Even when I am not strong, I am never weak – surviving meltdowns and other crises of the soul
It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one.
Jerome K. Jerome
Sometimes, after a full day of being normal, I come home and lose it. I. Just. Lose it. I howl and scream – really shriek, not just delicate little squeals of frustration but full-throated roars. I hurt on every level. I’m angry and sad and grieving and so overwhelmed that it’s all I can do not to bite myself the way I did when I was an abused little kid and I didn’t have anywhere else to put that pain but to turn it on myself.
I do it because it took me everything I had to function in the world that day and I have no resources left. I am not neurotypical, although I pass pretty well if you aren’t looking for it. I haven’t been formally diagnosed, but I’m related to people on the autism spectrum (high end) and I am very like them. I haven’t been diagnosed formally with PTSD, although a clinical psychologist friend told me my symptoms were classic. I haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, either, although I jitter and bounce and lose focus enough that it’s hard to argue that I don’t have it. I can’t get diagnosed yet, for personal reasons, but once I can, I’m going in. I want confirmation and validation that what I’ve been struggling with all my life is quite real and as difficult as I think it is.
I try desperately not to lose it in front of anyone – although my family has been treated to it, sorry about that – because, in part, I look like I am completely insane (certifiable, drag me off to a nuthouse) and partly because, once they’ve seen it, people write me off completely. They assume that I’m literally such a weak person that I’m worthless. Stoic people, especially, think so. Mind you, I’ve met a lot of stoic people who also think my loving heart is a weakness and grounds for dismissing me entirely.
Frankly, I’m sick of the meltdowns. They’re exhausting. But until my life is less complex – perhaps when I retire and I can minimize the amount of time I have to be “on” – I will be dealing with them.
But am I weak? No. Not at all.
In the first place, imagine the strength it takes to have all this going on and still hold a full time job in the public sector, with all the expectations of performance and behavior, for the last 30 or so years. To go out in the world and deal with all the aspects of adult life, plus be a single mom for many years. To get a daughter through a near fatal crisis. To get my husband through his near-fatal crisis.
The fact is, even when I am not strong, I am never ever weak. Never. Ever.
I do reserve my strength. I don’t even bother to try to be strong when I get a splinter or stub my toe or get startled (which is worse at home, when I’ve relaxed, trust me). Just this week, I got a huge, honking, painful splinter in the palm of my hand and shrieked and carried on like a two year old until I could pull that half-inch monster out. I tripped and fell – you would have thought I’d amputated something.
See this and you may well think I’m the most fragile thing imaginable – until you’re in crisis. If you are in a crisis – medical, psychological, life, anything – you want me there. I’ll be the one to stick my hand in your bleeding wound, grab your severed artery and keep you from bleeding to death. I’ll be the one who’ll grab your attention and keep you calm while the EMTs work on you. I will be the one to do CPR on your child and bring her back to life – stone-cold calm and absolutely competent. I will take on doctors for you and I will win my arguments with them because I know more about medicine than most lay people ever will and I have the brass ovaries to believe they should listen to me (as they have and do). I will stand in front of you or beside you or behind you, calm and rational and capable and logical and loving and I will help you through. If you have seen me in meltdown, you won’t believe I’m even the same person.
I’ve been strong enough to go from abused kid to where I am today (imperfect as it is, it was still an achievement). You can’t be weak and do what I’ve done.
Thing is, many of us have some odd ideas about what strength and weakness actually are. I know any number of glorious, amazing, awesome people who ravage themselves over the slightest slip of composure. If they aren’t constantly “strong,” always cheerful in the face of the nearly unimaginable, positive no matter what challenge faces them, always upbeat, never upset (this list does go on…and on…and on…), they literally pound themselves into a bloody pulp for it.
I’m here to tell these people – STOP IT. Just. Stop it.
They’re modeling themselves after people who very likely are foundering in far more invisible ways. Where is that person foundering, too? They are, you know. They may be drinking. Overeating. Overspending. They may be cruel and sniping. They may stand in judgment of everyone around them for not being just like themselves. In some way, that person is also falling apart – few people are saints or they have pretty idyllic lives – or they’re dogs. I saw a video once by a woman who listed all the virtues – tolerance, patience, never judging, always calm, never taking hurt where none should be taken (this also went on and on) – and at the end, when I was about to leap through the computer screen and strangle her – she grinned and said “If you are all of these things, you are also probably a dog.”
I will repeat what I said earlier and apply it to you – even when you are not strong, you are never weak. So you melted down. You failed. You faltered. So what? Did you pick yourself up again? Did you take a breath and get on with it?
We are not defined by the moments where we falter. We are defined by the moments after that. These moments may happen over and over again – like they do to me. But I will tell you that I have many more times of strength and they are far more defining than the moments when I am not.
Stop listening to the voices of people who are oak trees and only seem to think oaks are worthy trees. They may be huge and gorgeous and appear unassailable, but they break in a strong wind. If you are the willow – and I am a willow – the wind will likely bend you to the ground over and over again – but you will spring back up and you will prevail…
This is for my beloved Jenna Stone, who has discovered you can have much to teach in part because you know you have much to learn…