“Listen to me,” the woman said. She laid her hand briefly on my arm, like a lighting butterfly – just long enough so that I would look up. Her eyes were kind and crinkly at the edges. “No one, I mean no one deserves to be treated that way.” Then she went back to loading sandy beach chairs and children’s buckets into her van.
I crunched across the gravel lot, opened the door to my own car, and let the hot air puff out. My skin was sticky with salt from dried seawater, but my eyes were stinging with something else. After months of isolation, of pretending everything was fine, of treading water with an impenetrable smile on my face, I had finally broken. I did the thing you never do when someone asks, “How are you?” I gave an honest answer. All I said was, “I don’t think anyone would believe the way he speaks to me when we’re alone.”
Just that. A brief parting of the cloud cover that allowed another person, a stranger, to glimpse the scared girl beneath the calm surface. I don’t know what she saw or if she ever thought of me after that day, but she said what I needed to hear, and I’d opened up enough to receive it.
Sometimes, being vulnerable means you’re open to attack. That is true. And you can be hurt, especially if you haven’t figured out where other people end and you begin. You take on all kinds of burdens that were never yours to carry. You internalize the jagged shrapnel of other people’s crumbling egos. You give away pieces of your heart like Costco samples to indifferent passersby until you learn how to set up sturdy boundaries.
But if you build walls that keep out goodness, you don’t have boundaries. You have a prison cell. There has to be a way for the good stuff to get in. So many times, I find myself isolated and drowning, and then somehow, I remember to send up the Bat Signal. I remember that if I want help, I have to be willing to let someone else in. And I won’t lie: it’s a huge struggle. I wait until I’m frantic, or nearly sunk in despair. It’s all to do with my internal message tape that says I’m not worthy, no one cares, other people have it worse, and also, I’m a faker.
However. When I open up, I remember how connection saves us all. And that the tender places are where we meet each other. That when I tell my story, some other lonely weirdo out there feels less alone. When I text a friend that I’m not doing very well at all, I’m not just asking for help; I’m giving them a chance to connect to me. That I can be strong but also permeable.