Acts of sharing defined my childhood. When I was young, I brought extra rice cakes to school because I knew my friend liked them. On my birthday, I made sure my sister received a party favor so she wouldn’t feel left out on my special day. At one point, I even shared a journal with my best friend and alternated writing story chapters with her.
Though I became an expert at sharing things, I never learned how to share myself. In retrospect, this seems strange, because my parents had no such problems; I heard plenty of stories about my mom’s childhood, and when I was older my dad regaled me with some choice highlights from his college fraternity days. But my parents sharing intangible stories always seemed separate from my small acts of generosity.
Of course, when I was 7 and my most important life event was my hamster escaping and lodging herself inside a wall during show-and-tell, being open with family members didn’t seem all that important. But as the world got a little tougher and my problems grew more nebulous, my capacity to share became increasingly elusive.
I didn’t learn what I was willing to share until that decision was taken from me. During my sophomore spring at Northwestern, a man I considered a friend raped me. I was made to share my body – a person’s most intimate possession – with someone who never asked. I suddenly felt very isolated from the communities and friends I had built over the past two years. I felt myself needing support in a way I was only comfortable providing, not receiving.
When I forced myself to ask for help from those I was closest to, I was met with more support than I could have anticipated. Slowly, as I learned to incorporate being a survivor into my working identity, my small circle of support expanded to include more peers.
I didn’t know how to bring my parents into the drama that had taken place more than 2,000 miles away. So I didn’t. I planned on it remaining a lifelong secret to my family members. The fact that it was common knowledge among most of my Northwestern friends did not matter.
Around the time I left for college, I started to place my past trauma into a friend’s palms and trust them to treat it with love and care.
I quickly realized upon arriving to Northwestern that home had at least one luxury (not including being able to shower without shoes on) that school did not: time. Years of coexistence helped my family understand me. Over time, we had unwittingly practiced the art of showing and not telling.
It became clear that I wasn’t going to make friends without a new approach. That’s when I started unlearning the rehearsed responses that had filled every conversation I’d had for as long as I could remember. I learned that sometimes telling is as powerful as showing.
Weeks of small talk morphed into a race to know as much about one another as possible. Conversations became a version of trading: in exchange for revealing a personal and painful part of myself, I expected and received the same in return. Within a few weeks, my friends knew stories that I wouldn’t dare share with my family.
I was comfortable, and I got the support I needed when I needed it. But when I saw how my friends reacted to my experiences, I could not imagine the trauma it would cause my family.
The #MeToos that dotted – and then flooded – my Facebook newsfeed in October started to smudge the line between school and home. Much like when I was assaulted, I felt forced into a public and uncomfortable form of vulnerability. By posting on Facebook, every person in my life could hear my story, whether in Amherst or Evanston. Even though I would normally be the first person to share, I ultimately decided against it. But I felt like avoiding the Facebook trend risked discrediting me as a survivor, advocate and ally.
While the pressure caused me to retreat back into silence, it pushed many others to break theirs – including my mother. When she shared her story of assault for the first time, it leveled the mountains and valleys that until then had kept home and school separate.
Since that conversation, I’ve felt a tension growing in my definition of self that I didn’t realize had been changing steadily over the past three years. A person can’t understand me at this moment without knowing my life story – and I’m living in a world where many of the people most important to me don’t.
I want to get to a point where everyone in my life knows this version of me. But I’m still working to find a way to stitch together my two homes in a way that doesn’t cause them to unravel every time I board the plane. Each time I return to my hometown, it grows more difficult for me to shut down free-flowing, talkative Lila in exchange for the practiced, careful self I’ve rehearsed for years.
Up until recently, most of the times I’ve been capital-v-Vulnerable have been at breaking points. My vulnerability has felt forced: my first visit with a therapist in 10th grade resulted from of a friend worrying for my safety, and my anxiety disorder became decidedly more public after my third social-event-related panic attack as a sophomore in college.
A need to seek help, more often than not, leaves me feeling damaged and weak. I wonder whether I was wrong to wait to get help as long as I did or wrong to seek it at all. Each of these splinters brings me closer to collapse, but I often find comfort and healing in my friends’ voluntary openness. I am starting to understand why sharing has been painful by recognizing the times when doing so can be both powerful and positive. My mom, after all, didn’t open up to me because she needed to; she treated her experiences as an invitation to trade stories with me and my sister. I just neglected to RSVP.
This is why I now choose vulnerability. Not because I need to, but because I want to. Though I didn’t do this in the public way that the #MeToo campaign offered, this essay will dismantle the privacy I have cultivated for as long as I can remember. By the time this piece is published, I will have shared my long overdue story with my family. Hopefully, this will be the first step in sharing with them the woman I have become.