This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2021

You keep calling me strong

Who does that really serve?

Kristy Frenken-Francis

“trophy 1 | julie rybarczyk” by shorts and longs is licensed under CC BY 2.0

To the people who have called me resilient:

I know you think that you were giving me some big compliment. I get it, I do. The first time someone called me resilient, I was young and terrified that no one would ever see how hard I was fighting. Then, the phrase “you are resilient” filled me not only with pride, but also with the overwhelming feeling that someone finally saw me. Each time the word resilient was used to describe me, it validated my experiences and made me feel as though my survival was impressive, rather than pitiful. Each time I was told I was resilient was a new gold star, an incentive, a reminder to keep fighting, keep going, keep toughing it out.

Recently, my mental health was crashing, so I gritted my teeth and found the strength to ask for help. After divulging how low I was feeling, how I was just trying to keep myself alive, I was met with, “Well, remember, you’re resilient. You’ll get through this.”

For years, I have heard it all, over and over again:
“God, I don’t know how you do it, you’ve been through so much.”
“Wow, you’re so strong.”
“You’re so brave.”
“You’ll get through this.”

I know you mean well, but can you not hear the exasperation in my voice when I respond, each time, with, “I know, I always do”?

Like my eighth participation trophy for pee-wee soccer that I didn’t even want to play, these words of yours sit dusty on a shelf, a reminder of something I had to do. It is no longer comforting to me to be told how strong I am. I know. I don’t need you to remind me that I went through a lot of really difficult things at a young age. I know. I’m the one who’s been working all these years to get here. I’ve been building up this muscle of resilience, as your praise twists in my mind and reminds me that as long as I keep going, as long as I stay strong—at the very least, you will be proud of me and impressed with me.

Here’s the thing: I’m exhausted. I hate this game, but I’ve been playing so long that I’ve convinced everyone that I can keep playing all day and night. If I slip up, I’ll get back on my feet like I always do, a little bruised, maybe, but ready to keep going.
When you tell me that I am resilient, who are these words really for? Are they to comfort and support me, or you? Do they make you feel better, because then you don’t have to fully confront the realities of my situation? Let’s be real: my trauma makes you uncomfortable. No one wants to think too deeply about the pain of others, but everyone loves to be in awe of those who are strong enough to overcome—as long as the way they overcome it isn’t too messy.

So, the question is: if I crumble, if my survival-mode looks different than what you are comfortable with, if I can’t keep up the façade that my resilience is like a well-oiled machine any longer … will you still be proud of me? Will you still tell me I am strong, or will I no longer be worthy of your praise and admiration? Will you offer me your hand, help me stand, or will you shy away, disappointed that the show pony can’t keep performing her old tricks?

Resilience is a muscle, really, and all humans have it. I just had to start building mine from a young enough age that, somehow, my resilience has been perceived as somewhat remarkable.

I know I am strong. But the most comforting thing you can tell me right now is that with you, I don’t have to be.

Yours truly and exhaustedly,
Kristy Frenken-Francis

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