Have you ever been through something so heartbreakingly tough, awful, painful and/or depressing but not been able to talk about it? Or just thought that because you were so used to being the rock everyone counts on that you didn’t want to let anyone down? Going through life being strong, picking yourself up, facing every adversity full on as some kind of challenge, and embracing the potholes around you, knowing that if you manage to conquer the bad stuff, the good stuff will be all the better? I always feel like talking about hardships and problems with others makes them seem so insignificant, like I am moaning, and in the end it doesn’t really help the situation at hand. But trying to be strong all of the time can have some real downsides, and, as I have personally found, can be completely detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.
When I started writing about being surrounded by strong women in my life and doing my best to emulate this strength in my own journey, I also knew that I had to mention the other side of the coin, the one that is slightly tarnished and dark. In my heart it is the side of me that I don’t want people to see in case they catch a glimpse of my weaknesses or vulnerabilities. It’s often the side that I can easily keep away from those around me when I am sober, not so much when I drink. One of the many reasons, but not the most important, why I don’t drink anymore: there is something disconcerting about watching a person who seems to always have it together fall apart in public. Don’t get me wrong, I was mostly a fun drunk, until I wasn’t. In my head it all made sense, but how could it in anyone else’s when they had no idea what I was going through? There is some merit in asking for help sometimes. I often give this advice to others, and know full well that I should sometimes listen to my own little pearls of wisdom!
My other half tells me I’m so strong, my ability to put my mind to something and just follow through is something that inspires him. It’s just part of who I am, maybe a Taurean trait, seeing as a lot of it is really stubbornness or even bullheadedness. If I say I am going to do something, whether it is for myself or for someone else, you can count on me doing it. By saying something out loud I hold myself accountable and am terrified of being a disappointment. Well maybe not exactly terrified, my real fear is reserved for things that I cannot control and rather not think about, but it is a constant underlying worry. What if that article isn’t good enough? What if I annoy someone by bringing up a topic that they don’t agree with? What if no one buys my book because it’s just not interesting?? I don’t care if you like me as a person, I’m way beyond that now, but I do care about what I create and what I deliver. Perfection IS impossible, but I still continue to think that I HAVE to attain it. Even when I know deep down that I don’t.
You know those situations when someone asks how you are, and you know that they genuinely want to know the real answer, but you respond with “I’m good!”, or at least, “I’m OK!”. That’s me. And usually I AM OK. But sometimes I want to kick myself and say, no I’m not OK today. Or no I really just don’t feel like talking today. Or no, I feel like absolute shit and I want to dive into the sea and stay there for a while until everything is calmer in my head and I can deal with the world again. When Sylvia Plath described the bell jar effect, I totally understood what she was talking about. So much that when I was writing my MA thesis on her work I created my own bell jar. Not that you would have known because the only person I told was my journal. My closest friends guessed but didn’t know how to help, and did what they could in their own ways. It did help, and I figured my own way out, for the better. Every time I see the grey sky on the horizon I remember that time, and I remember how I found the blue sky and the ocean again, and it pulls me back into the rainbow rather than the abyss. I am acutely aware of the streaks of mental illness that run in my family, the depression, the anxiety, and I try to steer myself clear of all of that. Because I DO want to be consistently strong, and I DO want to be the positive person that I naturally am. And I DO want to always be there for everyone – it’s just sometimes I don’t have enough energy for it.
But who said we had to always have energy for everyone else? See I think here lies the crux of the problem: no one does. We tend to make ourselves so available, and then not know how to say no when it gets too much. And then we start to get angry and frustrated with the situation, ending up with a complete withdrawal or lashing out unnecessarily. I’ve had friendships that were all too one-sided to last, but last they did until I couldn’t give anymore. I’m sure those friends had no clue why I disappeared or “let them down”, but it was probably because I just didn’t have the energy anymore. Real friendship works both ways, and it’s taken me a long time to learn that it’s OK to say no (although I still forget to half the time…).
When I was in labour with my second child, I stoically told my partner to go back to sleep because it was OK, but in real life I was crying through contractions in the shower trying not to throw my guts up and wake and scare our firstborn, only 16 months old. It resulted in me making it to the hospital just in time to give birth and my partner missing it by 10 minutes because he was waiting for a friend to watch our other child. I was adamant I wouldn’t do the same for this last child of hours, but again, this time after many, many hours of labour, I found myself doing it again, and then yelling at him for not “helping” me (I don’t actually know how one can “help” someone go through back to back contractions at the end of active labour, but by that point I was a little delirious to say the least). I’m glad I yelled though, because it was the only way I could voice vulnerability at that point. It’s OK to not always do everything alone – especially something like this. And ultimately it ended in the situation where we were both able to be fully involved in the birth of our last child. Kind of magical.
I keep telling myself that asking for help isn’t a bad thing: we all need help sometimes. Doing everything alone isn’t always a merit, and while being strong in all situations means that I know there is always light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes it just feels better to get through things WITH others, instead of DESPITE others. At the time of writing this it’s been a tough couple of days, and while I have had an amazing recovery I need to remember that I am still recovering from 9 plus months of growing a child and 36 hours of getting him out safely. And that I also have two other children under four, one of whom has a lot of trouble adapting to change, and there have been a lot of changes recently. I just need to remember that strength also equals being kind with oneself and knowing when to ask for help, even if it’s just to take a nap. That will always be hard for me.