on openness and vulnerability part 1: backstory

If you had asked me at fourteen whether I would ever be writing about my personal struggles and inner life OPENLY, for ALL THE WORLD TO SEE, in my twenties, I probably would have said “no. fucking. way.” I was intensely private and barely liked MYSELF enough to keep my writings around for more than a few weeks (only a tiny fraction of my childhood and early teenage writings survive… most were shredded quickly because they were SO EMBARRASSING), so the idea of sharing them with ANYONE… yeaaaaaaa, no.

Now, I don’t think every scrap of my writing from back then was inherently valuable or SHOULD have been kept around, but the fact that the very idea of sharing those things terrified and disgusted me makes me sad.

It’s not like I’d never shared secrets with my friends, or that no one knew anything embarrassing about me. But I did have the same group of friends, mostly, from 2nd-8th grade, so the knowledge of backstory just happened, without much conscious thought on my part about whether to share.  My friends knew all the stuff I couldn’t hide, and all the stuff I had shared because as a child I lacked the self control or the crippling self-consciousness that would induce me to keep things to myself .

But in my first year  of high school, my family moved from Maryland to Indiana, taking me almost 700 miles from everything and everyone I knew. And suddenly I didn’t have that group that knew my story, and my weaknesses. I thought that this was a good thing, in a way: that I could reinvent myself, no longer be known in part for some embarrassing thing I did in the third grade.

I really thought that the key to finding friends was simple: I just I needed to be super awesome all the time. I had to be WORTHY of people’s time, attention, friendship. I had to hide the weird, sad, uncomfortable things about me. Those were my shameful flaws. So I tried to project this outward persona of the person I wanted to be, faultless and confident… except I was a shitty actor, and just ended up feeling fake and even more uncomfortable in my own skin.

Looking back now, I do wonder what I was like to be around then… did I seem as cold and as blank as I imagine looking back? I must not have, because I did have some friends. But I didn’t feel like they really knew me at all.  I felt deeply, crushingly alone. I cringe admitting that I was the cliche teenage girl who thinks she is uniquely suffering, uniquely awful, uniquely unlovable… but it wasn’t a cliche to me. I wasn’t playing a role, that was really how I felt. I didn’t know how to connect to others in a way that soothed this deep loneliness. I was missing a key ingredient.

As this naive little teenage bundle of nerves, didn’t yet grasp how vital vulnerability is to connection.

Two things began my education in this regard. First, there was church. Some people reading might be a little shocked by this–today I am no longer religious, and I have many serious criticisms of the catholic youth group that I attended at the time, as well as catholicism in general. But at the time, we were being instructed to “get to know” god, to give him all of us, all of our fears, doubts, troubles. And we were encouraged to talk about these things with our youth group leaders and with each other. They were trying to open me up to god, yes, but what they ended up getting me to be vulnerable in front of my peers in a way I hadn’t allowed myself to be in a long time.

I came away from my first retreat youth group retreat feeling loved by god, but far more importantly, I came away with a friend. And she wasn’t my first friendly acquaintance, but she was the first person who I felt I was REALLY getting to know. The first person who knew a lot about my family, my quirkier interests, my insecurities. And the first person who started to tell me the less-than-shiny details of her own backstory.

After that life-changing weekend, I started getting more daring, socially. I revealed more about myself–terrified as I did it, of course, but still–and others started to open up more to me. I started to get invited to birthday parties and other teenage-girl-hangout-activities. I found more people to connect with.

The second thing that began to open my eyes to the importance of vulnerability was—try not to laugh too hard—livejournal.

Yes, really, livejournal. As I’d mentioned previously, I had been writing for YEARS, but I was utterly terrified of sharing anything I wrote–journaling,”serious” attempts at fiction or poetry, anything–with anyone else. As far as I was concerned, sharing anything I wrote was tantamount to baring my soul, and this had kept me from pursuing writing in any meaningful way, despite loving the written word more than just about anything in the world. I admitted this to a friend, and he encouraged me to try livejournal, which he and a few others in our circle already used.

Most of us wrote some posts privately and some for friends, but still… it seemed like madness. These weren’t carefully crafted missives, these were “listen to my stream of consciousness, occasionally interspersed with exceptionally shitty gifs.” My first post opened with something along the lines of: “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” But after awhile I started to understand that it didn’t matter that what we wrote wasn’t “good”. It was US. And it allowed us weird, shy, introverted nerds get to know each other better. And get to know ourselves better.  In a way, it wasn’t even about the content–just the fact that we all came to this place to write things out, to share, to get and give comfort–it connected us. We felt less alone.

After those years I had steps backwards and forwards. I had less idyllic experiences with other online journaling platforms (note to past me: do not
“friend” every member of your tiny residential high school. You will overhear their less-than-kind opinions of you and your writing from across the dining hall). My first serious relationship did flower out of very intense and vulnerable IM-chats with the boyfriend-to-be, but in general he was an intensely private person and discouraged my moves towards greater openness. Also, as that relationship became increasingly toxic, I hid my feelings about him and us from everyone, lest he or I be judged.

And I also still felt deep shame about my depression and anxiety, which by this point were firmly established elements of my inner life. Fine, I could tell my close friends about it, to form connections and to get enough support to survive, but if the broader world knew–if my school administration knew, if my classmates knew, if my FAMILY knew… everyone would see me differently, and I would lose everything.

Fast forward to college. In a somewhat selfish move that was nonetheless one of the best things my ex ever did for me, EvilEx had given me an ultimatum regarding my depression: get a fucking therapist, or I’m leaving. And so I did. And I started to get better. I was less depressed, and I hated myself a little less. But my friends from high school (except for the questionably useful boyfriend) weren’t around, so if I wanted to make and have friends that were real friends, who really knew me, I’d have to start fucking sharing the shit that was going on in my life, and a big part of my life at the time was learning to deal with my anxiety and depression.

I don’t know what initially gave me the balls to start mentioning my mental health problems in public. Perhaps all the prevalence statistics I learned in my abnormal psychology class made me feel like less of a freak. Perhaps my therapist was starting to convince me that this really wasn’t shameful. Perhaps it came from finding a social group (Purdue Non-Theists, woo!) that encouraged open serious discussion of all sorts of personal issues. Or maybe I was just overflowing from lack of people to talk to, and I started inappropriately blurting things out when disinhibited by alcohol or various other circumstances. Actually, all of those things are probably true.

But here’s the amazing thing–I started dropping my depression, my anxiety, or the fact that I was seeing a therapist into random conversation, trying to make it out to be no big thing (I sometimes failed at this, but I tried). And people started reaching out to me: thanking me for having the balls to discuss something they were so ashamed of, asking me about how the counseling system worked on our campus because they wanted to go themselves but were scared, sharing with me their struggles with depression that they were embarrassed to talk about with even their closest friends.

Sometimes all that came of this was that first reach out, that single instance of connection. Sometimes it grew into a friendship, or I at least provided useful information to a friendly acquaintance. But most importantly, I think, people knew about a part of me I found shameful, and they appreciated me MORE for it. And I felt KNOWN. Understood. Utterly authentic, not putting on a show for people anymore.

Obviously things weren’t all sunshine and unicorns. Some people probably thought less of me after I disclosed. Some people definitely didn’t want to hear about it. My controlling ex certainly wasn’t a fan of me having more friends. But every step of the way, it was worth every sacrifice to me–what I lost was nothing compared to what I gained.

You know most of the rest of the story. I came to grad school. I tried to keep up my habit of being open in a casual way (sometimes failing at either the open or the casual, but doing well enough that most people didn’t mind too terribly). I broke up with my controlling dickbag of a fiancé, and stopped feeling ashamed or conflicted about my desire to connect with more people more deeply. And a year after that, when my little grad school world started collapsing around me, I started writing here.

And to be fair, this blog brings my openness to a whole new level. It’s truly public, with my real fucking name attached. It is google-able by anyone, including possible future employers. And even so I’ve shared more here than I have with any but my closest of confidants.

And yes, that is risky and terrifying. Let me count the ways:

1. Risks to my theoretical future career options (oh noes, general overshare/mental illness disclosure/poor judgement!)
2. Risks to my relationships (other people in my life feel differently than I do about privacy, and though I consider their feelings, there is always the chance that I will upset someone)
3. Risks to my sanity (cause the internet can be a scary place)

…but yet I still do it. And, contrary to the beliefs of several concern trolls who have come out of the woodwork since I started, I do not make my decisions about what I say here lightly. I’ve put hours upon hours of thought into this, and my personal rules are still slowly evolving. That doesn’t mean that every decision I have made is “right”, but it does mean that the assumption that I am a silly little girl who doesn’t understand how my “inappropriate sharing” is going to ruin ALL OF THE THINGS… is bullshit. Times infinity. I am extremely aware of the risks I take, and I make my choices in spite of them.

I want to explain to you why I have come to this place, how my risks/benefits analysis works. I want to explain my rules for myself. And not because I want to persuade anyone else to follow my lead, exactly. I’m certainly pro more openness and vulnerability in close relationships, but the internet sharing I do goes above and beyond what would make sense for most people. But it is a meaningful and important choice for me, and rather central to what the hell I’m doing writing here… so I want to explain.

Obviously, I have a lot to say, so this post is part one of several that will be going up in the next week or two. I’m going to tell you about the practicalities I considered (and didn’t) when deciding to do this whole blog thing, about the amazing things that I have gained from it, and about the areas where I still struggle with how far exactly I want to go.

Ideally, I’d like this series of posts to be something of a conversation: please, talk back! I’m not asking you to comment just to have commented–I’m flattered to see high numbers and all, but I’m really not doing this to beg for attention. I honestly want to hear your thoughts. If you are a blogger/writer/artist/etc who shares parts of their personal lives in very public ways (or works very hard not to!), tell me about how you’ve drawn your lines. If you also struggle with mental health problems, tell me about how you share or don’t share that with others. Or for anyone: tell me about you think about vulnerability in your life/relationships. I’m arrogant enough to think I have bits of wise or at least interesting things to say about these things, but I want to learn from you too.