Survivor Syndrome

(The attempt of this blog post is to bring awareness to but not offer personal professional diagnoses. If you, or someone you know, is experiencing symptoms of conditions described below, please see a licensed professional to obtain the proper and necessary help/treatment.)

When Luke and Scott joined the military as young adults, neither one could have predicted the turn of events or the trauma that would come after combat. They simply wanted to serve their country and by joining the military, this was the ultimate gesture of patriotism. But when Luke returned home years later without Scott, feelings of survivor’s guilt flooded him.

They had both gone to the same elementary school and grew up together; rode bikes together as children, fished, hiked, shot BB guns. When Luke didn’t have a date to his senior prom, it was Scott who orchestrated the most romantic event where the prettiest girl in their high school couldn’t refuse to say yes to Luke. For years, they had heard their grandfathers tell stories of their own experiences while in service, and so, after high school they both made a decision to enlist together. It was only the next natural thing to do.

Both of the men were willing to lay down their life for their country and each other but the expectation that both men would come back home safely to their families afterward still existed. However, when Scott was killed in a gun battle while in combat, Luke was the only one returning home. Luke’s skill level wasn’t superior to anyone else’s. He wasn’t in any better shape than anyone else. So many guys were hit so many different times; he just outlasted them all. Luke watched all the men around him die but somehow managed to survive. His survivor’s guilt was rampant and he would never be the same again. When one war ended, another began a few months later; one where the dark secrets and all the guilt in his mind emerged and tortured him nonstop.

Luke was experiencing survivor’s syndrome or survivor’s guilt. This is a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not, often feeling self-guilt.  It may be found among survivors of rape, murder, terrorism, combat, natural disasters, epidemics, among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide, and in non-mortal situations. These people are described as having a pattern of characteristic symptoms including anxiety and depression, social withdrawal; sleep disturbance and nightmares, physical complaints and mood swings with loss of drive. Commonly such survivors feel guilty that they have survived the trauma and others – such as their family, friends, and colleagues – did not.

Common to those who lived through accidents, natural disasters and wars, survivor guilt typically involves conflicting feelings – happiness to be alive, and grief and guilt about another’s death – that makes those affected feel confused or distressed. Additional signs include obsessing over what happened, feeling unworthy, or ambivalent about living, harping on the meaning of life, or being plagued by the sense that no matter where you go, you’re never really safe.

In February 2009, 24-year-old Nick Schuyler went fishing with three friends in the Gulf of Mexico. An attempt to salvage a stuck anchor capsized the boat, and the four men were forced to cling to the hull to survive. When rescuers found the upturned boat after 43 hours, he was the only one still alive.

On Jun 30, 2009, Bahia Bakari was the sole survivor of Yemenia Airways flight 626, which crashed into the Indian Ocean near the north coast of Grande Comore, in the Comoros Islands. A schoolgirl from the outskirts of Paris, she was on her way to the Comoros for her summer holidays with her mother, Aziza Aboudou, who was among the 152 passengers and crew killed. She spent nine hours in the water, clinging to a piece of wreckage.  

Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., a psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, offers six things to try when your very existence makes you feel guilty.

  1. Ask who is truly responsible.
    • Remind yourself who, if anyone, is actually to blame. In the end, mourn those who were lost without taking on the culpability for the loss.
  2. Remind yourself you can handle sadness and loss.
    • As horrible as the guilt is, it can be easier than dealing with devastation brought on by grief. Focusing on guilt can be a subtle or even subconscious way to avoid sadness. But avoiding the true emotion bubbling underneath the guilt makes things worse over time and stand in the way of moving on, accepting what happened, and feeling better.
  3. Think about how people who love you feel about your survival.
    • Even if you suspect, somehow, you shouldn’t still be here, remind yourself of who would be devastated if you were not. You’ve been given the gift of survival, so rather than rejecting that gift because you somehow feel undeserving, share it with those who love you.
  4. It’s not a zero-sum game.
    • Hidden beneath survivor guilt is the idea that there’s only so much luck to go around and that benefiting from good fortune means that someone else is being deprived of it. But luck is random. It’s hard to accept that there’s not greater order to things, but once you do, you will feel vindicated.
  5. Do something meaningful for someone else.
    • Guilt can be a motivator for purposeful action. Feeling guilty drives us to make things right as best as we can. We find ways to commemorate, serve, and honor those who were lost, giving us a chance to, in our minds, reduce some of the guilt we feel.
  6. Take care of yourself
    • Surviving a harrowing experience takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Eating well, sleeping, and exercising will all aid in healing.

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