Most of the advice my parents gave me growing up has faded into the sepia background of my memory. Long-winded lectures that had me red-hot with contempt at the powerlessness of pre-adulthood have completely disappeared from my consciousness. Occasionally, however, sound bites of advice force themselves back into my awareness like shards of glass in my foot, annoying and nagging at first and then it becomes inescapably obvious that I need to pay attention to it or else the pain that I am forcing myself to endure will never cease.
One such morsel is something my dad said to me over and over in the dawn of my young adulthood years:
Keep your strength up.
He said this to me first as we were leaving my final tennis match of my senior year of high school. I turned my shoulder away from him as he said it to hide my rolling eyes from his line of sight. I was an elite athlete in prime physical condition, more muscular than most other females in my school. Body dysphoria was not in my vocabulary. I was already strong.
What I did not understand at the time was that while my dad had meant that I should stay physically healthy, emotional strength was just as important and the two are not mutually exclusive.
The following fall I started my first year of college in a new city. As my parents dropped me off at my dorm again my dad told me to keep my strength up and I said I would. During those first few months, that phrase was more of a motivational poster in a middle school classroom than a sworn oath of service for me. I glanced at it every once and a while after I have finished counting the ceiling tiles for the 17th time, but in general I let it sink back into the hazy periphery without being a student to its teachings.
I struggled to adjust to the work my heavy course load demanded, and my mental health began to slip. Depression told me I was not smart enough. Anxiety told me I was not working hard enough, no one liked me, that I needed to push harder. To fight off these thoughts the library became my lair, slinking out of its depths to eat or sleep only when I deemed myself worthy enough to do so. A spoonful of jasmine rice and a sparse helping of sliced cucumbers for each meal and a 2-hour nap were my rewards. I lost 20 lbs. in two months. Clothes billowed around my wire frame. My hair was falling out more and more each day and any spark my eyes had before was now dull. I was spiraling towards self-destruction. I did not ask for help because I was strong. Right?
Another month passed, and I saw my parents again. Instead of grilling me about grades or how many networking events I had been to recently, my dad asked me how I’d been eating and sleeping. I mumbled some half-hearted affirmations that I was perfectly fine.
My dad nodded, gave me a hug, and said:
Keep your strength up.
This simple, non-judgmental reminder was a rope pulling me back to wellness. I realized that I had become so dedicated to my scholastic career that I had become disinterested in maintaining the only body I was every going to get.
Later that day, I talked with a friend for the first time about my anxiety. He urged me that he too struggled with this and that I was not alone. I began to eat healthy, non-restrictive meals, and exercise regularly again. I gained energy and momentum. The depression, anxiety, and disordered eating never went away, but I learned that I needed to ask for help when my symptoms come back. I was strong again.
The day after the last day of my sophomore year of college, my dad passed away unexpectedly.
Darkness shrouded every thought I had. Walls seemed to close around me as anxious panic consumed me. Consuming food was a chore. Small handfuls of cereal were enough to send my stomach turning. I was spiraling again. Feeling isolated and lost, disappearing into the ground itself would have been the greatest relief.
Amidst the terror of grief, I heard my dad’s familiar refrain surface from the back of my mind.
After weeks of seclusion, I found my strength.
Except this time, it was my best friend taking me to dinner for the first meal I had finished in a week. It was the nightly walks with members of my mental health student group. It was the exercise routine I made for myself and the elaborate meals I eventually began cooking for my friends. It was organizing a suicide prevention initiative on campus and it was doing life-saving research in a mental health clinic.
Strength was leaning on my community. Strength was providing for others. Strength was painful to find.
I have come to terms with my journey towards strength. I am still anxious often and must be mindful to nourish myself fully.
It has helped me understand that obtaining mental and physical wellness is not a linear path. Much like muscles expanding and contracting with each new motion, mental health is not static. Strength is not something you arrive at, it is something you must keep practicing. It is not pushing through excruciating emotional pain alone. It is not punishing yourself for not being some idyllic version of yourself. It is love. It is peace. It is forgiveness.
When I start to slip back into the malaise that has consumed much of the last few years, it pops into my head again:
Keep your strength up.
I know now that this advice was a father’s quiet plea to his daughter to work a little harder to stay on this Earth. I am glad I finally listened.
Author, Gabrielle Steinhoff