I am Not a Strong Person, I Just Have a Game Plan

I just finished crying a few minutes ago.

Like crying hard while holding on to my kitchen counter for support and cursing myself for not having a box of tissues readily available because I knew this was coming. I scheduled it, sort of. Apparently not well enough to have supplies at the ready.

No, for real. I scheduled a good cry. Have you ever done that before? It's surprisingly cathartic. 

My best friend's little girl has cancer, and it is beyond awful. She had surgery to remove the tumour less than two weeks ago while Alexis and I were in Vancouver, thousands of kilometers away. Keeping my head in the game was a challenge at times. Three-year-old Sophia's surgery was 20 hours long, and I checked in whenever I could for updates. Thankfully, she did remarkably well. 

But on Sunday night, the biopsy results came back, and it wasn't the news any of us were hoping for. Several years ago, Sophia's older brother Jacob had the exact same cancer in the same part of the brain. We had hoped this tumour, unlike Jacob's, would be benign. But it wasn't, and now the family must go down this path all over again with another young child. It's unbelievably unfair.

And so here I am, writing this a few minutes post-cry.

I waited until after I saw Sophia last night and gave her and her brothers the gifts we picked up for them in Vancouver. She was home and so very much herself, running around as three-year-olds do and chatting away, healing miraculously well for a child who was in ICU only a few days before. 

I waited until I heard from her mom today, distraught and raw and trying to process what had just happened at an appointment where they discussed the upcoming treatment plan. I am so rarely left speechless. Today I was.

I waited until I was done my hour-long strength training class, then picked up a coffee and headed home to an empty house.

And then I stopped waiting, and I had a hell of a cry.

A cry for Sophia, for her parents and her brothers. At the unfairness of it all. 

A cry for the election results in the US last week and the mass increase in hate crimes both there and up here in Canada since. A cry for the divisiveness and polarization I'm seeing everywhere, the people taking social media breaks in droves to save their sanity, the people losing friends at an alarming rate. 

A cry because this has been a really, really shitty week and none of us seem to be able to get off the ride.

*****

One compliment I'm paid more than any other is that I'm "strong." People say things like: 

"You're so strong to have overcome all the obstacles in your life."

"You must be a strong person to be able to support both a child and a spouse going through transition at the same time."

"Living as publicly as you do takes a lot of strength."

I never know how to answer that, other than a polite "thank you." 

Because here's the thing: I am not a naturally strong person. 

Maybe some of us are. Maybe some folks are born with an innate ability to weather storms with a fierce grin on their faces. But I am not one of them.

I have an anxiety disorder and I've had at least three bouts of depression in my life (those are just the diagnosed ones.) This doesn't mean I'm a weak person, it just means I have mental health issues which leave me more susceptible to shutting down and not functioning when the bad stuff happens. I know this because that was my norm for a long time.

I also spent a very long time not taking care of myself. We all have a finite amount of time, and I used that time to care for my kids, my partner (who wasn't very happy for a long time and needed extra support), and many other responsibilities. I did so at the expense of myself. And when the storms would hit, I wouldn't cope well. 

I've had to learn, through a series of very bumpy experiences in my life, that strength isn't something I am; it's something I cultivate through actions and behaviours. If I do the right things, even when it's sunny in my world, I can usually weather the impending storms. If I don't, I'm locked outside without a raincoat. 

For me, being strong looks like this:

  • I put myself first, no matter what's happening. Because putting myself second means everyone might be getting more of my time, but with a less engaged and emotionally available me. Kind of like a sad body double.
  • I feel all my feels. I don't numb them with food or booze or any other substance. And when life is busy or I need to be someone's rock, I schedule time alone to really feel stuff - like today. I need those sob-while-holding-on-to-the-counter moments, so I leave room for them to happen during bad days or weeks.
  • I take care of my physical health by exercising several times per week. In my case, nothing works better at keeping my brain calm than exercise. If I don't manage to work out enough, my anxiety spikes. I might be stupidly proud of my current squat weight, but powerful legs are  secondary to a happy brain. That is the main reason I do it.
  • I create. The fact that I write should be fairly obvious. But I also paint and take pictures. The quiet concentration helps me process the big stuff. It also helps fill my walls with cheap art. It's like winning all the things all the time!
  • I connect. I have a wide support net made up of friends and family. But - and this is important - I make sure those connections are healthy, authentic and leave me feeling good. Relationships that are all work and no play are like weights on your ankles. When the storm hits, you'll just end up sinking. 
  • I ask for help. I reach out to the wonderful people in my life when things are hard. I also have a therapist on standby. There is no shame in making sure we're well-supported. Today I kidnapped my wife from work for half an hour and we had a coffee. I needed to hold her hand and see her smile. It helped.

So that's the truth. I'm not inherently strong. I just have a solid game plan these days. 

*****

I'm writing all this down because it's a reminder to me in the midst of a challenging week. But hope it's a light for others. This idea that if we're not born with certain characteristics, we can't be resilient, is bull. We have it inside of us; we just need to find out what tools to use to excavate it, and then keep using those tools each day.

So here we are, a little while post-CryFest 2016. My counter needs therapy, and I have to reapply some makeup because I look like Courtney Love's and Alice Cooper's love child. But I think I hit just about everything on that list today, and that's given me some strength to tackle the road ahead.

Onward, with a box of tissues at the ready.

Amanda Jette Knox