I've blamed Catholic school for as long as I can remember, and church youth groups, Bible studies, after service coffee mornings, but my brother and sister went to all that too, and they don't have guilt. They don't wake up thinking of what they did wrong, mistakes that they made five years ago. They don't constantly think they're to blame for the smallest problems.
And my guilt is easy to play on. In relationships, I've been guilted into staying, doing things I didn't want to, shutting up. Even though I'm not religious now, my guilt sticks. My guilt is forever. But I don't want it to be.
The first, most serious, episode of guilt I can remember was when I'd been chatting online to a stranger. I met them on a You've Got Mail message board, back when message boards were the bomb. It was a place where fans of the film could connect and, I guess, find a connection like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have. The heart wants what it wants, OK?
This was the '90s, before hyper-awareness of online predators, although when I told a friend at school that I'd given my postal address to a stranger online she said, "You're dead. It was nice knowing you." This, and a bunch of other warning signs that a fourteen year old kid was too dumb to clock, was what set my guilt whirring like a hand held fan, the batteries creating a stutter at best.
I had to tell my Dad. Not Jesus, but my Dad. Had to tell him I'd been using the internet way more than I should, and talking to boys online.
I knew he'd be mad. Knowing now how the internet works, I'd be mad too. Obviously, nothing happened. I never met up with the anonymous handle, and nothing untoward happened.
My friends were into cyber sex which, for them, consisted of typing out "Ooooohhhss" and "Ahhhhhhss" while other strangers typed replies. They had no idea what they were engaging in, if anything, raucously laughing while their parents made dinner in the next room. I was too shy to even try this, and on the rare occasions I was alone with my stranger in a chat room, I didn't know what to say. I was a late starter, and that included even chatting to boys online (or middle aged men or whatever).
People say that their guilt eats away at them. Like it gnaws at your collarbone, wearing your body structure down. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach and every time I'd try to speak I'd feel like emptying my esophagus onto the carpet. When I told my Dad what I'd been doing, I felt relived that I'd confessed my crime, even if the crime was nothing. And that's what guilt is: needing to spill your guts for irrational reasons, to people who don't really need to hear it.
Maybe church taught me beration is good. That if I fessed up to something and endured the punishment, I was cleansed.
One of the reasons I've always been stuck in such purgatory with my guilt is that I'm not really Catholic, so I wasn't allowed to take Communion with the other kids or go to confession when they did. I was relegated to the back of the class, and got a mere blessing on the forehead when they got bread. I was taught to feel the same level of guilt as everyone else, without the resolution.
I went to a Baptist church on Sundays and they were altogether more chill, though my guilt weighed just as heavy, like wearing Iron Man's suit all day without saving the world. It was a pointless piece of metal, and I wasn't strong enough to carry it.
Guilt's got a lot in common with anxiety. In fact, it won't surprise anyone to hear that I medicate my anxiety now because it got clean out of control. I never realized how fucking complicated life would get, although my teenage internet fiasco should've been a clue. But couple guilt with anxiety and it's basically impossible to function as a human being any longer.
Feeling guilty about everything that happens – if someone has a bad time on a night out, if a cup breaks, if you forgot to take the bins out – makes life feel utterly pointless. Once you've stressed over life's minutiae and got completely buried by it, you too will wonder what the point is.
Guilt is crippling. Church said it was a moral compass, an intrinsic tool to know when you'd done something wrong. But it's not. It's a character trait which you either have or you don't. Sure, if you commit a major crime and feel awful after, that guilt may well be necessary. But if you feel guilty because you bought the wrong milk, your guilt is no good to anyone, especially not you.
I'm trying to unlearn my guilt. It's the last vestige I've got left of the church life I lived before this one. My guilt never did me any good – never has and never will. I live with it, in spite of it, and one day hope to erase it.