Survivor's Guilt

Date: October 29, 2018 Author: ACO Administrator Categories: AAM 18 - NTL | Adoption Awareness Month | Guest Blogger | Youth Network
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It was September 17th this past year that I found myself sitting on the living room floor with my foster mother, Adina. I was choking on my words, tearful, trying to formulate sentences that expressed the confusing emotions I was feeling that day, which was my birthday. We had just returned from a day trip to an apple farm - while I initially refused to go, in hopes of escaping any type of ‘birthday celebration,’ Adina coaxed me into joining, assuring me that even if I was grumpy the entire time, she would still be glad that I joined.

I moved in with Brad and Adina just before my 18th birthday. I needed a place to stay for the summer, and planned to move in with a friend from my group home I was living in at the time after the summer. After a couple weeks of living with Brad and Adina, they told me, that if I wanted, I could live with them for however long I needed. Unable to believe their words, I found myself in a bind, caught between my great fight for independence, and my secret desire for permanency that could help me thrive, not just survive. After living in 3 foster homes, I had landed in a group home, where I had begun to long for a real family, not just the 9-5 pseudo-family structure that had come to be my reality.  

Having spent my adolescence bouncing through the child welfare system, I had come to learn that there are no greater experts at survival than those who have been apprehended and forced to make a life on quicksand. With an ever changing school, home, and set of caregivers, survival becomes our only choice. We learn quickly to never get too comfortable, to always assume that people will let us down, and that our greatest asset is to blend in to the social settings we find ourselves in.  After experiencing instability my whole life, the strict routines and rules of the group home offered me some sense of predictability and safety; I found myself finally beginning to look beyond simply surviving.

I was acutely aware that there was a timeline on such safety, and was anxious about surviving adulthood without the constant attention that was provided at the group home. I was witnessing my peers ‘age out’ of the system and struggle financially and emotionally. I was always being warned about the hardships of aging out, the lack of support that would soon be approaching. I watched a few friends drop out of college, was visiting another one at the psych unit, and was getting calls from another friend who began resorting to sex work in desperation for more drugs. The friend I was planning to move in with began suffering from an eating disorder and severe depression. All my peers were struggling. I felt I would soon be joining their struggle, it was our collective struggle after all - our struggle for survival when the system no longer assumed responsibility for our most basic needs.

Fast forward three years from that first summer at Brad and Adina’s, when I made the courageous choice to live with them and be adopted into their clan. I was sitting on the living room floor on my 21st birthday. I felt overwhelmed with guilt, remembering my peers who lost major financial and emotional supports on their 21st birthdays. In between choking back tears, I tried to articulate the intense survivor’s guilt I was feeling. My life trajectory worked out so differently than my peers. I’m one of ‘the lucky ones’ who have found permanency, who have found safety, who are no longer living through daily trauma. I am able to experience being 21, just as it is, in all its mundanity and exciting uncertainty.

In therapy, I work through a lot of this survivor’s guilt. I’m learning to give myself permission to redefine how I make sense of my identity as a former youth in care. It’s no easy feat to rewire the brain, to move past many years of believing the story that I was the ‘messed up foster kid with lots of trauma.’ While living with my family today comes with its own set of unique challenges, I am so grateful for the permanency I have. It’s helping me transform my story into one about overcoming some really tough stuff, and learning what it feels like for the very first time in my life to thrive, not just survive.

Author: Chana, Member of NTL Team