It’s January 2021. I started this blog in 2016 and have been blogging (relatively) consistently ever since. At first, I set out to document my journey as a writer and solely that, hoping to document the realities of writing well and failing to write well, both of which happen regularly. However, I learned very quickly that I am not very skilled at keeping the areas of my life that I am passionate about separate. Work, writing, friendships, health and studying are not neat boxes that sit in distant corners of a room inside of my mind.
Throughout these past five years, I have graduated from University with a Bachelor’s and a Masters. I have begun another Masters. I have transformed in every subtle and monumental way possible, morphing from someone who was severely chronically-ill to a woman who manages my conditions by managing my life beautifully. Beautifully, not flawlessly and far from perfectly. I have completed the awkward and none-too-comfortable transition from student to full-time worker and most importantly, I write fearlessly.
I have dropped every ounce of caring I had about the opinions of others on my behaviours or the words I offer the world.
In January 2016, I wrote a landmark diary entry and I knew that something integral within me had shifted. After years of perpetual pain, due to crippling mental illness and chronic illness after a hamster-wheel of viral infections, I had a kindling of hope that I was worthy of a recovery. More than that – that I deserved nothing less than a full life. This small hope did not remain a fledgling spark for long and before finishing my third year of University, I carried an emboldened belief of my own self-worth which I have only continued to encourage and thrive in despite several ups and downs.
Now, I am twenty-six years old and very little of who I was as a teenager or in my early twenties remains, (except my penchant for writing lengthy blog posts). My personality has gone from being mercurial to cementing in consistency and strength. And that’s something I know a lot about; strength.
“You’re so strong.”
This is a compliment that I am borderline immune to accepting. For years, I have been told that I am strong or even inspiring by my close friends and family. This year, with COVID-19, has been no exception. I am sure that I sound anything but grateful when I speak so disparagingly about such comments. But today, I want to explain exactly why it is so tiring to be strong, to keep living – and exactly why this is not entirely a perfect compliment.
Ultimately, this issue boils down to the fact that I am only ever told that I am strong when I have divulged just how hard it can be to get out of bed everyday, when I have laboured to explain clearly just the level of torment waking up in the morning can be.
More often than not nowadays, I speak about this in the context of living with physical pain, but I too understand the anguish of a mind that wants to take an emergency exit from this experience called life. Often, these two are inexplicably linked. Here’s the thing: telling someone they are strong for continuing to live despite their pain does nothing for the person in question, but only comforts the friend or family member on the giving end of this apparent compliment.
Being constantly strong, putting on a brave face and ‘pulling it together’ is a gift to those around you, never to yourself. We aim to make those around us as comfortable as possible, to inconvenience them as little as possible with our pain.
That is WHY we smile for group photos when we know that we had no intention of living beyond this past week. Or why we continue to eat meals and laugh at memes that our friends in the group chat send us when the truth is, we’ve been bed-ridden for days on end. This is why we stay silent as we listen to the news, family members on Facebook and our governments remark about the ‘vulnerable’ during this pandemic with insipid smiles and pitying glances, whilst simultaneously voting for those parties that cut disability allowance and mental health funding. This is why I will patiently explain to my grandparents that people do not commit suicide due to a simple sadness, but rather due to lack of affordable housing, lack of universal healthcare and the maintenance of barbaric government-run systems such as Direct Provision. This is why I hold a delicate glass of Prosecco every New Years Eve and cheers for a better year, because I have learned to differentiate between pain and suffering and if I cannot hope to pain-free, I will do without suffering. This is why we listen to the complaints of friends about fixable problems, why we wipe up the tears of those around us, all the while hoping they will see just how much our own hands are shaking.
Make no mistake, we do this because it is easier for you.
Yet this just creates the illusion of constant-coping, which, over time, people interpret as genuine happiness or health. Before long, we go weeks without being asked by a soul how we are truly are doing.
So please, do not give in to your instincts and remind us of our own strength, whilst exhaling deeply and saying in the same breath that you could never survive what we have. I once described this to a friend by imagining that I was standing on the precipice of a great cliff, my balance precarious and heart racing. Staying upright on this cliff edge takes my full concentration, but alas, life has handed me a blindfold and told me to keep my balance without my sight. Telling me I am strong as you watch me almost go over the cliff is as good as complimenting my posture as I hang on for dear life.
Remember this, remember this for your friends and family who are in pain. For those who suffer from a chronic, invisible pain and those whose sufferings are seen. For those who get out of bed each day, despite their minds, ready to waging another battle when the blood from every day previous has not yet dried. For those who are struggling during the pandemic. For those who suffer – and in truth, isn’t that all of us?
Here is what you can say and what I offer to all of my own friends and family who I know are currently suffering, some so quietly that they do not want the very air around them to be disturbed.
Thank you for choosing to fight, despite the cost. I do not know what the cost will be for you, I do not know your specific brand of pain nor do I pretend to. Thank you for choosing today and for giving me another chance to love you, to comfort you, to be and do better, by you. Your value in my life is not conditional and is not dependent upon your strength, nor do I need you to hide. This is an ugly, messy life where tears are the PC-truth and blood and near-misses of death are the reality of every moment we continue to breathe. I follow you in that horror, in this pain and I honour you for it. It is nothing short of a privilege and never a burden, to join you in this journey. We will see this out together.
Do not demand strength from those around you, even subconsciously. Check-in with how you speak but more importantly, how closely you listen. Learn and do your best, because after all, your best can be miraculous.
I leave you with my reminder to keep going this week; a quote from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire;
“What’s comin’ will come, an’ we‘ll meet it when it does.”
Goodbye for now friends,