I grew up in an Italian Catholic family, which means that guilt is my middle name. I grew up feeling guilty for an unmade bed, a missed homework assignment, and a mean comment tossed out to one of my siblings.
I grew up feeling guilty for being a terrible athlete, even though I was a decent musician and writer. I grew up feeling that my testy moods were my fault, although I understood that the hormones of adolescence were the likely culprits.
As I grew into adulthood, I shifted my guilt feelings just a bit. I learned to feel bad about myself if I ate an ice cream cone, knowing that I might get fat (guilt) and not look as lovely as I was expected to look. I learned to feel a deep sense of guilt for every mistake, every emotional outburst and every weak moment experienced by my kids.
Guilt, a feeling of deep unworthiness, was my defining characteristic.
But you know what? I sort of got over that feeling, for the most part. At some point in my 50 year relationship with my husband, I realized that he wasn’t actually upset with me for gaining a pound, missing a bill, having a bad day. He accepted me. He didn’t expect perfection from me, and I slowly, slowly learned to let go of the same expectation of myself.
And being a mother changed my view of my worthiness, too. My kids were great. They were happy, healthy, loving and secure. They were far from perfect, but for some reason, that was OK with me. In return, my own lack of perfection as their mother didn’t make any of them look at me as if I was a bug under a shoe. Instead, they taught me to laugh at my cranky moments, to embrace my human mommy self and to accept the fact that life has some pretty rough edges.
I have been evolving for about 6 decades. You’d think I would be pretty secure by now, right?
Enter the thought of physical frailty, and I am right back in my most guilt wracked days of self-loathing.
You see, when I was growing up, we all admired those older folks who remained hale and hearty. My uncle, who cut down a giant oak tree in his yard at the age of 70, was a family hero. My Nana, who lived on her own until the age of 99, and who took no medications, was a superhero.
I thought, for some reason, that my own aging experience would be just like theirs. I keep active. I eat well. I am always learning and thinking.
I thought that would do it.
But when I found myself struggling with ongoing pain and fatigue, and eventually was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I immediately asked, “What did I do wrong to cause this?” It felt like my fault, although I have no idea why that is true.
In the past few years, I’ve added a minor heart issue and two unrelated blood disorders to my medical records. I am smart enough, and informed enough, to know that having an inherited blood disorder can’t be my fault. I understand that having a condition labelled “idiopathic” means that even the highly trained doctors I meet with have no idea why this has hit me.
I still feel responsible. Deep in my heart, I constantly ask myself, “If I had just gone to a pilates class, would this have happened?”
Now I find myself on the scary edge of the cancer world. I have a very early, well contained, breast cancer. I need a lumpectomy and radiation therapy. It’s fine. It’s not like, “real” cancer. It just has to be dealt with.
My treatment is slightly complicated by my blood issues, meaning that before I can be treated by the surgeon and sent on to the oncologist, I need to meet again with the hematologist. There will be some extra blood tests and some platelets transfused.
Not a biggie.
I’m not scared (although I’m not happy, either).
But I do feel guilty.
I know it’s stupid. I know it.
But as I lie awake at night, pondering the next few months, I find my thoughts running along a familiar track. “If you had just worked out more……” “if you didn’t drink alcohol……” “Why didn’t you become a vegan?”
I don’t understand this thinking at all.
When my family and friends run into health issues, I never, ever, ever blame them for their bad luck. I don’t.
So why do I blame me?
I don’t know.
But I do know that I need you guys to respond, and to tell me that at 65 years old, stuff happens. People get sick. They get injured.
It’s not my fault.