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We Said We Were Fine But We Were Anything But

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“We’re fine.”

That was the answer I gave for so many years.

Right after Callie was born we spent months in the NICU. People would ask how she was doing, how we were holding up and if we needed anything. My answer was always the same.

“We’re doing fine.”

They would remark how strong we were, how well we were holding up and how amazed they were that we could handle the stressful circumstances. I’d just smile.

In reality we were not fine. There’s not an adequate way to describe the level of exhaustion that we were feeling. We spent every waking moment in the NICU while both working. James would be up at 6 a.m. to go to work, stopping by the hospital on his lunch hour. I would be up at 6 a.m. to go to the NICU and would be there until I left from the hospital to go to work at 3 p.m. James would get off work at 4 p.m. and then come to the NICU until they closed at 9 p.m. We’d meet at home at about 10 p.m. and then wake up several times a night to call the NICU to check on her.

Compound that with the emotional toll of what we were dealing with — learning a new “language” and learning to navigate this new world we were thrust into. The physical toll of a C-Section on my body. I signed a waiver and checked myself out of the hospital the day after Callie was born so I could be at the downtown hospital with her. There were days I could literally barely stand by myself without fear I would topple over. The worry that James had that all of those things would impact my diabetes. The burden he put on himself to make sure that both of his girls were OK.

Exhaustion is a nice way to describe how tired we were, but we said we were fine.

I would cry leaving the NICU every day.  Sobbing in my car until I couldn’t breathe. Countless days that I got to leave the hospital and we didn’t get to bring her home. I would see the other parents leaving with their new babies and it would devastate me –tears silently falling down my cheeks as they rode in the same elevator that I did.  The guilt I would feel when leaving her each night destroyed me. I would have anxiety attacks that something would happen when I wasn’t there and I knew I would never forgive myself.

But I said that we were fine.

The fear, the stress, the guilt, the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the grief tore through us. We both became storms — spinning cyclones of emotions that collided with each other in private. Each of us knowing that we were the safest thing to go up against, because no one else could understand what we were going through and had we turned those emotions toward anyone else we would have destroyed them in our wake. We could match each other with the anguish, the sorrow and the heart ache. That’s what we did. We became separate raging storms of pain. Howling and screaming at each other like a hurricane, but we told everyone we were fine.

We continued that pattern for years through Callie’s amputation surgery, through the growing medical debt and through the multiple surgeries for her knee and hand.  Through many years of physical therapy, doctors appointments, consultations, heartbreaks, stress and tears. But, we told everyone we were fine.

Because that’s what we believed “strong” looked like. That’s what we believed we had to do to get through it. Strong didn’t show everyone that we were crumbling. Strong didn’t show everyone that we were drowning. Strong didn’t show everyone that we could barely keep putting one foot in front of the other. Strong didn’t ask for help or admit that they needed a break.

Until we figured out we had been strong for a very long time. Strong was also admitting we needed help. Admitting we were struggling. Admitting we were barely keeping our head above water. Admitting that we didn’t always know what we were doing.  Admitting that we were hurting. Admitting that we were most definitely not fine.

Sometimes asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.  Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. We didn’t have to do it all by ourselves and couldn’t judge ourselves for.

Both James and I have an unbelievable capacity to handle stress, trauma and emotional tolls but we knew it had come to a point where even we needed help.

We started small — accepting meals while Callie was in the hospital. Sharing more of our struggles. Asking our family to help us in small ways such as picking up things for us at the store, giving us a much needed date night to reconnect and running errands for us. Slowly, we stared to see the response from our friends and the community when we did open up about our hardships. They wanted to help us.

Most of them had been waiting for the opportunity to do just that — to show up for us in our time of need. To hold our hands when we need to cry a little. To lift some of the burden from our shoulders when we needed a breather. To take care of the mundane daily life things for us so we could focus on getting our warrior back up and running.

Those hard things got a little easier when we started getting comfortable asking for help.  Sometimes it takes more courage to ask for help than to go it alone. You don’t have to be the strong one all the time. Tears aren’t weak and whomever said that never had the strength to be vulnerable. The clouds rain too when things get heavy and we’ve gotten more comfortable letting others help us weather the storms.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Originally published: September 25, 2020
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