Essay: I am not strong by choice

‘Trapped’ — Teri Underhill

By Teri Underhill, Norwalk

In the summer of 2022, I went with my halau (hula group) to the Big Island of Hawai’i. During this trip, we chanted, danced, hiked, cried, laughed and more. We went to the top of Mauna Kea for the sunrise, celebrated the full moon of Hina (Goddess of the Moon), was taught hula by my kumu’s (teacher’s) aunty, and so much more, all in one week.

Our last night together, June 14th, was a night of many celebrations. Wedding celebrations, anniversaries and birthdays we all celebrated under the full moon. We celebrated through hula, bellydance, song, poetry, storytelling and the four directions (an Aztec ritual led by two Mexicans in our group). At the end of our four directions, we hugged one another, shook hands and told each other how much we appreciated one another. One of my halau’s family member’s looked me in the eyes, held my arm and told me, “You are stronger than you think” and hugged me tightly. I have been told I’m strong by many people in my personal life, but from this journey it hit me differently.

I have tried feeling strong, coming from many mana wahine (strong women). I have come from women who have gone through abuse and have lived through it and to tell their reflections. I have seen history repeat itself through my cousins & I yet every wahine in my family is very outspoken, honest and strong. Why do I not feel the same as I view them?

In my 22 years of life, I have gone through verbal, physical and sexual abuse mostly from my childhood that has impacted me greatly. I have seen the other side of suicide to where I live mindfully now. I am just as outspoken and honest about my life as someone that is mixed, queer, fat and traumatized. Why do I not feel strong?

I’ve come to realize I am not strong by choice. I have no other option but to keep going, push forward and be “strong.” I have spent my adolescence hurting deeply. I would bruise myself, starve myself, be mean to myself and be delusional to believe that “everyone hates me so I must hate myself first.” I have spent a decade of my life, which at the moment is the majority of my life, in pain that I caused myself because I believed that was what I deserved.

At some point, you grow tired of the pain. It wasn’t until I graduated high school I started to spend some time befriending myself. While I may not be besties with myself, I allow myself to understand my needs and boundaries and respect them. I’ve found hearing myself and my needs is what I deserve. If no one else will listen, I still deserve to listen to myself.

This turning point came after my first relationship when I was 17 years old. I was in an emotionally abusive, on and off, relationship with a classmate for 6 months of my senior year. Through this senior year, I attempted suicide and relapsed deeply into my pain towards myself. I was tired of this cycle. I was angry at how I was being treated. I was angry at being dismissed by close ones around me. It finally clicked in my brain that I deserved so much better from others but most importantly myself.

I started reading self help books such as Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe and The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I started surrounding my social media with diverse body types, disabilities, cultures, ethnicities and more. I let myself cry all the tears I needed to. So in the summer of 2022, June 14th, when I was told I am “stronger than you think” by a, now, friend, I was stunned. That statement hasn’t left my mind since that day, and it has been six months now.

Reflecting on my 22 years, realizing to be told on that day specifically, June 14, 2022, triggered something in my mind. June 14th is my brother’s birthday and this would have been his 39th birthday. My brother passed away suddenly when I was 14 years old. I compare our strengths a lot. He had severe cerebral palsy and I had undiagnosed (at the time) autism. He could not walk the last five years of his life and I was contemplating my own. He was the one to pass away when I tried to.

I have felt deeply in my life. Sometimes I am told I am “too emotional.” Now I am told I am “strong.” Looking back, I am only “strong” because I had to be and I have to be. I have no other option for myself but to continue my life and heal. I do not have any other choice. On my dark days, I am still considered “strong” when I feel the weakest.

Strong people are not strong by choice. We have gone through trials and tribulations. We have cried and felt fearful for most of our life. Even as I heal, I am still fearful of life to this day. I may stand straight, shoulders back and my chin up, but this is the only way of survival I know.

Remember this when you look at your heroes or people you wish to become one day, they did not become a strong figure in life because of choice. Behind every strong individual is a battle of a journey behind them.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s March 2023 issues.