When I was in graduate school, I was miserable a lot of the time and so I started sewing. Pretty soon I started sewing for friends, too, and then I started selling what I sewed. I learned how to code and built a website. I had a nice little online shop. It helped me have a sense of starting and finishing things, which was not a feeling I had about my dissertation.
I’ve been revising that dissertation ever since. For 11 years, with breaks–some deliberate, some unintentional. It took me five years to find an angle on the original research that was new and compelling for the field–and I won an award for the article that came out of it. Since then I’ve been working on it, off and on, in fits in spurts.
This is a post I’ve been mulling over for months, but wasn’t sure how to write. I am not comfortable talking about vulnerability or being vulnerable. But I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s tremendous Hunger and got thinking that she is brave, and she is vulnerable. Being willing to be vulnerable and able to handle the risks that come with it is, I suspect, key to figuring out who you are, under your layers. A lot of us wear a great deal of armor to hide those layers. I further suspect we aren’t always doing ourselves favors hiding in our armor, as hard as it is to shed.
I am a Rock. (I am an Island)
I have often been a rock for others. I chose that position. It’s a good one. It’s good to be the person your friends count on–in college, we’d gather in my room when things felt out of control, and I’d lead the process of bringing us back to where we needed to be. We called it the “sanity club”. These days I tend to bring my “sanity club” approach to things like meetings–in, out, let’s get things done.
Part of why I make a good rock is that I’m ruthlessly rational, methodical, and pragmatic (hi, I’m a quintessential Virgo). The downside is that I don’t deal well with emotion and in my less-generous moments, don’t have a lot of patience for them, either. I realize the irony there, as my attitude gets me into emotional messes. I like to fix other people’s problems, whether they want me to or not. I realized later that this attitude meant that when other people were vulnerable with me, giving me that gift, I shut them down. I was uncomfortable with emotions and people’s pain, so I tried to fix them in order to send own discomfort away.
(Incidentally, I loved Olivia Pope on Scandal in the early seasons–a problem-fixer by trade!–until she got too stupidly emotional over Fitz. Pffft, you’re so much better than that dumbass, Olivia. Get your wine and go home. Rational. Methodical. Fix it and move on. Sheesh.)
When we moved in order for me to take my job, it was 2008. The market crashed as we arrived in our new destination. My husband–who left his job to come with me–had job prospects that dried up rapidly. We ended up in a really rough place as the terror of watching the fiscal system left us not knowing what would happen next. I wanted to fix it, and the pain that came with it for us. I couldn’t. It was awful.
Years later, in a different rough place, I began seeing a therapist who asked me, in the first fifteen minutes, when I became so co-dependent. It occurred to me, as I worked through all my garbage and googled what the hell co-dependent meant, that I had always been, even when I was a kid. I don’t let other people solve their problems, because in my wacky perspective it’s easier for me to do it so we can all move on. I wasn’t good at letting people sit with their emotions; I didn’t accept them all that well, and I’d try to fix whatever caused negative emotions so I wouldn’t have to deal. You can guess how that usually goes: poorly, for all involved. And at the root of it all was an unwillingness for me to be vulnerable–to accept that I am not always the rock or the fixer–and that I, too, had emotions.
The Time I was Ditched
The real test of this awareness came a year or so later. When I was sorting through with all of this personal stuff–and it took months to get to a place where I felt I had a handle on it–I wasn’t altogether pleasant. I was blue a lot, which is what got me to the therapist in the first place. I was struggling at work (not with my work, per se, but with other elements–I had no patience with anything and my anxiety was through the roof. I stopped going to some meetings because I just couldn’t handle them). I was mopey, though I thought I often masked it pretty well.
At the time I had a couple of very close friends with whom I’d go out regularly, the three of us. And I hadn’t seen much of them and I know I wasn’t entirely great when I did. And eventually, I opened up to them. I told them a lot of this stuff. In those days, I didn’t tell people this stuff.
And shortly after I did, they stopped talking to me. I saw them once more inside several months, and then abruptly, that was it. There had been an ugly moment that led to a break with one of them, but when I tentatively asked her about the whole thing months later, I was told the friendship had been long dying, which was news to me. The other friend never returned my calls or messages, both prior to the moment of break and after. It was brutal, and at the time, I figured I had to have screwed up royally in some capacity I couldn’t even figure.
I cried for months, beating myself up, unable to see what had happened. I hated myself for being weak–they didn’t deserve my tears–and for not being able to see what they did. I believed I must have done something horrible but ultimately not memorable for me in the least. It took a lot of talking with other friends to see otherwise.
But on the Bright Side
Eventually, it occurred to me that the two former friends couldn’t handle my vulnerability. Yeah, I wasn’t a great deal of fun for probably a few months. I know there’s an ethos out there that says people should prune from their lives those who bring them down. I get that, but only in terms of people who are, say, negative for the sake of negativity. I’d opened up, and I’d been honest with them, and I’d been vulnerable in talking about what bothered me and what was going on, and they’d ditched me–they confirmed my hunch that being vulnerable was not my bag. I hid inside myself for a long time after that. I didn’t know adults could be so brutal–it felt like junior high.
But in the long run, I realized that I deserved far better. I realized that my vulnerabilities don’t make me weak or stupid, and that I don’t need to be everyone’s rock all the time. They don’t want or need me to be. I can be honest about what I struggle with and often, that honesty strengthens the relationships I have (though I don’t rush into friendships any more–I am pretty careful about who I let in, but pretty open once I make that call).
I am not always brave. I am not always patient. I am still cruel to myself (I’m a terrible self-talker) but I also realize the nonsense inherent in doing so. I try to let people fix their own stuff, and listen to them rather than taking the helm. I’m trying to soften my edges, and the real perk of all of this is that increasingly I realize that things I tend to worry over aren’t my things to worry over, because it’s not my job to fix all the things.
May you find safe spaces to be vulnerable, and to reveal what shines under your layers. May you not have brutal people shock you into doing so. May you gain insight and compassion through your bravery, and find peace in the process.
Back to work tomorrow. May I remember my own words.