I’ve had a huge sob caught just under my throat for a little under two weeks, which, I will add, wasn’t initially that alarming for me. The remarkably effective Family Planning Method of birth control has taught me that this type of unwelcome emotion usually typifies entire blocks of Cycle Days 23-29 (along with ravenous cravings alternating between salt and sugar), so when this knot of uncried tears first settled in my chest I chalked it up to a surge of residual hormones from the anachronistic Plan B® I'd recently taken and prepared to have a hankering for popcorn by bedtime.
But the knot didn’t move. It was there when I woke up. It was there when I showered, went to bed. I even felt it during my workouts. At some points, it seemed difficult to breathe. Days went by and it refused to budge, sitting there like a drunken midnight pupusa in the pit of your stomach the morning after.
It was only one morning last week as I flopped out of bed under a cloud that I realized the sob felt like grief. Grief in the way C.S. Lewis famously described it: a fearful, constant swallowing and fluttering deep in your gut. Grief in the way Joan Didion illustrated, waves of psychosomatic paralysis. I considered the man behind the Plan B®, a long-distance newbie I'd been introduced to by a close mutual friend in mid-April, whose texts had started giving me butterflies in May and whose calls I could never ignore by June, and with whom I'd delighted in a weekend-long official first date in July. He might be somehow related to this heaviness, I surmised, particularly since he was turning out, after all, to be less plugged post-coitally than I'd imagined he would; and the disappointment, however infantile, was washing over me more and more, like a steaming hot bath you sink into slowly to avoid scalding yourself.
But tears? Seemed extreme.
I'd like to think that in my 30s I'm more evolved than weeping over an ill-fated relationship, barely even begun. Yes, I had a transitional birthday approaching. Yes, I'd allowed myself to melt into this person a bit more than I ever had as a fully adult woman. After many years of literal running from any relationship that even smacked of an ability to become serious and subsequently reverse psychology-ing my way through the Jungle of Love as a perpetual victim, I'd been unexpectedly choked by 2017, which seemed tired of my bullshit and intent on showing me who was really the problem in my relationships.
And so, after spending over eighteen months knee-deep in various forms of therapy, with my nose tucked into Brené Brown's work, I emerged with a burgeoning new superpower: vulnerability, the incredibly potent- and completely foreign- language of emotional honesty. During this deep dive, I not only sussed out patterns that had failed me so indelibly for so long and took a long hard pause to answer the question “what do you really want?”, I was also moved to initiate some transformative change. For instance, I formally broke up with someone for the first time in life instead of just slowly disappearing like Homer Simpson into the bushes. I started creating and enforcing boundaries, and started being forthright about my wants and needs. My reward was that for the first time in life I saw myself, unfiltered. Where I’d come from, where I was, why I was. Piece by piece, I was figuring out the girl in the mirror.
Then, I met the guy.
My newly discovered self was still a fresh revolution for me, the fruits of which I offered to this dude. The truth, unadulterated. No lies, no hiding, no pretense, no hang-ups. No ignoring calls. No ignoring questions. No pretty pictures on otherwise ugly cargo. No holds barred. It was a risky experiment, a test of my will, an examination of my actual ability to put into practice all that I had learned and was learning about myself, others, life, and connecting with the world around me. This, it seemed, should bring me joy, not pain. But joy was not what I was feeling. It was, at best, discomfort.
So when confronted with the foreign lump that had nestled itself into the most uncomfortable spot between my neck and chest, I became annoyed. No one had died. I hadn't overtly lost anything. And I felt free.
So what was I grieving?
After a brutal betrayal + breakup over ten years ago, I channeled my rage into a little women's interest blog called The B is Crazy, based on the notion of "BIC" (Bitch Is Crazy), a term my cousin Tyra and I coined in our very early 20's to describe moments when girls (also, us) behaved anywhere on the behavior scale from “awkward” to “abominable” to “terrifying” in response to male provocation. I started the blog based on the “radical” idea that women are crazy. Not in the traditional sense, of course; in my unchanged opinion, women are only "crazy" when you don’t consider the world we live in a vicious amalgam of patriarchal notions, stifling suppression of the feminine, and endless misogynistic microaggression. When the default is male, then naturally women, with their supernatural intuition and hormone-fueled sensitivities, come off left of center.
But as I negotiated my personal brand of feminism as a younger woman — celebration of femininity, check; equal pay, check; chivalry, check; gender roles, some traditional, some fluid, check and check again— I went through a phase where I loudly and boldly asserted to anyone who would listen that yes, women are, in fact, “crazy”. And not only that, but we should be proud of it. Our purported insanity, I asserted, was an act of bravery. A statement of freedom. A live-out-loud outrageousness undergirded by the confidence and self-adulation all women should practice.
I maintained the blog for years, garnered a modest following, then stopped writing when I no longer felt I had anything constructive to add to the discourse. I ultimately shut it down completely when I looked back on some of my older views and experiences as ignorant and insipid. The passionate pushback against the patriarchy and the fascination with the misdeeds of men withered. Moreover, years of fighting my true romantic nature in favor of a manufactured Strong Black Womanhood that protected me from having to invest emotionally in relationships beyond superfluity had taken its toll. I was wearied. And somewhere along the way, I was dismayed to realize, I’d also stopped taking chances. Much later, therapy led me to explore theories around this behavior, but suffice it to say that something tucked me into myself and I fell willfully quiet.
But my life, the inevitable fodder and fuel for my work, took turns. I dated. I dated more. I dated men much older than me. I dated guys younger than me. I didn't date at all. I lied about my sexuality to men that showed too much interest and consequently scared me shitless. I had brief liaisons with highly eligible guys and then blocked their numbers and hid when I saw them in public (sidenote: I lost two really good guy friends this way after pulling this stunt with their respective besties). I practiced celibacy for an astonishingly long period of time, considering my libido. I lost my orgasm. I became addicted to fitness to replace the sex, working out 2-3 times a day and becoming so anal about my diet that I wouldn't even attend events where food was served. I was literally driving myself crazy. All because I couldn't be honest with myself, or partners.
On the other side of this madness, presently, is the long-distance relationship I so ambitiously attempted to undertake this year. He felt fresh and I liked it, liked him, and found myself intrigued by this. So I was completely honest for the first time. And while there was definitely a feeling of victory, I felt both unleashed and utterly terrified. There is an aftereffect to the high of total vulnerability, after all, and that is the fact that it may still end in rejection.
Repressed empaths like myself have spent so many years practicing inauthenticity in order to avoid exposure that they may begin to trick themselves into the belief that reversing the behavior opens the door to everything they want. And this can be true. But the fact is that a win is not guaranteed just because you finally got over yourself. Sometimes, someone will look behind the curtain of your authentic self and still not be here for it—which, of course, was the initial fear anyhow and makes a miss a particularly tough pill to swallow. For anyone. But, it seemed, especially for me.
At times like these I can’t stop myself from thinking that maybe, if my mother had lived to raise me into womanhood, I might have turned out differently. For one, she would likely have mitigated some of the communication challenges being raised by an amazing yet emotionally constipated father caused. She might have encouraged more of her own infamous transparency in me, her natural inclination toward radical vulnerability that seems to have made everyone fall in love with her, including my father. And maybe she would have more perfectly explained how difficult the journey of becoming a woman can be. Anyone can tell it’s no cake walk, but I kind of assumed it was because periods and hormones and hair and skin changes and weight fluctuations and the pay gap and The Beauty Myth, and oh, men can be so darn difficult to understand *hahahhaha*. This messy list is what magazines and culture have us believe, what we’re socialized to view as our struggle. And I'm not discounting any of it: periods are hard, hormones rage, life under The Beauty Myth sucks.
But the true difficulty in becoming a woman is really something I’m just understanding as I barrel towards my late 30s. It has little to do with aesthetics. It’s not even just the inherent social injustice or the fact that men are a completely different species. It’s that being a woman, a free woman, requires vulnerability. It requires authenticity, an education in not sweeping things under the rug simply in order to be viewed a certain way (read: perfect). Some women live this way - free - by nature. God bless them. I am certainly not amongst their ranks.
"The most valuable and important things in my life came to me when I cultivated the courage to become vulnerable, imperfect, and self-compassionate. Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts or our purpose. It's the detour."
-Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
My journey has been up the rough side of the mountain. Embracing vulnerability has required what at times felt like a Shamanistic brand of torture, a ritual death to protective practices so soothing and natural that it physically hurts to unlearn them. But once you have unlearned, there’s no turning back.
The dream, the saying goes, comes free. The hustle is sold separately. The dream of falling in love and staying there is without cost, but the work it takes to actually usher that into your life is wildly expensive. Vulnerability, the currency of this exchange, carries with it an exceedingly high price, comprised of nothing but hard costs. It cannot be returned, nor can it be charged or promised or titled in anyone else’s name. It cannot be financed. You pay in full and up front with the greatest, most irreplaceable thing you have to give.
You pay with yourself. You pay with your heart.