Serious Commitment Issues
Love and vulnerability. One is a ghost without the other.
As children, we are masters of affection. We overflow with it. Love comes
naturally, like the seasonal flu. You hurt us, we love you still. More and
fiercely. Like you’re worth saving even if the world gives up on you.
Having no idea this gift is precious, we squander it on those who
don’t always deserve it, but it matters little.
Our hearts are in bloom.
Until the onset of adulthood.
By then, our scars prevent us from blooming too much.
Adulting and vulnerability are well-known oxymorons, not the norm. Once
we’ve grown, emotional dignity becomes a commodity. We fear
earnestness. Running into someone’s arms, shouting ‘I love
you’ even if they don’t say it back, even if they’re all
sharp edges, is more mythology than memoir. Terrifying. The goal becomes to
never give up our genuine selves without a few bloody noses.
But what happens when the decision to be a vulnerable adult isn’t
yours to make? How does one protect herself when any stranger can discover
her secrets before she even knows their name?
This is where my adult story begins.
My name is Oksana. I’m a writer and I have a confession to make.
I have serious commitment issues.
At least that’s what the men I’ve been dating lately tell me.
Case in point. Not long ago, I’m sitting in a coffee shop (neutral
grounds), breaking up with, let’s call him Tom. I give Tom my reason:
he’s going too fast, an hare to my tortoise. What sounds legitimate
to me, he refuses to accept.
“Because I know better,” he says. So much better that he
proceeds to enlighten me. “The only thing you care about, Oksana, is
writing stories. And I know why.”
“Tell me.” I sit on the edge of my seat.
“You’re running, always have, it’s in your blood
too,” Tom volunteers. “Your Gypsy heritage. This goes way back.
That thing with your high school boyfriend, too, is one proof of many. Face
it, Oksana. You have serious commitment issues.”
“My blood? My high school boyfriend?”
He points an imaginary pistol at my face. “Bingo.”
I never told him about my high school boyfriend. And I’m not in the
habit of revealing my Roma culture to people I don’t trust. How does
he know so much? There’s only one explanation.
He read my memoir.
Tom analyzes and diagnoses me based strictly on what he read in my book.
And what I learn during that conversation is how uncomfortable I feel being
studied this way by a potential romantic partner. And yet, I have no
choice. It keeps happening.
I guess I should’ve expected this. Memoirs steal privacy and make
hoarding secrets a luxury. Deal or retreat into the hollows of your bedroom
never to be seen again. My way of dealing was to hide the fact that I wrote
a book in the first place. To the immediate world, I was simply an English
teacher. A member of an honorable profession. After all, we perceive
teachers to be of noble character, seldom blemished by earthly trappings.
But my dates always found out. Google is a beast.
Just about now you might say, well Oksana. We’re all familiar with
this feeling. Invasion of privacy is the new black. Dating has become a
game of ‘how intimately can I get to know you online before I commit
to meeting you in person’. Social media has made our world a tiny
studio apartment where we share a bathroom. Difficult to take time, to
retain the excitement of getting to know someone new when the toilet
flushes every few minutes.
But here’s my counterargument to that.
Let’s be honest for a moment. Our social media-dom makes us demigods.
Slap a filter on that sucker and we’re a yoga princess, a perfect
parent, a pro athlete. On our screens we’re enlightened, finders of
our truth of our tribe, whatever.
It’s a stage.
All the while we hope once our partner sees through the filter, they
won’t feel the impulse to bolt and the real getting to know each
other will commence.
The only way to write about your life, however, is to tap into your most
vulnerable bits. You mine yourself. You are a work in progress. The rarest
materials hide at great depths, and it takes serious drillage to get to
those layers. But when you do find them, skip no beat over a memory
you’d never share in a post. Tell a genuine story. One that strips
you naked. Because the moment you’re not exposed, if you’re
contrived even a little, they will know. You will know, which is
And here’s the catch.
The writer might find the experience cathartic: forgive, forget, triumph or
defeat. But the reader only sees character, conflict, resolution. While you
hide the fact the only time you’ve been truly bare in your adult life
was when you wrote the damn thing, they see you as an actor.
And what do we do with actors? We interpret their performance: I wonder
what that simile really meant? Ooh, did you note the foreshadowing element
during falling action? That monologue— just magnificent, so visceral!
How ironic. How terrible! How theatrical!
Of course, as a writer, I’d prepared myself for that part of the job.
Somewhat. People judge writing. Scrutiny comes with the writer’s
territory, so should a thick skin. Less than stellar book reviews required
not much more than a latte and a hug from a good friend to turn the world
right side up again.
As a woman, however? Knowing that a man I fancied could flip through my
pages. Glibly or with respect. But always literally. That was the snag, the
caveat no one had prepared me for.
Turns out I didn’t know how to deal.
Tom wasn’t the first guy to dive into a sharp-pointed, literary
analysis of some imperfection or strength in my character as a girlfriend.
And at times, this attention was flattering. Except for when it was creepy.
When we’d be sitting on his couch. Date four, maybe. The guy would
tell me a funny story about his grandpa farting at the Christmas table,
then I’d share an anecdote about my parents getting stuck inside a
KGB headquarters elevator. And he’d say, “Oh yeah. I remember
that part.” And finish the story for me. To him, I was an actor.
I knew I had to make a choice. Either ignore my reaction to people who
discussed my life-story as if I weren’t real or come to terms with
having to be more open than seems sane.
But what does it mean, to be an open book?
When people claim to be one, they make a rarely kept promise. It should
mean, I am as vulnerable as a child. Instead, we misguidedly assume it
means, I have no secrets. But the way we first appear to others isn’t
the genuine us and we often keep secrets even from ourselves, so how can
the phrase be true? Who but children, earnestly reveals our weaknesses to
strangers who might be little more than passing ships? Or worse. Our future
Apparently, memoir writers.
‘I am an open book.’
I’d always thought it a silly phrase. A copout. It reminded me of a
Russian proverb my grandma used with people she didn’t trust.
“V tichom bolote cherti vodyatsa.” And I agreed with
grandma. Whenever someone swore their pages open, I’d think, What
demons lurk beneath your swampy waters, my friend?
But then a moment arrived when I better understood the sentiment, my
respect for which grew only after I myself became one such open
book. When I couldn’t choose to put up walls, at the mercy of anyone
who read my story, I comprehended the true meaning of that phrase. In the
process of writing, I threw open my own pages. Not since childhood had I
seen so much fragility in my own reflection.
At first, vulnerability was a trudge through a barbwire forest. It hurt too
much, and I have a low pain threshold. I resisted. But eventually I
figured. So what? I’ve got issues. Since when is perfection a decree
in our flawed world?
I dug around myself, curious why it seemed so hard to let others see the
pieces of me less perfect.
Many theories surfaced.
Perhaps, my discomfort with scrutiny came from a place of longing to be
free in a meaningful way, but not knowing how to achieve that. Maybe all
memoirists jump into the abyss not because they want fame and fortune but
because the relevance of their experiences lies at the bottom.
Until I wrote the book, I didn’t know I was no longer vulnerable.
Only when there was nowhere to hide did I see my Hadrian’s wall.
I reached out and grazed its roughened bricks.
Even now my fingers dance across the etched memories of heartbreaks,
yearnings, of my younger self. I realize the wall is
ancient, a relic, but it’s here to stay and I’m learning to not
cower in its presence. On the contrary, slow as a turtle I’m
beginning to appreciate the lessons it contains without attempting to raze
it to the ground.
It was, it is, a fraction of who I am. But only that. It doesn’t have
a hold on who I choose to be today.
The closest synonyms of vulnerability are weakness and frailty. A
dispiriting pair. No wonder only children are foolish to be vulnerable.
It’s not a trait we value as adults.
But deep down.
We crave it.
Alone, we roam for signs of it behind our battlements. We know the synonyms
aren’t true. We know the very thing we try to keep at bay is the
thing we desire most.
So if we want to love and be loved truly, deeply, with abandon, we must
remember this: Like nature, we are made of open spaces. Deserts, oceans,
mountain ranges. An entire world to explore. And like nature, we are made
of scars. Gorges, caverns, and ravines. Our ‘weakness’ makes us
feel ugly and undesirable. But in the process of resisting the ruins and
bogs of our emotional landscapes, we also ignore those majestic open
Wouldn’t it be liberating to show our scars?
The wrong people might analyze us, yes, and run. But the right ones will
show us their own flawed formations.
It’s worth it.
In the end, to let others see us, to really peer inside and trod through
our natural formations, might be the greatest freedom we grant ourselves.
The forgiveness so many of us seek. The biggest gift we give others. The
kind of vulnerability that keeps us authentic, unadulterated, undiluted.
The kind of softness that brings us back to ourselves full circle and helps
us overflow just like when we were young.