03/18/2015 03:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How a Health Scare Became My Teacher


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'Don't ever let your pain be wasted. Make something of it. Use it for transformation. Harness its power and evolve' - Liz Gilbert

I was reminded of these words last week during a, thankfully short-lived, health scare. As is so often the case, just when I needed it most, the universe came and dumped in my lap a situation full of learning and insight. The health scare became my teacher about true vulnerability.

I am married with two small children and a dog. I coach women and run workshops about Vulnerability for a living. I thought I knew this stuff.

A routine appointment at the doctors ended with an urgent referral to the hospital. I had to wait to be contacted about the appointment.

Ten minutes later I found myself avoiding my pre-booked yoga class and heading home to be with my husband and children.

Brené Brown's definitions of Vulnerability resonate the most with me, and are the ones that I explore with people in coaching and workshops. It is showing up when there are no guarantees. It is emotional exposure. It is risk.

And, as I arrived home, it struck me suddenly how vulnerable it felt to even show up and be with my family. I had anticipated it being a comfort. It was actually a kick in the stomach. Just being with them, laughing and singing, felt excruciating. The enormity of what there was to lose - for us all. The potential devastation to those I love so much. The responsibility.

And I became aware that Shame had gatecrashed the family time too - grumbling, 'What kind of mother do you think you are? Why did you not go to the Doctor months ago about that health niggle? Who are you to think you have immunity to all this health stuff? That's it, you've failed as a mother and a wife'.

And in all of this excruciating vulnerability and mind wiping shame, I stopped showing up with my own family. I shut down. I was there in person and body but my heart and soul were missing in action. The time when we probably could have done with our own brand of connection the most and I was not there.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to my supervisor how difficult I was finding understanding the concept of numbing. It turns out I'm pretty good at doing it without the props. And still, once the children were in bed each evening, I reached out for whatever I could find to numb myself further - red wine, box sets of The Good Wife, sugar, chocolate.

Joy became the most difficult emotion to be with. I went to the theatre and felt myself shrinking at the fun and vitality observed on the stage. 'Don't enjoy this; this is what you've got to lose', the joy stealing gremlins whispered in my ear. Until a beautiful rendition of 'Waterloo Sunset' had tears streaming down my face in awe of the beauty of the music, the lyrics and the shared witnessing of a peak experience with everyone else in the theatre.

I found I couldn't even share my deepest fears with my husband. The magnitude, the scale, the sheer weight of the altered awareness was overwhelming. Even now I am struggling to describe the experience as I didn't truly let myself go there. Best surely to exist a few metres back from the cliff edge and pretend it's not there?

Now I've been given the all clear and can truly just get on with things. Yet this glimpse of a life with no guarantees is worth sitting with for a while longer. Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent. The only certainties are sickness, old age and death. Rather than being morbid, this is about an enlightened approach to living. Our choices and behaviours would be so different if we could grasp this concept, and yet we live as if we are indestructible.

I understand why. Showing up and being seen in a life recognised as impermanent is perhaps the most vulnerable arena of them all.