Guilt like a dead fish

My mother takes Nulax for her bowels. She keeps the Nulax on top of her fridge. A rectangular lump of compacted dried fruit that tastes like jam but is barely chewable.

‘I cannot think you need to take it,’ my mother says to me.
‘You are young. Your bowels are good. But mine, mine are stuck.’

Years later a kinesiologist looks into my eyes. His bright light beams and blinds me. ‘You have an excellent immune system,’ he says, ‘ but your bowels are sluggish.’

My mother again, I think. She always manages to get in somehow, inside my system. She slows me down.

How can I purge myself of this woman of the slow bowels and the turgid constitution?

There was a time when I was about fourteen when I decided to join the ranks of all those women who sat around at morning tea and talked about what went into their bodies and what they might do about getting it out.

My grandmother died of cancer, not of the bowel, as you might imagine, but of the stomach. Something got inside her, too, something she could never be rid of.

All the Nulax in the world could not relieve her of her guilt.

Guilt sat in her gut like a dead fish. It stank out her insides and eventually ate away at them until she died.

At seven I was formally introduced to the concept of guilt when I made my first Holy Communion.

And then when I was fourteen I, too, decided I needed to do something with it.

Each day I chewed a wad from the Nulax pack. The fig seeds stuck between my teeth. The apricot pith coated my tongue.

I chewed to moisten, but to swallow the stuff was like swallowing a cow.

I could not get rid of my guilt.

74 thoughts on “Guilt like a dead fish”

  1. that word 'swallow' has given me pause for thought too this week. I couldn't swallow peas as a child and my dad made me sit at the table alone until I swallowed them down. You WILL swallow IT down.

    Why was swallowing a few frozen peas so important?

  2. Dear Elisabeth, we too have a family history of sluggish gut.;))
    Whether it is guilt, I can not tell you though, although I know how guilt can consume you from inside out. I try hard not to make my self feel guilty nor have anyone else do that to me.:)
    Happy December dear friend – I guess for you the summer is starting, you have my envy.;),

  3. Ah the infamous Catholic Guilt Syndrome.

    How it eats away at your very soul, until you have to make a stand and scream "Enough is enough"

    It takes courage.

    For the other stuff purge yourself with a dose of the juice of tamarind pulp. You will only ever need to do it once – the memory of it will serve forever afterwards!

  4. What guilt? Surely not the guilt of being in an abusive family where things were repressed, accepted and beyond your control?

    Sorry, that was my first reaction – indignation on your behalf, Elisabeth. My second one is that 'guilt' is such a poisonous feeling, word, response, reaction, reason. It has such a terrible, overreaching power.

  5. As you know, the concept of guilt and the reality of it too are things I struggle with a lot. To the degree which many of us experience it, is a useless and toxic thing.
    Why do we bend down and pick it up every day? Why?

  6. I am sadden by the way guilt is pounded into many people. Religion teaches it, education, parents too and yet it is so unhealthy!!
    Ones conscience ought to be less restricted in negativity. Fear does not make one more compliant or more considerate. Those come from a different place, one filled with compassion and love.

    Thanks for stopping by to wish us well as hubby goes under the knife. His health has suffered for years and fear and guilt are a huge part of his daily struggle. To recover he needs to dump that on the OR table as they clean his veins and do some bypass work.

    We also need to get back to eating more carefully. He is being cut off wheat and already his mood is improving. Wheat can be a huge mood changer in many people.
    Food can be both good and bad. The trick is that each one of us must find our own best diet for our own genetic make up. We are unique. The saying'One man's food is another's poison' has been around a long time but we fail to pay attention to it!!
    So find what's best for you to eat and not what you were told to. Then the guilt might melt away because the mood will change.

    Did you know alcoholism is one of those addictions that comes from food sensitivities not being addressed?
    So does unacceptable behaviour. Will this lead you into a new direction of research so you can find new answers along your journey?

  7. It’s strange but I don’t recall there being a lot of talk about guilt in our house growing up. Guilt crept up on me. I knew what guilt felt like before I knew there was a word to describe this unpleasant feeling and it was farther down the line that I could distinguish between guilt, shame and embarrassment. I knew about being bad which was the same as sinning and sin was something to be (as opposed to feel) guilty of. That was where the word ‘guilt’ entered into my vocabulary, as a part of the phrase “guilty of sin,” so I suppose I had more of a legal understanding of the word: criminals were found guilty, sinners were found guilty.

    My daughter said to me once, “You do good guilt.” What she meant was that I didn’t have to do or say much to make her feel guilty. In fact most of the time I can do it with a look, a sigh or a slight change in posture. She’s like me—and if I passed it onto her at a molecular level then I am very sorry—she’s highly sensitive and expects to feel guilty; if she doesn’t it’s an unexpected bonus.

    Habits can be unlearned. And guilt is a habit. But I bet there are people out there who’ve given up nicotine or heroin with greater ease. They have recovery groups for all sorts of things these days: Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous , Clutterers Anonymous but where’s the Guilt Ridden Anonymous? I’d join.

  8. Someone was talking in a post the other day about what would you choose if you could have anything in the world you wanted. Her last idea was something like to hold hands with her mother and experience her life as she had led it. This touched me so greatly, and I have been thinking about her life as she led it rather than how her life messed up mine. It has made me feel much more loving of her. Perhaps it is in these sorts of practices that we absolve ourselves of guilt.

  9. i come from a line of women who carry things in their valises when they visit to aid their digestion.
    when my grandmother would come to visit, she carried a box of bran cereal. constipation.
    my mother came to visit for my son's first birthday; she had a fifth of scotch in her suitcase.
    she told me she drank a glass of hot water every morning to get her bowels moving.

    these days, i drink a glass of hot water every morning; and add bran to my wheetabix cereal.

    i have a genetic belief in fiber. but not in scotch.

  10. We are a product of our parents and so we inherit their faults as well both my parents wore glasses so i have to as well. I find a decent feed of yummy liquorice cleans everything out :-).

  11. Been a while since I've been here. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the way you think. I've added you to my blogroll so that I don't forget again.


  12. I used to do guilt, very well in fact, but realized that it was killing me. Literally.

    The shame and guilt I felt over what had happened to me… was driving me further and further down a road of self-hatred.

    Nobody deserves that, least of all someone as kind and good as you, Elisabeth.

    The awful truth of it all is that there are things in life that you cannot control. Guilt tries to take control back and say, "I could have done something differently," but most of the time that is simply not true.

    In the words of ee cummings – let it go, and so comes love.

  13. A good question, Jane: why was swallowing a few peas so important for your father?

    The idea perhaps was that you should eat your greens, that you should take in all the alleged goodness even if it made you choke.

    The things we have to swallow in life can leave us permanently gagged and with bitter memories of choking.

    Thanks, Jane L

  14. It is an odd connection, Zuzana, I admit: a sluggish gut and guilt but why not?

    Again to symbolize our emotional experience through our bodily woes seems apt to me.

    Happy December to you, too.

  15. Tamarind pulp, Jane. I've not heard of that one. sounds grim.

    As for the Catholic guilt. You're right: it's something to be rid of as soon as possible.

    Only today I found myself wondering what it might be like not to care so much about certain things. It's almost unthinkable.

    Thanks, Jane H.

  16. Sin, guilt and neurosis, Laoch, if I think on these three aspects of experience I see one as relating to religion in the form of sin; the other as belonging to the emotional, as in guilt, and the third as belonging to the psychiatric, all three categories constructions through knowledge as as you say and all three linked through language and our understanding of human behaviour.

    Thanks, Laoch.

  17. Thanks for the indignation on my behalf, Kath.

    I'm pretty sure my guilt runs deeper than the events that took place in my childhood family, though it certainly started there.

    The funny thing with guilt is that it tends to hook onto our tendency to get caught up in the repetition compulsion – so-called, and it therefore repeats itself further, each experience layered on top of the other.

    A layered cake of guilt and shame.

    Thanks, Kath.

  18. Why do we bend down daily to gather in our guilts, Ms Moon? I too wonder, though I suspect it's not all bad as long as we can give our guilts a good shake out and put them to rest if they become too heavy.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

  19. I did not realise that alcoholism is in any way related to food sensitivities, Heidi, but I'm aware that food can affect us in many ways, good and bad. You are what you eat, as the saying goes.

    I hope your husband is well on the way to healing now given his heart surgery. I'm sure you're right, his physical health will need a dose of positivity, which rules out too much guilt and self flagellation.

    Thanks, Heidi.

  20. I hope here's room in the guilt ridden group for me too, Jim. It sounds like a great idea. All that indoctrination can do dreadful things to one's sense of self.

    My daughters have also suggested to me from time to time that I 'do guilt well', too, that I can leave them feeling loaded down with guilt simply by the way I express myself or by my sighs and gestures.

    I suspect it's not unusual for parents to pass their guilt onto their children and vice versa. My children can certainly cause me to feel guilty from time to time, simply by their expressions, their gestures and sighs. Guilt can be contagious.

    Thanks, Jim

  21. As I said to Jim, Everyday Goddess, guilt can be contagious. I suppose it can also be inherited as you suggest: the sins of the fathers – and mothers – passed onto the sons and daughters.

    Thanks, Goddess. It's good to see you here.

  22. This is such a wonderful idea, Rubye Jack, and the essence of empathy: putting ourselves into another's shoes, in this case into those of our mothers.

    I agree, it may well be a constructive way to help absolve ourselves of guilt and perhaps of a tendency to blame.

    Thanks, Rubye Jack.

  23. I have never heard of scotch helping with digestion and constipation, Susan. Bran cereal and hot water are no doubt helpful but your mother's scotch might have had other purposes: to settle her nerves, kill her pain or help with anxiety.

    I suppose the scotch might have side effects but not if taken in moderation, like everything I guess.

    Thanks for this trip through your family's digestive valises, Susan.

  24. I expect guilt belongs to all of us, Anthony, even the non religious. It is after all a mark of a civilised society. Even avowed atheists suffer from guilt.

    Thanks, Anthony,

  25. I have a box of organic licorice on my desk right now, a gift from one of my daughters, Windsmoke.

    I enjoy licorice, but, unlike you, I suspect it does little to aid my digestion.

    I agree there are many things we inherit from our parents both physiologically and socially. All that learned behaviour.

    Thanks, Windsmoke.

  26. Tracy, you'd know all about it, the burden of guilt, in contrast to letting go, especially at the moment, with your wonderful plans to marry. As you say, in the words of ee cummings: let it go and then comes love.

    Thanks for your generous thoughts, Tracy. They are almost enough to wash away all traces of guilt, at least for the moment.

  27. Thanks for your visit, Elizabeth. Yes they are my three babies born a lifetime ago. One lives far away in Australia, one lives in a world of his own and suffers from schizofrenia, one lives close to me and we see each other often, thanks God. I am proud of all three of them and I love them very much.

  28. "Sixth In Line" has been included in this weeks Sites To See. I hope this helps to attract many new visitors here.

    P.S.: There is nothing wrong with feeling guilt. In fact, it is actually very healthy in a Spiritual sense. For if we do not feel any guilt, we probably do not recognize any wrongdoing on our part, neither, and if we do not believe that we have done anything wrong, in what need of a Savior are we?

    On the other hand, guilt can eat away at us if we are unwilling to accept our Heavenly Father's forgiveness. Since He is so willing to forgive our sins, who are we to refuse to forgive ourselves?

    Be assured that this has been a big problem for me, and Satan has been very effective at getting me to focus on not being good enough instead of on what our Heavenly Father wants to accomplish in and through me. Thankfully, He has been faithful to counter every point he makes.

  29. I understand this, I was introduced to guilt when I was being prepared for Confirmation. Having a cup of tea before Communion, it was impressed upon me, was an extremely sinful act.

  30. Women do this so well.

    This is such a deft and tight write about what plugs us up. I sincerely hope we can keep freeing ourselves of this that was embedded in us and our bodies at the outset. I think the next generations are different, but not yet wholly free, if my daughter is an indication. Getting there, but still constipated with guilt.

  31. Dear Elisabeth, thank you for your comment on my posts.
    I am regularly reading your blog, although it's difficult for me to comment your posts for their complexity, they are always fascinating for their depth and sincerity .

  32. The thing about guilt is, kids and students should rarely feel it. When kids are learning guilt for mistakes is deleterious and the only one who should feel guilty is the one who tries to make the child feel guilty, because that's not learning. It's actually learning NOT to learn (when guilt is used on children or others who are learning)

    I don't even like it when my daughters say sorry, and they usually get told they shouldn't be.

    and if people aren't careful about who they let in their life, they often get the worst kind of guilt. The kind you don't understand and sometimes that is because you're innocent. And the reason they snapped at you or tried to make you feel guilty, is only because they are guilty.

    emotions that people understand seem for the most part to be easier to deal with in ways that are healthy. It's the emotions that people may not understand that seem to do the most damage. And guilt that shouldn't be on your head is one of those most damaging things (sometimes placed there by the guiltiest)

    know days they have stuff like milk of magnesia and mucolax. Hopefully guilt is easier to deal with in healthy ways too

  33. You have done well to have such lovely children, Reader Wil, each with their own distinct personalities and lives.

    It's good to see you here again. Thanks.

  34. Thanks for including my blog on your site Fish Hawk. I recognise that there are positive and sometimes necessary aspects to guilt regardless of what one considers to be the underlying cause of that guilt.

    Some might look Heavenwards for forgiveness, others recognise that they have hurt other people and it's from them they might need to seek forgiveness. Still others might look at the underlying causes of their guilt.

    Thanks, Fish hawk

  35. I remember too the need for abstinence from all food and drink before communion, Dave.

    I remember once chewing on a stick of celery or some such green vegetable, idly without thinking before communion one day and I was wracked with guilt at the thought that I could not take communion on a sunday.

    Then, years later, when they loosened the rules I remember my outrage, that something that had been held to as a matter of spiritual life or death could so arbitrarily be overruled.

    Thanks, Dave.

  36. I enjoy the expression 'plugged up' with guilt, Ruth. It seems very apt, and as you say hopefully it will not take too many generations before we can get unstuck.

    But it seems the guilt gets passed down from one generation to the next, however hard we might try to have the buck stop with us.

    Thanks, Ruth.

  37. Elise, thank you for including me on your honorary roll, if that's how I might put it. I'm flattered and blush a little at the thought. Thanks too for the unconditional nature of this award. It is such a treat.

  38. Thank you Davide. This is high praise coming from such a fine poet as you, especially your suggestion about the depth and sincerity of my blog. I certainly try hard to get below the surface.

  39. I agree, Who, guilt can be insidious, especially when it is perpetrated on children who do not understand why they are being made to feel guilty for things that, as you say, often do not even belong to them.

    Thanks, Who.

  40. I enjoy the idea of thinking of our bodies as donut shaped, and of the need to keep things moving around, Dominic, but I find myself wondering, are we talking about the puffy, jam filled and sugar coated variety or the cinnamon sugared ones with the hole in the middle.

    Thanks, Dominic.

  41. Thank you for visiting my blog. I am intrigued by the topic of guilt raised here and in the comments your post has generated. I have learnt to overcome guilt, whether my own or that foisted upon me. It is very liberating.

  42. At some places, at certain times during the years when those certain places at specific times where on seasonal occasion, people could get farm fresh vegetables AND bakery fresh donuts in the exact same place and at the same time.

    which was kind of weird, but helped me make a little more sense out of things and realms having their own places in space and time and just how close some things that some think are mythical, are in reality and in realty.

    I was taught not to gamble, so when I why bet dollars to donuts I am either speaking of preforming mathematical calculations regarding intangible things or jokingly referring to buying pastries from a donut shop a friend of mine from middle and high school used to own and run.

  43. The house in my mind's eye, Ann, is mostly made of glass. The sort of house around which people must take care not to throw stones.

    For those who do not know what I'm talking about go visit Ann's blog to see the house in question.

    It's all glass and reflections.

    Thanks, Ann.

  44. Freedom from guilt has to be liberating, Desiree, if only the absence of guilt would be more constant for me. I'm not crippled by it, mind you, just occasionally hampered. It's worth the exploration.

    Thanks, Desiree.

  45. Thanks for your associations to those donuts, Who. I'm not partial to donuts myself, except in the metaphorical sense, which perhaps says something. Namely, that I might prefer a certain word for an object or thing over and above that thing.

    Thanks, Who.

  46. i wonder if it is a state of being, of human being, this stain. it sure as hell seems like it to me. we live through our egos and we suffer at the hand of them, too, one way or another. i don't have religion in my life and yet the stain spreads. it is ok with me but i have to understand it, allow it to be in its natural form, and not let it usurp me.


  47. I don't think anybody, from any house, should be throwing stones anywhere excepting maybe a lake or an ocean.

    Tiny pebbles or peanuts you might be able to get away with, but only if there was a poem written about the phenomena by FSF xeroxed on paper that is alternating in blue and white color and stuffed in between others books of poetry on special shelves at special bookstores (but in the FSF case it would have to be not nuts)

    and the house would have to be catty-cornered and uphill of anything more than twenty-four yards away if you wanted to consistently hit it without throwing out your arm.

    A million seems like a pretty steep price, but that's the way the road goes (very steep even if it leads to Former Hell Raizing)
    surely that price includes some extra garage space built onto as an addition. But if it were to retain the same shape as it is pictured I would think it must be one of those space saving parking places (the kind that pop out of the ground and then lower your car back into the ground with lots of expensive hydraulic apparatus) then it would fetch one million, but only to a popular mechanics type enthusiast who could rationalize the cost of such a peculiar addition.

    and even then, only if other dwellings within sight were not kept unkempt.

  48. It is odd that even without religion in our lives, erin, it still, as you say, spreads its stain, from the past and into the present.

    But guilt does not simply belong to religion, even those without religious beliefs can feel and need to feel guilt. It's a human quality and part of a civilized society but it's impact is all a matter of degree.

    Thanks, erin.

  49. Thanks again, Who. Perhaps your comment belongs on Ann's blog where she posted the image of the glass house in the first place. It certainly caught my eye, as it has other bloggers and yours too by the sound of things.

    Thanks, Dusty.

  50. Constipation and guilt! Love the connection you've made here. I must say, that constipation thing does worsen with age. 🙂 The guilt thing is a life long wrestling match – especially for women. Too often, we try to be all things to all people. Some days I think I have it under control and others require a little self-talk. Great post.

  51. This is remarkable! Really excellent … but I wish to say following your words: "The fig seeds stuck between my teeth," And then: "I could not get rid of my guilt," … that is because they were meant to be swallowed, not deposited into your teeth. 🙂 I love your poem … it is real.

  52. Elisabeth – For me the guilt habit takes so much time and energy that I've fallen into using it as an excuse to avoid doing the work that would truly fulfill me.

    What could be more constipating than stagnant dreams?

    Interesting and stimulating post.

  53. I enjoy making connections between the body and the mind, Bella. After all our bodies are our first port of call as infants and they continue to exert a relentless grip on us – which we can also experience in our emotions throughout our lives – and we cannot ignore them, however hard we might try. Our bodies that is.

    Thanks, Bella.

  54. I'm interested that you read my piece as a poem, Old
    Raven. To me it's prose but it's lovely for me – who sees herself as a failed poet – that you might consider it otherwise.

    Thanks Old Raven. It's good to see you here.

  55. I'm not sure what stagnant dreams might involve-that is if we're talking about night time dreaming as opposed to day dreams and ambitions – other than perhaps dreams of dead fish, Kass. But I suspect I know what you mean about guilt getting in the way of creative and fulfilling endeavors.

    Thanks, Kass.

  56. I wonder what it is about Catholics? I grew up a fundamentalist, and we too got badgered all the time about what miserable sinners we were, yet somehow Catholics do a better job of actually instilling that guilt.

  57. This post is brilliant.

    But, do not allow guilt to consume you; there is so much more to your life.

    Take guilt, in your mind's eye, to the top of a mountain … and leave it there. Each time you trudge up to retrive it, take it back until it is so small that you can hardly find it … and until you see that it is no longer there.

    But keep on writing!!

  58. With my tongue in my cheek, Snow, I wonder why it is that Catholics, as you say, are so much better at instilling guilt relative to fundamentalists.

    Perhaps it's the more quiet process of indoctrination that gets in and sticks.

    Thanks, Snow.

  59. Thanks for the wonderful suggestion of how I might deal with my guilt, Aguja: all the way to the top of the mountain, further and further and then out of sight.


  60. This is the main reason why I don't like churches, especially the catholic church, and I don't follow any religion. The guilt. The non-existant guilt. The one you were introduced to at age seven. Then there's all that born in sin, born sinful and spend your entire life atoning and confessing so that you may go to heaven when you die. As far as I'm concerned it's all bullshit. Tiny innocent babies are not born filled with sin. Small children, nor adults either, should not be confessing and atoning for mistakes, which are wrongfully labelled sins. There are so many things which are normal and natural, not at all sinful, just the way man (and woman), was made to be. I'm not sure I can explain myself any better so I'll stop now, apart from saying God is loving and fogiving, NOT judging and vengeful.

  61. 'Original Sin', I think it's called, River, and it is such a terrible legacy left to us through the generations.

    I'd rather not pass it onto my children, however much I want them to know about the difference between so-called right and wrong, and to be able to show compassion for their fellow humans.

    Thanks, River.

  62. I don't get that old people totally focus on taking a crap. My mother talked about it and now my wife's mother talks about it. Some days, it is just amazing.

  63. For some reason, Syd, I think that women are more preoccupied with what you call the 'taking of a crap', which intrigues me because anecdotally I've noticed it's the men, even as young as my four year old grandson, who will spend more actual time taking a crap.

    My husband and my son in law, my daughter's boyfriends, and now even my grandson, as I say, spend at least half an hour on the toilet each day, whereas we women are in and out.

    Perhaps we need to find more of a balance in this regard, between the genders and crapping that is.

    It could make for an interesting psychology research project, perhaps. Only joking.

    Thanks again, Syd.

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