What Is Strength?


I had a piercing look of emptiness plastered across my face, this morning. I wasn't sure how else to look..or feel; because when life hits, it hits hard. The tears were uncontrollable. I stared at the wall and refused to move. But I was being held, and that was almost as unsettling as the issues I was facing. Because for someone who internalizes their many feats, it seemed as though this one is finding its way out. And I never really wanted anyone to see me at a weak point. 

I try not to worry others with my mess. I'm the upbeat, strong, happy friend. The one with all the jokes and the great advice. The one people come to late at night when life isn't going according to plan. Does it ever? I bare the burdens of my friends and loved ones, as well as my own. And while they're not mine to bare [Psalm 55:22], they still linger within in me, sometimes. They still find their way to sit in the pit of my stomach and burn holes into my soul. 

But that's okay, because that's the role I've assumed. I suppose, that's what I've signed up for. 

Now, however, those holes are starting to show. Those holes are what's allowing these feelings to escape from within me. They're responsible for the look of emptiness on my face; and for showing my emotions to the world, involuntarily. 

Openly expressing my emotions has never been easy for me. I'm honest about what I do, what I go through, but very seldom about how it all makes me feel. Nothing other than an "I'm disappointed" or "I'm sad" ever gets leaked from my lips. I choose not to cry in front of people. I choose not to break down around anyone. I choose not to dive into the complexities of my emotions. 

That has become more of a hindrance than my situation itself has, because how can anyone help me if I don't allow them to? How can I get upset that I'm buried in everyone's burdens, when I choose not to share mine? How can I expect people to care for me when I don't allow them to? 

I've often confused strength with being emotionless; never showing sadness, never showing fear. That's something I got from my mother. A woman who - put herself through college, raised two kids, been laid off from a job of 15+ years, hustled to find another one before her young kids realized, worked her a-- off at two jobs thereafter to support my brother's college education, underwent knee surgery, breast cancer and, after having finished raising her kids, is now taking care of her 91 year-old mother - I've only seen cry once. A woman who I've never seen sweat. A woman who so effortlessly regained control of her finances, her marriage and the future of her children. She was my image of strength. And in her being that, I adopted a habit of hiding my emotions behind closed doors and a forced smile. Similar to what it seemed she did. 

This is the strength I grew up with. 
This is the only strength I knew. 

So even at a young age, I went into my room and let no one in. I'd tell people stories, but never told them how deeply they affected me. I'd tell them I was bothered, but I'd never tell them to what extent. My mom always knew, though. Moms always do. She'd break through my door and tell me I only have a few more hours to cry, because tomorrow I have to get back to being my best self. Because as black women, we have to work too hard to allow sadness to occupy our time and space. Because as black women, life won't be good to us, so we have to learn to keep going despite the obstacle. Because as black women, we have too much to do, and burying myself in sadness and depression isn't anywhere on my to-do list. Been there, done that. 

I notice this idea of strength - the only one I grew up with; the one that says to work it out behind closed doors and come back to your regular life - may not always be the best fit. Because when my turmoil begins to leak into my work and into my relationships with people, it might be time to consider another method. It may be time to think of a better way to deal with life, that doesn't involve bottling it all in. When my obstacles become less of an internal battle and more of me against the world, it's time I stop fighting it and express it. It's time I speak with those who care about me, and let them do so. Let them care. 

Because people do care and your upsets, heartbreaks, sadness, losses and everything else, does affect them. Because when you're not your bubbly self anymore, it's disheartening. And, although you won't always be 100%, you shouldn't ever feel 15%; and you certainly shouldn't feel 15% alone

Today, I'm making the decision to stop being an outlet for those around me, without being open to having an outlet of my own. I'm deciding today to stop hiding. I'm coming from behind my rock and off my dark grey living room couch and reaching out to someone who can help me. Someone whose t-shirt I can leave my non-waterproof 'waterproof' mascara on. It's time I allow people to care the way they show me they want to. Because, strength isn't isolation. Strength isn't fighting alone. Strength isn't dressing my weakness up in fake smiles and dainty dresses. And it's certainly not avoiding interactions so I won't cry. 

Strength is vulnerability and honesty. Strength is the uncensored me - the happy, the corny and the emotionally distraught. Strength is self-expression and openness. Strength is letting people in and trusting them to care for you, even though your past tells you not to. Strength is being open to being taken care of by someone other than myself. Strength is allowing myself to be weak in the presence of someone who cares. 

So that, I'll do, in hopes that next time this look of emptiness won't be plastered across my face, but be left behind in a conversation of uplift and encouragement, with a close friend or a loved one; someone whose shirt I ruined with my non-waterproof 'waterproof' mascara. Because that's strength.

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