I would like to get some input from the readers of my blog on something. As some of you know, I have been working for some time now on a book framed around our decision to hike the Inca Trail, and our preparations for the journey. For me, most of the preparation revolved around losing enough weight to go from the morbidly obese category down to merely fat.
That is only the framework, however. The heart of the book is the why of the need for that weight loss. How dealing with Survivor Guilt has been the tone of my life almost as far back as I can remember.
What we have below is the Prologue and Introduction to this effort. I’d like to hear from you your reactions. Do you think this is a topic worth exploring? Does this sound like it may hold your interest? Is this something you or someone you love is dealing with?
Thanks in advance,
It’s three in the afternoon, August 30th, 2017. I’m lying in a tent, somewhere in the mountains of Perú, about 3 miles from Machu Picchu.
I’m not going to make it.
I’m seriously dehydrated, and I can barely do more than move my arms and turn my head to take a sip of water. I’m flush with fever, and the skin on my face feels tight, like it was baked on and fused directly with my skull. I can move my legs slightly, but there is no chance I can get to my feet. I can barely get my eyes open. I can hear people talking around me, but I can’t respond. I hear my wife say, “Your lips are blue”, but it means nothing to me.
All I can think is that I’ve failed. This is it. I came this close, but will get no closer. All of the effort, all of the training, and a year of preparation and soul searching have only served to make me Moses – allowed a glimpse of the Promised Land, but knowing I will never set foot there. All I’ve managed to do on this big journey to discover a sense of self worth has been to confirm that I am indeed worthless, and a failure.
How did it come to this?
It is late in 2018 as I sit writing this introduction, and will probably by January of 2019, ten years after I began writing about the following events, before I try to publish. That’s assuming I can get up the courage.
First recognized as a problem and named in the 70’s, Survivor Guilt has since been merged with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome by psychologists. Its effect on individuals varies with their background, personal history, health, and previous traumas. This makes sense to me, because I have lived through two main traumas in my life.
The first trauma we will get to in due time, for now it is enough to say that it effectively destroyed my childhood and adolescence. I still marvel today that I emerged from it only emotionally scarred, and not seriously warped. I didn’t so much survive, as I manage to outlast it. But that trauma first instilled the basic feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness that I recently sought to finally overcome by setting the goal of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
In the summer of 2016, when Rita and I first began to talk about the Inca Trail, I began to hope that here was a task I could set for myself where I could finally come to terms with my past. If I could get myself into shape, physically and mentally, and survive the 26-mile hike to this ancient ruin, maybe I could start to feel good about the old ruins of my life. Maybe I could let go of the pain and the guilt. Maybe I could let myself enjoy a life that many people would envy.
To understand what the attempt to hike the Inca Trail meant to me, you need to understand the two main losses in my life; the loss of innocence as a child, and the loss of my first wife to cancer.
The former is the hardest for me to write about, so we’ll begin with the latter.
My life was a hot mess before I met Carolyn Mae Boyce in the summer of 1980. I already had plenty of demons to fight, and when we became a couple and got married a few years later, I thought that I was finally exorcising those demons. I felt like I had finally arrived at a peaceful bay, and I could anchor myself with this woman and our new family, and live out a quiet and rewarding life.
Life, of course, is not like that. People seldom live “happily ever after”. Our peaceful bay was eventually struck by a hurricane called Cancer, and in the process of sweeping my wife away, it opened both old and new wounds in me. I was left with my life in complete disarray, with no plans for the future, and only the nagging feeling that I did not deserve to be the one who survived to keep me warm at night. My old fears that I did not deserve to be happy came back with a vengeance.
Now, ten years after her death, my life is different in every possible way. I’m healthier than I’ve been in years, I’m living in a beautiful climate on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, and I’m able to be retired at age 60 and spend my time traveling and writing. Most surprisingly of all, I’m married once again to a beautiful woman that I love very much, and for some unknown (to me) reason, she seems to love me too.
But I still wake up some mornings feeling like I don’t deserve anything that I have now. I should have been the one who died, or I should at least be suffering more for it. I still sometimes have dreams where it turns out Carolyn is not really dead, she’s back now and upset with what I’ve done with my life. I still sometimes feel I’m standing before the Courts of the Heavens, head bowed, admitting that I am unworthy.
That’s the power of Survivor Guilt.
I began writing the following pages in the aftermath of my wife’s death in the hopes that getting it down on paper would help ease the pain. And to some extent, it did. I started it as a diary, beginning about a month after the funeral service, when just hearing a song or seeing a picture could reduce me to helpless sobbing. I began writing about the pain of day-to-day life as I went back to work and began my life as a single person after more than a quarter century as a couple, and recalling our lives together.
I soon also began chronicling the events of “two months ago today”, telling the story of the last 5 weeks of Carolyn’s life. So this story takes you through those first horrible few weeks alone, the heart-wrenching final weeks, while trying to give the overall picture of just what I lost by remembering our story.
I’ll also try to find a way to get into the first major loss of my life, when I lost my childhood at age six.
I know that story and my loss is not unique. I also know that nothing I write can ease the pain and grief of someone going through similar misfortune. But if you are in the same situation, I do hope it will help to know that I have felt what you are feeling, and that the curse and blessing of life is that it does go on. In the end, it is up to you to find your way through the grief and the guilt.
I hope I find mine …
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
— C.S. Lewis
“The hardest thing about depression is that it is addictive. It begins to feel uncomfortable not to be depressed. You feel guilty for feeling happy.”
— Pete Wentz
UPDATE: This book is now available in eBook and paperback. “An Uphill CLimb – Survivor’s Guilt and the Inca Trail”.