While touring Edinburgh Castle, Jim and I encountered a man describing medieval arms. He demonstrated the long bow and the crossbow, detailing differences between them. One of the great benefits of these weapons is they could be used from a distance. Closer contact between enemies was dangerous for both.
He showed us a gambeson, or quilted coat. It looked remarkably like the coats worn by many in the audience. Its purpose, though, was not warmth, but protection. It could protect the skin from cuts and tears rendered in close combat.
The demonstration reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago, while at the tail end of recovery from depression and anxiety. Excerpts from it are below.
This morning I awoke thinking of body armor. Imagine the padded chest protectors used by umpires, or those worn by fencers. These carry on a design idea with ancient origins. In the Middle Ages, thickly padded, quilted material was used to make body armor. It protected the warrior from blows of early weaponry.
Body armor, a means to protect oneself from attack.
The quilted armor, torn through all three layers, tattered and frayed. Underneath the skin is mottled, bruised, still tender. It heals, but slowly. My armor, variable in heft, could not protect me. I sit, needle in hand, pondering how to mend it, reinforce it.
I have mended quilts before, but never all the way through. Repairs can be simple enough, depending on the nature of the rip. If threads are loose at a seam, tuck them back in and stitch, following the same line. If the fabric is rent, darning or patching may secure it. These tears, though, and there are many, these will take time.
We all carry armor. For some it is thin, easily penetrated. Others have thick, sturdy armor that lets nothing in. And we all have potential sources of attack.
Clubs, chains, arrows and swords, most of the danger came from close combat. It still does.
Usually the risks are emotional rather than physical. Most of us have people in our lives who provide a continuing stream of negative emotion. A co-worker’s tone of voice, gossip, or undermining; a family member’s repeated reminders of mistakes made, or warnings of those yet to be made. Besides things done “to us,” we have loss, worry, hardship. All can take their toll, leaving us damaged and weakened. We are vulnerable and hurt and afraid.
We’ve all been taught to be afraid of strangers, replacing potential trust with suspicion. We’ve all been cautioned about sharing too much personal information, especially in the age of identity theft and cyber-stalking. We hide ourselves from others, careful not to reveal facts or feelings. If they don’t know what hurts us, it’s less likely they will.
“God has given you one face and you make yourselves another.” We all obscure ourselves with masks, partly in the roles we play. Mother, spouse, employee, brother. We create contracts with others based on these roles. As a mother, I hesitate to share my personal concerns with my children. As a mother, I should be strong, helpful, wise.
Last year my mother-mask dropped. The year was a journey through dark and uncomfortable places, with an anxiety disorder that came from nowhere and took over my life. Self-criticism replaced self-confidence, tears replaced contentment, withdrawal replaced responsiveness.
My already-thin armor was shredded by a swirl of unceasing questions, by panic that left me gasping for breath. One day in March I entered a campus office to pick up exams. Before I could speak, my emotional strength left, puddling on the floor, leaving me fully exposed. There is no armor, no safety when you are doubled over, panting and helpless. The only defense then is the compassion of others, those who would protect you when you cannot protect yourself.
Characterized by powerlessness, self-doubt, and confusion, my anxiety was evident to those who knew me best. Those, except my children. With none of them at home, it was easy to hide the damage at first. Eventually, they all could sense my unease and unhappiness.
Besides the roles we play, other masks are those of personality: funny, patient, kind, verbose. Some put on a happy mask, or a calm mask, suffering the slings and arrows while pretending they’ve done no harm. We hide the wounds, we hide our true selves by presenting a false persona. If you think I am funny, must I always be funny? Even when I am in pain? Class clowns and comedians have the reputation of hiding their pain, anger, and anxiety with laughter. Surely they are not the only ones.
Threading my needle with a sturdy strand, I begin on the outer layer. If I can fix what people will see, the rest will not seem as urgent. First I slide the thread into a hole, leaving a knot within the layer of batting. Out again, I take neat stitches, pulling the fabric taut. As each tear is mended, I bury the knots inside.
Each stitch I take is a breath, each breath a question with no answer. Though I’m accustomed now to the absence of answers, my discomfort is palpable, physical. Each stitch is a small stab that brings both healing and pain.
The smaller rips go easily, receding into the whole. The larger ones leave evidence, with stitches crossing the grain of cloth in multiple directions. The worst area, above my heart, is a mess, still visible to all. Perhaps an appliqué in cheery print will distract from the damage done.
Physical barriers can protect us, too. Fences, imposing homes, possessions, excess weight, can be ways to create a moat between us and others, or between us and what else we may fear. Those who overcame poverty may fear returning to hardship. They may calm those fears by owning things, assuring themselves of their relative wealth.
Sweet may be the uses of adversity, but few of us will embrace it gladly. It’s easy to remember Scarlett O’Hara’s triumphant moment, raising her face to the sky, “As God is my witness … I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Her fear of want overwhelmed her ability to make good judgments. Her armor grew tougher and thicker than ever in her quest for security.
While most of us put up fences, some are open. We are open about our pain and about our joy. We tell people when we care about them; we tell them what we value about them. It is a vulnerable position to take. The risks are even greater pain, both from the actual blows, and also from humiliation. Must everyone know the arrow’s tearing of flesh? Yes. When you are that open, yes, they will know.
Early this year, I suffered another heavy blow, this one from outside myself. Tearing out the back of my armor, the knife stabs hit over and over, taking advantage of my weakness. The wounds are deep, their scars still scabbed and stiff. Reminders of the attack come as I move through each day, my routine altered by injury. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
Though I hadn’t finished repairing the previous harm, this new destruction takes precedence. I must decide whether to reinforce the armor, or merely repair it to its earlier strength.
My armor has evolved. In my teens and early twenties, I was one of those known as a “good listener.” Others shared their stories with me, but I rarely shared my own. Now I disclose, but I do not burn bridges, I do not name names, what I reveal is about myself, not about others. That is for them to reveal.
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” Trust is my challenge. Part of my anxiety last year centered on how my judgment could be so faulty, my trust so badly placed. The most recent attack showed me again that trust should be carefully allocated. As I rebuild my armor, it is thicker, heavier than I want to wear.
And still I love, and still I trust, though not as readily.
I am open. I see it as a feature, not a flaw. Yes, it has its risks. Still, they are risks I’ll choose to take. I get to choose, and I choose to be open. I get to choose, and I choose love.