Why I Cry
Though many animals shed tears, crying has always seemed uniquely human to me. Humans, the soft primates we are, shed tears from childhood to adulthood, a fact that I found confusing for many years. Crying could not be explained with a formula or tucked away neatly inside any logical domain. There was something primal about crying. It seemed suitable for the forest-dwelling primates but somehow undignified for us bipeds. What is the use of crying for rigid, suit-wearing, sophisticated creatures like us?
I have been searching for an answer to the question of why humans cry for most of my life. As an easy crier, I have cried in more public places than anyone I know. I have cried in theaters, in schools, and in restaurants. I have cried in the back seat of my parent’s car, alone, in a small town in Oregon. I cried once at a Starbucks before a music audition, and then again at the actual audition. I cried at my high school graduation, and at many yard sales. I have even cried in a DMV, though I imagine that isn’t an uncommon experience. The point is, I have done a lot of crying.
Crying, I once believed, was a hindrance and a weakness, one that reflected poorly on the crier’s character. This idea, planted in my head during childhood, took root and festered. People around me frowned upon crying in public. In dance class, crying earned scolding from the teacher and snickers from the other girls. At the grocery store, it provoked strange looks from the adults who sneered as they passed, hunched over their wobbly shopping carts. On car rides home from school, crying earned me long lectures suffused in second-hand cigarette smoke. I quickly learned how hard it is to be taken seriously with tears in your eyes.
As I grew older, crying became less and less acceptable. I cannot remember the first time I was instructed to “control my emotions,” but those words have remained an echoed cadence most of my life. I learned to tighten my lips into a straight line, still my shaking shoulders, and blink tears away. I became an expert at scheduling my emotional breakdowns. Tears were saved for the car, for the quiet corners of the school library, and eventually, for my bedroom floor.
I spent most of my public life inside uncomfortable and uncertain restraints. I dared not step in public without squeezing into my tight emotional corset. Hiding my emotions consumed an incredible amount of energy. Sometimes, I would simply run out of fuel. My emotional exhaustion led to me breaking down in restaurants, which is one of the most embarrassing and poignant types of crying I have experienced. Restaurant crying occurs when you are seated across from your mother at your favorite Asian restaurant late at night. A warm breeze sweeps in through the door, and the clinking silverware reminds you of wind chimes. Your food has just arrived when your mother mentions that you will have to buy sheets. Then, the waitress comes to ask whether your food is alright because you are sobbing into your vegetables, and yes everything is alright, thank you, but no, everything is not alright.
As spring turned to summer, a few months before my freshman year of college, it became clear that something needed to be done. I had graduated at the top of my high school class, the weather outside was beautiful, and there was no reason to worry—yet, I was spending my mornings in bed with the curtains drawn, sobbing into my coffee cup. I was exhausted, and people noticed. My family decided that it would be best for me to see a counselor. It was from that counselor that I would finally begin to understand the purpose of crying.
After pacing outside the counselor’s small home-office for a few minutes, I finally gathered the courage to enter. The kitchen, which served as a makeshift waiting room, was objectively inviting. Over the windows, lace curtains billowed as a warm summer breeze drifted in with morning sunlight. The counter was littered with empty mugs, and a tea kettle rested on the stove. “Help Yourself,” read a sign next to a wooden box of tea packets. It was a nice place, but during my first visits to that house, I sat in the kitchen alone, waiting with dread. Will I cry here today? I wondered. The answer was yes. I cried in every session during those few months of counseling.
But I remember one specific visit. After moving from the kitchen to the darker, less comfortable living room, I sat down on the farthest corner of the stiff couch, the side closest to the unlit fireplace—and to the door. In retrospect, I must have looked like I wanted to get the hell out of there. I sat on my hands, fidgeted, and looked out the window, a bad habit I kept through every session. Outside, I saw only parked cars and a run-down neighborhood with dilapidated houses. No trees. No wildlife. Just people.
My counselor sat across from me with his glasses perched on his bird-like nose, pen in hand, waiting for me to direct my gaze away from the window. When I finally did, he cleared his throat and ran through the niceties.
“What have you been thinking about?” he asked.
As was the case during most of my visits, I failed to provide a sufficient answer, instinctively regurgitating whatever vague suggestion he had made to me the week before. Then he asked me a question which took me by surprise:
“What’s making you anxious today?”
I might have laughed. That question was going to take a long time to answer. I was confident that I could fit every letter of the alphabet into that list. A for ant infestation. B for basic human interaction. C for crying. I was certainly crying by then. The ever-growing mound of tissues in my lap was a reminder of my shame.
“What’s making you anxious today?” he asked again.
I focused on shoving tears back into my eyes, an impossible task. I stared intently at a bumblebee hovering outside the window as I mumbled a few words. They were the same worries I had talked about in previous weeks, little things like school and chores and the inevitability of change. When I finished, there was a pause. Then my counselor gave me the look. You know the look—the therapist’s look. It’s the look they give you when they know you’re not saying everything on your mind. By the time you get the look, it’s all over. You can give up on keeping whatever it is a secret. If you don’t say anything, they’ll tell you the same thing they would have said if you had been open with them, but they’ll say it in a passive-aggressive tone which will make you silently hate yourself.
“Is that all?” he asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
He gave me the look again.
“Well, actually,” I said, changing my mind, “I’m also worried about the fact that I’m crying.”
Through blurry vision, I saw him nod.
As counseling continued, things got better in general. I began to understand why we cry. He often explained the psychology behind shedding tears. I may not have been a very good client or a very good human, but I was a good student. I would listen carefully as he showed me diagrams of the brain, and I always did my assigned reading. One day, when I was feeling particularly weepy, he laid out a chart of the nervous system on the coffee table and pointed to it with a ruler. According to this chart, I cried when there was no room left to hold information. I began to imagine myself as a human-shaped cup, filling to the brim with thoughts and then spilling over at the slightest shaking of the world’s table. Crying was important, my counselor believed. It helped reset my nervous system and calm me down. It wasn’t my fault that I cried so easily. In fact, it was a biological necessity.
Finally, I felt vindicated. I left the office and went forth with the knowledge that I shed tears for a reason. This information helped me understand why I wept in public. Now, when the tears came, I took a breath, ignored the echoes of “control your emotions,” and went on with my business as best as I could. There was some peace in understanding. I felt like the other primates for once. I felt wild, instinctual. Everything I was could be explained by biology.
There was no shame in being a creature.
It is true. There is no shame in crying.
Unfortunately, however, my counselor’s explanation could not account for all the tears in my life. I can find no scientific evidence of the explanation he offered, as helpful as it was. Instead, scientists more often suggest a social function for tears. Crying, they say, signals vulnerability and helplessness to other members of the species. Subsequently, tears increase the likelihood of receiving help. They are visible enough to capture a kind stranger’s attention but quiet enough to pose no risk. This is, of course, why children cry when they are hungry or scared. I imagine it is also why they cry when they are lost. It is also the same reason adults cry. Shedding tears is a literal cry for help.
Counseling, for me, was an exercise in this vulnerability. While I sat sobbing, barely managing to speak,I was unlearning everything I had ever believed about crying. Without any instruction, I had taught myself to hate asking for help. I feared doing so made me incapable, a nuisance. I would wander in a grocery store for hours rather than ask an employee for help. Telling anyone how badly I felt, how badly I had been feeling for years, had been unthinkable. Despite my emotional discomfort, I suppressed my tears day after day because it was better than being what I was naturally: a mess. I spent so much time loathing my emotions and hiding them away like fugitives that I had kept them from serving their only function. What use are tears if there is no one around to see them?
Counseling brought me out of hiding, allowed my tears to be seen. It taught me to say “No, everything is not alright” and “Yes, I would like your help. Thank you.” Counseling allowed me to be a lost child accepting help from a stranger. During those three months of weekly sessions, I learned to embrace my vulnerability.
The first time I sat down on that couch, my counselor asked if I wanted to be there. The tears streaming down my cheeks were answer enough, but he wanted me to say it out loud, confidently, for practice.
“Will you please help me?” I asked hesitantly.
“Will you please help me?” My tears asked silently.
“Will you please help me?” we ask now, still.
My counselor and the two others I’ve had since all agreed to help. Most good people will. Tears are a silent question. I had to remember how to ask that question. I am still learning to ask that question. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet, but I am trying. It may have taken months, years even, but I have finally started to weed out all the negative ideas about crying that were planted in me so long ago. I don’t sneer at kids crying in the dairy aisle anymore. They’re only asking for help. Who are we to think we are above crying anyway? We’re not above asking for help, or receiving it, or offering it to those who need it. So, if I cry when I am talking to you, now you know why.
Kimberly Smith is a queer writer and cat enthusiast from the Pacific Northwest. She recently received her B.A. in Professional and CreativeWriting from Central Washington University. Her work has appeared in Rag Queen Periodical and Nota Bene, an anthology of writing by two-year college students. You can find her on twitter @Kimberly_363.