Today, I welcome guest blogger, Kate Foster, to Off the Beaten Track. Along with Kate Gordon, Kate is one of the founders behind an exciting and important initiative, Authors for Mental Health. This initiative has two aims: increase awareness into the importance of good mental health and raise funds for Beyond Blue, an integral Australian organisation, particularly in today’s social, emotional and political landscape. Authors for Mental Health runs through to the first week of April, culminating in an auction (April 1-6) in which generous authors and publishing professionals have donated everything from books to their time and expertise. This post is part of the blog series running through the month of March.
Now over to Kate …
The Truth About Being Strong
I’ve always been considered and referred to as strong. I come from a family of strong people. I come from a world that required strength and patience and compassion. I am proud of being the strong person people can rely on.
We keep going, no matter what. We rise above the petty and trivial. We must be the bigger person and make ourselves available in all situations.
Why? Because there are always people worse off than you. Because tomorrow could bring something worse. Because you are privileged and lucky.
And where all of this is true and I firmly believe in being strong and appreciating how lucky I was and am, my experiences over the past few years (and really my whole life now that I can look back with a better understanding of who I am), my opinion on what strong means is slightly different.
I don’t ever put blame on anyone or anything, because I grew up in the 80s and 90s and times were different, people were different. And understandably so. Families who lived around me had, first and foremost, survival in mind. So, things like awareness and acceptance of autism and mental illness weren’t anyone’s priority ― they were in the background ― and we were only just at the beginning of wider study and understanding. People, certainly where I grew up in the UK, struggled financially, and the generations before me had grown up with even less, so I was taught to be grateful. And I was, always. As I will always be.
However, I knew back then that I wasn’t quite like the other kids around me in school and those who lived on my council estate. But I didn’t complain or ask many questions. I muscled through and processed it all quietly. Honestly, at the time, I assumed everyone thought and felt like I did!
Through school and in social settings, I put myself through the group activities I despised and was afraid of, because it was what everyone else was doing. Through my teens, I mucked about and got drunk despite knowing none of it ever felt right, because it’s what everyone else was doing. Through my years of being a young mother, I didn’t ask for assistance or talk about how lonely or down I felt, because all the other mothers were coping just fine, as had all the millions of mothers before me. Spending many days and weeks in hospitals with all of my children, I saw exactly how sad and much tougher things could be.
And when my kids starting getting older, freeing up more of my alone time, I didn’t understand why I hated myself so much, why I felt so useless and pointless, because people assured me this was when I would start loving life and enjoying my freedom. They said I should get out there and embrace the world and find opportunities. No one liked a misery guts.
And yes, I thought that was the one and only way it had to be done. It was what everyone else was doing, carving out careers and socialising, and the fact I was so unhappy meant I was broken. And god forbid I tell anyone how miserable I was, about the intrusive, evil thoughts I had about myself, because it would expose how selfish and shallow and pathetic I was. Look what I had – I was incredibly lucky, after all.
If I opened up about it, I would no longer be strong. The exact thing I was always told to be.
Inevitably, all the years of forcing myself to fit in led to complete and utter burnout, with diagnoses of severe depression, OCD, and acute anxiety. Wow. And I was autistic. I actually wasn’t like everyone else, and the enormous toll that had taken on my reserves, to keep being strong and not admit I was struggling to keep up, had destroyed me. It took a series of reckless and dark thoughts that eventually led me to seek the help I needed.
And that’s when I truly believe I became my strongest.
Regardless of the fact that I am autistic, which makes all the simple life stuff a tad more stressful than for most people, the moment I asked for help and shared my most vulnerable thoughts with people who I knew would listen, who I could trust, a light turned on inside me.
Being strong wasn’t always about putting my head down and getting on with it. Being strong wasn’t about ignoring my pain and confusion, thinking I was broken because no one else was complaining. Being strong wasn’t one pathway. It was several.
I found a balance.
Strong is still about being resilient. But strong is also admitting to myself when I can’t bounce back straight away and need time to recover and reflect. Resilience isn’t always immediate.
Strong is still about putting others first. But strong is also asking for help sometimes, so I can continue to help those more vulnerable. Being strong isn’t an individual effort.
Strong is still fighting off the dark thoughts. But strong is not burying them. It’s facing them and talking about them. Being strong isn’t about hiding the things we think make us look weak.
So, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years and through my mistakes, it’s to ask for help when I need it. That’s still not always easy to do, because I sometimes recognise a little too late when I’m sinking, but the simple act of asking for help shows I’m stronger than I ever have been.
Image by: faungg’s photos (FLICKR) Description: Deliberately stacked and balanced piles of multi-coloured rocks on a rocky patch of ground.