Published on January 27th, 2016 | by Ev Petgrave10
Ev Petgrave is Tormented by BEING STRONG
I cried in the car for twenty minutes. I heaved, huffed, wailed, and yelled. I released moans that I had held in the bottom of my throat for years and I don’t know who I was crying for: my mother, the homeless single mother of two that was sitting in my backseat, or myself.
Maybe my tears were for all three of us. We’re as different as much as we are the same. Different nationalities, skin tones, and personalities, yet I realized that early December morning that we all had one thing in common: our need to feel strong. We all determined our self-worth by how much weight we could carry on our backs.
It was a cold, gray, Seattle morning and it was one of those rare mornings when I left the house on time for work. I decided to stop and get some gas because it was on the way and I was supposed to have twenty cents off a gallon. I didn’t get my twenty cents off. What I did get, as I pumped my gas, was a young woman with red-rimmed eyes begging me for a few dollars. Most beggars I ignore, but her story resonated with me deeply. I needed to help her. I knew exactly how she felt. I related.
She started, “I’m so embarrassed to ask, but I really need a few dollars for me and my two kids to rent a motel room for the night.”
It was 7 o’clock in the morning, 30 degrees, and the rain was lightly pouring down in normal Pacific Northwest fashion—she felt nothing but embarrassment.
She told me of how she moved from Arizona to try to make it work with the father of her two children. She left her family, friends, and home to pursue something society tells a woman they should always be in pursuit of and are nothing without: a man and a father for their children. He set her on fire in front of their children and now her and her children were living in a car outside of someone’s yard. I didn’t get the chance to ask what happened to the bastard. I was too busy following her directions from the gas station to her and her kid’s makeshift home and being amazed by how many miles there were between them. Five miles she walked by foot every day to see if there was an opening in one of the two nearby shelters.
She kept saying how embarrassed she was to be asking for help. She felt she needed to be strong and carry her load alone.
Victims of abuse commonly have trigger warnings. One of my triggers is a door slamming. It unsettles me and makes me nervous as fuck. I become silent and still and it take me a few minutes to even realize that I’m a grown-ass adult that doesn’t need to sit still and be quiet for anyone.
It took me a while, though, to learn that my pet peeve was actually a trigger that subliminally made me remember my childhood. A door would slam and a second later I would hear my mother crying or being pushed or punched behind it. My mother almost got shot after a door was slammed. I hate slammed doors.
My mother never showed any weakness, though. I can’t recall any childhood memory of my mother weeping, sobbing, or, to my detriment, showing me any affection. I resented her for that. It wasn’t until I opened my car doors and my heart to this homeless mother of two that I realized that when a woman is abused, it’s damn near impossible for her to trust love, which is 100 percent rooted in uncertainty. How can you trust something as uncertain as love, even to speak it out loud to your own children, when you can’t even be certain that the next time you are punched in the face you won’t be left for dead?
I despised my mother for not saying “I love you,” but what do those words even mean to a woman being abused and forced to keep a smile on her face? What does being strong mean? Why do we have to struggle with someone else’s definition of it? Why is being strong so hard? Where are our saviors?
I’ve learned that it is more practical to stop searching for answers and instead work on a solution.
The first thing I had to unlearn was our society’s definition of “strong.” It’s heavily promoted in media that strong people are people who work day and night, never give up, and never show any vulnerability. The strong, Black woman archetype is something ingrained in our culture and has been a source of pain for many of us.
As a Black, single mother, I felt the pressure of needing to do everything and be everything all at once. I didn’t want to ask for help or a break, because I felt that someone would get a peek behind my façade, which was beginning to shatter anyhow. I believed that it was easier to keep people and the chance of pain at arm’s length. It took many nights of crying, writing, meditating, and overindulging in wine to realize that closing myself off from love was counter-productive. You can never find help, love, or acceptance if you’re hiding behind strength. I realized that allowing someone to see you in a moment of stress is the epitome of strength and that it takes real strength to reveal vulnerability.
I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that to remain safe means enclosing yourself from the world. I didn’t want that for myself anymore. I want us both to be brave and unafraid to express our wild and untamed sides, even if scares others away.
The second thing I had to unlearn was that strong people do it all. My need for control, I realized, was rooted in insecurity. I had to do any and everything because I thought that I was the only person who could do it. Little did I know that my micromanagement and desire to feel busy was a distraction from much deeper issues inside myself. My busyness was a shield from myself. It was a crutch and all I secretly wanted was someone to lean on.
No one knows what you’re dealing with unless you tell them. All of the resentment and jealousy I felt towards family and friends who appeared to have their lives together immediately went away as soon as I became conscious of this.
Brene Brown has said, “When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” We are all afraid of being ordinary—whatever that means. But one thing we must all realize is that we are exactly enough just as we are.
No one should be embarrassed to ask for a few dollars if it will put a roof over their family’s head for one night. No one should feel ashamed to let someone know that they are being pummeled behind closed doors, especially if that person can provide a way out for them and their child. We are all struggling inside and yet only a few reach out for help. Even fewer willingly offer a helping hand.
My journey to becoming liberated from the strong, Black woman narrative is nowhere near finished. I’m not sure if it is something that has a final destination. Perhaps it is something that I must constantly work on sloughing off of myself for the rest of my life. But for the sake of my health, sanity, and daughter, I know I must. And, I’m not going to stay silent doing it. My pain belongs to me, and I’ll wear it proudly. If we are not vocal about our pain and hurt, the world will assume that it is okay to keep hurting us. Let’s speak up.