Vulnerability is not weak – it is letting people in and showing them your flaws, and there is nothing braver than that.
My dog is 10 years old and we’ve had him for that length of time. Only recently has he been comfortable enough to roll onto his back so we could scratch his stomach. It used to frustrate and hurt me that he wouldn’t trust us enough to roll over but it has occurred to me that our proud dog doesn’t like making himself vulnerable and I drew a connection with myself. I trust and love my family with all my heart but it is with extreme reluctance that I ‘roll over’ and make myself vulnerable to not just them, but to anybody. I don’t see this pride as a flaw because I think it contributes to my resilience, strength and independence.
However it can be a dangerous characteristic, particularly because I have bipolar disorder. Just like my dog’s reluctance to roll over makes it difficult to check for grass seeds, my pride can make it difficult for loved ones to check in on my emotions and truthfully know how I’m feeling. This can sometimes put my safety at risk because most of the time I am unwilling to ask for help and let people know if I’m feeling suicidal.
One of the biggest things I’ve had to learn since becoming a psychiatric patient is opening up. It’s not my family’s fault that I’m like this – they’re tough too. My mum was brought up with Scandinavian resilience and my dad was brought up with Dutch resolve and they’ve passed it down to my brother and I. I admire and take pride in this trait but I’m also learning when to let my guard down. The biggest lesson learnt is that letting people in is brave – braver than dealing with problems on my own. It’s been a slow but life-saving one.
I remember the day this all changed. I was in the throws of my undiagnosed bipolar mood swings and suffering the worst depression I had dealt with at that point. I was just about to finish my nursing degree and was failing. What made this depression different was that I knew I was depressed. I knew I was depressed but I couldn’t understand why. I had the perfect life – a great family, my studies (up until recently) had been going well, I had many great friends, I was about to finish university, I had a nursing job lined up and I was planning to travel around Asia for 10 weeks after my last exams. I had all of these wonderful things going on but I was planning to take my life.
I put down the reason I am still here to a cascade of events, starting with a TED Talk by Brene Brown called ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. I stumbled upon it late one night and I’m sure it saved my life. The underlying message was that people who are willing to be open with their vulnerabilities form deeper connections with people and live wholeheartedly. After I watched the TED Talk, I made the decision to open up and get help, so I emailed my tutor asking to speak with her about my depression.
I was extremely nervous when waiting to talk with her, my instincts where screaming at me to lie and say that everything was fine – but I didn’t – I was honest and told her about the black depression I was feeling. Even though it was hard, the relief I felt afterwards was tremendous and I trusted her when she said that I needed to see a counsellor (she even offered to go with me to make an appointment) because I knew she wouldn’t suggest it unless she thought it was necessary. Four years on a still go to my former tutor for advice or if I need to talk and she has been a great support in my life.
Needless to say I did not enjoy my first few sessions with the university counsellor because the sessions revolved around me being open and letting her see my vulnerabilities. It took a few months to be comfortable with my counsellor but now I worry about the day when our sessions will come to an end. When the time came for me to see a psychiatrist, I was better at being open about my emotions because I had had some practice at it.
Being vulnerable is brave. I am still naturally reserved and stoic and I think I’ll always be that way but I know when I need to let my guard down to let people in to help. Now I talk to teenagers about how to be open when it comes to emotions (something I thought I would never do). I always feel better when I am honest about what I am feeling or when I ask for help, and I recover from a mood episode quicker with the help of others.
Some things in life are too hard to battle alone. So next time you need help or need to talk, let someone know. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Photo by Chiara Cremaschi