Updated: Jun 5, 2018
Are you like, "you're...a narcissist" yet?
“Do you think I’m a strong person?” I typed, my thumbs a blur as they raced across the screen. I waited as the blue ellipses bubble pulsed, anxious and desperate for a response. Pulse. Pulse. Pulse. It looked almost alive, like a heartbeat, the rhythm timed to my breath.
An eternity later, “Yes. Why?”
“I don’t know. I feel strange, fragile somehow. I can’t explain it.”
Looking back now, I can’t imagine what tipped me off. I was crouched in the fetal position in a home goods store—I won’t tell you which one, lest all the crazies flock there to have their mental breakdowns—pretending to inspect the prices on mirrors but actually hyperventilating and frantically texting my best friend. I felt manic almost, but sad. It was like my melancholy smoked a little meth while I wasn’t looking.
Each time a stranger came down the aisle into my space, I’d gulp air through my mouth, hold it, and nod as they passed, a friendly, bloated grimace to welcome the neighbors. My heart raced and my whole body buzzed. It was like my nerves had been replaced with swarming bees, an angry hive radiating through my veins. Finally, the last vestiges of my self control vanished, and I eventually fumbled out of the store through tears, leaving behind a wasted shopping trip and very confused sales staff.
After extremely careful evaluation, I realize now that I was probably having a minor panic attack. Mine are often triggered by caffeine, and at the time, I was pounding cold brews like a fratstar pounds brewskis. If someone had offered me a caffeinated keg stand, I absolutely would’ve accepted. But there, sitting on cold tile, my legs tingling as they went numb beneath me, I didn’t understand. There, I felt like my mind was made of glass, delicate, untenable. One unbidden thought, one tangent in the wrong direction, and I would’ve shattered. Luminous shards of me all over the floor, as surely as if I’d broken one of the mirrors.
"I crack under the pressure of a misspent life."
In the late Middle Ages, many aristocrats and royals were plagued by an obscure mental illness called the Glass Delusion. Essentially, they believed that their bodies or parts of their bodies were made of glass and would break if jostled or bumped or hugged a little too tightly. It is a real thing, and I encourage you to look it up immediately.
King Charles VI believed his entire body was glass and refused to sit down unless wrapped in a deluge of thick blankets. He even had his clothes reinforced with padded iron rods to protect his glass organs from shattering. A Bavarian princess was convinced that, as a child, she’d swallowed a full sized glass grand piano and spent the rest of her life concerned it would break inside of her. She walked sideways through doors and hallways, taking careful, measured steps to prevent any sudden movement.
When one physician was called to attend a man who believed his buttocks to be made of glass, he balked when asked to provide a recommendation. How, you may ask, does one treat a patient with a glass butt? I’ll tell you how. This doctor, a visionary in my personal opinion, cured the man by spanking him. I’ll just let that sink in for a minute. Take your time. This man received a medical spanking. Possibly the only one on record. Don’t quote me on that. I’m sure some among us would agree that they need regular “medical” spankings for their own glass delusions, if that’s what the kids are calling it these days. To be honest, it is the most absurdly delightful informational tidbit I’ve ever heard, and I cackle like a lunatic every single time I think about it. But what am I saying? I am a lunatic.
I mention this, because as funny as I think the glass delusion is—which for the record is very, very funny—it was also a very real mental illness with very real daily consequences for the people living it. Just imagine how different your life would be if you absolutely knew your body was made of glass, even if no one around you could see it. How terrified you’d be, constantly. And how the force of that terror would bear down on you, exhausting your brain and your body. I hurt for these people because I know how the weight of wary glances and whispered words reinforces what’s broken, splintering my confidence and my charisma and my self care. And I crack under the pressure of a misspent life, discontent but too afraid to be anything better than what I am.
At my previous job, I’d wail into my steering wheel as I drove to work, sobs sometimes wracking my body so hard, I’d have to pull over on the shoulder because I couldn’t see the road through my tears. I’d plead for deliverance or darkness or even death, and I’d feel destroyed waking up the next morning, every single ounce of my willpower dragging me out of bed. “I hate my life,” I told my mom. “Don’t say that,” she hissed. “No job can make you hate your life.”
"A life of constant terror but hardly a life at all."
But it wasn’t just the job. It was me. It was me screaming my way to work. It was me dreading every client call, every single new email. It was me crying in the bathroom and me taking a long lunch because I could not face what I’d go back to. It was me snapping at my husband, waspish, mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the day. It was my weakness, my impatience, my insecurity, just not gritty enough to withstand and succeed. I hated my job because it made me hate myself. I became ugly and sharp, all jagged edges and gnashing teeth. A grotesque caricature of the person I had once been.
I saw fragility in myself, something I’d never seen before. I became a victim of my own personal glass delusion. My brain was flimsy and feeble, poised to fracture under the weight of failure and cowardice and unmet expectations. A life of constant terror but hardly a life at all.
And I have noticed lately, since I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety and especially since I’ve begun writing about it publicly, that people treat me as precious—which for the record, I am, but just not in the way they think. Warily, they’ll approach me, almost shuffling to my side. “How ARE you?,” they ask, with a gentle brush of their hands on my arm. “I’m great,” I’ll usually say, because usually, I am. Or if I’m not, I just really don’t want to talk about it with you, Great Aunt Busybody. Whatever my response, it is inevitably followed by *the look.* I think we all know the one.
Their chins tilt down, their heads cock sideways, and their eyes shift right up underneath their eyebrows, bargaining for space in the upper half of their ocular cavities. It’s the look that accuses someone of lying without actually saying so to her face. It’s the exact look my mom gave me in high school when the skunky waft of Natty Light assailed her senses after I’d come home from parties. It’s the look that tells me I’m somehow doing my anxiety wrong, like because I’m not dysfunctional all the time, I must not be dysfunctional at all. All or nothing, the look says.
"I am fragile, but I am strong."
But this is all of me, every complex, fractured, mended, beaten bit. I’m here, being great, and sometimes…not. It’s uncomfortable, that dichotomy. Often, others can appreciate my honesty but not my ugliness. They can value my delicacy but not my brokenness. My glass brain holds a prism to their own discomfort, magnifying every splinter in their careful emotional facades. And if they are cracked, they are weak enough to be broken.
In Japanese culture, chipped or damaged pottery is sometimes repaired using an artistic technique called Kintsugi, meaning “golden joinery.” Cracks are filled with a mixture of lacquer and gold, silver, or platinum dust, the glistening seams a testament of their weakness and their fragility. It illuminates the many lives and incarnations of each piece, allowing a rebirth after every new break.
I have been broken by my traitorous glass brain, but each time, I am reborn into someone better than I am. I have splintered again and again, in new, secret places, and put myself back together, again and again. Each new crack in my facade glitters with the molten gold medals of my triumphs, and I am proud to bear the evidence of my rebirths for a world which often only sees me as damaged. I am fragile, but I am strong.
The cruel, and uncomfortable, truth is that we are all weak enough to be broken.
But in our brokenness, we are beautiful. We transcend our usefulness as we are and expand to hold more. More honesty, more empathy, more gratitude. We are joined together with golden seams, collectively testifying the shimmering tenuousness of a well spent life.