As a family lawyer I am used to emotionally carrying people, this forms part of my job, I am used to solving other people’s problems, and I let people lean on me. For many of us women in this profession, over time this becomes part of our nature, we start to do this in every aspect of our lives, we get used to people leaning on us, but what happens when we need someone to lean on? How does an independent woman ask for help, when she is in need, in trouble or in pain?
Many of us would have seen the archaic knight in shining armour murdered by independent women, when we realized that we don’t need saving as we can save ourselves, but have we taken the responsibility too far? Lockdown has made me reflect about the way I ask for help, maybe more so as I managed to sustain an injury and I have not fully recovered from it, this is despite the fact that I am working from home and I have a job that requires me to sit at a desk.
My favourite lockdown activities have been dancing and cycling and I have in the past done long distance rides. My relationship with cycling is one of my favourite ones. As I learnt how to cycle as an adult at the age of 24, I managed to learn, train and plan a 60-mile ride from London to Oxford to raise funds for acid burns survivors. At the time I had a great team of majority male cyclists who were super supportive and equally as adventurous. We then went on to do many long-distance rides together and we even planned a London to Paris bike ride in 2013. The timing was such as that I ended up having to pick between the London to Paris bike ride and sitting exams to cross qualify as a lawyer, guess which one I picked…
As I started taking up cycling again during lockdown, I decided to try and revive the London to Paris ride, with a few of my old cycle buddies, and this time with more female cyclists included in the mix, I started training with full force! I built up my stamina gradually and I went out for a long-distance ride one sunny yet windy Sunday in June, the agreement was we would cycle as far as we could, but the aim was to get to Box Hill in Surrey. So that morning I headed off at just after 6.30am from my home in South East London, met with three other cyclists, one of whom was my brother and two super cool female cyclists (side note: yes, my brother is cool too.) An hour into the ride, whilst we were somewhere near Kingston, I indicated to turn left with my arm and I kept my right hand on the handle. Suddenly a strong gust of wind blew me off course, I struggled to maintain my balance, I fought against the wind but the wind won and I went head first (with my helmet on) into the concrete pavement.
I remember blacking out for a split second, I felt instant pain on my head and a sharp pain running down my neck. I got up as soon as I could gain my balance, my brother helped me up, the two female cyclists checked I was ok and a kind stranger also came to see if I needed any help. In hindsight at this point I should have stopped and turned back. My response to everyone was “I am fine” — I wanted to keep going. As I had scraped my knee in the fall, we stopped again so I could put a plaster on, and although it hurt a little every time I pedalled, that raging independent woman inside me who is always willing to push herself, kept going.
I did then cycle all the way to Box Hill, took my jump shot and we cycled back. I did over 70 miles that day, the longest ride I have completed in my cycling career to date. That experience for me was such a testament of how the mind can really push our body to limits we cannot even fathom at times. I think it was the high of that feeling which pushed me to ignore my pain. I do remember going home that night and a friend of mine pushed me to seek medical advice, the doctor’s advice was for me to rest and to “not excite my brain”. I tried to follow his advice, but it didn’t help that I found out the next morning that I was on the Management Todays 35 Women Under 35 list (that is how every Monday should be – full of good news!). That was the happy excitement side and with the joys of having a lawyer brain, the pressure of work causes all sorts of excitement, which may be pushed me too far that day. So yes I celebrated my achievement of making it on a list with super inspiring women, by sitting in A&E praying I wouldn’t pass out or catch COVID19 from other patients!
I still tried to push myself to work the next day, as I refused to believe that I actually needed rest, but then I found myself being unable to complete simple sentences and that’s where the effects of my mild concussion started to show, so I had no choice but to stop working for a few days, but it was the fear of being negligent that stopped me, not because I was prioritizing my health.
Resting is tough for someone like me, I am used to being under constant pressure of work or being involved in something, which I find fulfilling. But I now wonder whether this is a syndrome which most independent women have, do we all believe that unless we are busy working from our laptops and mobiles, unless we are fighting or advocating or voicing something valuable, we are not being useful? But of what value is that voice, when you do not have a sturdy leg (which is literally my case) to stand on?
It took approximately two weeks for the concussion headaches to subside and once they did, I tried to cycle again and I also did an amazing Afro Indian dance class, in the same weekend, only to then allow my ankle injury to surface. The pain of my headache had blocked out my other injuries, which I managed to tap into in other ways! It turns out that I flared up an old ankle injury, the last time I sustained on injury in my right ankle, I did so from a series of events, which started in the summer of 2018 where I was rugby tackled in a kabaddi game (South Asian contact sport) in the US at a family picnic with my relatives. That winter I then landed awkwardly on the same ankle in an uncomfortable way in a Bollywood dance class and then the full extent of damage surfaced on Christmas Eve when I sat on my own ankle, that is when I ended up with crutches!
Two years later it turns out that that initial injury never fully healed, and the cycling incident flared it up. Unfortunately, I have still not been able to recover this time, this is despite keeping my ankle support on, taking painkillers, as I simply cannot help myself and just sit still.
When I did finally decide to sit still, I started to review how I got here. As an achievement the 70-mile bike ride was monumental for me physically, but as I sit here almost a month later not fully recovered, I realize how damaging some of my own actions have been in my path of non-recovery. I am generally good at asking for help when it is for someone else, but I am unable to actually ask for help for myself, when it is ok to do so; and I am unable to stop and rest, when it is essential to do so, this has hugely hindered my healing process. As a consequence, at the moment not only can I not walk properly, I cannot bear weight on my ankle, so no cycling or dancing for me for the foreseeable future. I did postpone the London to Paris bike ride this year, but Paris I am coming for you on two wheels in 2021 in sha Allah!
It is through this physical pain and this state of not fully healing that I am able to see how much more care and compassion I need to show myself. This injury has made think about how I perceive asking for help for myself. It seems I believe I should be able to take care of myself at all times, even when I am physically injured as asking for help requires me to appear vulnerable and in effect perceived weak. Although I am an advocate of the fact that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, being in this state truly made me wonder what the statement means to me.
I realise that in my own life I have categorised vulnerability as a “positive” and “negative” type. I have linked notions of “positive” vulnerability to opening up to someone I trust, in a private space to emotionally express myself. However being emotionally distressed and appearing weak in the public eye is “negative” vulnerability. Who else has had one of those tough days where you are on your way home and you find tears just rolling down your cheeks in public? Or maybe after a week of soaking in so much stress you find yourself having a panic attack on the Central Line? If anyone else can relate, well these my sisters are signs that as independent women, we have placed an insurmountable amount of pressure on ourselves at a standard that is not humanly possible.
Categorising vulnerability as positive or negative is not only reductionist, it can also be harmful, as this is a very simplistic way of viewing something which is extremely complicated. I realise I need to learn to be more vulnerable, this is by starting with asking for help when I need it for myself. As otherwise I am only internally burdening myself to the point that I can no longer emotionally push forward.
So sisters, it is time that we started truly saving ourselves and we start to recognise our internal scars, pain and pressure which many of us independent women overlook. Maybe we need to extend some care and compassion to the inner woman in us and to give that woman permission to be vulnerable to fully flourish. As surely the true marker of strength isn’t the weight we can externally lift or the amount we can emotionally bury, what makes us strong and independent is being able to ask for help when we need it, so we can comfortably carry ourselves physically and fully surface emotionally.