So, you’ve been having a rough time and you get up the courage to let it all out. You find a friend that you trust and love. Someone who loves you, wants the best for you, and is an all-round good soul. They listen, hold your hand, and they cry with you because seeing you hurt, hurts them. Well now, that’s a great friend you’ve got there! Hold on to them because that relationship is a keeper.
Unburdened and free, you let out a sigh as you lean back in your chair. You wrap a hand around your cooling cup of tea and close your eyes. Holding it all in was hard work and now that it’s out there, you feel a little lighter. The tension in your shoulders is dissipating and your jaw unclenches. That tension headache is slowly fading away.
A moment of silence passes and your friend speaks, “I’m sorry you’re going through all of this. If there’s a silver lining, you know what they say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’”
Do you agree with them? Is it true? It may have been bad, whatever you went through, and it didn’t kill you but, uh, now what? Muscles like Hercules? Kickass warrior skills like Wonder Woman? Lasso of truth in one hand and demigod powers flowing out of the other?
It sure sounds sweet, superpowers would be cool, but fiction and reality rarely coexist. I’m not saying they can’t or don’t mingle from time to time. We call them miracles of science or of God. They happen every day, in a million different ways. It’s just that, when fiction meets reality, it’s usually a bastardized version that’s kind of watered down. A bit disappointing?
What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. What do you envision when you hear that phrase? What image does it conjure? What’s been your reality and how did it compare to what you expected? Far too often, the two just don’t match up and the let down is a heartbreaking.
I’m not calling out a lie or screaming BS. Surviving, becoming stronger for it, almost assuredly holds some truth, or people wouldn’t keep saying it. There is truth and wisdom in those words but, from where I stand, it’s been grossly oversimplified. Boiled down to fit on a bumper sticker or a tattoo. The reality? I don’t know if anyone wants that covering their whole body.
Then again, I could be wrong and a skilled artist can work magic. Something with a phoenix maybe? Or, is that too obvious? It’s too obvious. You’re right, I’ll leave art to the magician.
All I can do is speak from my own experiences and for me, the worst moments of my life haven’t left me stronger than I was before. I didn’t rise from the ashes like a majestic creature and spread my wings. I didn’t fly off into the sunset. It’s what people imagine when they hear my story, but it’s just not true.
There are some people, on the peripheries of my life, that have this image of me, of what I am, that’s borderline mythical. A creature that burns down to ashes but is reborn in the flames. Stronger. Faster. Better than ever before. They want me to be that person but the reality isn’t as fanciful as fiction. So let me rip off the bandaid as fast as I can because I’m going to shatter the illusion.
One diagnosis followed by another. Surgery after surgery. Treatment after treatment. A palm-full of medications and an arm full of Iv’s. A heart that’s stopped and been restarted more than once. My body is damaged, it’s not as strong as I need it to be, and it’s covered in scars.
Look at the scars, the track marks from the Iv’s, with an objective eye. If my body is this damaged, wouldn’t it stand to reason that, after everything I’ve been through, my mind would be damaged too? My mind weakened? My mind covered in scars?
I survived and I keep on surviving but it hasn’t made me stronger. I didn’t come out of those moments, the ones that damn near killed me, standing tall. I didn’t walk out like a victorious warrior. My armour didn’t glisten in the new day’s sun. My hair wasn’t blowing behind me. My leg perched on the remains of my enemies. I can promise you that I did not have a hero’s stance.
My story of survival didn’t end with a bag or a parade. The reality of survival, my survival, is that it starts with a whimper. I crawled out of those moments on my hands and knees. Bruised. Bloody. Covered in sweat. Tears streaming down my face. I could barely lift my head, let alone look up at the heavens with a spirit of gratitude. I wasn’t strong. I wasn’t brave. I wasn’t even me, anymore.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? I’ve heard that phrase so often it makes me flinch. If only they knew. If only they looked a little closer. If only they took a closer look at my life, put it under a microscope, then they’d see the hairline fractures running through every aspect of my consciousness. Would they still tell me that it didn’t kill me so now I’m stronger?
I want them to see, to understand, that’s it simply not true but I hate confrontation so I smile and shrug it off. It’s a response that’s met with approval because, I think, they need to believe that the sentiment is true. They need to believe that fiction can coexist with reality. They need to see a phoenix rise out of the ashes. They need to believe just like the need to breathe.
For them, it’s a survival instinct that they will fight to preserve because if it isn’t real? If there are things in this world that can break us? If there are things that can preserve the body but kill the mind, the spirit? We need to believe that as long as we’re breathing we’re strong, brave, and can handle anything because the alternative feels like surrender.
But, is surrender a bad thing? I’m not talking about taking extreme actions to end the pain or life. If you’re struggling with those thoughts, please reach out for help. There are crisis lines that you can call. Hospitals. Please, reach out for help. There are people who are qualified, who care, and they can help you get to a better, safer, place.
In this instance, I’m talking about something different. It’s about a moment. A single moment where exhaustion meets agony. It’s a spiritual, physical, mental depletion that brings me to my knees. It’s a moment where the thought of continuing this is fight is so overwhelming I can’t breathe. There’s no strength left, and I don’t know if I can keep going.
There’s only one choice but it’s not a popular one. It’s met with arguments and derision from the spectators. It’s frowned upon and cursed. Their chants, their jeers, are loud and clear: Surrender is not an option. But they don’t understand, they aren’t living in this moment, and they aren’t the ones in this fight.
Surrendering to that moment is not giving in to the pain. It’s living in it, acknowledging it, experiencing it without fight or judgment. Allowing myself… No, it’s giving myself permission to be whatever I am in that space. Broken. Tired. Bruised. Beaten. Weak.
I can’t be strong all the time. I can’t keep fighting without rest. The battles keep coming! The war rages on. I have a chronic illness. The fight will never stop. I will never win; not in the traditional sense. There’s no finish line. There’s no armistice. I keep fighting but sometimes I have to surrender to find a moment of peace.
Throughout history, surrender as been viewed as weakness and cowardice. The strong keep fighting. The weak lay down their arms. But if laying down my arms keeps me alive for one more day? If it means I get a chance to catch my breath? If it means I buy myself some time to recover whatever strength I can muster?
I’ll wave my white flag high and proud because I can always lower it when this moment passes. This will ruin the illusion for some of you, even disappoint a few, but I have surrendered to my wounds, my illness, my shattered mind. I wasn’t dead, this illness hasn’t killed me yet, but I wasn’t stronger for it so I gave into it.
I’ve encountered things in this world that have broken me and left me in pieces. These moments have turned my life into a million piece puzzle with no points of reference. How do I put it back together again? There are no guidelines, there’s nothing to follow, so I sort through the pieces and do my best. But putting the pieces back together isn’t simple or quick.
Even when the pieces start to come together, I’m not the person I was before I was broken. The picture is different, it’s warped and misshapen. It will never look the same. I will never be the same. Will I be strong again? Will I be stronger? Even after all these years of healing, I can honestly say, it’s too early to tell.
This isn’t a story of triumph over tragedy. It’s not the story we’re supposed to tell, and it’s not one that’s supposed to be written. We’re supposed to be stronger because we survived. That’s how this is supposed to go because this one fallacy, a tale of redemption, is so ingrained in our culture that contradicting it is taboo.
Maybe even forbidden?
For the record, I don’t believe it’s entirely fictitious but, rather, misunderstood. What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger if you read the story all the way to the end. It’s not a story that’s told in one chapter. It’s not a straight shot. It’s complicated and messy which is why most stop reading way too soon.
With time, help, and a lot of self-compassion we can become stronger. We can heal. We can find our inner warriors. But first, we need to give ourselves permission to surrender to the moment that we’re in. To take time to heal, grieve, and sit with our brokenness for a little while.
For me, it’s in those moments, that I slowly begin to rediscover who I am after the war drums have fallen quiet. I say goodbye to who I was, and I grieve for that loss because losing ourselves is a death of identity. It’s left me feeling empty and hollow. A space that can be refilled with a new me, eventually. After that, well I have to get to know myself all over again.
Simple? Easy? Not even close.
What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger? Maybe, but it will change me forever and I’m going to need some time to be okay with that.