I hate how “vulnerability” has almost become an insult, or a weakness. Something to try hard not to be, and something to worry about if you’re called it. Somehow we’re all supposed to be strong, all of the time, and never show vulnerability.
I despise this. Vulnerability is beautiful.
I have spent so long in my recovery trying not to be vulnerable. I was so frightened of being ‘pitied’, as it sickens me, or not taken seriously, or re-abused, or friends turning away from me….if I was anything other than strong and focussed. This often meant, actually, that I neglected my real feelings. We live in a society where crying should happen behind closed doors and only because I’m female does it (tragically) mean it’s ‘acceptable’ for me to cry in public.
Vulnerability can be frightening because it’s accepting you’re in a situation that’s perhaps beyond your control. Even if that situation is simply feeling hurt. But mostly I shied away from feeling vulnerable because I felt that was what I was supposed to do. If I was going to get anywhere, if I was going to succeed, if I was going to be listened to and not seen as the ‘girl who was abused and has issues’, then I could not publicly be vulnerable. As a result, most people saw and see me looking ‘okay.’ I laugh, sometimes genuinely sometimes not. I do my work. I function. I was President of the largest extra-curricular music facility in the country, at the same time as studying. I proved then that I was more than my past experiences, that I was capable of leading effectively, that I could balance my (sometimes pretty hectic) mental health alongside other stuff. I groan about dissertations the same as any other final year student. Of course people know that I have flashbacks and nightmares, but only close friends see them. Mostly this is to stop the morbidly curious from treating me like a zoo exhibit, and also because I don’t want to frighten or overwhelm people, nor be defined by my PTSD. But also…it’s because vulnerability isn’t really ‘okay.’ I went into hospital in October because I was drowning in suicidal thoughts and exhaustion, but when I returned, I avoided people until the ‘vulnerability’ had been safely squashed back into its box. I apologised if people saw me cry. I don’t know if I’m supposed to apologise or not. The world I came from – crying was dangerous. The world I’m in now, crying seems okay but only if in private. I think. I’m still learning. People forget that.
What’s brought all of this up is actually, bizarrely, my upcoming wedding. My partner and I are writing our own wedding vows – she’s the soppy one, so I’m a bit stuck. I might steal some of hers but don’t tell her 😉 I was thinking last night about what I can promise her that I haven’t already promised – it’s a bit daft, isn’t it, really…we both know already the commitments we’ve made, the piece of paper won’t change that. But formalities are formalities don’t you know.
And then people ask if we’re going to do a ‘speech’ each. I guess sometimes the bride and groom do a speech individually.
What would I say? It sounds daft but I sat staring at the piece of paper last night with utter blankness. How do you put something in words that you’ve never had to try and define before? “I love her”. Why. “Because I do.” But why. “Because within the first ten seconds of meeting her she sprayed water all over her face, by accident, then flailed around and turned bright red, and that just about sums her up.”
Not really wedding material is it. I told you she’s the soppy one.
So I went at it a different way. I told my brain, think of one moment this last week that hits you first when you think ‘why do I love this person.’
Brain filled my mind with the memory of her crying. Which was slightly bewildering. But actually, pretty accurate.
Vulnerability is not shameful, it’s beautiful. If someone is letting themselves be vulnerable near you, they’re trusting you profoundly, with raw fragility, not to hurt them. That’s more precious than somebody laughing with you or chatting with you over a glass of wine. That can happen without any depth, without any real trust. The mask and shell protecting our core can still stay on, our robotised selves can still function, but what makes us most human is safely stored away.
My most beautiful memories are of those who trusted me enough to be vulnerable. Who trusted me enough to express their full humanness, not just the bits that society wants to see. My most trusted relationships, such as with my partner or friends, are the ones where I feel safe enough to be vulnerable. My most effective therapist has been the one who has built a space where I trust her enough to be vulnerable.
As an abuse survivor, I am sometimes put under pressure to ‘recover.’ Either because people want to ‘save me’ from my past, or because people think I choose to still be hurt, but either way…I’m supposed to be hurrying up and recovering. Sometimes I give in to this pressure, and push myself perhaps a bit further than I should. The result is an inevitable collapse of exhaustion and the belief that I’m a failure.
Actually, my recovery requires me to feel how vulnerable I was, for all those years. My recovery requires me to sob my heart out in bed for as many days as I please. It requires me to feel scared and not dismiss it, to let me partner hug me when I’m paralysed, and to not pretend I’m doing better than I am just because somebody else tells me to. Some people around me suddenly believe they’re *expert* in PTSD, DID, recovery from abuse, recovery from torture, even if they’re totally unqualified and with zero experience of any of the above. I am the first person they’ve met with PTSD but therefore they are expert. There is no room for my own opinion or experience. I am the victim and supposed to do as I’m told so that I get better. I am the ‘child abuse’ survivor and as such should be treated as a child who is damaged and needs to be wrapped in cotton wool. This is so utterly wrong I can’t find the words to express it.
I’m supposed to be happy, my life is good now, I’m getting married, I shouldn’t focus on the past, recovery doesn’t have to tire me out, blah de blah blah blah.
Society, you’re wrong.
I’m supposed to be recovering. And how that happens is up to my brain, not even up to me, really. I can choose to keep going, I can choose to fight through each painful moment, but I can’t just wake up one morning and magically be cured.
Being vulnerable was paradoxically my entire life and yet the most dangerous thing. I had to spend my childhood and teenage years not believing in my vulnerability. I had to trust in my strength that was probably not even there. I couldn’t stop to think about just how fatally dangerous, how frightening, how overwhelming the situation was. I couldn’t afford that; I wouldn’t have survived. I was not a 5 year old girl, I was someone much older, and I had to be.
Now is my time to heal, and to heal means owning the emotions and feelings that I had to suppress in order to survive.
One such thing being vulnerability. It is beautiful. If it means I have to curl up with a teddy and feel like the frightened 5 year old, then so be it.
The most beautiful memory of my partner is not her all dressed up with perfect make-up, it’s either her laughing her head off, or her crying her eyes out. It’s her being fully human. It’s her having the courage to look at whatever it is that’s upsetting her, and to feel it. And then to come out on the other side stronger.
And that’s the point. Vulnerability is, in the right circumstances, transformative.
Yes I will cry and no I won’t always be okay. This does not make me incapable. This does not make me weak. This makes me prepared to look at memories of things which are harrowing, destructive and incredibly painful. We see vulnerability as a weakness. Actually, it’s a sign of our strength, our trust in ourselves to be vulnerable and survive it. To look at those memories and know we will somehow, one day, be okay. When I cry, it is because I survived. It is because I am alive. Not because I am broken.
I have been thrown into vans, sold to hundreds of men, beaten, tortured, raped, sometimes with objects, starved, held underwater until unconscious, had my wrists cable-tied, gagged with duct tape, miscarried, watched my own babies die, fought for my life – very literally. Yes I will bloody well cry. Yes I will feel vulnerable. Yes I will be in pain from those memories. And if you try to silence me, if you try to deny my trauma, then you are as complicit in keeping this stuff a filthy secret as the abusers.
Vulnerability is profoundly beautiful because it is real, and it requires trust, and it is brave.
Do *not* rob someone of their right to have such courage and beauty.