If there’s one thing I’ve heard a million times by now, it’s that I’m “strong.” People tell me I’m strong, and that they could not have handled the things I’ve been through. My general reasponse when people tell me I’m “strong” is that I really don’t feel it.
When I was pregnant, I read so many books and articles that said that stress would affect my baby. I knew I was in a stressful situation, and that I needed to find a way not to let that affect my child. I don’t recall actually consciously doing it, but I think at some point fairly early on I learned to shut off the part of my brain that dealt with the stressful stuff. I stayed calm despite everything that was going on around me, and only had the rare moment of abject panic. I remember two times in the eight months that I was pregnant when I lost my shit and couldn’t function properly. The rest of the time, I was pretty much a zombie.
Later, when S was born and I found myself a single mother, I had to learn so many different things, from changing nappies to applying for benefits. I was terrified that I couldn’t handle being a parent on my own; I was terrified of what Twunty might do. I was terrified that I was doing it all wrong and would accidentally kill my tiny, fragile baby. But I knew I couldn’t function and do a good job as a parent with that level of constant terror. Somehow, without realising I was doing it, I found a way to shove all of that down and just get on with it.
For five years I’ve been being “strong” without really knowing how I was actually doing that. And the problem with that is that it’s hard to unpick when you don’t even know how you did it in the first place. When things are ok, when you’re safe. It’s hard to know how not to be strong. You get so used to stuffing things down and avoiding feeling them, that you forget how to not stuff things down. You just carry on stuffing it all down, being strong when you don’t need to be so strong any more.
If I’m honest, I never even realised I was being particularly strong; I thought the hardest times were behind me and I was moving on and everything was peachy. I thought I was over it – as ridiculous as that sounds now. But being faced with a new situation where I am required to have actual feelings and be open and honest with someone has pretty much just shoved it in my face that I don’t know how to do that so much these days.
I mean, I cry at Grey’s Anatomy and when S sings in school concerts, and I can get stroppy with the best of them when the heating is playing up or my laptop is loading a website slowly. But actually sitting there and having normal feelings like a normal person? Nope.
I’m listening to this audiobook at the moment called How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t and it’s about the various different ways we all “numb out” and avoid feeling our feelings. I recognise so many on the list, but I’m stuck on the chapter about being strong and hyperindependence. I have been strong without ever really meaning to be, or realising I was doing it. And I’ve been so hyperindependent for so long it’s ridiculous. I hate asking people for help, and I hate having to accept help. I don’t even really know why, except that if I did that I might have to admit to a certain level of vulnerability: I am not invincible; I can’t do it all by myself.
So here I am, at the grand old age of 36, learning how to just have feelings like a normal person. Without numbing them with cake and chocolate; without avoiding them by exercising or going on Facebook; without being strong.