There are so many ideas of what it is to be strong, but what if strength lies in being honest, being vulnerable and being ourselves?
Samira Rajabi was diagnosed with a vestibular schwannoma, also known as an acoustic neuroma in 2012. She has had ten surgeries to deal with her tumor and its various side effects. She writes a blog about her life, surgeries, recovery and experiences at LivingWithHerbert.com. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies media studies. In her spare time she plays with her two pups and spends time with her husband exploring Philadelphia.
I had brain surgery in 2012. The surgery was long. Recovery was hard. Walking was a challenge without someone to hold on to. I couldn’t bathe myself, my sister had to do it. Food wouldn’t stay down and I carried a bucket around with me just in case the complicated cocktail of drugs took me by surprise. I had brain surgery in 2013. Recovery was hard. I had to prove my strength to myself and those around me. I came armed with a bucket this time. I had brain surgery in 2015. The surgery was hard. Recovery was non-existent. Before I even got to check out of the hospital, I had another brain surgery. And another. And another. And so on. I had brain surgery in 2016. I am still recovering.
Recovery is hard. I have to prove my strength to myself and others.
Society paints our bodies with insecurity telling us that we should move, act, think, be and look a certain way. Our hair should be long, our abs chiseled, our smiles should be bright and white. We should be thin but we should be curvy. Tall but not foreboding. We should be strong but feminine.
Society tells us that our strength is measured in our ability to look the way a strong body looks. We should stand tall, on unbroken legs. We should move fluidly; we should not falter. We are weak if our bodies display the soft swell of trauma, and the tough bumpiness of scar tissue. We are weak if we cry, frown, waver. We are strong if we smile in the face of defeat. Society tells us that “strong” is in the way we look and the way we overcome, not in the way we live with and the way we thrive alongside of our challenges.
My body used to be one of those chiseled bodies, strong enough to look formidable but not so strong as to abandon its air of femininity. This was a body built by accident, borne of a love of weightlifting to loud music and running until my troubles drifted away. This was not a body that cared what society told it to be, it was a body that just was lucky enough to fit the normative frameworks that we so mistakenly use to judge one another.
Then, I got brain surgery, and brain surgery didn’t care about the way jealous eyes painted insecurity onto my fragile body. And my tumor didn’t mind that my body became soft, and my pain didn’t either.
It’s been about 10 months since my last brain surgery and my life is a careful balance of everyday exertion matched with pain killers and treatments. I often, in my changed physical state, get caught in the trap of allowing social standards to define my vision of strength for myself. I feel weak as I feel the new contours of my body, changed by scars, softened by trauma. Then I remember that society doesn’t get to paint meaning onto me. And I remember that strength is not borne of the weights we lift or the distances we run. It comes from the way we choose to inhabit the space we take up, mentally, physically and spiritually. Our strength is in the way we engage with the world, and the ways in which we lift each other up.
I am strong, not because my body and mind survived the surgeries. That was a combination of luck, resources and access to health care and insurance. I am strong because I do not allow the judgements of the world to be embodied in me. I am strong because I do not choose to judge my body against any other, I do not pit our bodies against one another; rather, I choose to embolden those around me to be their best self, no matter what that looks like. I am strong because I do not stop trying to recover or at very least live while recovering, and help all those around me do the same. We may be tired, but we must continue to live.
Today I went for a run. Runs for me are few and far between and I’m lucky to have days where my pain stays at bay long enough to run into the wind. After about a mile, the beating of my heart and head made me slow my pace. And as I walked I did not see my walking rather than running as a failure, instead I walked tall and with pride, steady on my feet, celebrating my strength.