As a queer disabled woman, vulnerability is a familiar feeling. It is excruciating to be seen with such clarity, mostly by those who do not share your lived experience. After suffering emotional trauma in my early 20s, the past four years have been a conscious investment in experiencing vulnerability to learn, adapt, grow, and heal. I recount the most significant experiences here, creating a fractured chronological narrative weave, whilst providing commentary in hindsight as my present self. The process of becoming is made visible through instances of incidental and purposeful vulnerability. This essay aims to share my story with others as an act of feminist resistance to silence and intimate partner violence. This is a true story that continues to unfurl mindfully, vulnerably, and with deep respect for process and time. Embracing that which makes you vulnerable also makes you formidably powerful with the capacity for infinite compassion.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.~ brené brown1
The process of locating, mapping, and interpreting my lived experiences over the past four years begins with collating those that significantly altered, disrupted, and shifted my internal landscape as a young woman, artist, and academic. I weave together fractured moments of time that lend significance to my personal growth in the hope that my ever-shifting, newly grounded present might be made meaningful to others, as an act of resistance through storytelling. I am inspired by Erin Wunker's idea of “rupture events,” described by Hannah McGregor in her weekly podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda, as “a moment of significant cultural shift,” wherein the #MeToo movement was cited alongside the Trump Administration as examples of events that altered the sociopolitical/cultural landscape of an era.2 Although my personal experiences do not hold in their singularity the impact of either of these examples, an appropriated version of this term might be creatively applied to aid the interpretation of how I map my experiences of rupture here.
It is January 2015 and I am 22 years old. This year I have decided to tackle an ambitious honors project. I want to know how to defeat the patriarchy. The passion I feel, at least, is not naive. The project is a hybrid of practice in the form of a theatrical performance and written thesis. I work four jobs. I've been to Berlin. I am confident in my ability to work collaboratively and honestly to wholeheartedly pursue the discovering of a career in feminist performance work. The year starts in March. I will be naked, pierced, and profoundly uncomfortable for my academic investigation. I am in an abusive relationship. I am a feminist practitioner in the making.
I recognize, in hindsight, the thematic weave of the last four years for me is vulnerability. There is inherent vulnerability growing up as a queer disabled woman in a patriarchal culture. There is inherent vulnerability in embracing a beginner's mind as a student of the institution. There is vulnerability to be found in all aspects of a society that doesn't teach appropriate internal and external boundaries. Hindsight allows me to recognize my younger self as researching the radical embodiment of vulnerability without becoming victim.
It is March. I am sitting, sweating, in a sweltering church. I can feel the sweat gathering under my tightly crossed arms and in the creases between my elbows as I hold myself together. I sit straight, and very still. I am conflicted about wearing black. On one hand, this dress disguises the presence of the salty wetness gathering gradually in the nooks between my crossed legs and in the spaces between me and the worn wooden pew. On the other hand, I desperately wish the day didn't call for such attire, or such a ceremony at all. Surrounded by my peers, friends, and teachers, I am anxious to mask any sign of discomfort, any signal that might hint towards the heaving rage I am just managing to contain. I do not cry. I cross my arms tighter. Sit straighter. We wait forever. Quietly. Reverence hangs in the air suspended by the humidity. We are mainly actors here, the high ceilings panelled with pale wood amplify our intense focus. Wait. Patiently. This is the hardest, longest piece of endurance theatre you will ever perform. The silence is suffocating. The heat affects a few of us. I sit, I sweat, I wait. And then, she arrives.
It occurs to me now that a retrospective paper on my lived experience of the honors project itself and the aftermath would have possibly made for a more revealing piece of research. The effect of vulnerability in the work was rarely, if at all, addressed; but for an investigation into my own identity's representational potential, it seems that could have been a pertinent inclusion.
July is cold in Melbourne, Australia. I am 23 years old. It is the 27th. We use the entire day to bump into the warehouse/dungeon/art space. The concrete floor is cold and there are only two space heaters. We lay lights, seating, and sound wrapped in layers, making it difficult to move. The props are arranged, the sun comes out, lunch arrives, and the warmth does not reach me. We are prepared. I don't eat. There isn't enough power in the space to run the lights and the heaters. I regret needing to use water in the performance. We boil kettles and by the time the water reaches the paddling pool, it is already lukewarm. My patience is consumed by focusing on the project at hand, ensuring my guests are comfortable, and above all else, attempting not to be too upset that my “partner” is sulking. One, two skip a few, and we are half-way through the performance. The day has dragged and flown in equal measures. I think it's going well, but I've fallen out of love with it and honestly I don't really think it's very good and I am beginning to feel ashamed. I cannot, however, feel my fingers but they are working well enough as I continue to tie knots in the balloons I pull out of my mouth. People laugh and clap. I look to the back of the space behind the audience, three men line the back wall and I, myself, almost laugh. I am here, tap dancing naked, making some powerful feminist spectacle while the real research discussion is happening out of sight. To the left, a tall ex-lover smiles encouragingly at me. To the right, my most recent fling technically manages the event with kind eyes and keen focus. And awkwardly in the middle, that current partner scowls at me.
There is, at least now, obvious learning to be garnered from my own internal emotional experience. Once the research and coursework had begun however, I was already attending to the grief of losing a close friend, and the reality of intimate partner violence—both hers, and my own. The dramatic irony was, darkly, not lost on me then either.
It is October and I am 23 years old. I find myself once again sweating into the silken interior of a dress pinched between my thighs and a wooden pew. It is warm. Maybe it is cool, and I am warm? I don't think I can tell. I have a cramp in my foot and there is nowhere to move. I sink into numbness. This courtroom smells like I imagine colonialism smells. Commonwealth brand must, with a hint of old money law degrees and white men. Triple wicked, but paraffin wax. I am between a friend and an asshole. The asshole thinks he's my partner. He is not. He is a burden. I gaze towards the back of another man's head. I bore my focus into his skull. I am overcome suddenly with the most powerful desire to burn my gaze right through him. Two small smoking holes appear right between his head and neck. If I could kindle microscopic combustion with my sight, I think it would be dangerous. I am short sighted. I shouldn't have this superpower. He shifts in his seat, chains chink in response to his movement, and my focus is broken. In court, I have learned, everything happens either all at once or not at all. A loud banging, standing, sitting, bowing maybe, firm words, a bit of yelling, whispers, silence. Hours pass. I wonder how many nerve endings are at the point between the neck and the head. The meeting place of the two main components of the central nervous system. I don't know enough about the body. I know heads tend to bleed quite profusely when split. Yes. I know that now. He knows that now. Everyone knows that now. It is my turn to stand. I inhale the silence. She and I are 23 years old.
Brené Brown writes on the relationship between guilt and shame, and their connection to wholehearted living through vulnerability. One is usually prescribed Brown's TED Talks and books by a therapist. On her blog, Brown discusses guilt as “adaptive and helpful—it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort” as opposed to her definition of shame, which is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”3 The sort of gaslighting I experienced during this abusive relationship put a strain on my emotional and intellectual capacity during the project by normalizing the experience and functions of shame. Brown's definition isolates and enhances the difference between the lived experiences of guilt (learning and an opportunity to form connection) and shame (fear of disconnection). It became imperative to maintain connection whilst experiencing excruciating shame because my belief in my inherent worthiness was destabilized.
The year is drawing to a close and around this time, my psychologist organizes a ten-week yoga and meditation course for trauma survivors who are looking for a more practical, “body up” approach to emotional learning. I am one of her clients who sits quite comfortably in my head, usually favoring the “top down” approach. My body feels stale and foreign. This course is included on my Medicare rebate and the classes are two hours long on Sunday afternoons. A bargain I will not refuse. The studio smells like lemongrass and ginger and the psychologist has chosen handmade paper diaries for us to record our thoughts. In the first session I learn how a yoga class is structured and the “Surya Namaskara A” sequence. Every week I find moments of complete stillness, I understand the movements a little better, I learn something about my gut or my sleep and how to deal with stress using presence. My self-care gets better as we are tasked to practice self-compassion and report back on our achievements. I struggle moving into these skills, they make me big and wise and full of guttural knowledge. I know from the second the first class begins that there is no room for him, here, in my whole being.
It is however, not this ability to appreciate the experience of guilt alone that underpins connection, it is the vulnerability it requires, or as Brown explains, “in order for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”4 If we accept that as a species we require a sense of belonging, then it follows that people who believe they are worthy of attachment are able to thrive through guilt as wholehearted, connected people who practice vulnerability.
In May, I turn 24 years old. I am in the big library on campus. I sit on the third floor beside the window. Listening to the birds being interrupted by the extraction of asbestos from the adjacent wing is not eliciting a studious focus. I have read Butler's Gender Trouble, and so I write:
“[n]ot to have social recognition as an effective heterosexual is to lose one possible social identity and perhaps gain one that is radically less sanctioned” (Butler, “Gender Trouble” 99). This is to say that there is opportunity to unsettle, by virtue of unintelligibility, the dominant culture or that which is heteronormative and concurrently misogynistic and oppressive.5
I think a radically less sanctioned existence sounds nice. I am proud of myself. I work to finish the project sixth months behind schedule. A month later, after handing in the final copy for assessment, I sleep with a very close friend who, unbeknownst even to myself, I have been falling in love with since before all of this began. I feel this in my stomach, and I allow myself to be seen. I return to my abusive partner and I call him out on his bluff. I broke the rules; he isn't going to speak to me ever, ever again. I can leave without being followed. She remains 23 years old, and I walk free.
I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me. I am arch, gay, languid, melancholy by turns. I am rooted, but I flow.~ virginia woolf6
It is 2017 and I am 25 years old. I am burdenless, but full of grief and I have forgotten how to speak. I am living alone in my late grandparents’ house. I move there for the space, for the solitude, for the garden. I plant myself there, or rather, I repot myself. I do my laundry at 1 a.m. I work four jobs. I worry that having turned 25, the trauma in my brain will be stuck there forever. I remind myself that neuroplasticity doesn't work that way. I'd like to learn another language. I save my money. I attend my acting classes. I trace the faded pathways carved by my grandparents in the carpet on my way to and from the bathroom at night. I do my exercises. My new partner comes to stay. I travel back to Berlin. I do the dishes. I read poetry. I listen to records. I sit by the heater. I feed myself. I try and be kind to myself though I still think I am a bit of a fraud, a bit of a failure. I drink orange juice in the bottom of the shower from a wine glass. I sing loudly. I hang out my laundry. I cry. I drink more water. I get a lead role. I practice boundaries.
How you love yourself/is how you teach others to love you~ rupi kaur7
Storytelling crept its way into my realm of appreciation in 2017. I devoured podcasts, audiobooks, albums, and books in those months I spent, largely, alone. Reflecting on my time there, it was the sweetest introversion I'd ever had the privilege of knowing. I grew there. As a result, I regard storytelling as a feminist act, and I'm certain countless artists, creatives, and scholars would agree. To take the fragments I have detailed here, I return to Wunker's idea of events that rupture.8 These are the moments that vividly exist in my memory when I reflect on a time that, for a moment, became me, and slowly, over time, made me.
It is 2018 and I am 26 years old. I am grateful for my 22-year-old self who didn't ask for permission, although she felt as though she should have. I am tentative to begin a master's program because I have only just learnt that my honors project had a positive impact on the people I care about. I am healing slowly as the wounds of learning many of life's hardest lessons, even from my place of privilege, took their considerable toll over four difficult years. I remember. I do yoga. I breathe. I speak from my stomach. I know the truth. I learn and I lean into vulnerability with flexible strength. I write this piece. I practice boundaries. Hannah Gadsby says, “there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”9 I listen.
Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language—it's from the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart”—and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.~ brené brown10