What It Really Means to be Strong

I smoked again. Half 3 in the morning. I sat by the window in the kitchen, light off, by myself. I knew it wasn’t exactly helping with my problems but for a moment it did calm me down. I got this deep relief the moment I took a puff and exhaled it out in the wind. Suddenly the world stopped spinning and my heart stopped hurting so badly. It struck me that I was experiencing life. You know. The raw moments that didn’t have to rush, moments that belonged to no schedule. I was being myself, with myself, looking at life with the look I used to see on my dad’s face. The faraway look, the look that was about nothing and also everything.

I loved it every time I realised I had something that resembled my dad especially when it was a bad thing. In fact, I blamed every bad quality I possessed on my dad and secretly enjoyed that.

Though, I think I might have overdone this. Not in a cute, joking like-father-like-daughter way but seriously self-sabotaging. One hand I claim that I’m the strong and brave woman who isn’t broken and needs no man to fix herself. On the other hand, I deeply pity myself for all the stuff I’ve been through as if I was a victim and someone, or everyone, was supposed to compensate for my past hurt.

See, I still can’t stop holding onto the thought that my dad is the reason I have never had a long-lasting, proper relationship with grown men. Or, very deep down, I have this desperate expectation that the person with whom I’m going to end up will love me and accept me unconditionally for how broken I’m and be able to heal all my wounds despite all my last effort to push him away (he is also supposed to know that pushing him away is not because I really want to be left alone; I’m just scared and hurt and I want to be loved badly so he should fight for me even more).

Ridiculous, right? — especially for someone who has her whole identity based around “strong” and “independent” like myself. Well, there’s more. One of my life-long fantasies (somehow I couldn’t see the irony — shocking) was to be looked in the eyes and told, Ellen, you don’t have to be strong anymore, I’m here with you now. And this is actually the first time I’ve ever revealed this because I didn’t want anyone to say it to me just because they’d heard or read it somewhere — I wanted that moment to be genuine and special. I thought it would be the love bomb, like the kind of one-liner at the climax of a romcom, the sort of quote people would memorise and tweet about.

I know. It’s funny and not in a good way. It’s quite pathetic, to be honest. How strong must I be if I need someone to come and say that corny line to me? How strong must I be if I want to be rewarded for being strong? How strong must I be if I approach love from this position of a guarded, fucked up girl who thinks she has no love in her to give? True story though. Last night, before I went for the smoke, I cried silently in my bed, my stomach sinking with this bottomless hollowness just opening up wider and wider. I felt so empty and weak, so lonely and unlovable. I was afraid that I might not have any capacity for love and I was destined to be alone. It felt too real.

The most fucked up part about all this was that I was aware of what I was doing — crying, smoking, drinking, consuming myself with thoughts that were detrimental to my well-being — but I did it anyway. True, it was to soothe myself at first. But the issue was much deeper than that. Whether I was conscious of this or not, now I realise I let myself hurt because it would put me in a helpless, unfortunate position of a victim so that I could conveniently feel sorry for myself instead of taking responsibility for my own problems. As it turned out, I wasn’t strong — it was just my words and what I wanted to believe about myself. Really, I was sad and weak.

Right now, as I share with you about this private part of me, I genuinely have no intention to get your sympathy or any reaction for that matter (though I do hope you will be able to relate and feel understood if you’re in the same situation). I just want to be honest with myself because that’s the way I learn and grow and become a better person. I know in practice I’ve done many things which might indeed show that I’m not quite the person I claim to be. But well, I’m still in the making process as I will always be — evolving. I will keep making mistakes and hit low points but I believe one day the gap between who I want to be and who I’m will narrow and my actions will match my words, for my mindset has always stayed firm: I do want to be a strong and brave woman who is comfortable in her own skin and every day I strive towards this.

For sure I’m in no way perfect. I have many flaws. I’ve had a fair share of heartbreaks and setbacks in life. But I’m not broken. Broken is not part of my narrative and I don’t need anyone to save me. I repeat — I don’t need anyone to save me. And I should not expect anyone to save me. I’m not more or less damaged than the next person. I’m just me — the girl who is made by all the experiences she has had, all the people she has encountered and all the decisions she has made. Please don’t feel sorry for me. I’m fine. Maybe I just need a little bit of clarity and guidance as to what being strong and brave and being me really means.

For now, I think:

Being strong isn’t going around saying I have been hurt before, I’m guarded, it’s hard to love me, then expecting people to break my wall and get me out. Being strong is keeping my outlook positive and my door open despite having been hurt before — Seriously, what’s the big deal about it?

Being strong isn’t putting up a cold, hard exterior to protect myself from getting hurt again. Being strong is loving and showing I care regardless. More than that, it means loving myself and choosing happiness every single day. And being strong is also being able to walk away from things that aren’t meant for me.

It’s scary — yes. It’s disheartening — right, sometimes. But if we don’t try, if we don’t do anything, we will never get better and we will never know what good thing might await us. We will live a life of regret and what-ifs in the shadow of our own fear. No. We’re better than that. We’re strong and brave and we don’t ever need to feel sorry for ourselves. We’re alive and free.

I hope one day someone will tell me, not “you don’t need to be strong anymore” but simply “you’re strong” as they see me smile brightly and love loudly despite everything I have gone through and no matter how many cigarettes I have smoked at half three. Then we will kindly and compassionately share our past with each other and maybe even our future for the rest of our lives.

However, my friend, and myself too, don’t you ever feel like you have to be strong and brave all the time. It’s okay to not be strong and brave all the time. It’s okay to feel like a piece of shit and smoke cigarettes at half three for it’s the only thing that comforts you. It’s okay, you know. Let yourself be, be alive. Cry, cry all you want, though just remember to get up and smile eventually.

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