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What No One Tells You About 'Being Strong' When You Become Ill

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These are things I’ve very often been called by people that know even just a sliver of my life story. But you know how going through these things can make me feel?

Utterly uninspirational, trapped within myself, hesitant…


I didn’t feel like an inspiration when I didn’t study hard enough for an important exam and received a score much lower than I expected.

Why didn’t I just try a little harder? Why didn’t I ignore the pain creeping from my neck to my head and just study anyway? Why didn’t I just drink some more coffee to counteract my eternal exhaustion and focus on those prep books?

I didn’t feel resilient all the times I didn’t get out of bed and missed my favorite classes.

Why didn’t I push myself harder? Why didn’t I just force myself to get up, get dressed, and go to class?

I didn’t feel determined when I sat absentmindedly staring at my laptop, knowing my paper was due the next day, until 3 a.m. without writing a single word of said paper.

Why didn’t I just push through it and get my goddamn work done? Why didn’t I read the book and write some words down? That’s not so hard, right?

I didn’t feel powerful when I didn’t exercise like my doctors told me to so I wouldn’t gain weight with a new medication, and when I inevitably gained weight because of it.

Why didn’t I work through the pain and exercise anyway? Why didn’t I do what everyone else was clearly capable of doing?

I didn’t feel strong when I looked in the mirror and cried because of what I saw. I didn’t feel strong when I could only walk for two minutes without excruciating pain in my legs. I didn’t feel strong when I could no longer take notes because of the pain in my hand. I didn’t feel strong when I tried to learn to write with my left hand instead, only to find out the pain was just as bad as my right hand. I didn’t feel strong when I could no longer take the stairs. I didn’t feel strong when my physical therapy wasn’t working. I didn’t feel strong when I didn’t take my dog for a long walk like he deserves. I didn’t feel strong when I was told over and over and over again that I just needed to stick with my physical therapy, and then I’d get better. I didn’t feel strong when I had to take pain meds every single day. I didn’t feel strong when I cried myself to sleep. I didn’t feel strong when I self-harmed. I didn’t feel strong when I didn’t remember assignments, people’s names or something someone had just said moments before. I didn’t feel strong when I had to leave class and cried in the hallway because of pain.

Why didn’t I just do what everyone told me to? Why didn’t I work harder so I could be strong?

So, you might be asking yourself, what is it that no one tells you about being strong?

No one tells you that a lot of the time, you won’t feel strong. You’ll likely feel so incredibly weak, powerless and broken. You’ll have people ask you exactly the questions I was asking myself. But you’ll come to realize, just as I did, that every single time you or someone else says you didn’t do something, it’s not a matter of didn’t, but couldn’t.

I couldn’t try harder. I couldn’t ignore the pain. I couldn’t push myself harder or force myself to do something. I couldn’t exercise. I couldn’t do everything everyone else was so easily capable of doing. I couldn’t just be strong.

The thing is, in every single moment that I believed I wasn’t strong, I was stronger than I had ever been. I did push through the pain, I did try as hard as I could, I did force myself to do things, and I did get through all of it. In my weak moments, I kept going. Maybe I couldn’t live up to my ridiculously high standards for myself, but I gave my all and did my best. And it’s not that I disappointed others. I disappointed myself, at least at first. I was the only one saying that I was utterly uninspirational and weak.

Chronic or temporary, any illness is draining and it will make you feel disappointed in yourself. I set my standards for myself when my mental illnesses and chronic pains weren’t so bad, and I forgot to change my standards for my less-well self. I held myself to the standards of a perfectly healthy person, and that wasn’t and isn’t me. I had to learn to cut myself slack. (I’m still learning to cut myself slack, actually.) I had to learn how to ask for help when I need it and learn to accept that help, learn my limits, learn my strengths, learn everything about my new, ailing body and mind. I had to learn to accept that my body wasn’t healthy, and that it would take a while for me to get back to a healthy place. I had to learn to be patient while waiting for many diagnoses. I had to learn to love and be comfortable with what I look like and how I feel, because there’s no changing it.

Most importantly, I had to learn to ignore myself. While it is always good to find your happiness and strength from within, it’s not always possible. I had to learn how to hear what other people said about me, and trust that they were right. As the wise Uncle Iroh once said, “while it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.”

I am inspirational.

I am resilient.

I am powerful.

I am determined.

I am strong.

Getty Image by Any_Li

Originally published: April 17, 2018
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