A month ago, my husband, son, and I went to the wedding of good friends set deep in rural Mendocino—more than ten miles on a road so far off the beaten track we barely noticed when the rough-rutted, unkempt pavement gave way to dirt. The brides had reserved a spectacular campsite with weathered gray cabins rich with the sweet burnt echo of decades of fires, under a canopy of redwoods so dense you could hear your own echo. I woke to the thwap of birds stretching their wings in the trees outside our cabin, and fell asleep to the hypnotic hum of frog song each night. That, coupled with no wi-fi service and the joyful way our six-year-old son could play freely without constant supervision, created a feeling of idyll I had not experienced since childhood summers.
Returning home to client emails and chapters yet unwritten, to personal disasters, not to mention the busy suburban neighborhood and demands of a daily schedule, was like falling off a cloud face first into a construction site full of jackhammers and shouting men. Since I was returning with my beloveds to a good, happy life in which I work at home, doing what I love—writing and editing—and live in a wonderful, supportive community, this stripped and prickly feeling didn’t, at first, make sense to me.
Though I hadn’t felt such raw, overwhelm in a long time, it wasn’t new; I knew it from childhood when “sensitive” was my middle name, a product of shuttling between two households, each one unstable in a different way. The kind of girl who cried if my friend told me she couldn’t play for a day, or if a wealthy girls at school noticed the second-hand nature of my clothes.
But as I grew into adulthood I’d learned, by my first year of college, to hide my sensitivity behind humor and books. College allowed me a new way to be seen—through my words; so I built, layer by layer, a mesh armor so strong it would have inspired envy in Medieval knights. I asked people about themselves, made myself helpful, and kept the camera firmly focused off myself. If the attention had to be on me, I deflected it to my accomplishments, becoming driven to accomplish more—success my protective helmet.
But over time, I shed some of that armor. The exhaustion and demands of motherhood peeled me open like a particularly ripe tangerine. And the trust of new friends, and my committed husband of eighteen years, helped me to reveal a softer, gentler “me” safely to the world.
So here I was, home after our little forest idyll, baffled to find my defenses set to “electric fence” and my emotional magnification settings to “burn.” I recoiled from conversations with people I’d usually stop and listen to, particularly where the speaker had a need. Where normally I’d ask, “How are you?” with genuine interest of someone I ran into at the gym, the bookstore, or my son’s school, I now found myself saying, “I’ve got work to do,” or “Yeah, life is tough,” cutting off conversations midway, and sneaking out of social interaction.
I’d begun the cycle of re-armoring myself against the world, as I’d done in childhood. Perhaps the weekend of extreme quiet and freedom from my daily life had cleared my emotional stage, revealing feelings I’d been avoiding. This raw and prickly state, I have since come to see now, was the product of the shocking news of my godmother’s passing, months before, and the cold silence of her husband, coupled with an intense revision I’d just done of an autobiographical novel of my own childhood. Old wounds erupted inside me like emotional stigmata. I overcompensated, cut off avenues of connection so thoroughly (at least in person) that even my most tolerant and understanding friends recoiled from my tensions, left me voxes asking if they’d done something wrong and meekly messaged, “I miss you.”
The armor was back, and now it hung more heavily than before.
It got lonely in there, but I didn’t know how to free myself. Family members went through small dramas that piled more steel on my bent spine—my neck and shoulders took on a spasms and tension so bad I could barely turn my neck. Insomnia left me ragged and edgy, and I snapped, more than spoke, to my husband and son over small things. I felt the tremors of a breakdown on my horizon.
It all hit a peak as I rode the spin bike with my good friend Amy a few days before a weekend retreat, where I was about to take my prickly armored self to co-facilitate eighteen strangers. Aware that my shoulders were hitched up to my ears and my jaw clenched between words, my throat raw with anxiety, I saw Amy pull slightly back and away from me, almost as though I’d physically pushed her.
“Did I say something to offend you?” I asked.
“No,” she said, in her gentlest voice, tears gathered in her eyes. “You’re just radiating this incredible tension and I’m doing my best to navigate around it.”
For a beat, I hung in the hurt—hers, and my own. But then, my own tears surfaced, a stuck valve suddenly released. Beneath the spines of my protective armor something soft, unprotected, and young unfurled.
Her vulnerability to tell me how I was affecting her, and the bravery of risking my reaction, pushed like a key into my clenched center. That moment of honesty helped me turn a corner. I had no choice but to listen to my sensitive self—whom I once judged as weak and spineless, unlovable in my defenselessness.
Since that day, barely two weeks ago, other encounters with people I trust, while not comfortable, but honest, have begun to pry apart the armor even further. I am learning to accept that for me, there is only one method: to hand out my heart and learn to reach for support if it is trampled. After a tough conversatoin with a friend that shifted my internal sands off balance again this week, I texted my husband, “I feel vulnerable.”
He later said, “You don’t just feel vulnerable, you are vulnerable. It’s just who you are.”
It’s true. And when I try to armor over that vulnerability, it just causes me more pain. With my electric fences finally down, I’m a turtle without a shell. Often at the edge of tears for no reason. It’s precarious here on this ledge but it is also a place of potential, for, as Brenè Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” I’d venture it’s the only place where growth is possible. And growth, unfortunately, is usually painful at first. But my experience also shows me that honesty with people you trust leads to competence in cracking yourself open. And the more we model vulnerability, the more we can make a safe, forested idyll inside ourselves to retreat to even when the world and our fellows can’t offer it to us.