I thought that to be strong, you must be flame retardant

So, I’m sitting here drinking a Starbucks mocha frappuccino (please, let’s not talk about it) and I’ve just come out of a counselling session. Counselling, I have to say, is a strange thing. I’m in the middle of two masters degrees in the field – one in counselling and the other in art therapy – yet there are times where I’m just as confused and as perplexed by this work as the next person you might meet.

The sweet and icy milk coffee makes contact with my mouth and as I drink it down, there’s a feeling of relief. My head is tense and tired, and my throat is slightly raw. I had a breakdown in my session. I had an emotional breakdown, like the ones you typically see in a movie, where the floodgates open and it all gets let out.

But let me state this for the record: I did not expect to break down. I did not expect to cry. I expected to go to counselling, and for this to be a stock-standard session where I would update my counsellor about my travels around Hawaii, about how I feel so much better and more empowered, and about how I’m going to go about facing more challenges and excitements in my future. I would be fit, happy, and tanned, and I would be fine. I would tell her I don’t need to see her anymore, because all of my problems are gone.

And all those things were in way true. I just also broke down. I study this fucking thing. I should’ve known better.

How did it happen, you might ask. It came out of the blue. We were about 45 minutes in (it always happens then!), and I started to get this strange feeling come over me. My counsellor is just the most caring, soft, and supportive person ever. She has a deeply encouraging, empathic, and real presence, and she’s definitely not a fake. She’s consistent in her warmth and in her care, and you feel like she is always present. And that’s all well and good, except I feel so fucking uncomfortable when it’s like that.

I don’t know how to take those reassurances on, or how to be with those offerings of support and care. I don’t fare well with compliments, or positive affirmations. I squirm, minimise, and I rationalise it all away. Anything so I don’t have to feel genuinely held and seen.

But then it happened. Her care became just that little bit more enough, and something broke inside. Some little, yet tired part of me, decided to let it in. I intuitively and emotionally realised I can lean on this person. I can rest on them. And I leant. And that’s when the floodgates opened.

All this shit that I have been carrying around – shit from the break up, from my experiences at uni, at work, from my family, and just my inner turmoil and shit and stuff – this person might be able to carry that with me. They might be able to help. I might not have to go through this all alone. I may not have to carry it all, all the time, just me and this weight.

I fell apart. I fell apart and released all of the pain that I’d been carrying around. Pain about the break up, and about the time I felt I’d wasted. Pain because I finally let myself acknowledge that I had lost my best friend, something that I had denied so fervently before. I fell apart and let myself feel sad about the fact no one in my family could really talk to me about this. My dad hadn’t even spoken to me about the break up. There was just silence there. I let myself acknowledge just how alone I felt.

And I fell apart and came to understand just how invincible I’d made myself. I pushed myself out of that relationship with no time to look back. I pushed myself up hills and up mountains with no time for sadness or grief. I pushed myself past injury, bloody, but with no tears to waste. There was no time for pain, there was only time for moving on.

I fell apart because finally I felt able to.

I’m not ashamed to admit it. Strength is a strange thing. On a solo bike tour, you get used to being strong. You get used to being the only person who will acknowledge what you yourself have done. Did you climb a mountain for seven hours straight? No one is going to pat you on the back except you. Did you almost get attacked by wild dogs but fended them off by yelling, kicking, and riding faster, even when you were exhausted? You’ll be the only one there to witness that. Did you make it further than you thought you ever could, because by necessity you just had to? You’ll be the one who sees the struggle. No one else will.

Strength and empowerment slowly became my catch cries, and they became part of my identity. I don’t need anyone, and I don’t need anything, because I can do it all by myself.

I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.

But what I didn’t understand, and what I couldn’t have understood, was that all that sadness, that grief, and that pain – that was still there. It just was under the surface, waiting for a time when I felt safe and secure, to come out. I could have pedalled across the world so that I wouldn’t have had to acknowledge that I was hurt. I could have crossed countries just so I wouldn’t have had to admit that this person was a person who I deeply loved and cared about. I could have ridden up the highest mountains so that I wouldn’t have had to admit that they made a mark on me. I could have ridden forever in order to never have to admit that I was a human being.

Strength is a strange strange thing. I thought I was getting strong (and don’t get me wrong – I am) but I also think it takes a lot of strength to be able to admit that we are vulnerable, fallible, and human. It takes a lot of strength to be able to go to the depths of that vulnerability, and to be able to actually swim and stay there. I thought I was being vulnerable – with what I acknowledged in me, with my friends, and with this blog. I thought that was the end of it: das Ende, 结束, le fin. But vulnerability is so much more. And it’s so complex. I’m still wrapping my head, and heart, around it.

The strongest of us are able to let down our guard, every now and then. The strongest of us are able to admit that sometimes, we need help.

An artist I admire, Amanda Palmer, once said, “I thought that to be strong, you must be flame retardant.” I made myself flame retardant, and still I wondered why something was missing. I wondered why there was still this strangeness at the top. And today I understood. And because I understood, I fell. I fell, ever so ungracefully, back to earth, back to being burnt, back to being in flames.

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