How I Learned What It Means To Be Strong

The goal should not be to steel myself; not to cage my body in armor, but to surround myself with padding and supports.

It always starts the same way: Just when I think I’m fine, the rushing in my ears begins, as though I’m swept up in a strong wind. Lost at the end of a very long tunnel, everyone else is at the other end, talking in whispers. If I try to stand, waves of nausea assault me and a rush of sweat drenches me from temples to toes. It’s a trick of memory that every time one of these “spells” happen, I imagine myself alone. Usually there’s a nurse or a doctor present—often the cause, in fact. They murmur or widen their eyes or scurry to find me a bed, juice, or some ice water.

For as long as I can remember I have fainted, or nearly so, at all intimate medical explorations of my body: needles; visits to the lady doctor; blood tests. Once, I even had to lie down after reading a graphic account in a novel of a medical procedure. I am quite possibly the only person on record for whom dilation of the pupils has caused this sympathetic nervous reaction.

As a child the words “overly sensitive” always trailed behind my name; it wasn’t enough to define me as merely sensitive. That I had to be corralled and even held down for routine throat cultures and TB tests did nothing to disabuse others of this designation.

After years of these humiliating interactions, by the time I was in college I began a quest to become steeled, tough—whatever the opposite of sensitive is—and to do so without anybody’s help. I embarked upon the only answer I could find: a fitness regime worthy of a movie montage—daily step aerobics classes that makes my now 40-year-old knees throb in remembrance; three mile jogs around the grounds of my campus; hundreds of sit-ups; lap-swims. My formerly baby-fat coated body grew strong and muscular, and I hoped that my quest for physical strength could lead to a sturdier emotional response, too.

At my first visit to the doctor that year—an annual exam with my gynecologist—I proudly made it through the requisite probing and scraping with no reaction. As I stood to dress, my certainty was washed away in a rush of dizziness; pants still at my ankles, I barely made it to the sink, throwing up my hastily consumed lunch moments after the doctor left. This only proved that I could steel the body all I wanted, but it only created a falsely tough exterior.

After that I put even more distance between myself and blood work, flu shots, and gynecological visits for fear of swooning like a corseted shut-in. My boyfriend at the time was no help—a “chin up” and “smile through pain” soccer player. Muscled and strong, he’d stand at the doorway to my sick bed with a frown. “I think you should get up and make soup,” he shook his head. “It’s just a mild fever. You’re not seriously ill.” And with that he’d go to work or soccer practice and leave me to “buck up” alone.

I’d spent a lifetime beating myself up—and a stint in hypnotherapy—over the failings of my weakling self. One of the reasons I waited until age 33 to become pregnant was a terror that I would spend those nine months like some Victorian invalid, unable to handle the alien creature within me.

Fortunately those fears, at least, proved groundless, and I tolerated or managed my sensitivity during monthly appointments by imagining the greater good of my child (and always lying down). I survived childbirth, despite three days of pre-labor that led to the induction I swore I wouldn’t have, the epidural I was sure I didn’t need, and a terrifying three-hour pushing session in which nurses huddled together with raised eyebrows, and I staved off C-section by one agonizing, warrior-worthy push.

In the past few years, perhaps by necessity of motherhood in which you are constantly reassuring a small person that no, he cannot die of blood loss from a cat scratch, nor will a bruise be fatal, in which regular infections, ruptured ear drums, crusty cases of pink eye and regular vomit are the norm, I’ve become stronger than ever before. Thus, when I learned that regular allergy shots might be the answer to a lifetime of crippling pollen allergies, I drew on the alleged armor of courage to undergo a regimen of nine weekly shots.

How bad could the scratch testing be, after all? These weren’t actual shots. When I found myself coming to consciousness at the gentle slap of the nurse, in a bed I didn’t remember walking to, I realized I had foolishly assumed that needles and I could be in the same room together without incident. Ever since, they prepare me a spot in a bed where I dutifully recline. Two months in, I felt I deserved a medal of some kind; in a mere 39 years, I’d transformed from the girl who had to lie down for a single blood stick, to the woman who could get nine shots and walk away, head held high. Two years in, I like to tell myself the bed is just insurance.

With this bravado I went with my husband to the hospital for his back surgery almost two years ago, warding off suggestions from friends that I might like a partner in the waiting room. Five anxious hours after I’d kissed his head and watched them wheel him off, the sight of the pain contracting his features as he woke from anesthesia, the death-grip of his hand on mine, and the panic of an off-the-scale number of pain in his eyes, literally sent me to my knees.

First came the rushing sound, and then the noisy recovery room was suddenly on a movie screen far away. Nausea and profuse sweating followed swiftly, when surprised and clucking nurses finally brought me a chair and a box of orange juice and tried to pry me away to a bed. I couldn’t stand up or even raise my head to look at my beloved, who was still in shock from the trauma his body had just undergone.

“You need to lie down!” one nurse insisted.

“If I stand up, I’ll throw up.” I lay slumped across the railing of the bed, my head grazing my husband’s knee. “Please just let me sit here a few minutes.”

With no other choice, they bustled around me in a buzz of annoyance, until, at last, I was pawned off on an orderly in a wheelchair and taken, mortified to the core, to the cafeteria to replenish my blood sugar.

I berated myself for several hours for becoming helpless at the very moment my husband needed me most. This was also the first time I’d been so profoundly physically affected by a situation not happening to me personally. But, of course, it was personal. I cried, alone, in the hallway, as the nurses moved him to his room—probably giving me extra time to “get it together.”

But in the days thereafter, encouraged by his love and understanding of me, borne of 18 years together, a realization struck me:

I have been on the wrong quest all this time. The goal should not be to steel myself; not to cage my body in armor, but to surround myself with padding and supports—love and tenderness for that gentle, timid part of me. What matters most isn’t the state or shape or strength of my body. Real strength lies in being able to say: I’m scared, and I feel silly, but I’d rather not do this alone.

Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the writing guides Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Modern Loss, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, the St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle and more.

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