Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sometimes you have to remember to cry even if you don't know why.

I have an acceptable reason to cry these days, a reason everyone understands. I lost my Mom last July. Being with her the last months while she was dying wasn't easy but there was a lot to do so I didn't cry much. But ever since, that pain sneaks up on me.

I know from years of experience that when I hurt, I should cry. The problem is that I don't always know when hurt is trying to surface. Sometimes I turn it off. Sometimes my big, dumb bodyguard, Resistance (I sometimes call it 'Slugger') thinks it's protecting me from danger by turning the switch on *all* my emotions to 'Off,' and leaving a leaden chest-plate in their place.

So this morning I was working here furiously, my 3 computers - the 10 month old, 2 year old and 5 year old - all open at the same time, and I was having fun designing and setting up new programs and scheduling them, tweeting them, checking my Google Alerts and my Twilerts and Tweetbeeps, humming along as I often do at this jolly time of day when I am frequently quite deft at spinning plates -- when I start to notice that I'm getting totally lost every time a computer slows down or 'Spaces' tosses me to the wrong screen. This is not what I want.

It gets worse and my brain finally grinds to a complete standstill. It's gotta be that A.D.D., I'm thinking. I'm familiar with it: a fog shows up from time to time and I find myself staring blankly at my notes and those sites open on my computer screen, all of which so recently seemed significant and now they all look like they're written in Linear B and I'm Tarzan, and don't know how I came to be sitting here in this familiar but incomprehensible world. (I don't think Tarzan works quite right here, but if you have A.D.D., you know what I mean.)

Damn. Well, I can't do anything about an A.D.D. seizure but let it pass, I guess. And then I notice the heaviness of that leaden chest-plate and I remember what that usually means: something hurts. It doesn't feel like hurt, but that's what it feels like when I'm avoiding feelings. I might not know what it's about, even, and if I did, who wants to experience pain? But I know I'd better try to cry or I'll waste the whole day.

(If you find it odd to acknowledge the presence of emotional hurt when the cause isn't clear, think for a moment. You don't require an explanation of causes when other bodily needs make themselves known. If you're driving and you don't know why you're sleepy, for example, chances are there's a good reason. Pull over and take a nap.)

I'm familiar with this phenomenon as you know if you've read any of my books or come to see me back when I had time to see people. (New thought: I never got foggy when I was working with a living human. Not once. Hmmm. That's worth exploring later.)

Since I invariably become stupified at such moments and don't remember what to do, I've given myself instructions so simple a microbe would understand: Cry.

Right now, with something so obviously painful in my recent past, I don't need to wonder what hurts. I just have to picture my poor mom going through those weeks of discomfort, delirium and fear and the dam breaks and I'm sobbing again. And when the sobbing has finished shaking me around, the lead in my chest and the confusion in my brain are gone. I know that outcome from experience, I expect it, and it happened that way today. And as soon as I finish telling you about this phenomenon, I'm going back to work.

If you're anything like me (or the thousands of people I've worked with in the last 40 years) you'll find that sometimes the signs of sorrow will sneak up on you when nothing painful has happened at all. At those times it's even harder to remember to get out the tears* because 1) you don't feel hurt, you just feel odd, and 2) there doesn't seem to be anything to cry about. This can present a problem that may not be as hard to solve as a quadratic equation w/ 3 unknowns, but hard enough.

(Ask me another time about how fear, the fear that something bad is about to happen in the near future, is often about your sense that a painful emotion is trying to fight its way to the surface. Which is to say, you're actually afraid that the *past* is about to happen.)

To add to the confusion, it's not always hurt that has surfaced, not exactly. It could be nothing more than stress. Studies indicate that tears contain stress enzymes, which might mean that releasing tears relieves stress. It could be fear (which is actually stress, I think)  Children, and some of us grownups, can cry when they're frightened. It could even be anger. People who can't or don't want to get really pissed off will sometimes cry from frustration or rage.

I personally believe that you can find some kind of sorrow hiding beneath stress and fear and frustration, but no matter, right now. The point is that if you feel uneasy and/or 'turned off,' bringing up tears will calm you down and wake you up almost every time**. Tears will ease your heart and return your eyesight and brain function. They melt lead chest-plates like hot water melts ice cubes.

But how are you supposed to cry (not that you've consented to do any such thing, I understand that) when you can't think of anything to cry about? Isn't this 'Cry-just-in-case' thing just another gimmick, like spinning or blinking or rapidly tapping your forehead with a small brass hammer? I don't know much about those things, but I doubt it. I'd like to make the case that babies never bother themselves with such questions and they don't seem to care why they want to cry. They cry when they feel like it, and calm down (or doze off) afterwards.

Truth is, for the purpose of quickly relieving numbness, confusion, or the frozen feeling you have before a speech or an audition or an interview or a first date, it doesn't matter what you cry about. It's not even important if you never find out. Think about all the grand, loving, lost collies like Lassie who never got home from Scotland or how it's raining in Odessa if that works, and the resulting emotion, like an aspirin, will seek out the place it's needed and do its work with no further help from you.

Okay, I let my tears out and I feel better and will now get back to setting up my new events, taking side trips to read stuff by kind Jonathan Field and wise Havi and finish the assignments for my heroic WriteSpeak students and get new short url's for my youtube videos...etc. etc. Sticks are up, plates are ready to resume spinning.

But I'm going to try to remember one thing that I didn't think about before:

When I'm in a fog, it's not always A.D.D. at all.

Or, if it is, I've found a cure and will expect notification that I've been awarded the Nobel Prize (or at least the host-ship of Oprah's show) in my mailbox.

I'd really love you to comment below. I'll do everything I can (subscribe to my own blog?) to answer you as soon as I can.

Here are those footnotes you forgot about:

*For those of you who find actual wet tears to be maddeningly evasive, some semi-deep breathing -- or a 'woe is me' series of sighs -- will create almost the same benefit.

** If you cry often and easily, bringing up tears probably won't work for you and my advice is to check with your local psychopharmacologist for signs of depression. If you get the all-clear on that, here's a fortune-cookie piece of advice (but it works): grab a tennis racket and beat the living crap out of your stupid, insolent, bed mattress. Have no mercy. Find that part of you that is self-righteously enraged, completely unfair and unforgiving, and just punish that bugger.

What's the logic in that?
Because feelings that won't go away are frequently smokescreens for less acceptable feelings, and this is a harmless way to blow them out without hurting anyone. Well, it's sometimes kind of hard on the tennis racket. You might want to go to a thrift shop and keep a couple of cheap ones on hand. (Don't get a badminton racket or you'll wind up with a splinter in your eye and your mom will get mad at me.)


  1. Crying is certainly not to be judged nor criticized. When people of a certain age lose a parent, they recognize that they are one step or two steps, closer to being an orphan. We are now officially part of the older generation.

    There is one greater sadness. That is when the parent loses a child. Two years ago my 37 year old son committed suicide. At least one tear shows up every day. No one has ever criticized the sadness of outliving your child.

    May today's tears be replenished with the joys of what you have available to give to your family, friends, associates and strangers.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.

    Richard Oppenheim

  2. Grab a hug after those tears if you can, Barbara - wish I could give you one!!

    Great advice here - I think I'll have a cry myself right now - my little granddaughter just left and I often try to push through the hurt (she goes back to an unpleasant situation and we're never quite sure when we'll see her again) - I bet I'll get more work done if I let the hurt flow thru and on..rather than trying to ignore it - wise words, again - thank you!!

    p.s. the site you have with your mother's dresses - wonderful! Hope you feel mom-related joy when you work on that!!

  3. I'm commenting because I really enjoyed your blog...your words flowed...I think crying is wonderful, just like laughter...of course, we can't go around laughing and crying non-stop, but there's a time for everything...I'm sorry about Mom...having Been There, yes, there are tears, but Time soothes...Hugs and Happy Thanksiving!

  4. I think the source of sorrow isn't only loss, as you point out, Richard. In my case it isn't. I miss my mom. I didn't see my father's last weeks and months and didn't feel as much sorrow. And it isn't from being the next generation to go. I think it often comes an unexpected place. It did for me. I didn't expect her last weeks to be so hard for her. I'd feel that much more in your position.

  5. Thanks, Kittie. I do believe time will soothe. Your message is buoyant and sparkles like water for some reason. Makes me smile.

    Ah, Karen, yours is the hardest of all because it's a child and it's now. I hope crying will get the edge off and help you endure. Can you write her snail-mail letters? Why not some cartoony things to make her smile, the kind of stuff the grownups won't get paranoid about? I know you have that kind of humor in you.

  6. Hi Barbara,
    Like you, I recently lost a parent. My birth dad died last September after a massive stroke. He had disappeared from my life when my sister and I were very small children, and only last year we reconnected with him.
    After he passed I didn't cry much. But since his stroke, I've lost the desire or energy to cook or clean at all. I do manage to get a bit of housework done so I don't live in a sty, but as for cooking from scratch...I just CAN'T DO IT.
    I hear you on the ADD. My life has been really disorganized lately, and it's all I can do to remember to pay the bills and stuff. It's like my responsibilities are floating over my head like little balloons and I'm trying to catch them all before they get away from me.
    Thanks for writing on this. I'm glad you did.

  7. "To add to the confusion, it's not always hurt that has surfaced, not exactly. It could be stress. Studies indicate that tears contain stress enzymes, which might mean that releasing tears relieves stress. It could be fear. Children (and some of us grownups) can cry when they're frightened. It could be anger. People who can't or don't want to get really pissed off will sometimes cry from frustration or rage."

    Finally someone who can help me pinpoint that issue and be ok with it. My instinct is to cry when I'm uneasy/stressed and often it is fear. And I have gotten to the point in the last few years that I KNOW that if I cry I will feel better and be able to focus.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    P.S. I also stumbled upon your "Scanner" definition and will read "Refuse to Choose".

  8. Carrie, loss creates depression in a normal person. Depression means you don't want anything, don't want to do anything, don't care.

    The only guaranteed solution I know of: Wait one year (I hear it takes two to really heal) and get a part time virtual assistant to do your bills asap. Get a once-a-week housekeeper, too. How to pay for it? Get an easy, mindless job in a pizza parlor with a nice boss and friendly fellow workers, a place where you have to show up at a certain time, at least 3 afternoons (or mornings) a week. Then give the assistant and housekeeper all your earnings.

    In a year or so you might be willing to pick up those home jobs again, but you might choose to continue to off-load them and go do something more exciting and less endless.

    I was always afraid that my gravestone would say 'Her house was frequently clean for very brief periods of time.' I kind of hoped I'd have something better written there. I now think I will. But it all started when I got someone else to handle the house and the paperwork.

    And take that year to let your heart heal. If you broke a bone, you'd be wise to expect nothing from it until it was solid again.

  9. One more thing, Carrie. I've seen and heard that when you lose a beloved parent once, you struggle through and keep hoping. When you lose him twice, you lose hope. This is no lightweight sadness. Get a doctor to keep an eye on you.

    I knew a young man whose beloved dad had died he was about 14. He was lucky enough to find a friend his age who had also lost his dad, and they supported each other for years. He went to college and became the protege of a wonderful professor, and was very happy about it. However, this professor died unexpectedly after a few years. That loss hit him even harder, and this time his sense of hope was crushed. It's something that will heal but must be taken very seriously.

  10. Karla, you have made me very happy. (I knew there was a good reason to talk about this stuff.) And I'm impressed that you trusted your judgment enough to learn what to do on your own. Good for you.

  11. I think it's a great advice but I have one tiny problem:

    My eyes get all read and puffy even for just a few tears! That is so unfair! So when that bad feeling happens at work, I can't shake it off. Althought I'm thinking about beating the crap out of my computer with my keyboard! Joke! Would feel good though!

    So instead, I go out and take a hard walk!

    On another notes: thanks for your books! I've found myself feeling a lot better about the six hamsters running in my brain all the time! I've decided to put them to good use!

    Wish you all the best for 2010!

  12. I always tell people I've had an allergy attack. :-)

  13. Dear Barbara

    Thank you for writing this post. I'm very glad you're able to cry about your mother now. It seems to be only recently that I've been able to cry properly over mine, although I lost her many years ago.

    I kind of lost her twice too. She died of a brain haemorrhage after being in a coma for a week, when I was 19. Thankfully I didn't have to witness her suffering the way you did with your Mom. I can only imagine how awful that was. I cried a bit then but not very much. I mainly remember just feeling cold inside.

    But it felt as if I really lost her years before that because she got addicted to the sleeping pills the doctor prescribed for her. You've worked with addicts Barbara so I think I don't need to go into details about that. Mum used to say her children were the most important thing in the world to her, but like any addict, the pills really became more important. It messed up all of our lives for sure. I guess with a long-term situation like that you don't cry much but learn to bury the painful stuff in a corner of your mind and carry on as normally as possible.

    When I heard about your Mom dying it started to bring the pain closer to the surface again. Then more recently I was listening to other people talking about their childhoods and relationships with their parents, and it opened up the floodgates.

    I thought for quite a while afterwards that it had done more harm than good to bring up all those feelings again. But now I'm past the worst and could be in the period of calm productivity I've heard you talking about. So the crying probably did me a lot of good after all.


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