Working through guilt and shame.

This past summer we took a family trip to Los Angeles for a long weekend vacation.  Not only was California beautiful, but the weather was a relief from the 100 degree Texas heat.

My favorite part of the trip was attending a NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot concert at The Greek Theatre. These are two of our families favorite bands. 

Opening for them was the band - Colony House. They are fairly new, but very good.  I'd heard of them because two of the members, Will and Caleb Chapman, are sons of Steven Curtis Chapman and Mary Beth Chapman.  You may have heard of Steven Curtis Chapman. He's a popular Christian artist.  We know of them even more so because they have experienced the death of a child and Mary Beth wrote a book about it called Choosing To SEE. 

In 2008, one of their daughters accidentally ran out in front of Will Chapman's car when he was driving up the driveway at their home. A total accident and terrible tragedy.  From interviews I've seen, Will struggled with a deep sense of guilt after the accident. 

Cut back to the night of the concert.  We had never heard Colony House play before so we didn't know what to expect.  They happen to be fantastic and we loved every bit of their performance and music.

Colony House    Photo Credit: http://chrishershman.com

When we got back home, I downloaded their album.  I listened through and got to a song titled Won't Give Up.  I played it over and over.  Then I played it for Brea.  It was like someone climbed into my head and pulled out how I felt and then wrote a song about it.  It's an incredible song with powerful lyrics. 

Here's how it starts:

 "I wear the guilt upon my chest
Cause I feel like I've earned it
And keep the bloodstains on my hands
To show that I've done this

Oh how I wish I could escape that day
Take back time and make everything okay
But I can't

There must be something in my lungs
That keeps me from breathing
As deep and full as I once could
Now my mind starts repeating

Oh, the pictures in my head
They roll like the movies
I shut my eyes to cut the thread
But my memory shows no mercy

Still I won't give up now
No I won't give up now"

As soon as I heard the song I knew the lyrics had to have come from Will.  I connect deeply with the words because of the familiar feelings.

I've struggled with debilitating guilt over Jacob's accident. There are so many things I could have done differently that day. 

Guilt can be powerful.  For the first few years after the accident, it felt like an all consuming force that I couldn't let go of but one that I wanted desperately to run away from.  I hated myself so much for having fell asleep that day. For having not locked the doors to our house. For not hearing the door to the house open and close.  I felt so ashamed, angry, stupid, and unworthy.  I felt like a failure as a dad and a husband.

The weight of carrying the guilt was something that my therapist, Paula, and I worked on for quite some time.  Session after session we would talk through it.  There were a lot of tears and painful discussions.  Eventually, Paula was able to help me realize some truths that started to slowly sink in over time. None of it was overnight.  And, none of it was like a light bulb moment to point to that instantly made me feel better. 

Therapy is like a farmer tending to his garden.  You keep watering and picking weeds, and one day you show up and something starts sprouting out of the dirt.  You just have to keep showing up to do the work. 

With Paula's help; here are a few things I learned while working on my guilt:

1. We aren't defined by our mistakes. - Early on, I beat the heck out of myself over what happened.  I felt like I had failed my family.  Most of all, I felt like I had failed Jacob.  The shame was permeating my entire identity.  This caused unhealthy behavior, added stress, and was a strain on my marriage and my ability to be a father to my daughters. Through therapy, though, I was able to realize that one accident or mistake doesn't define who I am.  I'm still a good person, husband, and father.

2. Healing can start around your guilt when you stop fighting it and accept responsibility. This step was incredibly difficult and took a very long time for me to work through. I was scared to death to say that I had any responsibility in Jacob's accident.  I fought as hard as I could and as long as I could to not accept it.  I was terrified to think what it meant about me that my decisions may have led my son's death.  "What does it say about me as a father?  Does it mean I am a bad person?  Am I a terrible father?  Did I fail my family?  Am I worthy of being loved?" 

So the guilt starts feeding shame, and shame feeds more guilt, and on and on... This put me on a hamster wheel of personal torture that I couldn't figure out how to get off of.  Thankfully, with hours upon hours of working with Paula, I was able to get to a place where I could bear the guilt without it continuing to rule my life.  Bearing the guilt meant I had taken and accepted responsibility for what I could have done to prevent this accident.  There were things I could have done differently.  I accept that.  I bear that guilt, but it doesn't control me anymore.

3. Giving up is not an option, no matter how bad it gets. - There were times when I wanted to die because I felt like such a failure in my guilt and shame. I truly hoped I would die. I thought about how I could commit suicide. I thought about how I wouldn't have to feel this way anymore and I would be with Jacob.  But, then I would quickly realize the amount of pain I would leave the rest of my family in. What a wreck I would leave behind.  Paula would tell me - "All you have to do is think about getting through each minute, each hour, then each day.  Get out of bed and put your feet on the ground.  Take a step, then another step.  One foot in front of the other and keep breathing." It felt like torture at times, to keep going, but I knew inside that I could not give up. I couldn't give up on Brea and my daughters. And, I couldn't give up on myself.  No matter how hard it gets - you can't give up.

The song Won't Give Up ends like this:

"Too many dreams I didn't want to dream
Too many nights alone where I can't sleep
I've got the devil on my back
Trying to take home from me
But I see Jesus out in front
He's reaching back for the lonely
Reaching back cause he loves me
I take his hand because she loved me

No I won't give up now"

You know, sometimes our guilt feels like it's taking a hold of us and dragging us into hell.  It's like our past mistakes are yelling at us through a megaphone constantly reminding us of what we've done.  But, I can tell you it is possible to find freedom from what can seem overwhelming and paralyzing. 

Healing can begin when we accept that we are human and we all make mistakes.  And, the transformative healing takes place when we accept that our mistakes DO NOT define who we are as a person. 

Listen to Won't Give Up in the video below. 

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