My first semester in grad school for journalism, more than a decade ago, was a shock.
Boom! Right from the beginning we had daily story deadlines. Each of us desperately wanted to prove ourselves to be the next Edward R. Murrow. None of us knew what we were doing.
We were awestruck by our professors, who had held important positions at The New York Times and the major news networks, reported in war torn countries, and braved beatings in Tiananmen Square. We craved their approval. We would labor over our stories intensely, only to have our heroes rip them to pieces.
No one escaped that first few months unscathed.
Finally, one of my classmates did the thing we had all been trying very, very hard not to do.
She broke down in her advisor’s office and cried.
Marcia, her advisor, did not shrink in horror, or send her away, or belittle her, or get flustered, or do any of the things we all secretly feared she might do. Instead, she reached behind her desk and pulled out a box of tissues.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You wouldn’t believe how many students have cried in my office.”
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I wish we all had Marcia’s attitude about crying. I wish we could take it in our stride, see it as a normal, healthy response to everyday disappointment, pain, and stress, instead saving it up for the big stuff—death, divorce, this.
We see crying as a sign of weakness. This is a terrible burden for men, of course, who are supposed to be “emotionally available” but without any of those sissy emotions. But it’s also a terrible burden for women, precisely because we tend to be more easily moved to tears. It’s expected of us. Then when we do it, we are dismissed as delicate, hysterical creatures who just can’t take the heat. Or manipulators.
So when we feel tears coming, we do everything we can to shut them off.
I’m one of those people. I never cried in Marcia’s office. I rarely cry at sad movies. When some difficulty arises, at work or at home, I tend to get angry or focus on solving the problem, but not cry.
It’s gotten so hard to cry, in fact, that I’ve developed what you might call crying constipation. The tears are there; they just don’t come out.
It’s like my tear ducts haven’t been properly maintained. When I get really upset, a tiny janitor inside my (brain? sinuses?) pulls out his wrench and cranks the rusty old faucet open. But just when the water starts rumbling in the pipes, he shuts it off again. I end up dry-eyed and anxious. Or worse.
Two years ago, as I was spiraling into the depression, that turned into a nervous breakdown, I couldn’t sleep. I could barely make myself eat. I was having panic attacks at random times of the day and night. But I couldn’t cry.
Looking back, I think that I imagined that if I started crying, it would mean I had been beaten. Crying was a kind of surrender, and when you think you’re holding the entire world together, you can’t surrender. Too many people depend on you. You have to keep going.
At a certain point, I couldn’t keep going. That’s when the tears came.
I would seem fine at work, then meet my friend David for lunch and cry into my Tandoori chicken. After lunch, I’d blow my nose and go back to work until it was time to pick up my kids. I’d start crying again, quietly, on the BART train, and by the time I picked up my car and arrived at Ruby’s school, I’d be sobbing in the parking lot.
Blow nose. Pick up kids. Drive home. Make dinner. Hold it together until Brian could get home and take over the evening routine. Stumble upstairs to bed, and cry myself to sleep.
This terrified me. Who was this woman with the endless supply of tears? When was it going to stop?
Sometimes your body knows a thing before your mind does. Maybe it’s your soul that knows. I realize now that crying was my body/soul’s way of saying, Honey, enough is enough. This is way too hard. You are made for more than just taking care of other people.
A nervous breakdown can be caused by many things. In my case, one of the causes was a failure to listen. All those tears that I’d been holding back, they were trying to tell me something—that I was trying to do something impossible, that I was living the wrong life, that I was giving up too much for a job that gave back too little. But I’d been too afraid to listen.
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The crying went on for months, and then slowly started to dry up. At some point, I realized I was better. I don’t know when it happened. Now I find it hard to cry again, but I know better. When I feel that little janitor coming with his wrench, I try to let him do his thing.
Every once in a while, after the kids are in bed and I’m alone in the kitchen making their lunches, I’ll listen to a particularly sad Moth story and have a nice, satisfying little cry.
You know what else helps when I want to cry but can’t? Chopping onions. Sometimes a fake cry makes it easier to segue into a real one. Sad movies or sad music can also help. Anything that quiets the mind can help. For me that’s writing or meditation.
Why am I telling you all this? If you browse through this blog, you’ll find hundreds of comments from women and men—most of whom I’ve never met—talking about their struggles to do something that is incredibly hard and maybe impossible.
My message to them, and to you, is that it is OK to cry about it. It’s not a sign of weakness or an act of surrender. It doesn’t mean you have to quit your job like I did, or that you’re going to spiral into some terrible depression. It’s actually the other way around. It’s simply a way of taking in a message your body already knows, but your mind hasn’t been able or willing to absorb:
This isn’t your fault. It’s just really, really hard.
Crying is a way of having compassion for yourself. It’s just listening. Once you can take that in, you get to decide what to do about it.
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