Lessons in Vulnerability

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”  ~ Madeleine L’Engle

I’ve spent most of my life being strong. Being strong for others, being strong for causes, being strong because if I broke I feared that I would never get up again, or that the meager gains I’d made would be lost. Sometimes I had to fake that feeling of strength.  I had to wade in, teeth gritted, heart pounding with fear, and do the very thing I was afraid to do. Sometimes I’ve had to be who others needed me to be, even when I doubted that I could. That’s how I learned courage, and resilience, and self reliance. And all of those are good things.

But no-one can be strong all the time. That’s a recipe for burnout.  Or madness.

And every once in a while, in the middle of being strong, life will send a reminder that strength, like every other state of BEing, is impermanent.

This last week I got my reminder.  I came down with a virus.  At first it didn’t seem that serious – a sore throat, swollen glands, a little fatigue.  I dosed up on herbs and vitamins, ate well, had early nights and kept on going.  I had a full week of work ahead of me, after all…  But within a few days I ended up glassy-eyed with fever.  My head was hollow, and I felt so very strange – weak and detached from myself somehow.

I thought it would pass.  I put myself to bed.

It got worse. Fever, nightmares, the feeling of being on the other side of a wall of glass, not quite able to find a way through to my sane self and my ability to think clearly.

I cancelled a day’s worth of work (and I felt bad about it!), lay in bed, still feverish and disconnected, but convinced myself I would be fine.

I succumbed to a second day of rest, sent my husband back to the farm while I stayed in Brisbane, accepted soup from friends – embarrassed by their kindness.

Tough it out, I said to myself. But the fever wouldn’t leave.

I ended up with arrthymia. My heart, which has been so well behaved of late, woke me up with its flip-flopping and thumping and sudden stalling.  This is never a good thing with a healthy heart, let alone one that has suffered as mine has these past few years.

I lay in bed, gripped with fear, telling myself it would pass and that I would be fine. I am never one to make a fuss.  I hate to draw attention to myself.  I lay there in the dark discussing with myself how bad it would have to be before I might need go to hospital.

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My heart. My heart, right here in the middle of my chest… Writhing and kicking and racing and slowing.  It wasn’t like the pain I’ve experienced in the past. My heart was doing this crazy dance and I had no control over it.  Nothing I thought or did made any difference at all.

It finally settled down, although I then had a broken sleep. There is something quite terrifying about your heart misbehaving. If your heart doesn’t work, the rest of you doesn’t either.  All I could think was that I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for this to be it.  By morning I’d convinced myself I was overreacting.

Then the arrythmia came back. This time it was the middle of the day and I was home alone, sitting in bed, one hand on my chest, trying not to panic.

Superwoman, with a full diary and a dicky heart…  Superwoman calling her cardiologist.  Superwoman back at hospital getting checked over.  Superwoman being given stern warnings, and promising to go straight to Emergency at the first hint of another ‘episode’.

This week I was reminded, in no gentle way, of the ongoing fragility of life. Of my own vulnerability. Of how everything can change in an instant.

Of how I need to remember, and live by, my values and priorities.

We are, all of us, vulnerable. That’s actually a beautiful thing. It forces us to be in the moment, to entwine our lives with others – to live with open hearts.

To be honest, I’m shaken. I couldn’t even meditate for a few days. Instead I sat and watched the birds, or the sunlight dappling the ground with shadows. I tried to tell myself it was all okay.

And it is. In life I’m fine.  In death I’ll be fine.  It’s all fine. A day or two removed and I’m seeing that more and more clearly.

But I’m still wide open and heart-felt and raw.  I’m questioning everything, even as I’m accepting that it’s all fine.  I’m looking over my shoulder, and trying not to.

I’m vulnerable.  And sometimes that scares me. Even though it’s true for all of us. And was ever so.

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