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Dear Flashbacks,

Flashback

a :interruption of chronological sequence (as in a film or literary work) by interjection of events of earlier occurrence; also an instance of flashback
b :a past incident recurring vividly in the mind

This week, you’ve moved into my body with a vengeance. An interjection of events of an earlier occurrence, an interruption of my normal day by inserting your grainy fingers vividly not only into my mind but into my body, into my lungs, around my neck, through my belly.

You bring the war back into my soul unexpectedly, and by that I don’t mean Iraq or any other desert, I’ve never been there, and by that I mean I sometimes wish that was the case because people might be able to relate in some way or at least ask about the war I lived.  And by that I mean I can’t say that out loud because of the shame of saying I wish I had lived through the war of people rather than the sexual war I lived through sometimes.  I could speak about you more in groups, people would understand better.

Instead, I spend most waking moments consciously working to keep you in check.  People don’t typically focus on how many breaths they take per minute.  How often I hold my breath and wonder “why am I so dizzy right now?” grab the counter and then gasp when I realize I’ve been holding my breath.   How often I realize how often I feel awful and realize it’s because you have caused me not to leave my room all day and need to eat.

Massage is one of the only places where my main job IS to breathe, IS to relax, and the place that you make me work the hardest.  For months you have been poking at me, knocking at the door of my brain just WAITING to jump out. Only once before have you come out to play, and you scared me.

This week I was unable to keep you put away in your little box.  My feelings were at the surface, I was working so hard just to keep myself together generally that once I got on the table, I realized that the whole 90 minutes were going to be hard work to keep you at bay.  My feelings started swimming at the surface immediately before she even came back in the room.  I became hyper-aware of every single noise.  Every person around the building became my rapist, every voice, the one who was going to come get me.

Once she came back in the room I felt my focus go extremely inward to manage you. You started immediately when she touched me.  You started teasing me with small little memories.  Some were benign compared to others.  Little leadups to the Big T traumas.  Then in one quick moment, you hit, as if physically, and I had no control any longer.  I’ve been able to keep you in check for months, but yesterday I was totally helpless to keep you in your box.

Little t traumas either in Charlie Chaplin black and white skipping silent reels will play, where I can’t keep track of where you are leading me or when you will stop.  A mix of little t and big T traumas will play in mini cartoon style where you insert sound or feelings and my body will start to react. My hands and body will start to shake and my breathing will start to alter. In the largest situations, Big T traumas will play in full film or even 3D fashion, where you just move right into my mind and hijack everything.  This is the scariest part.

I have a deep fear that people around me can’t cope with you, mainly because *I* can’t cope with you.  I can’t imagine what it is like to watch someone experience a flashback from the outside, as I just know what it feels like inside.  The way you make me feel is so out of control.  I can’t breathe, I’m suddenly thrust into 17 years past like a horrific Christmas ghost of trauma.

I told someone this week, “you can’t handle this.”  Truthfully, *I can’t handle this.*

Truthfully, *I can’t handle this.*

I can’t handle you.

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The Greatest Thing…

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“The greatest thing is just to love,

AND be loved in return.”

 

 

My grief cycle moved very nicely from anger to sadness throughout the day, which I credited to really FEELING my emotions, which I hadn’t really done before with strong “negative” emotions, for lack of better terms.

Last night I attended another Authentic Relating circle.  I was particularly nervous because a friend was also attending.  This made me feel vulnerable for a couple of reasons.  First, they knew me outside of the circle, and that I had been struggling.  Second I was concerned that I would no longer be able to be an on-looker at the circle, and need to participate more.  Both concerns were forcing me to look at my emotions and focus on being present in the space which I ended up being very grateful for.

I also was grateful that I was asked a pointed question about how I was feeling, which forced me to be out in the open and vulnerable.  After the past few days, I was feeling raw, and was craving the opportunity to speak about my experience and yet still feeling really trepidatious about opening up to a group of nine people I barely knew about the hurt I was feeling.  But as soon as I started talking I started to feel a release of some of the sadness I was carrying.

I started to hear the stories of the other’s in the room and one line struck me about being a giver, and pouring a lot of love and time into relationships and feeling like you’re not getting much back.  When I heard that line it hit me so hard, like someone threw truth at me like a brick.  All I wanted to do was to reach out touch the person who said this, but they were across the room.  It was an almost overwhelming desire to connect and go, I hear you, this is exactly it.  The givers give, but often we are not given TO.

Yes. yes. YES. You are not alone, I hear you.

One of the reasons I surround myself with such amazing people is TO LOVE.

 

I’ve realized that equally important is to be loved IN RETURN.  

 

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The Cost of a Pencil

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In middle school, I sat and watched the popular girls pass notes across the aisles.  The notes would be written on blue lined notebook paper, intricately folded as if made into origami cranes.  As soon as the teacher’s back was turned, the kites flew across the desks as quick as lightning, the pre-Twitter glimpses of little girls intimate thoughts to each other about boys, friends, and future plans.

I dreamed of having these notes passed to me one day.  However, my fate in middle school was sealed on day one, and the only folded notes I had were ones I practiced myself.

I went into middle school poor.  That is to say, I was the girl showing up in torn second-hand clothing and a boys haircut.  This put me behind from the beginning.  I sat down in class the first week and a girl in front of me asked for a pencil.  I didn’t have enough to give away, knowing that what I had needed to last the whole year, so I said no… very hesitantly and regretfully.

Little did I know, this girl was the most popular in the 6th grade.  In addition, her last name was right before mine, so we were destined to sit next to each other for the rest of my middle school career in every class.  She was ruthless and had social collateral gathered to have a posse of girls against me within the day.  And so it went for three years solid.

Teachers watched as I would be bullied by a gaggle of particularly awful girls.  One would kick me in the head daily in choir class and the director would see it, look at me, then look away.

Looking back, what is most interesting to me was my deep desire to be accepted by these girls.  “What could I do to get these girls to like me?”  Was this thought to get them to stop doing what they were doing, or because I truly wanted to be liked by them? To this day, my motives on that question are unclear as I am an unreliable witness to my own past experience.  I had folded into myself.

My mother and father were lost in their failing marriage.  The family in poverty while the divorce drained the resources both financially and emotionally, leaving me not in the crosshairs, but totally forgotten.  I folded into myself.

I recall when the bullying had reached a boiling point at school and I finally said something to my mother.  She, from her place of privilege, spoke pretty words of 1. they are just jealous (which was just untrue, due to my place of poverty) 2.  they have anger problems (how is this helpful?) 3.  tell a teacher (they are literally watching this happen and doing nothing)  4.  let’s invite them over to our house (OMG ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?) 5. In a couple of years, it will be over (but for the next three years?) 6. Just ignore them (How does one do that when your entire realm is them?) I folded into myself with no ally in sight.

However, one thing was clear, I felt very vulnerable. At 12, I experienced my first real serious depressive episode and became suicidal.   I was alone in my world, and no adult was going to help me.  I folded into myself.

At this point, the food I was getting from home was not meeting my needs (at this point I was eating one pack of uncooked ramen for lunch.)  I found out that a girl at school qualified for free school lunch, but never picked up her tickets… so because I was hungry, I started to pretend I was her.  Daily, I told the lunch lady my “name” and picked up her ticket.  I finally felt like I fit in and I got enough to eat for one meal out of the day.

I pulled this off for several months until one day I went up to the lunch lady and told her my “name” and she said, “no you aren’t!”  I still, to this day, recall the flush of heat I felt across my chest when she yelled this across the lunchroom.  You could hear a pin drop, and she pulled me by my arm from one side of the room to the other, with everyone watching me all the way to the office.  The school’s eyes bored into me as my shame radiated around me like a nuclear glow.  All this because I was hungry. I folded into myself.

I sat in the principal’s office waiting for my mother, and when she arrived the question was asked of me “well, do you have enough to eat at home?”  My mother worked for the district and was known by the principal, and with this additional complication, the answer was handed to me on a silver platter with her eyes boring into me just like the entire school’s had been moments earlier.  “Yes, of course, I do,” I said.  And I folded into myself.

My punishment for this egregious crime of stealing lunch tickets was community service for a month.  I emptied trash and cleaned blackboards of all the teachers and offices for all the after-school classes which all the richer kids could pay for.  The girls that mocked me all day long got to see me on janitor duty every day as well.  And I folded into myself.

At this point, my mother found me a therapist for a short time.  Every week I’d go there and play board games.  I found this hour a total waste of my time, mostly because at the end, he’d meet with my mother with me out of the room.  This felt like a total violation of any potential conversation I’d ever have with him, so I ended up just wasting time with him.

Near the end of our time together, he asked me once what my “biggest problem was,” and I thought about it.  I answered “my hole in my shoe.”  Thinking back on it, I was being REALLY honest.  If he had probed that answer, he would have really uncovered a LOT about poverty, my intense bullying and a plethora of home/school/life/abuse issues.  But alas, he closed the hour with a sigh. Soon after he gave up on me. And I folded into myself.

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Where does that leave us?  Somehow, despite suicide attempts, severe depression, anxiety and an equally oppressive high school career, I made it though.  No teacher ever intervened.  No adult stood up strongly for me, but more importantly WITH me, despite clearly seeing what was happening.  Though my experience was threaded with socio-economic and psycho-social issues, it snowballed from ONE event… a PENCIL.  A pencil in sixth grade almost cost me my life, several times over. We HAVE to do better for our young people.  I am ONLY ONE.

We have to unfold and to encourage others to unfold.  We have to do better. 13906608_10100592277897561_6423930915444828325_n.jpg

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Vicarious Vulnerabilty Victim

This week I attended another Authentic Relating Event, Circling, this one much smaller than the first with only 8 people in the room.  While the setting was different, the content was focused on authentic relating.

My main worry was having nowhere to “hide” with the smaller crew.  I felt… vulnerable. (So I suppose I was right on track.)  Tuesday was a day full of anxiety, and this event was mere hours after.  I thought of canceling, but I had already paid and had bailed from this event two weeks prior.

Admittedly, I enjoyed this intimate setting much more as I was able to settle in and learn more about each member of the group rather than mingling with 20 others.  I was quite nervous to attend this particular “circling” event, however, due to an ominous review from a person from the previous larger event.

Circling is formatted around two “circles;” conversation sessions that happened among the eight of us over 45 minutes with a break in between.  The first circle was dubbed a “birthday circle.”  Birthday circles are focused on one person, where the conversation organically moves around this person topically.  Due to confidentiality, I will not mention what we talked about specifically.  However, broadly, the topics involved how this person reacted to insight given by the others in the group and past experiences.

Though this circle was directed and focused on this one individual, I noticed that I was internalizing a lot of interesting facts about myself.  How would I react to certain situations that were brought up?  How would I feel if I were asked this question?  How would I react if I were asked this question in that particular way or tone?

When this truth bomb was so casually thrown out in the middle of the circle…

“Self-care can disguise itself as isolation.”

I mean, holy shit.  Prepare me next time, Y’all.  I don’t know about you, but I can count on 1845493 hands how many times my self-care has looked like just me retreating into my soul in an unhealthy “omg just leave me alone I’m dying here but save me but leave me alone but help me” way.  However, I label the retreat as “self-care.”  Dude, get over yourself.  Sometimes needing to be alone is self-care.  Totally.  But if you are unplugging from the people you tell when you are having a hard time… if you are running away (especially if you are running away from yourself), first off, good luck.  Second off, let someone know that you are struggling and let them know that you are going to wade around in the shit for a day.  Then do it.  Go ahead.  But then plug back in.

Self-care can disguise itself as isolation.” 

Okay, back to the night. More broadly, once I got comfortable with the questions being asked, I started to probe my ideas about the askers themselves.  What about their experiences brought them to this space, and why did they think what they did?

All this thinking, of course, led me to be quite quiet during this circle. I asked a couple of questions to appear engaged (though I was DEEPLY engaged internally), and then we went to break. During break, it became apparent that several of the people in attendance were friends, and they started to speak with each other.  I noticed that I started to feel left out.  I tried to engage by eye contact with the story and laughing when there was something funny, but there was still a level of disconnect.

We started the second circle which was an “organic circle,” which was waiting to see what would come up.  One person talked a bit about drifting and spoke a bit about feeling disconnected from the group then hesitated to speak further because the topic would be dark.  This was REALLY interesting to me because the first circle was so light and I resonated with the disconnect.  Again, I won’t go details about the topic due to confidentiality.

We closed the circles and two of the people turned to me and said they wished that they had heard me talk more, and they wanted to get to know me better.  My immediate response was that I wish I had talked more as well.  It was an odd thing to come out of my mouth as I didn’t really even think about it.  I had just spent so much time listening to people be so brave with their thoughts and feelings that I just felt I was holding space to hear them.

I drove home feeling very warm and lovely.

 

When I walked in the door I sat next to my husband and told him about the event and I sensed a weird vibe.  As I talked more about the events, I felt a heavier and heavier cloud settling.  I had just spent 3 hours being in tune with people’s emotions, and I knew there was something wrong.

“Are you okay with me going to these events?” I asked (sensing there was something much deeper.)

“Yes.  I just don’t get why you go to them and share thoughts and feelings there.  I mean you have family and me for that.”  He replied.

I had an immediate thought that I couldn’t hold back, “Are you jealous?”

“No!”  He was so quick to reply that there felt like there was some truth there.

“Okay.  Tell me more about what you are feeling then, because I don’t understand, and it seems like you have some concerns.  Is it because there are guys at these events and I share these experiences with them too?” (Knowing that cheating is never ever a concern on either of our minds, I wanted to give him a starting point to work from.)

“Not at all. I guess where I come from is that the feelings and thoughts you mention are things that I generally share with you or my family.  I just don’t understand why you feel the need to seek these experiences outside of us for…”

And he paused.  And cried.

So I waited and thought. And got it.

“So what I’m hearing is that since your emotional needs are met by me and family, the only reason you’d do something like this is if those needs WEREN’T being met.  So, since I am doing this, you’re concerned that YOU aren’t meeting my needs as my life partner?”

“BINGO.” And he took a deep breath of understanding.

 

So then we hashed out how lovely our relationship is, and that the reason I do things like this is to be brave.  And I can be brave because I feel so secure in our relationship.

I married up, Y’all.

 

 

 

 

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A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.

I recall when The Five Love Languages was in its heyday in the relationship scene.  I was heavy into the church phase of my life, and EVERYONE seemed to be reading this book. (Along with “Boy Meets Girl” and “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” which I will discuss later in this blog series, and I refuse to link.)

For those who need a refresher, the premise is that everyone gives/receives love in 5 basic ways:

  • Physical Touch
  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Quality Time
  • Receiving Gifts
(Important to note, the way that you receive love may not be the way you give love to others.)

And while the book tended to be wielded into use by the couples on the scene, I started to use its guidance more recently for self-examination.

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My large circle of church friends vanished as I focused on survival after my assault.  I learned a difficult lesson. Friendship (for me) is about SHOWING UP.  Showing up is a lifestyle.  It’s not a singular event, it’s a pattern.

Non-survivors of complex trauma don’t understand the extent of the risk involved with friendship.  It goes beyond the risk of a typical friendship. It is a risk to us survivors to hold our heart out and hope that those friends will not let it drop.  It’s a risk to offer it in the first place.  It’s a risk if we have shared our stories with you.

Soon, we will stop asking you to show up (because that means we have learned.)

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SHOW UP, friends.  

 

And DON’T FOLD, Survivors.

The vulnerability project is never as real is it is right here.

“I like my body {self} best when I’m not worried about how much space it’s taking up.”

 

 

 

 

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Limbal Ring of Insight

 

“Of all the qualities that give an attractive person an edge, here’s one you’ve likely overlooked:  the limbal ring,  the dark circle around iris.  The limbal ring is the line that separates the colored part of the eye from the white…. 

The limbal ring is well-named. Limbis means border or edge, and it’s related to limbic, meaning emotion or drives. The limbal ring, seen from inches away, is an intimacy zone.”

~ Pyschology Today~

Last night I attended a game night hosted by Authentic Relating  (A.R.) in a neighboring city. Authentic relating meet-ups are based on the idea of deepening interpersonal connections and really pushing aside the fluff and getting to the meat of the authenticity of each other in conversation and interpersonal relationships from the get-go. From their page, their goals state that their activities are created to: “Highlight and train body awareness, Create deep connection, Boost empathy, Strengthen community, Be fun!”

For someone who survived trauma and has anxiety going to this event was a BIG leap.  I had already bailed on this event once two weeks prior, and I was committed to attending this time around.  I was challenged already as it was in a new place, with new people, at night.  The topic was “self-love,” another topic that can be hard for us women/mothers, as putting our needs and self-compassion in the forefront can be challenging.

As someone with PTSD does, I got there early and parked where I could see other people enter to make sure I got to the right place.  Then when I was convinced that I COULD, in fact, do ANYTHING for 2 hours, I walked in.  This event was held in a lovely space, and the people were friendly.  I sat down on a comfortable pillow in a giant circle and waited for the event to begin.

Marina Abramović’s performance at MoMA in 2010 emphasizes the power of eye contact. Marina Abramović is a Serbian performance artist who has various performances that push her body to extremes to experience pain, nudity, violence, and vulnerability. In her performance The Artist is Present, which took place in MoMA in 2010, Marina sits on a chair as the spectators come one by one to sit in front of Marina to look at her eyes for a whole minute. The moment they look at each others’ eyes and communicate without any words is so deep that the vulnerability of eye contact becomes the power of communication. In just one minute.

During my two hours with the other twenty authentic relaters, we went through several activities meant to help us gently grow, and find our edges.  They didn’t waste any time diving right in, starting with the very activity Marina Abramovic did at MoMA.  We were to find a partner, hold hands and simply hold eye contact with each other silently until we found that we had really connected, then move on to the next person.  Thankfully, I had chatted with someone who sat next to me when I arrived, to the two of us partnered up.

My partner had been to previous A.R. events, so this particular activity seemed within her comfort zone, where the immediate and sustained eye contact with a stranger immediately hit up against my edge.

Knowing this was the idea of the activity, I went inside those feelings and started to explore them while maintaining eye contact with my partner.  She had a kind face and an accepting expression.  Knowing I was new, I sensed she knew this was challenging for me.  Mere seconds in, my heart began to race, my shoulders tensed, my breath was unsteady, and it hit me… how little I sustain eye contact with people when I am expressing feelings.

In this one minute, I managed to have a full soul search and had the serious realization of a need to be more bold with those I talk with, and to connect with them more when I am speaking my truth.  I have no problem connecting with others with full eye contact when they are speaking about THEIRS, but I shy away when I am speaking about mine.

Tomorrow night is the gathering of my delightful tribe of twelve ladies who gather once a month at my home to fellowship and simply be among women.  I will be exercizing these new skills if the opportunity comes up!

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Have You Met My Wingman, Shame?

Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud; this is the meaning of unspeakable.

~ Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

My great-aunt Jane is likely the best storyteller on the planet.  Anyone who meets Jane is immediately drawn into her orbit and simply wants to spend more time with her.  If she lived locally I would likely move into her home just to hear her stories.  She could tell me how she went to the store and it would be the best tale I’d ever heard.

Jane was a nurse, and in the era she grew up, an unlikely candidate for the high education she achieved.   Women were groomed for marriage and homemaking, but she went full force into nursing.  She has a caretaking personality, and though she has a gift for weaving the best tale you ever heard, she also has another amazing quality, the ability to sincerely listen.

Jane can look you in the eyes and no matter what you tell her, she is fully invested in what you are saying, empathizing and for that moment YOU are the center of the universe.  She is the kindest, gentlest, most loving person I know. Jane was also a hardcore addict while serving as a nurse. (And while the family is tight-lipped, my assumption is she was addicted to heroin due to the availability during the time.)

Our family is full of secrets, the untold stories because they are “too dark” to tell.  The elephants in the room of addiction, abuse, medical issues, hidden money… Why don’t we talk about these things?  Maybe your family is the same, with certain topics that are simply off limits?

Herman goes on to describe the need to restore connections between “the public and private worlds, between the individual and community, between men and women.”

My grandfather-in-law served in WWII as a bomber pilot.  One day at Christmas dinner I asked him about his experience, and his reaction took me off guard.  He said “No one ever asks me about the war.  It’s like it never happened, and it was a huge part of my life.” 

A few years back I started to become uncomfortable with uncomfortability. I HAD stories to tell that formed the basis of who I am, and I felt as though I was neglecting part of who I was by not telling them.  My grandfather-in-law’s poignant comment struck a chord and I started to slowly disclose small bits of my story to those around me, starting with my husband, and moving out to the next ring of close friends.

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Which brings me to current read, “After Silence, Rape & My Journey Back” by Nancy Venable Raine.  Nancy boldly describes her rape in detail throughout this book, as well as the reactions that those she loves had to her telling of the story.  As she began to speak about her story and to write the book about it, she found herself surrounded by people who did not know how to react.  When someone discloses that they have been raped, what IS the appropriate response?

Many of our untold stories have a common thread, shame. Speaking for myself, when I am faced with that feeling of “wait, I am uncomfortable sharing this” it is often accompanied by my wingman. Shame.

Shame and I have been BFF’s for a long time. We hung out together while I was bullied in middle school.  We kicked it while I snuck into second-hand stores once a year trying to find clothes to fit in with the kids while I was teased unmercifully in choir class. We shared a locker in high school when I stole food to make sure I could eat enough.  Shame joined me while I was told I wasn’t good enough as a daughter.  Shame threw a party on the day I was raped when I was 18.  Shame’s crowning achievement was when my rapist raped a twelve-year old girl after me.  Shame almost had me in the grave that day when I found out.

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I realized that I had previously formed friendships based on this perfect person I presented.  A put-together piece of work that was false and based on shame.  However, at my core, I was a Kintsugi.

Kintsugi pottery is a Japanese form of art where broken pottery is repaired with powdered gold or other metals to treat the break as a form of history of the object rather than something to disguise.  It’s also related to the philosophy of wabi-sabi, “seeing the beauty in the flawed or imperfect.”

I began with curiosity, what would happen if I shared one of my Shame Stories?   I lived in curiosity for a long time, because it was safe there.  There wasn’t a risk with just thinking about sharing any stories. I could still have my friends who would live in the dark about these scary things that happened in my past that weren’t topics discussed over laughter and margaritas.

Slowly but surely, a group of four (Katherine, Diana, & Maeve) gelled into a firm friendship we named the Mamafia.  As time went on, the other girls in the group started to share some of their stories about their lives.  I watched as they slowed unfolded their lives to each other and how they responded in love, kindness, and empathy.

But, I lived in Fearsville, population 1.  Our main form of communication was via Facebook Messenger, so not only would I be sharing my stories but they would be there indelible FOREVER. I had this fear, someone could take what I said and go to the NYT and print my confessions for the whole world to see.  Because that was the logical thing to fear.

What I feared most was for those around me to sniff out that I had fallen into a deep hole of depression and anxiety.  The hole had become a full-time residence and I kept up an illusion of competence and strength with the “I’m fine” mentality.  When in truth, I was suicidal and just trying to keep my head above water.  I had everything, but I felt like I had nothing.  This feeling had me shrouded in shame, as I was convinced nobody could possibly understand.

I was very cautious.  One of the members of Mamafia (and my best friend)  Diana lost her father to suicide.  I was so scared to bring up my feelings because I was worried about how she would feel.  I recognized that Diana had experienced so much loss in her life due to her father’s death and her subsequent trauma surrounding it.  How would she cope with me feeling this way?  Would she judge me?  Would she feel angry?  What if she got angry or dumped me as a friend or told me I was selfish?  Worse yet, did I deserve all those reactions?  I was quickly approaching a decision point of vulnerability.

I watched a video by the amazing poet Sabrina Benaim, Explaining Depression to My Mother.  She got it.  She got me.

Her video helped me I realize that maybe I wasn’t alone.  Maybe I could slowly come out of my hole and peek out and say “Hey, I’m not okay… anyone else not okay too?”

I realized quickly that I was living in a hole, alone and scared and my closest friends didn’t know how desperate my situation was.  So I started slowly whispering from down there to the girls. “Hey, so, I’m down here.  I’m scared.  I feel like shit. And I’m not sure I’m going to make it.”

And then I waited to see what would happen.  The Vulnerabilty Experiment began.