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Broken Vulnerability

A black and white image of a individual whose lower half of their face is obstructed by a white cloth, stares off into the distance with soft eyes filled with tears.
“We need never be ashamed of our tears.” ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

My mother's death broke me. 

I feel like I'm saying that a lot, but it's true. I've been through the wringer in life and those previous experiences taught me how to fortify the wall I built up around myself. With my mother's death, though, the wall crumbled. There aren't building materials on this plane of existence strong enough to fortify the heart against death. 

In the wake of the loss, I've found myself reverting to the little girl who first learned to build her wall.  Except she's got me holding her and telling her it's ok to be herself. This translates into a nearly 40-year-old woman crunching through fallen leaves and wearing pajamas out in public without a bra. The scandal of it all! It means freedom, but also vulnerability.  There is a nakedness to death, while he shows up shrouded in a black cloak we are stripped bare. 

The feeling of being exposed is terrifying.  My therapist tells me I have to confront the root of why it terrifies me.  I can take my time, but I still have to face it or I'll never move past this current point of heaviness. In reality, I know she's right, but in my heart I'm fearful. I know the root of the fear, it stems from decades of trying to open myself up and ending up a feast for vultures who tried to heal their insecurities by adding to mine. 

Knowing the cause should help right? Once you know the cause of an ailment you can begin to treat it, at least that's how it works physically.  Mentally, on the other hand, there isn't a prescription for the anguish trauma unleashes on the mind. Yes, there are pills to dull the pain, but to set it all right again? That takes internal work and if we're being completely honest you still won't go back to factory settings. 

Internal work is just that, work. Each week I'm given a completely, reasonably, unreasonable homework assignment.  Sometimes they're fairly easy upgrades to behaviors I've been working on over the years, like taking a moment when I feel a strong emotion to recognize what's triggering it and adjust accordingly. Others are excruciating and I find the sheer thought of doing them triggers a clear desire to run. 

Run far and fast away from this thing called vulnerability.  Recently my therapist and I discussed my views on hugs. I hug people not because I feel anything from the hug, but because I want them to feel something.  To feel safe, cared for, and loved. All the things I didn't feel as a child. There is a feeling of giving a part of myself to this person to carry around if, or when, they feel alone. I don't take away the same emotions that I put into a hug. It feels like a transaction for me. I give a hug, the hugged human feels cared for, and I feel like I've prevented another human from feeling alone in this world. 

Then she asked me what would happen if I let someone hug me without me hugging back. “Stand there with your arms to your side and let them hug you.” My mind went to the times in my life when that happened because the person hugging me thought that would solve the issue at hand. Then she gave me my assignment, “Let someone hug you..”. Cool, I can easily be an emotional robot I've got years of experience with that I thought.  Then she hit me with the emotional TKO “... and then exhale”. 

The only exhaling I’ve ever wanted to do was as I walked away from a flaming vehicle while effortlessly wearing a tight black outfit and a big white coat. But, no, that wasn't in the cards for me. Instead, I would need to pick a person, someone I trusted, to hold me while I exhaled and fought the very real urge to run away. 

As you can imagine, I avoided this assignment.  Truth be told I didn't trust anyone enough to be that bare. Not even my husband.  It seemed too risky. I would be exposed and life has taught me that exposure leads to more trauma and I’m tapped out in that department.  So I ignored the assignment. 

I could do her other homework assignment, sort of. I had to spend 30 minutes every day connecting with myself.  I put this off for several days as well.  I didn't want to give myself those 30 minutes. It felt like gambling and I didn't like the odds. Then one night I laid on the couch, put on a restorative yoga class, and spent some time listening to my mind and body recount the score it’s kept over the years. I was intentional with my breathing, letting it travel up and out of my body. I could feel the sadness welling up inside of me, like a pot reaching a boil. The simmer was always there, ignored until it reached its boiling point. My breaking point. I couldn't hold it in no matter how hard I tried, and I cried. 

My husband, who was quietly playing a video game, asked if he could hold me. He's learned not to push. Trying to force me to take affection can cause me to recoil back as I run to the safety of what's left of my wall. 

I allowed him to hold me and at the moment when I would normally force myself to stop crying, I chose to exhale instead. Have you ever deliberately exhaled? You feel it in every fiber of your being. It feels like weights being lifted from your soul. I kept crying until my cries became little whimpers. I had always stopped myself before. It was strange to allow my body to reach the end on its own. You understand why they say crying helps when you let yourself cry until your body can't do it anymore. Crying never helped before.  It was more like an uncontrollable reflex, like venting some of the steam in a pressure cooker.  I would always get out enough to function but never enough to safely open the lid of my heart.  

As the whimpers subsided I blurted out the question I’ve held in my heart for decades, “Are we safe?”

I have to give a lot of credit to my husband here because he doesn't look at me like I've lost my mind when I speak in plural form about myself. He understands I'm trying to reconcile three splintered versions of who I am into one whole healthy human being and part of that means owning that each part has very different needs and different ideas of what constitutes safety. 

We talked about what I needed to feel safe. We talked a lot about our triggers, and about how to be better partners, parents, and friends. Breaking opened the floodgate of words and things I held close to my chest. I'm told this is vulnerability.  I still don't like it, but I do like the freedom that comes with openly admitting that my demons are heavy and I could use some help learning to dance with them instead of fighting them.  

Vulnerability is teaching me that I've spent so long embracing the narratives that my demons are wholly bad that I couldn't see how they were a representation of all the shit that tried to end me but couldn't. Will this tango between openness and protecting my sense of safety get easier? I sure as hell hope so. Even if it doesn't, at least I know I don't have to wait to exhale anymore.

I still would prefer if the exhaling involved walking away from a burning vehicle looking as effortlessly flawless as Angela Bassett, but we don’t always get what we wish for. 

Copyright(c) 2023 Rayven Holmes

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