The strength myth

In the year that I turned 25 I lost the only father I’ve ever had. Losing a man whose gentle, unconditional love legitimised me, comforted me and nourished me felt like I was losing myself. I was losing my place in the world. On the day that I would forever say goodbye to my grandfather’s physical presence, I thought I could keep it together and for the most part, I did. I was sobbing but fighting it when someone laid a heavy hand on my shoulder, gently shook me and told me to “be strong”. Where there should have been comfort, there was chiding.  The message was clear, there was no space for my sorrow, there was no publicly allowable space for a young woman to display her grief. I am strong only if no one sees me in a moment of weakness. I am weak, I cannot control my tears, I am a burden. The world would clear a space for me if I showed it my smile, I could own my happiness and joy but not my sorrow. My heartbreak did not belong to me, it belonged to someone else, maybe someone less “strong”.

I am lying face up in a surgeon’s office. In that impossible way that anxiousness brings, I am cold but sweating. Embarrassed by my self-consciousness I am grateful when the surgeon is at my knee with his back facing me. I think of everything apart from the pain, I wonder why the examination table is this particular shade of green, it’s almost a green that forgot what colour it was supposed to be and gave up half why through it’s discovery. I think of the rugby players this doctor has treated and of how the rows of pictures on the walls around me displaying various rugby teams feels foreboding rather than comforting. I think I am strong even though the pain pushes tears down my cheeks. Husband notices that something is wrong and the doctor turns to face me, releasing the swollen mass that is my knee. “Why didn’t you tell me I was hurting you?” His anger is evident as he looks at me as though I am playing a trick on him. “I didn’t know I was supposed to say anything” I muster from my supplicating position. “Well, when people are in pain they usually say something” is his uncomprehending, unsympathetic reply. I want to tell him that I am strong and that is why I could give no voice to the pain. I want to tell him that this is what is required of me, I want to tell him that there is no room for my pain, but I do not. Instead I apologise and as I hobble out of his consulting room I paste my smile upon the pain that grabs, that steals and pierces.

What is this thing I cling so dearly to? This thing I have defined as my strength? I am strong, aren’t I? This cloak of invulnerability I wear is as fragile as the weakness it seeks to disguise. I am strong, aren’t I? I am strong in the way that you want me to be, in a way that shows you how independent I am, how unafraid I am, in a way that you need to see to make me more palatable for you. I am the little girl playing dress up and everyone thinks it’s cute. In my strength there is deceit. In my strength there is weakness.