I recently used the really elegant and succinct sentence “vulnerability blows”. I can’t think of any truer words that have escaped my lips. Telling my son that I love him even when he’s an asshole may be the closest second there is.
I don’t do vulnerability well. Actually, I think it has been a nearly absent practice in my adult life. I learned at an early age that vulnerability brings pain. Guilt. Regret. So I shut that shit down. I stuffed it all in a steamer trunk, wrapped a chain around it, and buried it into the recesses of my consciousness. I determined that vulnerability got me nowhere good. You don’t admit you have needs. Or feelings. Or tears. Especially tears. I basically did my best to become a robot in the presence of others.
This robotic practice has done a few things to my demeanor. I come off as cold- and often angry. I pull myself within- creating a protective barrier around the sensitive parts of my heart. I replace my pain with indignation and passionate irritation. Or utter silence and a distant stare. I have the ability to show great empathy, honoring the feelings of others. Yet, when I experience my own, I recoil from the world.
It makes relationships really easy. I am so good at them.
I have learned over the years that I am a strong person. I have experienced some things that I don’t wish on my worst enemy. And I survived. Hell, I thrived. But as strong as I am- I am weak. Because I am learning that true strength is the practice of vulnerability. It is staring down the abyss of fear and potential pain and crying your words into it anyway. Vulnerability is risk. Vulnerability is courage.
My first true practice of vulnerability came without a choice- without any conscious control. It came with the birth of my son. I laid down my old identity the day I gazed upon his face. I released it and picked up a new one without any awareness of the change that occurred within me. This softened me- the new woman that exited that hospital- surprised the world. It surprised me. I was no longer concerned about preserving the persona of a warrior- at least not when it came to my son. He brought out the tender-hearted child I had imprisoned so long ago.
And then I received a letter that changed my life.
I really want to write about how that fateful letter- the alteration to the trajectory of my life- opened my eyes and allowed me to soften to the rest of the world, not just my son. But that would be a lie. I kept my pain- the scrutinizing of myself and the corpse of my marriage- to a select few. The privacy of my own mind- and a very patient therapist. A woman whom I pay for the safety of her four walls- yet I still do my damnedest to contain my tears while inhabiting her sofa. Over the last year, I have sat on one end of said sofa, curled into a tight ball, avoiding eye contact when I feel the telltale lump in my throat. I eye the box of tissues on the end table with disdain.
Full disclosure; over the course of my marriage my complicated past created ripples. Ripples that radiated from a recurring apex- my inability to put my armor down. To ask for what I need. To really hear what my ex-husband needed without getting defensive.
I think when I got married I had convinced myself that I would finally feel like I had found my sanctuary. The safe place to land- the perch I believe we are all searching for. A place I could exhale. For the entirety of that relationship, I fluttered over that landing pad- my brain screaming that I needed to fold in my wings, settle in. That I could relax, I was home. My heart keeping me from allowing my feet to touch down. I couldn’t bear to lay my burden at my feet- trusting the love I was being told I had. I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t be shattered by the thunder of my voice when I expressed a need or a hurt. I wasn’t prepared to lose it all- I wasn’t prepared to place my sensitivity into the world and recon with the results.
One would say I lost it all anyway. I could make him the villain in the story. The naked, ugly truth is that sometimes I do. But only in the shadows of my mind. Mostly, because making him the villain that bears all the responsibility holds me in place- frozen in time. He pulled the trigger- he left without a breath of hesitation. He chose to lodge a dagger through the limping body of our marriage instead of breathing life into it. But that doesn’t mean he is the sole reason we ended up where we did.
I have used my time, post divorce, wisely. I have really tried to better myself. To grieve in a healthy way. To articulate my mistakes and examine them. To learn from my past. But it wasn’t until the last week that I came to a troublesome realization- I can’t learn vulnerability in a vacuum. I can’t change my habit without risk- without fear. It isn’t a concept that I can just talk through- I have to put it into practice. A fact I haven’t been super strong with recently.
Moreover, it isn’t something someone else can provide me.
Nine years ago, as I dawned the white dress and veil- recited my vows- I presumed the ceremony would give me the safety I desired. That I would suddenly feel secure. My difficulties trusting the world with my voice would vanish with the addition of a ring to my finger.
Turns out, that’s not how it works. And it put an inordinate amount of pressure for someone else to fix me. To repair my broken pieces. His love alone couldn’t weld those fragments together, even if he had wanted to.
As I reflect on the path that has positioned me in this moment, I don’t regret the hesitation to tuck my wings under me and land. I wasn’t a perfect wife- I wasn’t always a very good spouse. And I imagine that my ever present fear was exhausting to battle. My progress was slow. I will be the first to admit that. But I was trying. I learned how to sit in the stairwell, an odd place of safety, and I would propel my words into the atmosphere with trepidation. My voice would shake. I would stare at the ground. But I would force them out anyway.
My words- the vibration of my heart- the description of my thoughts and fears- weren’t accepted with velvet covered hands. They weren’t treated with tenderness and care. Often, they were met with exasperation or excuses.
It wasn’t his job to fill the voids between my broken pieces- but it was his job to honor my heart. To provide that safe place to land. As it was mine to provide him the same.
I know that I worked to create that space for him, but it is entirely possible that I failed. It is possible that I faltered as much as he did in the building of the cocoon of marriage. The sacred insulation of love. If I faltered in that endeavor, it wasn’t for lack of trying. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. It’s because I am human. Imperfect.
So where does that leave me? It leaves me knowing I still have work to do to be the partner I want to be. It means that I can look back at my marriage and know in my bones that I was working toward that goal. I was just working toward it alone.
It’s scary to realize that I had more of the burden on my side of the court. Indignation is much easier on the stomach. But blaming an external force or person is always easier than looking in the mirror. Because when I look in the mirror I recognize that I am still carrying those bags- still protecting myself with the same armor.
But there is one difference- now I have someone holding my hand through the darkness. I’m not working on myself in isolation. The burden doesn’t rest solely on my shoulders.
I’m terrified I won’t ever be the person I want to be. That I won’t ever become the woman I aspire to be. That I will continue to get in my own way. But through that terror, I am doing something different. I am trying to turn toward it rather than run from it. I am trying to release my armor. I am trying to learn a new way. I am trying.