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What It's Like to Be Sick and Experience 'Vulnerability Fatigue'

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I received texts — hundreds of caring and compassionate texts — as well as voicemails, video chat requests, and emails. My community was strong, and my family and friends all wanted to reach out and give me an opportunity to unload my grief.

How are you doing? What has been happening? Are you OK?

I knew I was lucky, and I was grateful to be supported. But still, I left the text messages unanswered, ignored every voicemail, and let my unread emails pile up. I felt nauseated at the idea of pretending I was OK, but the idea of honestly answering the question “how are you doing?” made me want to vomit even more. I just couldn’t do it. I could no longer open myself up, even to those whom I trusted the most. On top of the increasingly large pile of diagnoses I had already received, I had come down with another illness that I called “vulnerability fatigue.”

A few years before getting sick, I had been introduced to vulnerability by the queen of story-telling herself, Brené Brown. My life changed when Brown plucked “vulnerability” out of a pile of abstract and inoperative constructs and gave the word definition and meaning. She gave me a road map to a more authentic and connected life. As a result, I dedicated myself to the uncomfortable and sometimes excruciating process of allowing the most “shameful” parts of myself to be seen. Heck, I even preached her teachings to friends, family, and whoever else would listen.

My response to vulnerability changed, however, once I became ill. After becoming sick, the process of being vulnerable no longer just felt uncomfortable. It didn’t even just feel excruciating. It now felt impossible, and possibly even harmful. After sharing my truth, I felt drained, limp and emotionally wrung out; vulnerability fatigued me to my very core.

This change made sense however, because my illness created a major shift in my life. I had gone from a person who was challenging herself to be vulnerable, to a vulnerable person who was constantly being challenged. That is to say, before I became ill, vulnerability was an uncomfortable and important choice that I was making, but since becoming sick, vulnerability was more of a permanent and essential state.

When I became sick, my private life suddenly became very public. My health and personal struggles were now up for discussion with acquaintances and even strangers. In some cases, divulging my private life was necessary to receive the support I needed. I understood why I had to repeat my story over and over again to both compassionate and judgmental doctors. I knew transparency was important if I was going to find out what was wrong with my health. I also knew as painful as it was, that it was essential to share the intimate details of my life with my insurance company. I told myself again and again that allowing my life and my health to be put on trial was worth it, because I needed the financial support.

There were also times when I opened up about my struggles, not because I needed to, but because I panicked. When colleagues would compassionately ask me why I was no longer at work, I feared that if I didn’t tell them the full story they would create tales about my absence. When acquaintances would ask me why they hadn’t seen me in a while, I struggled to skillfully find a way to end the conversation without being rude. In addition, there were often inquiries from strangers: like the cab driver who wanted to know why I couldn’t take the bus, and the neighbor who wanted to know why I was at home so often, and the bystander who was curious why I did not drink alcohol.

Having to tell my story over, and over, and over again to people who didn’t or couldn’t respond with the compassion that I needed left me with few emotional resources left to talk with those who were capable and able to handle my story with care. I had to be vulnerable each day in order to receive the practical support I needed and also to be considered both sane and polite, but this left me with little energy to reach out and receive the emotional support from the people I loved.

So I started to make changes, putting “vulnerability fatigue” at the top of my priority list. I spread out doctor’s appointments, ensuring that I never went to more than two a week. I requested that doctors write down details in their notes, so I would not have to repeat the same story to the next doctor. I asked my insurance company to be more specific about what information they needed from me. I created an “elevator pitch” explaining my illness in a way that allowed me to feel like I still had a sense of privacy. I learned how to say “thanks for asking, but I am not up for discussing my health today.”

I started to treat my story as sacred and special, something to share with only those who I trust the most. “Vulnerability fatigue” was the first ailment that I was able to remedy, and I am constantly creating and reviewing my boundaries so I don’t become overwhelmed with it again.

Originally published: May 26, 2020
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