January 5, 2014

What Does It Mean To Be Stronger? ~ Brianne Nettelfield

Everyone has heard, probably more times than thought possible, the quote, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

I am not sure who those words are originally attributed to, but if they made even one cent every time someone said that, they would be richer than all of the richest people in the world combined.

Most of my life, when I heard that saying I felt absolutely nothing. Perhaps I was moved to nod, or let a, “Yeah, you’re right” slip through my lips. But it didn’t mean anything. In the face of failure, heartbreak, mourning, pain, and suffering, it would placate me or reassure a well-intentioned friend, at best. At worst, it was a kick when I was already down, having fallen so far I couldn’t even imagine what being stronger meant.

The past 14 months of my life have been by far the hardest. When both of my grandparents were killed crossing a highway intersection, I knew that I would survive. But what shape I would be in, I never dared ask.

When my father (figure) died in an off-roading accident, I knew I would survive, even though I felt like dying too. But how long that feeling would last… well I didn’t know that.

When my beautiful, kind, sweet new friend died by drowning the day after I was supposed to see him at a dinner party and the last text I received from him was be, “Sorry I can’t make it! We’re still friends right?”…well, at this point I was no stranger to the unfairness of life and quietly mourned his loss and wept for his family’s incomprehensible pain.

Then the time eventually came when I didn’t think I would survive.

A man took me out on a beautiful, romantic, magical first date and then he sexually assaulted me. From that moment, I wasn’t sure what survival looked like anymore.

Despite every tragedy that I have lived through in the past year and a half, I didn’t know how I would live through this. I could no longer celebrate how many times I’d fallen down in grief only to get back up and be better for it. Sexual assault takes that away from you, makes you despondent, apathetic, hopeless. It steals your joy. It tricks you into thinking the only way you can survive is by giving up. And for a time that is true. Anyone who has ever lived through tragedy or personal violence will you tell you some days it’s a miracle that you were able to open your eyes every morning. I felt like my world was falling down on top of me—all of the structures I had erected to get me through the hard times were shaking and breaking. I no longer had the strength to hold them in place.

Until I realized, that through it all, I had grown stronger.

While I was busy grieving, crying, eating, smoking, drinking, exercising, cleansing, crying, quitting smoking…still living—I had cultivated strength. The structures I built to hold my world up took the shape of new friends, old friends, healthy food, exercise, cleaning and sometimes selfishly doing only what I wanted to do. Despite constantly feeling on the brink, I had kept it together.

The weeks before my sexual assault I had felt the best I had in years. I was no longer avoiding pain and emotional upheaval. The last 14 months had fiercely (and unrelentingly) taught me that you can never really escape. And if you could, the destination of an escapee can be worse than the prison of grief you were so desperately trying to leave in the first place. It just wasn’t worth it. I had learned to face things head on.

After the assault, when I started to notice the effects of trauma, I decided to let myself feel that I would not survive, I let myself get low and hate the world and feel anger and disappointment. I let myself lose my joy. I found it again one month later when I realized, I am still here. I am still walking my dog, taking on new projects in the community, eating well and living a more full life. There are some days I would rather bash my head into a wall than get out of bed. Sometimes I spend the whole day frowning. Sometimes I have anxiety attacks and cry on the bus. But most days I go to sleep cradled by faith in myself to make tomorrow better, because I am stronger than I once was.

What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. Just you wait and see.


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Assistant Editor: Zenna James/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Courtesy of author

Music Credit: “I Am The Highway”, Audioslave

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