Hurricane Harvey stirred up some anxiety. Drugstores were closed for one week here in Houston and I fretted that my prescriptions would run out. It is bad enough to depend on medication but then to think of running out and not being able to get a refill is worse. Thinking on this reminded me of how vulnerable people are who live with chronic illness. What would it be like to no longer have my thyroid medication? Since I no longer have a thyroid, my body is totally dependent on a replacement. If I go just a few days without taking my meds, I can tell. Brain fog becomes acute. Fatigue is the order of the day, along with weight gain. After all, the thyroid is the body’s powerhouse though its size is small. What would happen to people who are in chemo or radiation treatment? Or those who are dependent on ventilators or feeding tubes? So, illness makes us more vulnerable, and to stay calm we must find ways to live with this vulnerability.
Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun and author, writes that the “rawness of vulnerability” gives one “an opportunity to open.”
I believe that anyone who lives with a chronic illness must open their hearts to eventual acceptance of what vulnerability can teach us. One thing we quickly learn is how little control we have. That alone creates vulnerability. But, it is one thing to know you are vulnerable and another thing to be open enough to express your vulnerability. In the beginning of my journey with chronic illness, back when I was in my twenties, I thought I needed to adopt a “take no prisoners stance” as though showing my vulnerability would be a sign of weakness. Now, forty years and many journeys later, I realize that allowing oneself to be vulnerable is actually a form of strength and courage.
This realization came to me all at once when I was scheduled to have the third surgery on my left eye. I was a veteran of surgery, knew what to expect, and I always acted brave in the pre-op area as the nurse inserted my IV, rubbed my surgery site with betadine, and had me dress in a flimsy gown where I was naked underneath. As always, I felt scared, though this time my fear had an added element. I felt that I was running out of luck with having surgeries go smoothly, as though I had been handed enough times when the scar tissue in my throat did not vex the anesthesiologist as my tracheal tube was inserted. So, I told my surgeon that I was afraid. He stopped what he was doing and looked at me. He took time to listen. He was kind. He brought the anesthesiologist in to talk to me again.
In the pre-op area that day as I ruminated on my fear, I remembered the Boynton button I wore at the age of 30 when I had a hysterectomy. I pinned it onto my gown: Grin and Bear. I liked the play on words and I liked the message that I was tough, that I was most definitely not weak. I had yet to realize that expressing vulnerability does not mean a person is not courageous.
In its purest form, vulnerability is a way of reaching out to others, to say “I need help.” As the German language poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Now you must go out onto your heart, as onto a vast plain.” We must reach inside ourselves and say, “I’m scared this time.” We must be vulnerable. And see the possibilities that may happen as a result.