Dr. Lissa Rankin, mentor and author of several books including Mind Over Medicine, introduced me to the poet Dorothy Hunt and her poem “The Invitation.” So I explored some of Dorothy Hunt’s other poems and found “Undress Your Heart,” and it resonated with me. From the age of about 28, I have dressed my heart with barriers, and bulletproof vests to make it impenetrable. To protect me from breakage or harm. The age of 28 has significance, because it was the age at which I lost both my parents within months of each other, and started medical school. I know that after my father died, my heart shut down just a little bit, and when my mother died a little bit more. My heart shut down when I started medical school and I was told to not show my emotions. Don’t cry in front of patients. Don’t hug or touch your patients(with the exception of a physician exam). Do not take any gift from your patients or give them gifts. Keep your boundaries because it is inappropriate otherwise. So when my patients who were children would run up to me and hug me, I would literally have to peel them off of me, reluctant to allow physical contact because that is not what a doctor is suppose to do, let alone a psychiatrist. I think these rules were established to prevent any inappropriate sexual contact that many doctors have been guilty of. But touch is of many kinds, not just sexual, and much of it is lacking today. Our largest organ is our skin hungers for touch and we need physical contact and touch to open our hearts. So I was shut down at work, because it was for survival, and I was shut down at home because it was a way of being.
It took having a heart attack to open my heart. Sometimes things break before they can heal. I have a healing heart now, that is learning to reveal itself. I think for the first time, after my heart attack, I realized the extent of my closure, and my bullet proof composure. My heart attack was the first time I really felt my vulnerability not only to life and death, but also to my sadness and longing. I was certainly not a “heartless” person, I was just guarded and protected, and I didn’t take risks to show my fear of rejection. I had learned to feel things but not show it. Collect feelings and holding it all inside the chambers of my heart. There comes a time when things just implode if you do this. It is my feeling that heart attacks are a way the body reminds us that we are vulnerable and human. If we survive we are forever grateful and share what we have learned with others.
My independence has served me, but it has also hardened me. I am seeking balance.
I am learning to listen to my body, it is a way of removing some of the armor.
I am learning to say yes to things and say no to what does not serve me.
I am learning to extend self compassion.
I am learning to let others give me things and and accept help.
So a couple weeks ago, I found myself in the Los Angeles area without a car. When I got to the airport in Boston on my way to California, security informed me that my drivers license had expired. The TSA officer said, “This happens all the time, I guess no rental car for you!” Then it hit me, I cant rent a car and I’m going to be in California. I didn’t panic, I just said it will work itself out and explored options. I couldn’t renew online, I needed a new photo and an eye exam so a temporary license was not an option. What I discovered was that there were many blessings along the way.
For one, I was fortunate to have a hotel in town that I could walk to my daughters graduation or take an Uber or Lyft. I was one of the lucky parents who was able to secure a hotel in town as they sold out within minutes, 6 months ago. Had I not had this hotel the situation could have been much worse.
So I made myself vulnerable and posted my situation on Facebook and the response was amazing. People I hadn’t seen in years reached out to me and what followed were a series of new and beautiful adventures. Adventures that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t reached out to others. A former colleague offered to drive an hour to pick me up and bring me to their home for Mother’s Day dinner. While I was there I met so many wonderful people and felt a community of love and acceptance.
Another couple I met last summer at a photography course in Provincetown, invited me and my daughter to stay in their home in San Francisco where they hosted us for several days. My friend drove us along the Pacific coast from San Francisco to Carmel, it was beautiful!
Another Facebook friend who I met in person for the first time, gave me a full tour of Oakland from top to bottom and shared stories of his life and times in California. My old friend, James from my college days met me for lunch in at a French Bistro in San Francisco. We talked about old times and shared stories of our children and caught up on life.
All of this would not have happened if I hadn’t shared my dilemma with others and exposed my vulnerability. Instead of feeling sorry for myself and feeling a victim, I found strength in the love and caring of others who reached out to me. I actually felt happy. I felt liked. I felt loved. My loneliness seemed to disappear, and I realized that there were people out there who wanted to help, who wanted to touch me with kindness and I realized that it is so much better on the other side of the bullet proof vest. It’s good to let your guard down and take a chance. New adventures await an open heart. So undress your heart. Make yourself vulnerable and see what happens.