What does it mean to be strong? I have been thinking about strength and the words I associate with it: power, control, dominance. That is what I learned growing up. And in direct contrast, the despised traits: weakness, vulnerability, sensitivity. But I have come to see that my early understanding of strength and weakness was entirely mis-informed.
The thing is, I am, and always have been, a highly sensitive person. I hug often and cry easily. I can’t watch horror films or any of the slew of crime dramas on television. I feel everything. I feel it too much. What the correct measure of sensitivity is, I was never sure, just that mine was in excess of that nebulous marker. And somehow, in my mind, that sensitivity and weakness was to blame when at 10 years old I was sexually abused. My tender, open heart was taken advantage of and that meant that I was responsible for what had been done to me. Ah, the logic of a child.
I joined Air Cadets and became a drill sergeant. I learned to pitch my voice lower and project an aura of strength and power. And that drill sergeant armour that I put on kept me safe from myself, or so I thought. So over the years I added more kinds of armour. I learned sarcasm, the ultimate armour for the sensitive soul. And I learned perfectionism. With these armours I hid those parts of myself I had learned to despise, the parts that might mark me victim again.
Brene Brown writes that “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Abuse survivors are experts at hiding. It is a skill we learn early, to try and make ourselves small or even better, invisible. It is our child-self attempting to control a circumstance over which we had no control. And we carry that survival tactic into adulthood. We keep our masks on. The drill sergeant, the detached sarcastic one, the professional business person. Whatever form our masks take, they are all attempts to avoid letting ourselves be seen. Showing up as who we truly are, allowing all the sensitive, vulnerable, weak places to be seen, this feels dangerous and scary.
So for a long time I did not show up, not fully. I pretended at normalcy. I showed everyone my highly competent, organized, efficient self. I judged myself whenever I fell short of my ridiculously high standards, and I judged everyone around me as well. I kept my masks firmly in place for as long as I could, until eventually I would break down from the stress. I followed a cycle of over-work and burnout, trying to make up for the perceived deficiency in my make up.
Eventually I couldn’t do it any more. I craved a world where I could show my whole self without fear. But how to overcome a lifetime of hiding? I started small, with a Facebook post. This is what I wrote:
I know a lot of people find FB to be an overly polished version of people's lives and that can wear on the soul, seeing only the highlights of another's life, thinking that maybe their reality is so much better than yours. So I have been thinking I want to start sharing little bits of real life, those moments that aren't so great, here on FB. If you feel like sharing too, you can join me with the hashtag #RealLife Or you can just read my occasional posts and take pleasure in knowing that my life is just as messy as yours. We are all beautifully imperfect and there is something wonderful about that. So, for today, here are a few things about my #RealLife
1. I have a lot of friends, and yet I often feel lonely.
2. Last Thursday I spent the entire day wishing I could curl up in a ball and cry because my toddler was being a screaming demon child and I just couldn't take it.
3. I have had the most ridiculously large zit on my chin for the last 3 weeks. It's at the point now that I think I might need to name it and accept its presence as a permanent fixture.
So there you have a bit of my real life right now. Next time I will share my hideous bullfrog picture with you, featuring my double chin.
Keep it real out there, people.
What I found after writing this post was that so many people in my life responded to it so beautifully, with the best kind of “me too” reaction. It sparked conversations and made me feel closer to the people in my life. Emboldened by this experience, a few weeks later I wrote a very raw and vulnerable post about struggling with postpartum depression. And even though that post was also well received, I definitely experienced what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.” I felt like I was walking around with no clothes on, and couldn’t manage social outings without a high level of anxiety. But in the end, I got through it and eventually decided to take the ultimate leap and write publicly about my childhood sexual abuse history and the long term impacts it has had on my life.
When I decided to create an anthology about abuse survivors experiences of parenting, I don’t think I could fully admit to myself just how anxiety-inducing the process would be. How often I would struggle between the part of me that craved authenticity and the part of me that wanted to continue hiding. Even as my co-editor and I were building an online community of parent survivors, I was very quiet both on my personal Facebook page and in my personal life about the project. As I got closer to the book release date my anxiety spiked like mad. And so, I was still quiet. I would tell people I was about to release a book and they would say that they had no idea I was even working on one. And then release day came. Dawn, my co-editor, texted me that her phone was ringing off the hook. And no one called me. My phone did not ring once that day. My husband brought home jewellery and flowers and said “Happy book release day baby.” And I kept my mask on and said thanks. I was fine. Until five days later, when I wasn’t. When I burst into tears at the dinner table and told my husband that no one had called me on release day. That I had poured my heart and soul into this project and no one even noticed it. And he did what it had never occurred to me to do. He sat down and wrote about how hard it has been for me to live with the impacts of my abuse, and how much working on this project meant to me, and how I really needed my community to rally around me and tell me that they see me and I mattered. In short, he took that final step of showing my weakness and vulnerability that was just too hard for me to take.
This was when I learned the true meaning of strength. This is where I learned about courage. Sometimes courage is showing your messy, complicated self to the world and finding out that you don’t have to be perfect to be loved. After my husband posted to my Facebook page I received an over-whelming show of support from my community. I got phone calls and texts and messages. I got so many messages that when I printed them all out it was 11 pages long. And what I learned from all that love and support coming my way is that weakness and strength are two sides of a coin, and true courage comes from the place where the two sides meet.
Moving forward, I’m sure I will forget and re-learn this lesson many times over, as I do with most learning. So if you see me with my mask on, feel free to remind me that I am strong enough to take it off and show my weakness. That I am courageous enough to show up in the world as I truly am. That even though it feels dangerous and scary, in the end it is totally worth it.