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How getting diagnosed with a chronic illness taught me the real meaning of strength

Jeremy Yap | Unsplash CC0

Anna O'Neil - published on 05/20/19

What if "being strong" is more about how we handle our weakness?

Yesterday, my doctor told me that it’s very likely that I’m never going to feel 100% healthy again. We can get my rheumatoid arthritis symptoms down to a minimum, but the pain and fatigue that are typical of the disease are never going to disappear completely. The disease will accompany me through the rest of my life.

I smiled a little too brightly. I said “I understand! No problem! Just wanted to check!” She looked at me, unconvinced. A rheumatologist probably sees the “I’m fine” act so often that she knew exactly what I was doing — attempting to use positivity to protect myself from an avalanche of fear and uncertainty.

I only received this diagnosis very recently; it’s all still new. “Does this mean I’m weak now?” I wondered. “Is this the end of thinking of myself as somebody who’s strong and capable?” I’ve got a growing list of things I can’t do: dig a garden, run, wash the heavy frying pan, scrub the bathroom … I’m getting used to asking for help, but I don’t enjoy it.

Nobody likes to think of themselves as weak. And it’s more than my body that’s weak. Getting diagnosed with a chronic illness comes with a big pile of emotions I’m trying to dig myself out from underneath. Frustration, confusion, grief, anger, fear — these don’t seem like the kind of emotions that strong people feel.

I know exactly what a strong woman looks like. I’ve seen her trope over and over again. She’s your typical “strong female lead.” She’s that tough-as-nails brunette, straightforward and unflappable, who takes bad news without flinching, and won’t accept help or support from anyone. She’s got this. You know who I’m talking about, right? She’s ubiquitous. She’s the archetypal image of independence, self-sufficiency, and strength. Three words that no longer describe me.

Still, I’ve been thinking hard about my own definition of “strong,” and wondering whether the picture our culture gives us of strength is too one-dimensional. What if strength is something that’s available to anyone, no matter what their body or mind is going through?

Strength is not the opposite of suffering. It couldn’t be; all of us suffer. Everyone’s scared, weak, broken. That’s humanity. What if it’s what you do with that pain that determines your strength?

Who’s stronger — the suffering person who says “this is terrible, and I need some help today,” or the one who says “I’m fine”? One of them is afraid of reality, and the other has accepted it. One is honest, and the other is too afraid to be honest. I’m starting to think that strength just means accepting the messy, confusing reality of our humanity, and everything that it implies. That it means feeling what you feel, even when you don’t want to.

After all, we know plenty of ways to turn those feelings off. Dismiss, deny, or ignore an emotion long enough, and you’ll hardly know it’s there. It takes so much courage not to hide from those painful feelings. Nobody wants to be scared. But we can’t choose not to be scared; we can only choose to walk with that fear, or spend our lives pretending it’s not our constant companion.

In the end, the truly strong person is able to accept reality in its fullness — the good mixed with the bad. Because it isn’t all bad, not completely. There’s some pretty tough stuff, but it’s all mixed together with the beauty and love that spills out of every corner that’s saturated with the presence of God. Strength means holding space for all of that — the pain and the joy, the fear and the trust.


Read more:
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