Even as I type the title I feel uncomfortable: this lesson is easy to tell, less so to show. The value of vulnerability is a principle that a lot of us appreciate, in theory. That doesn’t mean we like how it feels.
Over the course of 10 years working, I went from not declaring my CF during the hiring process and only in the strictest confidence to managers, to mentioning it during job interviews and carrying out treatments openly in the workplace. You may assume my symptoms improved a lot over that time as I became more open, but in fact I was becoming more unwell.
Instead, vulnerability was a muscle I got better at flexing.
My most vulnerable moments at work?
It might have been the time I had three closely-spaced severe episodes of hypoglycemia – preventing me from being able to stand up let alone form a coherent string of words – moments before giving a presentation to a class full of MBA students.
Or maybe the time I went into a meeting with a previous MD while on a course of intravenous antibiotics; the necessity of strict dosing schedules meant that I mixed the antibiotic vials and administered them through the longline in my arm, while listening to him talk.
Each of those two scenarios required a different strategy to feel comfortable being vulnerable. The first situation was never supposed to happen. I never leave the house without fact-acting glucose in my bag. In fact, I go most places with a convenience store’s worth of carbs as back up.
Unfortunately on that day I had exhausted my sugary supplies and was caught short. With the presentation due to start, I had no choice but to open up, explain the problem and ask for help. Help which came generously in the form of an enormous cookie, and fifteen minutes to recover and bring my brain back online.
The second scenario was very different. While I had no choice to be on IV treatment at that time, I did make a choice to administer my treatment in front of a colleague instead of trying to shift the meeting time or risking a missed dose. I suppose I wanted to be proud of my identity as a person with chronic illness, determined to show that I could do my job without it getting in the way.
While we don’t have control over many situations in life, we can choose to have control over how we feel. But I don’t want to gloss over the knock on effect that exposing vulnerability has on mental health. It’s a big emotional ask.
Depending on the response you get, you might feel superhuman or very small. It’s only through practice and the almost always positive response I’ve had from others that has allowed me to flex this emotional muscle. And just like some super powers, it’s intense to use and requires a recovery period after.
I’ve also noticed the effect that opening up can have on others. Whether it broadens their perspective or even gives freedom to display a vulnerability of their own. I try to be mindful of any stress or negative response that being open might cause someone else. While a little dip out of the comfort zone can do wonders, an unexpected display of vulnerability can take any of us by surprise, plus varying comfort levels with medical paraphernalia or an individual’s own negative health experiences which they choose not to share.
For my part, I know that choosing to be vulnerable has directly improved my skill set and given me valuable tools: I’m a better listener and have stronger emotional intelligence because of it.
Although moments of physical vulnerability are not as frequent for me now that my symptoms are better managed, I’m proud of the empathy that sickness has given me. I don’t ever want to lose that silver lining.