The progression of regret; the consideration of staging
You can divide into stages the widespread devastation of regret. These stages take into account the extent to which the regret has spread, the size of the regret, how deeply it has penetrated, and whether it has invaded those adjacent to you. Regret, a silent killer, living inside organs (heart, lungs) and slowly—then sometimes all-at-once—metastasizing, eating parts of you alive, sometimes parts you didn’t know existed, with foreign-sounding names.
A psychiatrist—do I call her my psychiatrist if our treatment is two meetings a year, talking about the medication she prescribes and re-prescribes?—suggested Lithium, and I said no, and a psychiatrist suggested that medication was necessary—my thoughts, always racing ahead of my brain—and I agreed to medication, but not to Lithium, because I was not bipolar. And a psychiatrist agreed with my self-diagnosis, less bipolar and more addicted to the strange highs and strange lows in which I found myself.
Racing thoughts fueled by regret, for which a treatment plan included medication—Lamictal, 100 milligrams every day—and time. No real cure for regret. Undoing what you’ve done is not as simple as a pill-a-day habit to regulate your swinging moods. What lingers, lurks, and claws inside. Monsters in the dark, under the bed, and in the ceiling. Patterns you can’t break. Stages, divided by devastation.
Stage 0: Regret, in situ, an early form of regret defined by what it isn’t. You don’t wake up at night, all rapid heartbeat and racing thoughts. You don’t lurk in doorways and step over cracks and tempt fate. Accumulation of regret may occur, when diagnosed with Stage 0 Regret. Such accumulation is not limited to one person or to one event. That job you quit or didn’t quit. That boss who didn’t tell you goodbye. The replaying of conversations when you should have said what you didn’t say, and what you didn’t say in a loop, your personal audio book, with you on the treadmill and in the car and when you’re singing Happy Birthday to your significant other. Window ledges don’t tempt, with their one-way solution. Your reflection is just your reflection, and not a reminder of the outcome, different from what should have happened.
Stage I: Regret, localized to one moment. I regret developing a fondness for peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, and I regret stealing a box of condoms from a grocery store when I was 10—for curiosity, mostly; I didn’t need them—and I regret not spending more time in college studying. Or not filling in the appropriate lines in baby books for my children. Vague ideas of first steps and first words, but nothing specific enough to pass on as truth.
Stage II/III: Regret, locally advanced, or advancing. Criteria, specific or general, based on diagnosis. Fear, mostly fear. I regret fear and being afraid of making other people afraid, not of me—never of me—but by me. Regret, widespread and contagious. I won’t go on that trip and I won’t call in sick so we can do the thing you’ve always wanted to do and I won’t ride rollercoasters or agree to a hot air balloon ride.
Stage IV: Regret, widespread, metastasized. Slept with someone who wasn’t my wife. Thought it would be a one-time thing, but it—and not he—became something more than a one-time thing. The ripples from this decision spreading and continuing to spread, radiating from a Friday night in January, years ago. Saying I love you and always and let’s get lost, while undoing what I had decided to do more than a decade earlier. Up at night until I realized how easy sleep is when you’ve been drinking. Up in the morning, a bad taste in my mouth.
Regret, the day everything collapsed, despite my best efforts. Lies unlied, on a couch I think of as my first piece of adult furniture. Wedding rings removed. Betrayal in actions and emotions no longer mine to control. Separating his from hers, and going to that psychiatrist—definitely my psychiatrist—and realizing that letting go and moving on are choices, as was everything I did to get me to that point, a small room, no windows, and no couch, being asked questions I couldn’t answer. Another lie. Being asked questions I needed to answer, despite how these answers echoed long after they had been given. A wishing well into which I threw quarters. My wishes were worth more than pennies. Regret, advancing into every part of my life. Nothing to do but try to contain it.
I won’t think about the won’ts, because I will regret thinking about the won’ts. Thoughts, something I avoid when I try to sleep, more crippling than nightmares and something medication cannot treat. No cure. Never a cure. Regret, widespread, metastasized.
Stage V: Regret, terminal. No longer wishing for things to be different. Understanding that regret is part of life, and a fearless life is something you learn, and not something you’re guaranteed, born from regretting all of your regrets.
—Photo credit: Guilherme Jófili/Flickr