Brothers, Guilt, and Love | Psychology Today United Kingdom
We can be happier by letting go of emotional baggage—or at least managing it. But until we figure out how, and muster the will to go through with it, we’re stuck.
I think of my patient Jeremy. Jeremy is 25 and moved to New York to escape the scenes that still haunt him. Growing up in a California beach town, he surfed with a group of Bravos who defied the “No Surfing After Dark” signs. But when he walked into my office a few months ago, he was depressed about a younger brother who had died of a heroin overdose. He blamed himself for what had happened.
Jeremy and his brother Mark had a strained relationship. Mark was three years younger and liked to come along when Jeremy was out with his buddies. He annoyed Jeremy. Once, when Mark slowed Jeremy, Jeremy punched him and broke his nose. When they got home, Mark protected Jeremy, saying he was hit in the nose when his surfboard tipped over. He thought he was protecting Jeremy, but the lie backfired – his parents banned them both from surfing for six months, even though Mark wasn’t surfing at all when Jeremy hit him. The tension between them increased. Without his brother to hang out with, Mark got into a bad crowd and started doing drugs. One night he came home high and collapsed. Jeremy woke up, put a blanket on him and went back to bed. Mark never woke up.
Jeremy describes the years of guilt that followed. He dropped out of school for a while and quit surfing. “I didn’t feel good as a person, and nothing could change that.”
When brothers fall out and one harms the other, the perpetrator can turn against himself. In part, it’s because he feels like a certain sacred bond has been broken. Brothers are supposed to – instinctively – protect each other, like Mark tried to protect Jeremy from her parents. Jeremy felt like he had failed when it was his turn to protect Mark. “I’m an unnatural person,” he said. It was this feeling that he could never get over what he considered sin that really troubled me. If he was ever to find peace, he would have to get past seemingly endless guilt.
If I was going to help him, I’d need to know more about why Jeremy still blamed himself when Mark took drugs voluntarily.
Jeremy felt that if Mark had tolerated his brother, or at least included him occasionally, he would not have died. He made a direct connection between Mark’s rejection and Mark’s infatuation with the wrong group. He thought everyone else acknowledged what Mark was doing and then called him out. “I saw him sometimes at night and he looked unfocused. What else could it have been but drugs?” Her parents, who knew nothing about drugs, apparently had no idea. “I could have warned her, but I didn’t. Why?”
Blame is always interspersed with self-questioning. There are often no answers to the questions. They are only rhetorical, more like self-reproaches that no one can answer and that hang in the air like eternal reprimands. That was Jeremy. He would bash himself with endless what-if questions. Listening to him, it was as if he wanted to make himself a martyr of all the ways that could have saved Mark but never did through his own indifference. How could I penetrate all his hypotheses? Maybe it’s undeniable.
As we talked, I realized that guilt is hard to efface because there are always plausible alternative stories, endless variations on the “If only I could.” . .” Jeremy had entered a self-fulfilling spiral of suggestion and affirmation, in which each new possibility made his guilt seem more undeniable.
He felt his endless guilt was Mark’s revenge. Eventually, he said, Mark got the upper hand and made him suffer the way he made Mark suffer. That sounded spooky. Besides, I didn’t see it that way. “You feel guilty,” I said, “for doing it to yourself. It’s a punishment.” But can anything make sense for someone so deeply scarred and the wound keeps reopening? Jeremy’s explanation for Mark’s death: “Just blame me. I did it.” – had just enough plausibility to sound convincing to someone trying to convince themselves of their plausibility.
We went around in circles for a while. I tried to dig into the issue by saying that Jeremy wasn’t all to blame as there were so many factors at play. But Jeremy said even if he did have some guilt for his brother’s death, it was still terrible.
Jeremy recalled never threatening his life. So we started talking about love and how he wouldn’t feel so terrible if he didn’t love his brother. It was about getting Jeremy’s mind off the guilt and why that guilt was important to him. If he could understand that his love for his brother was genuine and that it had always been there, then he could understand—in time—that while he had acted inadequately, he wasn’t so culpable as to make himself forever would blame. His motivations were temporary and in no way belied the love he always had for his brother.
We’ll keep talking.
But still. I keep asking myself: What can I do if someone doesn’t let a wound heal? Obviously Jeremy wanted help. But he was also convinced that he would suffer forever – that he should. He was conflicted, with guilt reigning supreme. I suggested that he start by looking back at the events that were tormenting him and seeing them in a different light, one that would allow his wounds to finally heal. So I reminded him that he loves Mark. He had never acted with animus, only with the kind of disregard that would, over time, loosen her moral hold on subsequent events.
In fact, I offered Jeremy a way to think about his guilt that he hadn’t tried before. He’s trying now. He begins to understand that guilt, at least in families, is often closely related to love. It must therefore at least be separated from the kind of malice that makes us seemingly irrevocably guilty. At least that’s a fresh start.