A few years ago, I had a panic attack while driving on the motorway. When I managed to pull over, I sat outside a service station crying until a man bought me a breakfast muffin and told me to focus on something other than the fact I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. When my boss asked why I was late, I told him my car wouldn’t start.
Admitting vulnerability is something I have never been good at. I grew up around ‘superwoman’ types who rolled up their sleeves and got on with things. They hid any pain or anger under an unflinching level of calm and perfectly placed smiles. Whether it was my mother suffering from postnatal depression, or my Grandmother struggling through the pain of breast cancer, you would never have guessed the suffering they endured. They were strong. Or so they had to appear.
In the era of #MeToo, the value of being a ‘strong woman’ has been elevated to cataclysmic heights. Women are encouraged to speak up and out, facing their fear head-on while remaining calm and composed. A friend described it perfectly to me over lunch when she said, “I find it exhausting in every situation trying to figure out what I should be doing to further our cause and figure out what I should be fighting for. Sometimes I just want to live my life.”
The BBC recently reported that domestic abuse killings were at a five year high. How in today’s political climate, are women more vulnerable than ever? On one hand, we are the victims of a discriminatory society, but on the other, we are commended for fighting back. This creates a false sense of empowerment in a world where putting on a brave face on the pretence of being strong is not adequate protection. If we keep pretending everything is fine, things will simply get worse.
“The stark reality is that women’s hearts are stopping because they prioritise making dinner over seeking medical help.”
Similarly, reports suggest that women receive half the amount of heart attack treatments as men. This is partly due to a misunderstanding of gender specific symptoms between men and women, according to the British Heart Foundation. It is also because many women ignore their symptoms in order to continue daily life. The stark reality is that women’s hearts are stopping because they prioritise making dinner over seeking medical help.
Strength and bravery are by no means negative traits. There is value behind the beloved British term “keep calm and carry on”. But there is a dangerous side to maintaining the stiff upper lip that particularly women shouldn’t ignore. Admitting that we can’t cope, or that we need help does not make us worse feminists. Confessing that we are not as in control as we would like to appear is not a crime against the cause.
But it’s important to practice what you preach. Now, I don’t drive to work, but if I ever feel the same panic creeping up on me, I tell someone straight away. I am honest and vulnerable and it has freed me.
Since taking on this new philosophy, my life is so much calmer and more productive. If the pressures of commuting into work on one of the busiest tube lines in London becomes too much, I agree a couple of days to work from home in order to recentre myself. I have stepped out of the darkness and into the light and I would encourage you to do the same. We can’t always be superwomen, but we will certainly be happier because of that.