I caused a serious road traffic accident in my youth and I feel guilty

Tell me about it: I was never a suspect, and no one was ever identified as the perpetrator

PROBLEM: In my teenage years I got into a fair bit of trouble. In fact, just after my junior cert, I caused a serious road traffic accident.

I know that my actions caused the victims a lot of trauma and distress that lasted a long time. No lasting physical injuries were incurred in the accident, but I know the psychological impact must have been huge. I was never a suspect, and no one was ever identified as the perpetrator and I had never told anyone what I had done.

This was a real moment in my life. I started to focus on hobbies and also began to concentrate on my studies. I did well in the leaving cert, completed graduate and post graduate studies and have carved out a very good career for myself. I am married and have a very supportive wife and two young children.

I have been under a lot of pressure at work in the last few months resulting in low mood and a lot of self-doubt. About two weeks ago I visited the town that I grew up in and met up with some old friends. Whilst in a restaurant I saw a member of the family that were the victims of my actions. They were really welcoming towards me. Since then, I have barely slept. I feel so guilty about what I have done. I am finding it really very difficult to think about anything else. I told my wife about my actions, she agreed that it was a terrible thing that I had done, but that I had turned my life around. She became irate when I said that I felt that I should report myself to the guards or tell the family. She felt that there would be no benefit to my delayed honesty and that it could re-traumatise the victims

If I were to be charged by the gardaí it would impact greatly on the lives of our children. I was able to block this out in the past and move on, I don’t know if I can do this again.

ADVICE: This is a very moral question and while you have a much more serious version of this issue, most people have some past wrongs that they wish they could repair or atone for. In many models of recovery (for example, from addictions) there is often a part in it where the person atones for harm caused by making right the wrongs they have done. We often see guilt as an emotion that needlessly destroys our lives but the purpose of it may be to alert us to the need to address something or to apologise for something.

Of course, the closer we admit our wrong-doing to the event, the more honest we seem and perhaps it is easier to be forgiven. For serious events, there can be some release if we are found guilty and some sanction applied so that we can then genuinely let go and move on in the knowledge that we have done all we can. For you, the question is more difficult as years have passed but it is likely that the past event was huge for the people involved and for you.

I wonder how any of us might feel if we heard from someone in our past who has wronged us and wished to make reparation?

We know from our recent history that even after years of silence, there is recovery available in the exposure of wrong doing so some action on your part might provide healing – for both you and the family affected. It would be useful to discuss this situation fully with a legal advisor as a first step and then with someone you admire and trust, a religious leader or even a psychotherapist, as this would allow you to investigate fully all aspects of the situation and whose needs you are meeting.

Your wife clearly sees the past event as a situation you used to change your life for the better and in her view, more harm might be caused to the victims and your children by your revelation. Her views need to be taken into account, but you have an ongoing serious feeling that this is not enough and more needs to be done. I wonder how any of us might feel if we heard from someone in our past who has wronged us and wished to make reparation?

We may be appreciative of the gesture or it may well bring back old feelings of anger or injustice, but surely, we are the ones who decide our reactions – not the person who caused the wrong. You have already opened this past event and spoken to your wife about it, putting it back into silence no longer seems like a viable option and so you must discuss it, find your own answer and have the courage to implement your decision.

Forgiveness not only comes from the victims, but you too must find a way to forgive yourself and this is no small endeavour.