Guilt 101

This image is from gr0wing.comThis is not a post about breast cancer survivor guilt. It’s about good old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill guilt.  I seem to be exceptionally good at it and if you are too, maybe I can serve as a teachable moment.

I had a bit of a health scare last month. I got called back for a mammogram and ultrasound because the radiologist thought she saw something on my regular mammogram. She didn’t, although I have to go back in six months as a precaution.

This is where the guilt comes in. I was trying to brace myself for what would happen if I had to start the cancer treatment cycle all over again (I opted for a single mastectomy for DCIS five years ago). One of the first things that popped into my head was, “Well, if I’m going through treatment again I certainly won’t have time for school.” That’s when I finally bought a clue and realized that I didn’t want to go back to school. Once again, the specter of cancer became a kind of tipping point.

I should pause to explain. Last year I decided I wanted to get serious about getting better at writing poetry, and was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Nebraska. It’s a low-residency program, meaning you attend residency, an intense “boot camp” of lectures and workshops, for 10 days and then study independently with a mentor for the rest of the semester. I loved residency last summer but cramming a 12-hour course load on top of a fairly demanding full-time job last fall was grueling. I decided to skip the spring semester but had every intention of going back next month for this year’s fall semester.

Yet I kept ignoring clues like the stressful dreams I was starting to have again, and other ways my tamped-down feelings started bubbling up. I went to a poetry reading in January, hosted by one of our program mentors. He said he hoped he’d see me in July and I said I would be there. After the reading as the hosts said goodbye at the door, I practically snapped at him, saying again, “I will be there in July!” A little defensive, are we? Who was I trying to convince?

It reminded me of when I was first diagnosed and trying to figure out my treatment options. I was planning a trip back to North Dakota to attend my  dad’s graveside service in May. (I had  attended his funeral in February, and as you might imagine, North Dakota is not big on graveside services at that time of year.) I kept thinking I would just work my trip back home into my suddenly filled appointment book. I was wrong. One oncologist had just recommended a mastectomy, which seemed pretty drastic, and I was trying to get into see a second oncologist. My emotions were churning so much that putting this consult on hold wasn’t the best idea. But because I felt like I had no choice, I kept saying “I’m fine, I’m fine, we have to go.” I was following the iron law of self-induced obligation and guilt.

The tipping point finally came when my husband Bruce and I were having lunch at a restaurant and I burst into tears, seemingly out of nowhere. He just looked at me and said, “You’re not ready for prime time.” And I wasn’t. I cancelled the trip. My brother and the rest of my family understood.

Now it’s deja vu all over again. I went from zero to obligation in 60 seconds, as if once I signed up for my MFA I was on deadline. I finally bought a clue and realized I have a choice. I choose to complete my MFA after I retire, instead of trying to do it in “my spare time” and turning something that is a source of great joy into a source of guilt and stress.

I felt guilty when I wasn’t putting enough time into my work, and I felt equally guilty when I decided to postpone getting my MFA. I dithered before telling my mentor, the program director and the friends I made last summer. But like my family five years ago, they supported and respected my decision.

So this basically proves I have all the self-awareness of a turnip and have learned nothing in five years. Well, I guess I have learned to read the clues a little better. The moral of this story, if there is one, is that if you’re like me and have an overdeveloped sense of guilt, stop for a minute when those guilt feelings start piling up. Read the clues in your own behavior like you would for anyone else. You might find there’s something you’re not admitting to yourself. Admit it, and trust your gut.


24 thoughts on “Guilt 101

  1. Jackie, this sounds like the absolute best decision for you, and a brave one. It takes guts to let go of things that we ourselves undertake with conviction. I’ve had to make similar decisions in the past, and it’s never easy. I can’t imagine the difficulty you faced in arriving there considering your health concerns, too. Luckily, you don’t need to be pursuing an MFA to continue writing poems. Best wishes to you.

  2. Great advice! I hope I read the clues BEFORE I say yes to the next volunteer activity! I may love the idea of doing all of them, but my “yes” means more when I say “no.”

  3. Hi Jackie, First of all, I’m sorry about your recent health scare. So relieved things turned out okay there. And I happen to think you have way more self-awareness than a turnip!! I’m in awe of you for taking on all that you have. Maybe you didn’t finish the program yet, but what’s wrong with that? A person can only take on so much. I love your last paragraph about learning to read the clues in your own behavior. And guilt, well don’t get me started on that topic! Terrific post.

  4. Jackie – thank you for this post – it resonated with me on multiple levels as your writing usually does. The most adult thing we can do is recognize that we’re in over our heads, or that something that sounded good at the time has lost it’s appeal. You are still a fabulous writer, and there is no shame (and there should be no guilt) in realizing that a structured program is just not right for you at this time. Kudos to you for listening to your gut. That shows you have WAY more self-awareness than a turnip! Congratulations on your decision, as well as the results of the recent imaging!

  5. I have nothing to add to the brilliant comments left by the others and I’m going to take a lesson from you. I’m realizing my “chemobrain” is quite possibly fueled by a self imposed expectations that are simply not sustainable. I’m putting this one right next to the 10 Commandments.

    As for the scare…. You are supported and loved….


  6. For me, guilt manifests as anxiety. And still it’s hard to recognize the self-perpetuating obligation machine. OY! Thanks for writing about this important and crazy-common topic.
    PS Sorry about your scare.

  7. Jackie, I really needed to read this today. I am a guilt magnet. I think postponing your MFA is sound and wise; after all, if it’s not enjoyable, what’s the point? By the way, you can continue to write poetry as much as you want!

    I’m sorry about your recent scare. I’m so glad you are doing OK physically. Sending hugs.

  8. Trusting the gut – that is good advice. There’s something about the pressure mounting that really highlights what needs to go and what needs to stay. I’m glad you had this realization, and can dump the guilt down the drain. ~Catherine

  9. Jackie, sounds like you made the best decision for yourself. Our body has a way of telling us that we are pushing ourselves beyond our limit. And I’m also glad that the scare was nothing more than a scare. I’m just new at reading your blog and I think you are very talented. Thanks for sharing your story

  10. I just finished reading your book today. I am 41 years old and was diagnosed with Stage O on September 16 of this year. I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy 3 weeks ago. I am cancer free. But, I feel guilty at times because I survived and others haven’t and I sometimes don’t feel “worthy” of the title survivor. Your book has really helped me. Thank you so much for sharing your story. (Hugs)

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