Somedays my heart looks like a flower. A thing of beauty, living and growing. Somedays it looks more like a bomb shelter. A cold, dark husk, closed and terrified.
I’ve discovered there’s a world of difference between honesty and vulnerability. It’s the difference between grief and mourning, despair and hope, death and life.
I started seeing a counselor a month ago. That story involves a new church, losing my job, and plenty of confusion, so I’ll skip it. This week is the fifth anniversary of my mom’s death, and I’ve spent the last five years grieving, alone.
I will never forget the night she passed away. I will never forget the fear, nor the confusion in my father’s voice when he called. I will never forget the terror that enveloped me, the powerlessness that overwhelmed me when I realized there was nothing I could do.
My counselor asked me to recount that memory a few weeks ago. I was surprised by the words that tumbled out of my mouth. “That was the night hope died. That was the night I shut my heart down.”
I never realized how drastically my heart and mind changed that night. I never realized that same powerlessness still haunts me, drives me to try to control everything in my life. I never realized that I reverted to an old defense mechanism because I was too overwhelmed to function on my own.
When I was a freshman in high school, I was tiny. Five-feet, two-inches of scrawny, pale flesh with a big mouth. I got the snot kicked out of me a lot. My emotions ran deep and hit hard, harder than the fists my classmates drove into my gut and crotch. I didn’t know how to cope, so I chose not to. I didn’t realize it then, but I began to wall off my heart and soul. I numbed out my emotions and lived only in my head.
That changed in college. Away from home, away from high school, I began to make some terrific friends, not the least of whom was my brother, Robert. I began to live again. To laugh. To smile. To dream dreams beyond the confines of logic and my bank account. To hope for something more than a good job and a steady paycheck. It was wonderful, but it didn’t last long.
A year later, Mom died suddenly. Just didn’t wake up one morning. It took less than two hours for me to lock my heart down again and let my head do all the living. Instead of taking the time to mourn and heal and care for myself, I ignored my emotions and fought for control. I focused on my classwork, my job, and helping my family. I served everyone’s needs but my own. I inserted myself as everyone’s savior instead of allowing my Savior to heal me. When I thought I’d found control again, Robert was diagnosed with testicular cancer. That illusion of control was shattered, yet I gathered up the shards anyway.
In some ways, it served me well. I kept myself (mostly) collected while I took care of Robert in the hospital. If I’d let my emotions overwhelm me there, both Robert and I would have been in trouble. But stoicism only serves our hearts while we must survive; it is not a solution for living long-term. It wasn’t until after he passed away that I connected with the pain, but only for long enough to acknowledge it. Not nearly enough time to actually heal.
I put words to my pain, but failed to address it. Which is the difference between acknowledging that a septic tank is overflowing and getting it pumped out. Instead of asking for help, I ignored my heart and fought for control again. The pain and my need to find control seeped into everything I did. I totaled a brand new car two years ago and it nearly broke my heart. I dated an amazing woman for a few months and inadvertently tried to control the whole relationship, had to be around her every second of the day. I started writing a novel and nearly lost my mind when the story became darker and more real that I anticipated. I shunned the woman my dad fell in love with and married because it meant he spent less time with me. It was not pretty and it was not intentional. But it happened.
I began to unravel about a month ago, while I sat in a brand new church and listened to the pastor preach on Galatians 6:2. A single thought parked itself in the center of my mind. “In all these years, I’ve never allowed anyone to weep with me. I’ve never allowed anyone close enough to bear my burden.”
I spent years learning not to ask for help. It wasn’t easy to take those first few steps into a counselor’s office. Wasn’t (isn’t) easy to let myself break down in front of a perfect stranger. Wasn’t easy to ask some friends and family to pray for me this morning because I just hurt today.
Vulnerability is hard. As a new friend told me the other day, “Vulnerability means tearing down our walls. And there is safety behind those walls.”
Yes, but we find no freedom there. I don’t understand it, but I’m learning this: Vulnerability always leads to freedom, even (and especially) if it’s scary as hell.
I write this not because I need people to throw me a pity party, but because I’m doing everything I can to finally heal. And hopefully, my vulnerability might encourage a few other heartbroken people to do the same.
I’m betting this is going to be the first of many new posts. Here’s to flowers, not bomb shelters.
With all my love,