When Being Strong Stopped Being a Compliment

My whole life I have been told, “You are the strongest person I know.” I had less than an ideal life growing up, although there are certainly far worse circumstances out there. For that, I am grateful. It was hard, nonetheless, I struggled, I fought, I wept. I clawed myself out of less-than-ideal circumstances though, with a sight on a life that I knew could be better.

The fight and struggle to get to that sight was not easy. It was not easy going to college with a 16 hour course load, work 40+ hours a week, live on my own, with no support from my parents. It was hard watching my peers live the “typical” college life, partying, making new friendships, and living a life without responsibilities.

It was hard trying to convince myself that all my hard would pay off. That although a hard life, making the difficult–but right–choices were well worth it.

And I nearly believed all of this, especially when I met Joe. The man I could have never dreamt of. He was perfect in every way, and treated me better than a queen, better than I ever deserved. He gave me purpose, unconditional love for the first time in my life, and a beautiful life.

When Joe was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, I nearly convinced myself that I was wrong. That making hard, but right, choices have not paid off. That staying the course, working extra hard, just didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I defied statistics and odds of the life I was brought up in, I still got “screwed,” for a huge lack for better terms. I still got the short end of the stick, despite trying to walk the right path, my entire life.

Then the dreaded words came again. I’ve heard them more since the night of June 20, 2013 than I ever care to hear them again.

“Kristina, you are the strongest person I have ever known.”

“I don’t know how you do it. You’ve always been the strongest person out there.”

“You always rise to the occasion. You have always shown strength your entire life.”

Honestly? I didn’t want to hear how strong I was. I knew everyone told me these “strong” quotes, as a compliment. They simply were not. They were a slap in my face. They were a reminder that hard has always been on my path in life. They were memories of a life I tried to get away from. Being strong is hard, and I simply feel that I can never get away from it.

As I reflect on the statement of being strong, I realize and have just recently started to admit out loud that I have never felt a choice of being strong. I never felt in critical moments through my life, to give up was an option. I never felt like I got to choose if I wanted to take an easier road. I never felt like the choice was there for me. God simply did not provide it. He gave me one option–to be strong.

I curse it most days. I do wish many days I could give up on life. That I could lie in bed, not care about my career, and be okay with being a mediocre parent. I long for the days of just not caring what others think, what others expect of me. I most certainly wish for days that I could let go of the perfectionism I expect out of myself in my every role I play in life.

The alternative though? The alternative is to not have those in my life that pushed me for greater. The alternative is not giving back to other students whom I see my teenage self, when I look into their eyes. The alternative is to allow my husband’s fight against cancer and his death to be done so in vain. The alternative is to allow those fighting for their life with their loved ones to feel alone in the fight, much like I did. The alternative is not be the type of mother Joe chose for his son.

The alternative is to live a life I didn’t want to live growing up.

Even though “being strong” feels like a curse most days, the alternative consequences of not being strong is not something I could live with.

Being strong is not an option. It just being strong.

–Kristina

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