This is how the chorus of one of my favourite songs goes: ‘If you be weak / Then I’ll be strong / When the night is long’. Later on comes the counterpart: ‘If I be weak / Won’t you be strong / When the night is long.’*
I used to listen to that song a lot, back in my late teens and early twenties. I listened to it with the arrogance of youth. I did not understand how someone could be both strong and weak at the same time. In my head, I was and would always strive to be strong, to be the one comforting everyone else. I was able to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I liked to pretend that the second chorus, that question about whether someone else would be there if I broke down, did not exist.
I had very old-fashioned ideas about what strength was. For me, strength had always meant not showing vulnerability, being reliable, being able to prove myself, rising to the challenges thrown my way without ever admitting how much effort it took. I spent years and years trying to prove I could do everything by myself. Being strong meant doing everything, and doing it well. I am highly competitive, and I have always strived to be the best at everything I did – giving up things that I enjoyed but had no natural talent for because I would not ‘win’, be it against myself or someone else.
I have spent the last thirteen months (happy thirteen-month anniversary to me – officially my third-longest relationship ever!) constantly oscillating between wanting to show how strong I am, how I am keeping it all together, and wanting to break down, to admit that I am weak and need other people to help me stand. It is a real balancing act. I want people to see me as someone strong, secure, reliable. But I also want them to see the cracks and acknowledge they exist, even if it makes them uncomfortable.
Some people acknowledge this weakness. It is the only thing they see. I had that revelation just a couple of weeks ago, when I received a letter from the GP advising me to call and schedule an appointment to receive the flu vaccine. I had received another one a couple of weeks earlier and ignored it – not on purpose. I simply forgot about it, because of how ludicrous it felt. After all, I am 28. I have never struggled with the flu – I get it every couple of years, spend a couple of days in bed with a fever, and have aches and a bad cough for a week. And that is it. Why would I need to have the flu vaccine? Surely other, weaker people could benefit from it more.
And then it hit me. Doctors see me as a person who is at higher risk. In their eyes, I am one of those weaker individuals. I need to be protected, to avoid adding to the numbers of hospitalisations over the winter months. I am not a normal 28-year-old anymore. I am different than I was eighteen months ago, when I was a healthy individual, for all intents and purposes. (Well, it is either that or the NHS spent so much money on getting me cured of cancer, they would be pretty pissed off if I then died of the flu) And so I booked an appointment at the GP, and I finally got my flu shot. My arm has only just stopped hurting.
But that is just one point of view, the one of health professionals who know one aspect of my life only: the one where my body has let me down. Not everyone sees things that way.
The thing that makes me the most uncomfortable is hearing people tell me how strong I am. Of course, it is a perfectly standard, commonplace thing to say to people who have had cancer. If you have ever said it to me, please do not feel bad, do not feel like you did something wrong. I have said it to many people in similar situations. I will probably say it to others in the future. But it makes me cringe every time, and I want to be open about it.
Hearing that feels both like a compliment and a slap in the face, a duality which is exacerbated by the fact that I am responsible for people thinking of me that way. After all, I am the one trying to project that image, and still I am the one cringing when people recognise it, I am the one feeling sick, like I have been telling a lie that people believe. To quote a phrase that I have been using in every blog post so far – it makes no sense. I am happy to hear that people feel that way, see me that way. It makes me proud, it makes me feel like I am not as much of a failure as I feel most days. But it also hurts, because it feels as if they do not see how much I am struggling. They are ignoring my pain, ignoring the fact I was not cured with a simple snip of the scalpel, that it does much deeper than that. It feels like they will not allow me to be weak, they will not allow me to tell them I am not coping. Instead, I feel like I need to keep pretending, again and again. Keeping up appearances, forever.
But it is ok to be weak. It is normal. It does not mean I cannot be relied upon.
I remember when I first told my team at work. There were tears, there were words of support. But over the next days and weeks, I realised they had started avoiding telling me about their problems. They wanted to spare me. They wanted me to focus on my own issues, they felt like their work wobbles, their doubts, their personal troubles were somehow less relevant now. But it was not the case. I still want to be able to help and support everyone. My team need me. My family need me. My little brother needs my shoulder to cry on, he needs my enthusiasm, my support, my help to prop him up during a difficult time in his own life. It is a struggle, because I only have so much energy and emotional capacity, but I like it. I like knowing I will be there when they need me. ‘If you be weak, then I’ll be strong / When the night is long’
It is very contradictory. I do not want people to treat me differently because of cancer, but I also do. When I let people in, when I tell them about the last year, it is not because I somehow want them to feel bad for me. I do not want, I do not need their pity. What I need is for them to understand that, despite everything I show the world, I am also weak, and I need them to be strong for me. I need shoulders to cry on too. I need support. I need to be allowed to be weak. I need to know I can let go, and that things will not fall apart when I do. I am a broken vase that has been hastily put back together. I am vulnerable, but I still hold my shape. I need you to be there, super glue in hand, for the next time a crack opens up, and water starts pouring out. ‘If I be weak / Won’t you be strong / When the night is long’
*Armistice by Patrick Wolf. A masterpiece that has been playing on repeat on my phone and in my head since 2011.