learn anything earth shatteringly "new" in a educational presentation at CODA. That is also reassuring. I'm talking to God regularly. He's telling me how to heal. Healing from emotional trauma isn't rocket science.

What I witness in CODA is the real life example of people who have put these Christian principals of self-examination and self-forgiveness into practice. Now they are better off than me. That's inspiring! I can get better too!

I almost always leave a CODA meeting feeling more connected to God and less afraid. There is an amazing feeling of community. It's amazing to me that I can receive such deep encouragement and support from people radically different from me.

I've watched a lot of TV this week because that's an easy distraction for me from the waves of morning sickness. I saw this scene where a woman had horrible survivor guilt because she was saved from a bus accident, while the man who pushed her out of the street died. Day after day she sat at the bus stop in shock feeling horribly guilty for being alive, while a more worthy hero was dead.

A friend of the dead guy snaps at the guilty woman and starts screaming at her "Go, get a life!" Stop wasting time sitting here and replaying the accident in your head. Leave here now. Don't every come back. Go, get a life!"

That scene like such a metaphor to me for my experiences in CODA. I have extreme survivor guilt. I am the only person from a large Christian family who is actively talking to God on a regular basis. There are train wrecked lives all around me. These are people who I love. These are people who are "better" than me. It feels selfish and wrong to delight in fishing with my husband and kids on a perfect summer afternoon while there are so many people I love who will likely never become a parent because their hearts are so mangled by our joint family experiences that they never risk intimacy with another human being, ever.

Marriage is intimacy. Marriage is vulnerability and risk. It's a huge gift from the Holy Spirit to even be in the place where I said "I trust myself enough to make a commitment to love one man, Jon Benjamin, for the rest of my life. I'm open enough to receive that same gift back from him."

I look around my life and I don't just see a society that contracepts after 2 kids. I see a bunch of friends from college and law school who around age 40 are still not in a position to get married. They have the shiny career. They have the house. Yet inside they still feel emotionally insecure and afraid of serious commitment.

I'm a survivor. I lived that life too. I was more emotionally insecure than anyone. However, here I am, praying and laughing and kissing the same guy for over thirteen years. Give God the credit.

I feel like the "bad" evangelization efforts I do, is a product of co-dependent thinking. Bad evangelization is from survivor guilt. I feel guilty that I'm "here" pregnant with a sixth child, attending Mass, baking peach pies instead of "there"--living in stressville with all my workaholic college buddies. I want to "save them." I want to scream out some Bible Verses, and post some cool quotes from the catechism. I want to feel less guilty that "I got chosen" for a major life overhaul and not them.

CODA meetings remind me to back off on my rescue efforts. I'm not a member of the Chicago Fire Department. I need to focus on my own recovery right now. I might be outwardly Catholic right now, but I'm sure as heck not healed. I'm not in a place where I'm peaceful during normal conflicts in my marriage. I'm not in a place where I'm allowing my children to make their own mistakes. I'm still fighting perfectionism, and rigid black/white thinking, and religious scrupulosity. I'm still learning how to Let God love me for myself alone, and not for what I can "do for him."

At the exact same time that CODA shines a flashlight on my soul and shows me "Whoops, I'm so not as healed as I thought I was..." CODA also gives me a solution that is little and gentle. "One day at a time." "Easy does it." "Let Go and Let God." It's shocking to realize that planning a horse-back riding trip with my 10 year old daughter does more healing for my soul, than reading stacks of self-help books. I suspect that one horseback riding trip is also a better evangelization tool that righting 50 earnest Abigail's Alcove posts. I think it was Mother Teresa who said "Joy catches souls."

I'm grateful for my recovery. I'm excited to learn how to cultivate more Joy in my life, rather than feel likes it's a fleeting thing that so rarely can be enjoyed or captured.

St. Therese of Lisieux, patroness of missionaries, pray for us!