I Don't Need Friends Who Make Me Feel Guilty as a Brain Injury Survivor

Heidi HD
Sad woman with red hair.
Sad woman with red hair.

I feel guilty all the time. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of being a survivor. I feel like the car accident I survived 17 years ago was probably my fault. I was probably distracting my best friend, and that’s probably why she wrecked and was killed. It was my own fault my body was crushed and my brain was damaged. It didn’t matter that police said there was a sign blocking view of oncoming traffic. It didn’t matter that there was a traffic light put up at the intersection because there had been so many accidents there before. It was probably me. I don’t remember the accident, or the weeks leading up to it. We had taken that turn a million times.

After the accident, I pushed people away when they tried to help or befriend me. I thought I didn’t need any new friends. I decided I didn’t need anyone anymore. What was the point? Tomorrow, they could be dead. Tomorrow, I could be dead. I was never safe; I could be killed hitchhiking with a stranger or riding home from school with a friend. I started to let go of the insecurities that had always held me back. Who cared if my bangs weren’t perfect? Who cared if other people made fun of me? I decided to just try to be a good person, and otherwise do what I wanted.

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It was still hard. It is still hard. It is hard when you are trying your best but it never seems good enough. It is hard to keep friends when you feel guilty for everything you said or did, might have said or done by accident, didn’t do or forgot to say. What makes it harder is when people who are supposed to be friends make you feel even more guilty.

I have panic attacks where I collapse sobbing and saying “I’m sorry” over and over, while my husband tries to assure me that I haven’t done anything wrong. He hugs me and rides it out with me, and I always feel better afterward. I remember having these attacks in college, and my friends and then-boyfriend would agree with me; yes, you did something wrong. You should feel guilty. Others confirming that things were my fault threw me into a spiral of trying to fix things, and then feeling even guiltier when I couldn’t. The damage was done, and my attempts to compensate were in vain. When I said I needed help, I was told I didn’t really need help — I could do it myself, if I tried hard enough. I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

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But I was. I am. I have been trying my hardest for the past 17 years, and it has taken me this long to realize it. When people told me to try harder, I took it to heart: I thought I wasn’t trying hard enough. When doctors or therapists said that PMS is normal, or that everyone hurts or forgets things when they get older, I took it to heart. I tried harder, and I took the blame when it still wasn’t good enough. I thought I just had to try even harder. Every time I went to the doctor because I was in pain, I took the blame; it was my fault for turning wrong, or for forgetting to brace myself before a sneeze. It was my fault because I should have known it would cause a spasm attack where I couldn’t move. I should have known.

The reason I was able to rebuild myself after I was sure I was broken forever was that I could. It was possible. I thought it was my own fault in the first place, so I could learn to fix it. But where is the limit? I am burnt out. I can’t keep on taking the blame. The problem isn’t that I’m not trying — I am. I give everything I have and when I have nothing left, I ask for help. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?

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I have read others’ stories of losing friends after trauma. I thought I was very lucky not to have lost many friends. It turns out, I’m not lucky. I’m strong. I’m resilient. I have kept friends because I let them tell me I was bad, and I believed them. I tried to fix it. I was with my ex for almost 10 years because I believed him when he told me things were my fault and to try harder. I thought that was normal. That’s what friends and loved ones do, right? Help you be better.

But they weren’t helping me be better. Pointing out flaws is not helping. Telling me to try harder is not helping. Telling me it’s my fault when I’m already spiraling from guilt is not helping; it is cruel. I kept friends because I thought I could be better. My way of “being better” was hiding my problems. I was too much, so I minimized myself. I took the blame for things I couldn’t control, just like I did when I couldn’t remember what actually caused the accident. It must have been me.

I’m here to tell you — even though I still feel it — it was not my fault. It was not my fault. Everything is not my fault. It’s not yours, either. I don’t need friends who make me feel guilty. I already feel guilty. I feel guilty all the time, whether I should or not. I blame myself for things I can’t control, and I try to be better. I push myself; I don’t need friends to do it. Now, I choose the friends I interact with most. I choose the ones who don’t make me feel like the guilt is justified. Because here’s the secret I had to learn for myself: it is not. I’m not bad. I’m not “not trying hard enough.” I’m trying the best I can. My real friends can see that.

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