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Survivor’s guilt is a phenomenon that has often been tied to people who’ve survived traumatic events like natural disaster and war. In the past years there’s been more research on how a form of survivor’s guilt affects first-generation college students as they come to find they have more opportunities available than their families and communities back home.
My original idea for this article was to have it be in two pieces. One was meant to address the struggle with mental health of feeling like your life is just about survival, like you’re constantly falling and getting yourself back up. I wanted to follow this with an article on survivor’s guilt when survival feels like a huge accomplishment at school, knowing people are struggling back home with less access to resources. I decided, instead, to combine them, as I’ve noticed how survivor’s guilt has kept me solely in survival mode.
“How was your spring break?” People asked over the past week hoping it would be a positive conversation starter, or a good memory to think about now that we were back to the stress of the grind at Harvard.
I often replied with a nervous laugh or “It was okay” if I didn’t want them to follow up with more questions.
“I was just at home.” To some I would add, “There were just family problems and financial stressors that lined up perfectly with my time there.” Keeping it intentionally vague.
I’m back home lying in bed with my mom. Being at home brings everything rushing back. It gets me caught up on all that I have missed — all that you can’t truly understand over the phone. Taking out my stress on my mom, I tell her I want to leave halfway through. I feel guilty afterwards. Even more so later knowing she didn’t have the same option. These were her main stressors at home. I was now a visitor in them. I’m just a visitor at home now. I’ve “made it out.” I’m one of the lucky ones, though we often forget when we’re drowning in work at school.
Mental health fluctuates here. Friends sometimes notice that you’re not yourself. Sometimes they stop noticing because you get better at pretending you’re okay. But you notice. Therapy appointments increase. Depression naps increase. And you’re too scared to call home. You don’t tell anyone. Because at the end of the day, at least you made it. Your family has their own problems. You don’t want to burden them with yours. Your friends have their own problems. You hold it all in, scared of when it’s all gonna spill over. Tears approaching your eyelids in this silent library. Biting your lip to keep them at bay. You’ve gotten good at this. You’ve gotten good at surviving.
I struggle with my self-care, as I keep my struggles silenced: I’m used to minimizing them, since it always feels like there’s somebody who has it worse. That’s the mentality I grew up with.
“Al menos no estamos como ellos. Si ves que hay gente que sí sufre.” My mom talked over the news that was covering the latest tragedy. She reminded us to be grateful that our lives weren’t that bad. I have often rejected this sentiment, feeling that it was invalidating. One person’s suffering shouldn’t erase someone else’s. I realize now it was really a coping mechanism. I try not to take this from my mom, knowing she doesn’t have the same access to mental health support that I do now.
“Oh, I was definitely depressed before I got to Harvard,” my coworker joked when we were on the same topic around spring break and going home.
“Same. I just wasn’t diagnosed because I didn’t have health insurance,” I joked back.
I remember the many times I’ve anxiously awaited my next therapy appointment. I’ve gauged how well I’m doing by how much I’ve felt like I was holding it all in until I had the permission to release the tension with someone who was getting paid to listen to me — somebody who, I felt, I wouldn’t burden with my problems.
My therapist wonders if I’ve felt a sense of responsibility over my parents — something many children of immigrants feel as we grow up translating and filling out paperwork. She wonders if I feel there is a connection between that and all the emotional labor I’ve taken on in other relationships. How this may affect the tendency for me to put others’ needs before my own.
Part of my survivor’s guilt is being wary to not make my parents feel like I am ashamed of them. I struggle to confirm that I have felt a sense of role reversal with my parents because I don’t want to infantilize them.
“You are a force of nature.” I whisper to myself as I look in the mirror after getting up and wiping my tears from my latest panic attack, ready to continue with my day.
But this force of nature gets tired. And as much as we want to say there’s beauty in how we get up and thank our families for teaching us to be strong like them, I wonder what it’d be like to not constantly be trying to survive. I’m working on not feeling guilty for wanting more than that.
Laura S. Veira-Ramirez ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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