Aside from giving me life, my mother’s greatest gift to me was her willingness to be vulnerable. While our society tends to view vulnerability as weak and “less than,” being in tune with who you truly are, even in times of fear, is actually a huge gift. Not running away from the fear, and not being afraid to admit your fear, takes far more courage than hiding or denying it.
My mother had anxiety disorder during a time when no one had yet identified it as a true medical condition. And just as there was no real acknowledgement that this was a mental health issue, there were also no mainstream treatments like we have today — no cognitive behavioral therapy, no Xanax or anti-anxiety medications, no support groups. Her anxiety ebbed and flowed throughout her life, with significant times of debilitation occurring mostly before I was ever born. As I grew up, I knew that she had good days and bad days, and I came to understand the various triggers for her fears.
On her bad days, she was rarely afraid to admit that she was struggling. She was relatively open about her demons with family and friends. She was especially open with me during these times; she trusted that she could be vulnerable with me, that I would understand. I did. She also surrounded herself with compassionate people and in the process discovered that others faced similar challenges. Maybe not the exact same fears, but she used to tell me that “everyone has something.” And that is so very true — we are all challenged in different ways.
Photo of Mom & Me in 1989 - This sits on my nightstand
When I was younger, I used to criticize her to others, wondering why she didn’t do more to help herself. But as I grew into adulthood, I started to see that she could not have been so open with me, with others, if she had worked harder at fixing the problem. This is not to say that I agreed with her approach, but the gift of vulnerability would not have shown itself so brightly if she had turned inward to fix the issues. I began to realize that this is who she was, and that the lessons of vulnerability were raw and honest.
As I waded through the rocky world of dating and relationships in my twenties and thirties, I had a lot of heartache, most often the result of showing myself to be vulnerable. The men I dated didn’t want to see that side of me. As I mustered up the courage to keep going, to keep trying for love, I remembered the lessons of vulnerability. I knew that showing my true self was not the problem — I had to keep doing that to attract the right person for me. So I found resilience and grace, which eventually carried me to the right person.
Today, I’m learning about mindfulness, working to weave it into my everyday life. I realize that my mother’s vulnerability was a high form of being mindful. When she was feeling bad, she acknowledged it, and she sat within it. She would show remarkable patience as she waited for the mood to pass. In talking so openly of her struggles, she invited in the unwanted visitors into her life, and let things be.
I like this framing of a mental illness, a really interesting and healthy perspective.
I always forgave my mother for this, for her shortcomings. We all have our challenges and this was hers. Her vulnerability taught me so much! The way I look at things, we are all just doing the best we can in this human life. She did her best. There is always some positive in the negative. It’s just hard to find sometimes, I know.