The New Normal: Feeling Guilty and Coping with it Badly!

I feel guilty about something almost all of the time. If I have to take a day off work, cancel plans or miss a deadline because of my headaches, my mental health deteriorates, and I feel intensely guilty for the rest of the day/ rest of the week/ the next five years. On one level, I know that I can’t control my headaches, and agonizing over a cancelled plan is an unproductive use of my time. However, knowing something is not the same as accepting it, and getting out of the guilt spiral when it’s already begun is, for me, impossible. The only time I don’t feel guilty about taking time off is when I’m literally too sick to care and, even when that happens, I have plenty of time for the guilt to sink in when I start to feel better. For me, these feelings of guilt and the resulting anxiety and low mood it causes are the point where my mental and physical health intersect. My mental state is reliant on how I’m feeling physically to a point where if I’m feeling healthy, I’m happy and if I’m feeling sick, I’m sad.

I hate the feeling of letting people down, but I still do it. I’m not trying to martyr myself here and pretend that I constantly push myself to the point of collapse for other people. I still take the days off and cancel the plans because I know that I have to or I will be more ill. And then I just wallow in my guilt and self-pity for ages instead of, you know, actually resting and recovering. I made the decision about a year ago that my health is more important to me than my job, my degree and what other people think of me – but that doesn’t always make it easier to prioritise the things that are good for me and skip the things that are, well, if not bad then ‘less good’. 

I’m going to give you lucky readers an insight into my own personal Guilt Spiral: do not try this at home, results will not be in any way beneficial to anyone. First of all, I agonise about cancelling ‘The Thing’. Should I just force myself to do it? What if I’m getting so stressed about cancelling that it’s actually giving me a headache and if I go I’ll be fine? I ask my boyfriend 15 times what I should do and then I text my mum. They both say something along the lines of “Cancel if you need to/ look after yourself/ don’t stress yourself out.” I ignore them. Then I get stressed about cancelling at such short notice and I immediately send the text/ make the call/ apply for the extension and feel a drop in my stomach. The stress evaporates and it’s replaced with a kind of sad, pathetic, guilty blanket that covers me until I have the strength to shake it off. Usually I go and lie down and wait for my headache to get a bit better, giving me plenty of time to think positive, uplifting and determined thoughts. Ha ha. Obviously not. Then it’s time to figure out exactly how my cancelling affected people; this bit is the worst if I’ve taken a day off work. I’m a nanny and my sick day has direct repercussions on the jobs and salaries of other people. I have no way to cope with my feelings when this happens, I just feel sad and angry with myself. After I’ve wallowed, I think about all of the things that I have done to personally give myself a headache this time: did I go to bed late last night? Did I have too many coffees? Did I have an alcoholic drink? I usually succeed in finding a possible trigger- which is basically useless because I have no idea what my triggers are apart from, ironically, stress – and beat myself up about it for a little while. Then, finally, I turn my anger outward – not at anything specific, I just feel angry at everything. I think about how unfair it is that I have to regulate my life so strictly 90% of the time, warding off possible triggers left, right and centre, and THEN, I can’t even have a glass of wine? After all of this I usually fall asleep and when I wake up my headache has eased, and I feel a little better. I try and do something mildly productive, like baking cookies or putting washing away. I eat a snack. I send an “I’m sorry” text to whoever I feel like I’ve let down. The world keeps on turning. 

I’m quite embarrassed to write this, especially during the times we find ourselves in. It makes me feel selfish and pathetic and, obviously, guilty. When I have so much, and other people have so little, I feel like I should just feel lucky and carefree all the time; but I don’t. I don’t want to use this column to only write about the areas of my life that I’ve figured out, that I’m happy and confident in. My mental health and the link between feelings of guilt and my physical health is something I have not conquered. I am generally happy with my life and the way it’s going – but not this bit. I feel sad that I have to give up things I enjoy in an attempt to manage my pain and ease my guilt. I feel frustrated and weak that I feel guilty all the time about things that don’t matter. There isn’t really a resolution to this column because there isn’t really a resolution in my life. I’m still doing okay, living my life and coping with lockdown, I hope you guys are too.  

[Madeline Docherty – she/her – @Maddydocluvs1D]

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