Survival Psychology: Why Me?

It is day 8 of SHTF.  You are hunkered down in your retreat location waiting it out and trying to understand what’s happening.  The digital TV sets became useless about 3 hours into the event but at night, the old AM stations still come in from the major cities.

You’re listening to the ham radio operators and things are going poorly everywhere. The family is TEOTWAWKIasleep, there is no immediate threat, it is quiet and you have time to think.

Why me?  Why did I make it and so many others, some of them my friends, some of them I consider better than me, didn’t survive.  I was better prepared, maybe, but still, luck always has a part.  Why am I here and they are missing or dead?  If I had only stayed a couple of days longer we could have made it together.  If I’d let them know were I was going to be they could have joined me and we’d have made it together.  “IF ONLY” ….. two of the most damning, soul killing words in the English language.

Welcome to the world of survivor’s guilt.  While similar to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) itTEOTWAWKI is not the same thing.  In the book “Wake of the Wahoo” (Forest Sterling – available on Amazon, click here) Sterling talks about the feelings  he had as he was getting off the Wahoo before she made her final, fatal voyage.  He was their good luck charm and felt he had betrayed the crew by leaving.

The day after I left Viet Nam, the man who took over as Aircraft Commander on my Huey had a Survivalisttail rotor failure.  He blew the emergency procedure and crashed my bird. He was the only one to escape uninjured.  If only I hadn’t left early for a class date at Fort Sill, I’d have been flying that day and none of my crew would have gotten hurt.  No one has ever been able to tell me otherwise.

Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt. I should have stayed/left/moved/done something differently and everything would have turned out OK.  That is not true, alternate futures are unknowable, but a great many survivors feel that way.  The emotion can be strong enough to be fatal.  The Captain of the USS Indianapolis committed suicide in 1968.  He never forgave himself for surviving the sinking of his ship, even though all available evidence points to failures on the part of the Navy not the ship or its captain.

So, if I survive SHTF or TEOTWAWKI, I may well have serious issues to confront.  Especially if a member of my family or group doesn’t make it, the possibility of survivor’s guilt hangs heavy over our heads.  Many marriages break up over the death of a child for this very reason.  We blame ourselves or our spouse and every time we see them it reminds us of our loss.  We can’t live that way so divorce follows.

Related: Best Water Pitchers For Survival

Learning to accept things we can not change is a part of the tool kit for any survivor.  We will make Survival mistakes in our preparation and execution of our plans.  The key is to deal not with the outcome but with the decision.  If, given the same circumstances and facts, you would make the same decision today – knowing only what you knew then – then you made the correct decision.  The result is a combination of your decision, luck, others’ decisions and circumstances.  All are beyond your control except your decision.

The hard part about grief and guilt is that there is no easy way to deal with it.  You must live through it; if not for you then for the others for whom you are responsible.  With time, healing happens but it is a difficult time.  In the case of a child, if the spouses can stay together and help each other, they are closer and stronger on the back side.  It isn’t easy but it is true.

A real risk about guilt is that it begins to make you question your own ability.  You begin to Emergency Preparednesssecond guess every choice you make.  This is fatal in a survival situation.  Nothing terrifies followers more than indecision from the leaders.  The Army taught us in OCS that even the wrong decision, made in a timely manner and prosecuted vigorously is infinitely better that the perfect decision made after the moment has passed.

I am not the perfect leader.  I can and have made serious mistakes which had grave consequences for all involved.  That is life and it will happen to all of us.  It will happen to me again if I live long enough.  Even if we  try to never make a decision that in itself is a decision with consequences. The key for each of us is to learn to be less than perfect.   Knowing I will make mistakes allows me to make the best decisions I can make, prosecute that decision vigorously and then accept the results.  Even if less that optimum, IF I did my best, what happened was beyond my control.  That is a rock to cling to until the storm of uncertainty, doubt and guilt pass.  Recognizing what is happening won’t help the pain much but it does make it easier to accept.

In a SHTF environment, we will each be called on to make such decisions, perhaps many times.  Emergency PreparednessThe key for the group is for you to appear confident.  Your self assurance is their rock.  The key for you is for you to accept what is and then do your best with it.  Knowing that you can’t control everything is your rock.  The results will be what ever happens but you will be able to emotionally survive and therefore help everyone else to survive.

Read more of Captain Bart’s Survival Psychology:

The Aftermath
Deadly Force

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Wayne State University

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Written by Joel Jefferson

Joel is one of the original founders of After college, he joined the USMC where he served as an (0302) Marine Infantry Officer. Joel is an avid outdoorsman and spends much of his free time in the mountains. Joel’s hobby is researching survival gear & weapons as well as prepping. Read his full interview here. Read more of Joel's articles.

24 thoughts on “Survival Psychology: Why Me?”

  1. Fantastic subject . This can happen to anyone even when it isnt TSHF . This is very common in married people who loose their spouse . More psychological articles on things we may deal with are too few and far between …. Thank you CaptBart !

  2. it WILL happen – you cannot avoid it – somebody you know won't make it, even if the disaster is just a traffic accident.

    I wasn't in Nam – one of the last 500 student deferrments, which is most likely why I'm still alive.That doesn't keep me from thinking about my 30 high school friends whose names are on the wall, to often.

    When you get older, you're going to have a LOT of crap you regret. failed marriages, failed businesses, whatever. You have 2 choices (and I REALLY dont want to sound too cold, here) .

    Either find help to get past it (as much as a shrink, or as little as saying "damn… dodged that f'ing bullet" and moving on) or letting it kill you .

    I recommend living

  3. I can say for a long time, my PTSD was accompanied by "survivors guilt". It's amazing how one slightly different decision can mean the difference between you or someone you really care for catching a bullet, sitting in the seat of the car which gets the brunt of an impact, or goes down a "bad part of town" to get somewhere and ends up getting hurt… and then you are left, as you mentioned CaptBart, asking why it wasn't you.
    For me, every year right before Christmas I ask myself why I am here and my best friend as a kid ended up catching that asshole, gutless, member of the Panama Defense Forces bullet!

    BACKGROUND- Panama, December 1989
    That day, I let Sam sit next to the window, which for the previous 2 years I had sat everyday that we had school. Things had got so unstable down there that when our school bus left base (to take us to school which was located on another nearby base), we were escorted by an M113 APC (Armored Personel Carrier) loaded with soldiers fully decked out for combat, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle loaded with a squad, 2 armored HMMWV "Gun Trucks" again loaded with combat ready soldiers, and several armed MP's positioned in the bus- 2 front, 2 rear. It was a "normal" day, well as normal as you can get being a kid in an increasingly dangerous combat area. About 5 minutes from our base, we started taking heavy small arms fire… and the next thing I know I can't hear, everything seems like it has slowed down, I hear thumping noises (bullets impacting the bus) and then I feel this warm sticky stuff running down my face and right arm starting at my shoulder. When I looked to my right, I saw Sam's head laying on my shoulder and there is a hole in his temple. The warm, sticky substance I felt all over my right side, was his blood. They told me later that he didn't feel it, because of the location of the GSW, but I don't believe that. After the bus sped off and we were out of range of the shooters, the MP's wouldn't let me move, and kept me from turning my head back to see my dead friend, leaning on my shoulder. I don't remember what happened after that, except sitting in the ER of the military hospital, I think it was called Dewitt talking to a few VERY trusted freondsNMC, and there were doc's and nurses checking me out to see if I was hurt. I wasn't… physically.

    Here I am 22 years later, and I still wrestle with the fact that I let Sam sit in my spot that day. I still wake up some nights smelling his blood, or feeling the warm sensation on my skin. CaptBart, you are correct when you say that all we can do is try to accept the decisions you make, and realize that at the time you did it with the best utilization of the information you had, or that you made the decisions in question in good faith, trying to make the best of the situation you find yourself in. However, that doesn't make living with those consequences any easier to live with. Everyone must deal with whatever happens in their own way, what works for one person might not work for someone else. I have managed with the help of boxing, weightlifting, and attempting to become a police officer (to try and prevent any other kid from having to grow up dealing with something similar), but it's a struggle/challenge that I don't ever think will end.

    If you or someone you know suffers with PTSD, or an associated "survivors guilt", they might not seek help from someone they are close to. I know I still can't talk to most of my friends/family about what happened, but they need to find someone… otherwise it just builds and literally starts to eat away at you from the inside, and it won't stop! Tke it from someone who tried thast method and failed miserably!!

    • Wow! I can not imagine having to grow through that, I am very sorry that you had such a horrific experience. I have heard so many stories, but I still can not fully imagine what it would be like to have that happen to me. Thank you for sharing with us, I know it must be hard to put that type of thing out for the world to read, but I really appreciate you sharing. Rest in peace Sam.

      • Thank you Josh, but even if I could go back and change things, at least not for me (obviously if I could save my friend I would!) because everything that I have lived through made me the man I am today. Besides, I came to the conclusion long ago, with the help of my grandfather and parents, that God must have had a reason for #1 The folks who made it through and those that didn't (myself and many others being counted in that number); #2 The events that happened (meaning from a macro-standpoint); #3 The way that I can recall everything about what happened there, from sights and smells, to what people were saying or even wearing during the most stressful times.

        It's actually much easier to write about than to talk about, and hopefully someone will read it and be able to take something from my experience that will help them or a loved one.

        • Thanks for sharing; it seems so many people carry around indirect or direct survivor's guilt. My wife's mom committed suicide shortly after my wife chose to move out on her own – she wrestles with this every day; I shoot competitively with a few vets who all have their own shares of suvivor's guilt. One was a medivac pilot who got his buddies killed because they were coming to rescue him (vietnam) and the VC had setup an ambush around his downed chopper. I think this is definitely a topic worth broaching and further discussion – stories like yours chef are absolutely critical to that as they provide others with a powerful basis of comparison. Part of surviving is being able to accept the past; which is a hard thing to do for anyone. I hope you find peace with yours and can one day meet your friend again with a light heart.

          • I have confidence and faith that I will, thank you. I haven't talked about the events that my family lived through down there much in the past. I have told some of what happened here and on SHTFBlog, because it seemed relevant to the topics and I hoped someone could gain something from my experiences. The only folks who have heard the "whole story" as it were, are my girl, my uncle and cousin Thom (yes that's both of their names), my grandfather and one of my friends. My folks and brother don't even know everything, because some of the things I went through were while we were separated.

        • It is interesting (and not at all comfortable) that the most effective help comes from the 'wounded healers'. The man that helped me after Viet Nam had been a POW for 5 years. I listened when he talked. We are who we are because of what has happened to us in our past. As one who had decided to commit suicide (A matter of minutes made the difference – the story is elsewhere) I am better able to talk to a potential suicide than someone who has never been in that dark place. Surprising to me is that I can talk to those left behind as well. From someone who was on the brink, they can hear that it wasn't their fault; there was nothing they could have done to change things. Whether you call it fate, karma, luck or the grace of God, I lived through the darkness and can now talk to others about it. Why this is so, I don't know but I do know it to be true. The wounded healer is the most effective.
          Thank you for sharing your story with us, Chefbear. It takes courage to do so and I appreciate it.

          • Good article. Profound thoughts and experiences have emerged from it. We share the bond of the uncommon experience with each other because it was or is so uncommon. The average person in our society never goes through things like that. And thank God for that.
            Given the situation all we can do is our best… Remaining flexible to changes and staying up to speed on the situation can help to minimize negative fall out.
            Guilt is normal, natural and shows the better side of our conscious… I know others who little to no guilt. Their mentality is I’m glad it wasn’t me. The root of their psyche in these cases is narcissistic (selfish and self serving). I’m glad you and Chef aren’t wired that way.
            Again, good article Capt. It stimulated some deep thinking.

          • I have known a few others who have gone through traumatic experiences similar to those described. He was a good friend of mine and lost a couple of his buddies while stationed in Bosnia early in the 2000's. He put up the same attitude as you mentioned, but when he finally told me what happened that day (I am the only person he has told, because I could relate) I found out that it is an act. Some people "put on that face" as a coping mechanism, I did for a long time. The problem is that it helps you to avoid the experience, but it WILL eventually come back to them and when it does they may not have the tools needed to deal with it. If they keep up the act for years, it just continues to fester, it's like a cancer.

    • That was a very powerful story. Thank you so much for sharing. I`m sure it was difficult to share, but I think your story and the challenges you faces coming to terms with that day will be invaluable to any of us that are faced with survivor`s guilt in the future. I recently lost my father and even in a situation where you know there was absolutely nothing you could have done differently you question yourself. Thank you again.

  4. This is why I think it is so important to have a Spiritual understanding or belief. I never want to push my belief, but my Holy Bible is an essential item to my BOB, 78 hour bag, and other survival caches. In any event, I know that my survival, no matter how much I seem to have beaten the odds, was a determined by God for a reason. There should not be survivor's guilt if God destined me to live and others not too. Now why did God do that? Well, who am I to say what is right in the wisdom of God. So, whether you beleive in Jesus, Allah, Shiva, Buddah, etc… seeing your place in the big picture helps. And, if I don't survive I go to Heaven, even better!

    • I have family that haas been to war, recently and in the past. I in no way am saying that survivor's guilt is a sign of unbelief or weakness. We need to help those who deal with the impacts of a disaster, SHTF, and or EOTWAWKT. Many thanks to those who serve. Belief just helps me.

  5. Thankfully I haven't been in a situation like those described above, but I was in a situation where I was unable to help somebody and it sincerely bothered me. I'm not an EMT but I do have some medical training. I saw a man with a rather serious head wound resulting from impact with concrete, and I was unable to dismount the passenger seat of the vehicle i was riding in and render aid. By aid I mean tell the "good" Samaritan not to move his neck. I've had a neck injury before, and know that it's painfully easy to make a mistake that can have horrible consequences. The adrenaline took effect and all I was thinking was what to do next, COA's etc. After a while i was just angry at the idiot by – stander. Then I just realized that the adrenaline of the moment suppressed my reaction to the sight of the injury. I still wonder what happened to that man and whether or not I should have risked helping. I probably would've been hurt/killed myself so I know i made the right call but it still kept me up for a while. Thank you for the article sir.

    • That sounds similar to what I wrestled with for years, and still do at times. The "what if's" will eat away at you if you let them. They can potentially drag you down a dark and dangerous path. The best way I have come to view these types of situations (in hindsight), is to believe I made the best decision possible at the time with the information/tools/skills I had. If you beat yourself up over things you cannot change, it can destroy your life.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree that survivors guilt can be a terrible thing to overcome. It is very real to the point that it can be debilitating to the tasks at hand such as day to day living. It took me many years to overcome my guilt. My faith in God has been instrumental to overcoming this guilt! I can only imagine how horrible it would be for someone who has no faith in God. Great article about an often overlooked issue!

  7. Talking to people that have been through some of the same things or close I have found to be the best help. No you dont have to tell every detail but knowing they are on the same page and have been there helps out a lot. And being someone who has been there I hate that it happens but an always more than willing to talk to people and offer what I can. Yes it is a VERY dark and lonely place. I lost a good friend in Iraq, my daughter passed away and went through a divorce all in a 10 month period PTSD yes been there and still find myself reliving and what if ing. Time and a very few close friends are what has got me through. I was at the edge and very close to suicide thank god that I had someone to relate to and talk to or I fully believe I would not be here today.

  8. There is an old saying " IF" my aunt had balls she would be my uncle.
    If If If , I know it is hard but sometimes we need to ask ourselves " Did I do everything possible ?" Then we need to focus on the task at hand because if we dont more than likely we will ask that same What If question again. Sometimes no matter what we say or think or do what will be will be.
    A coach one time said " Mabey the other team is faster, Mabey they are stronger, And even better prepared but one thing is certain, You Can beat speed, strength, and prep but the one thing that can never be beaten is FATE and DESTINY. Because it is controlled by Someone else

  9. It is not my intent to down play anyones situation or the loss of a loveone.
    Instead it is my intent to make sure that in a survival situation to honor the memory and the sacrafice of those left behind . Because not to do so is the real tragedy of "What If"

  10. Yes, IF is a very big little word. My "survivors" guilt is rooted in my son being murdered. He was home from college and wanted to visit his girfriend but his mother and I convinced him to go with us for a hike. IF he had not gone, he'd be here today. The guilt made me want to be dead too but my body "insisted" on eating, sleeping, waking up and getting on with things. So survival is in our heads and in our bodies. Part of prepping is making sure my head and my body are on the same team WSHTF.



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