What You Didn't See When You Said I Was 'Strong'
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by clicking “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.
My life story from birth to age 17 involves multiple mother figures, parental addiction issues, and verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Many people have heard some or all of the story. I am consistently told that I am strong. I am amazing. I am capable. I am inspiring. People are continuously surprised by how well I function, how “unaffected” I seem to be.
I was praised so consistently and so often for my strength and ability to cope that it took me until the age of 26 to realize I wasn’t coping at all. I have had severe anxiety since childhood and never knew it. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from one specific traumatic memory and didn’t know it. I developed severe depression at different points in life as a coping mechanism for my anxiety and didn’t know it. I developed binge eating disorder as a coping mechanism and didn’t know it. How could I not know all of these well-known mental health problems were problems I was experiencing?
I didn’t know because I was functional. I forced myself out of bed in the midst of my depression, so it must not be that bad, right? I could hide my anxiety symptoms from others so they couldn’t be that concerning, right? I could avoid my traumatic memory so it couldn’t have had that deep of an effect, right? People “eat their feelings,” so my food relationship is totally normal, right?
Here’s the thing, everyone who called me strong didn’t know what I didn’t show them. They didn’t see me curled in a ball in a corner shaking and crying because it felt like my world was spinning out of control and there was nothing I could do to fix it. They didn’t see the sheer amount of food I would sit and eat when I was home alone because I didn’t want to see the darkness in my mind. They didn’t hear the voice in my head that consistently told me I wasn’t enough, I was weak, I was a fake, I was not worthy. They didn’t know that someone simply touching my throat would cause a debilitating flashback to the moment my fathers hand held me against the wall, his spit hitting me in the face as he screamed, his eyes showing his pure rage and lack of control as I pushed out the words “Dad, please don’t kill me.”
I hid these things from the world.
Now that I see my mental illnesses and am on a journey to heal, I see I am strong. I am capable. I am worthy. Everyone telling me these things was not wrong. I can’t help but wonder, though. If I was less functional would it have gotten this far? If the symptoms of my mental illnesses were obvious sooner in life would I have gotten the help I needed to succeed? Would I have finished college? Would I have made better choices? Does it really matter? After all, I do love my life right now.
The next time someone shares their life with you, let them know it’s OK to not be strong. It’s OK to show vulnerability. It’s OK to feel the emotions and work through them. It’s OK to show suffering on the outside instead of hiding it on the inside. They are still capable. They are still worthy. Showing their true struggle is strength.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.