Survivor’s guilt is a pitfall many people face in recovery. If you decide to get help, you still likely have friends and acquaintances who still use. If you get sober, you will likely become friends with others in recovery. Statistically, some of these people are likely to relapse, possibly with tragic results. It’s not uncommon for people in recovery to have to deal with survivor’s guilt.
People who have had a narrow escape often feel survivor’s guilt. It can happen in many circumstances. Sometimes it’s a car accident. You may be the only one to survive. Survivor’s guilt is common in the armed forces. People who battle deadly diseases like cancer sometimes feel guilty for surviving when so many others don’t. In most of these situations, who lives and who dies is a matter of pure dumb luck. The survivors feel like they didn’t deserve to survive because others didn’t deserve to die. They often feel like death took the wrong person.
It’s estimated that in the United States, about 10 percent of people who need treatment for substance use disorders actually get it. In Ireland, that percentage is much higher. About half of people addicted to opioids, for example, enter treatment. Reaching 50 percent of people who need help is about as good as it gets. Even so, relapse rates are high, usually more than half in the first year. Some quick math tells us that even in countries where addiction treatment is most readily available, only one in four people struggling with addiction will be sober. The rest either don’t seek treatment or they get sober and relapse.
That means that every person in recovery is connected to at least three people who might face serious consequences, including fatal overdose, from addiction. That can be a heavy burden. Not only have you lost someone you cared about, but it could have been you. People often feel responsible when a friend overdoses, adding to the normal stress of grief. Sometimes people feel a similar sort of guilt when someone relapses, even if there haven’t yet been serious consequences from the relapse.
If you’re experiencing survivor’s guilt, the first thing to remember is that it isn’t your fault. You know first hand how powerful addiction is. You probably ignored people who tried to help you before you were ready. Why should you be uniquely talented to save others from themselves?
If you have lost someone to addiction, don’t go through it alone. Talk to a therapist, your sponsor, or your group. Even if you know rationally that it’s not your fault, it helps to have the support of people who have been through the same thing.
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