Vulnerability is the feeling you get when you feel exposed during a weak or uncertain state of your mind or moment in life. It’s the feeling you get right before you are about to speak your mind knowing your words may be unpopular. It’s the feeling you have when you want to say no but you’re too scared to, or when you know you’ve done something wrong and want to ask forgiveness.
Vulnerability is almost always accompanied by pain. Whether its emotional, physical, mental or spiritual, we are vulnerable because we are exposed, either to ourselves or to ourselves and everyone around us. This happens because we are feeling some level of pain. Pain to speak, pain to feel, pain to listen, see, grieve, process, comfort, learn, grow. Whatever level of pain, and from wherever it stems… there is the birth of our vulnerability. And though it’s simply a human function and process that we all naturally, and innately go through, we have learned from day one that it is not okay.
Vulnerability is weakness… and weakness is bad. Don’t expose your weaknesses, don’t let others see it. How will they feel if you do? How will it make you look? Don’t oppress others with the duty or responsibility to see you vulnerable, keep that shit locked up. When a child scrapes their knee and cries, what do we do? “Shhhhh” and give them a bandaid… then distract them with a popsicle or piece of candy. Problem solved. And metaphorically, that is what we do our entire lives. Shhhh…. sweep it under the proverbial rug (or bandaid), grab a drink, smile and act normal. The scary alternative is to reveal what our perceptions actually are about our own vulnerabilities:
My life has “forced” me into countless vulnerable situations. And each time, I got better at hiding it, denying it, looking past it while simultaneously getting real damned good at faking a socially acceptable level of strength, by social definitions.
Because that’s what gets the applause and kudos and ‘atta girls’. But as the universe would have it, and if you don’t know this by now, you should… the more you deny something, the bigger and badder it will come back to kick you in the ladynuts.
Sometimes It Starts With a Big Change
Nothing could be a more perfect illustration than the story of how my world unfolded in October 2014, and so I’ll share this story with you. You just need to buckle up.
Everything in my world, every fragment of the life I’d built was about to be disengaged, picked apart, re-analyzed, put under the microscope and then reported back to me in such a way that I would be knocked down on my knees at the mercy of what simply couldn’t be true; that what was before, was now… no longer, and probably never was. Nothing I believed was what it had seemed.
Stress Will Reveal Our Vulnerabilities
The top 5 most stressful events in a person’s life are listed in this order (according to Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS):
1. death of spouse
6. death of family member
7. separation of partners
8. getting fired/job change
9. getting married (irony)
After moving from the place we started our family and lived for five years, where I found myself, started my career, established relationships and rooted myself in the community – to the house we’d spent a couple years building downtown; our dream to be in the city, I was settling in to the change.
Moving was hard. Bittersweet. And initially, I did it all alone because my husband had to travel the very next day the movers dropped our things off at the new house.
So I unpacked, put everything away, moved furniture, hung photos and got the girls settled in while he was gone. Then got back to work on scheduling clients to my new office location, finishing my exams and writing my last clinical case studies to turn in.
Little did I know that I would be moving, again, within just 6 short weeks. No. Clue.
Fast forward to January, the beginning of a new year. The beginning of a lot of things, in fact. Between the time we moved at the end of October and January, I experienced 3/4 of that list.
I don’t have a good “cliff notes” version of what went down, so go back and re-read the list above.
No, I did not go to prison, retire, nor did my spouse die.
But the rest of it somehow made its way into my life within a span of 8 weeks, plus a bunch of other stuff like holidays, a financial crisis, informing the kids of our divorce, etc. All of that prior to the following chain of events that took place four weeks after:
- Surgery to adjust retainer of jaw, fix an abdominal hernia, remove implants
- Packed, moved, unpacked into new home 5 days post-op
- Realized this is the first time I’ve lived alone in 12 years
- Finalized divorce … oh yeah, news of that happened few weeks after moving the first time, that whole thing is a complete blur and I still don’t have answers to this day
- Experienced a huge financial crisis and subsequent moments of uncertainty
- Sudden crisis in post-op complications with bad case of hematoma
- In & out of hospital, on & off operating table 3x in one week, lost 2 liters of blood
- Gas and Cable company still have not turned services on at my 2nd new home
(this meant no heat, working stove, hot water, showers, or wifi to get any work done for over a week during all this post-op health chaos)
- Rounds of medications and antibiotics, follow ups with surgeon
- Trying to settle into new home, this 2nd huge move in less than two months while so physically limited and still in state of shock from other affairs in my life…
- Processing my emotions and feelings of fear, abandonment, vulnerability, pressure, guilt, anger, identity loss, grief and sadness… but hope
- Various promotional projects for conference I was directing, meetings, new stages of planning, more work and juggling both jobs
- Then we noticed an onset of infection in my surgical incisions, likely from having them open for draining the hematoma (had tubes put in/removed to continue draining the blood), started new round of medications
- Discovered and tested positive for aggressive MRSA infection
- Shocked by the news I had to have another surgery, with less than 24 hours to prepare
- Rushed back onto the operating table, left without my breasts
Dropping the Veil
When my lab reports came back positive for MRSA, my blood counts were anything but evidence that my immune system was even functioning at this point, and having MRSA without any fever, pain or other symptoms was a huge concern for them. And they needed me to be concerned. So I could understand their reason behind not allowing me to take another round of anesthesia.
That’s right… this wasn’t just another simple surgery, no biggie. I had to be awake for it. And granted, some of the subsequent post-op procedures I had were done with local anesthesia, but those were quick cuts and closes for the tubes/draining.
This was actual surgery to go into all wound sites and remove any/all infection, exposed tissues and any/all artificial inserts, supports and implants that had been exposed. I asked why. They said because my risk of going into shock was too high to even consider it, and anesthesia would add too much weight to that risk.
And I had less than 24 hours to process this, prepare myself, and get all my ducks in a row for what was about to happen and what needed to be lined up for after; considering several scenarios I do not wish to put into writing. My daughters were with me because my ex was stuck in a snow storm in Boston, so here is where I felt my first round of severe, unfiltered knock-down vulnerability hit me like a sucker punch to the face.
The scenarios swirling around in my head and everything I had to consider and prepare for had to be done with these two little girls standing in front of me wanting an explanation, and requesting reassurance from me that they are still loved, and safe, and their Mom is, and will be okay. And I could not give that to them. That sucked. For everyone. But being vulnerable in front of them, allowed them to see/ know that they can be vulnerable right back, and that’s okay. So we had our moments and we cried.
With an Army of Love, I Am Disarmed–
My friends really came out of their own lives to show up for me. What this did to me, as a human being, was truly allow myself to fall and stay down, and just be okay with my nakedness and exposure and weakness and lack of total awareness because I was literally in a complete fog trying to merely survive. And it was okay let let my walls fall. Because they had built a wall around me.
I was scared, and guess what? I’ve been scared shitless for the last three months but it wasn’t until now that I could really allow myself to crumble and land on my knees exposing every wound, every fear, every uncertainty I had… to each of my friends. And feel it.
And you know something about genuine friends when this happens? You realize: they already knew. They already knew!
The people who love you most are not blind. You cannot fool them no matter how good you think you are at performing your stoicism and badassery through the biggest storms or how good you are at covering up your wounds. They know. They see right through that shit y’all.
Do you know what happens when you desperately try to hang on to something because you think you should? When you carry the burdens around because you don’t want to burden others?
Letting go. Shedding your burdens. Exposing yourself… allowing others to step into their supportive role in your life… gives you the time you need to restore that strength.
And it takes strength to do that.
I felt strong because I let myself be weak.
So I get to the office and have to sign a bunch of legal stuff before I can take my valium (that’s what I got to take for surgery by the way) so that everything was signed and planned and confirmed with a “sound mind”. I popped my valium, used the restroom, got changed and followed the nurse into the O.R. where I was cleaned and got to lay down. I did not get to close my eyes and escape this time, waking up with no memory of anything.
I took a deep breath and looked at the nurse and said “I’m scared,” and she just looked at me and said, “I know. But…You’re strong,” She tied the surgical mask up over her mouth and hung the sheet up in front of me so I could not see beyond my chin.
I plugged my earphones in, turned my binaural beats on, informed them to tell me anything they needed to now or forever hold their tongues because my mission was to take this valium-induced high and go into a deep meditative trance.
And I did. Each time I felt them make a cut, I reminded my body to let go even more. I melted into the operating table and traveled to my favorite place in the woods. Before I knew it, a bright light was piercing me and I saw them removing the sheet in front of me. I felt a hand on my shoulder and I looked up. I removed my earphones and heard them talking to me as I came out of this deep meditation. But I looked up and saw three of them around me, surgical masks still on, but man… their eyes.
They were sad, there was pity and guilt pouring our of their eyes. What happened?
Am I alive? Am I having an out of body experience here, did I die? No… I’m not dead. I hear, “Do you want to see?” and two hands helped me sit up and as I looked down, I knew.
There were two tubes sewn into a pair of holes in my chest.
Where my breasts used to be.
I think everyone in that OR felt absolute shame for me because they knew what I had been through over the past several months. Most of the details I have actually left out here, but I truly believe they felt some awful shame about taking something else away from me.
But the truth is, after some shock wore off… I didn’t care that my breasts were gone. What felt empty to me was the symbology. What they represented.
During a four month period I had my entire identity stripped away from me, piece by piece. Everyday, it seemed, I was waking up with less of me. I was learning about this question I always asked my girls:
“What if you woke up this morning with only the things you were grateful for yesterday? What would you have?”
Since that day I’ve spent a lot of time in reflection about my identity. I was very much attached to something without even knowing it. I’d always been a very masculine woman, a “tomboy” if you will, not very girly etc. Suddenly I was aching for the feminine Devine to re-awaken her spirit in me and bring me her powers. Funny, huh.
*Another story, another time, but I eventually did summon that feminine spirit to heal me and guess what… I was blessed with an angel and my new partner and I welcomed her into the world a year later… fearing Id be unable to nurse her due to the loss of my breasts, we were wonderfully surprised by what healing Devine love will do… because my breast tissue regenerated, the ducts remained in tact and as I write this now, she is 2 years old still getting her fill from my breasts everyday (and alllllll night long)*
Now what about vulnerability and exposing yourself? Not everyone wants to hear your problems and have people walking around crying and complaining and wallowing in their victimhood, I get it. But the reason I had to keep learning some very hard and difficult lessons (and I deserved them) was because I wouldn’t acknowledge them, and I wouldn’t acknowledge myself. I was numb. In every sense of the word. I was just surviving.
Basically, the more you tuck shit away and hide it, pretend you’re fine, choose only to acknowledge and show the world your “strengths” and what will continue to always make you such a badass, in terms of what we have all socially defined, then the less capable you will become at identifying, predicting, preventing, and managing any or every problem, obstacle, crisis, road block, or change subsequent to each time you sweep yet another thing under the proverbial rug and deny pain and change.
Hence, why that infection went unnoticed and nearly killed me. I was in lala land y’all. In denial, just performing for the world.
The more you engage yourself as a vulnerable human being by first accepting that you are vulnerable, and second by allowing yourself to feel it, and third by not being afraid to show it… the stronger you are.
“We are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful.” – Eric Micha’el Leventhal
Confidence and trust…both in the fact that God has a purpose for you and so it doesn’t matter what happens. The universe keeps evolving and you have a choice to either evolve with it and expand and grow and fulfill the purpose you actually came here for- so SHOW UP-… or to stay at your own limited, comfortable pace within the box you’ve tucked yourself into because evolving is scary, and “being scared is vulnerable, and being vulnerable is weak”.