Of course, like any normal child, I knew really well how to cry from physical pain. Running down the stairs and landing on my knees, playing in the living room and stepping on a needle – I’d regularly whip over normal stuff that makes kids whip.
But when it came to emotional pain, things were different.
The time I thought it was ok
Being blessed with a happy childhood, it took me a while to realize I was growing into a teenager that could not allow myself to cry from emotional pain. I did not have many reasons to! It was not until 3 of my grandparents passed away all within a year, that I was looking at myself in a mirror, wondering if at this point not to cry was actually abnormal. I remember observing myself, like looking from far above, wondering what this little body was going to do with the pain of loss. I felt quite estranged from that pain. It was there, quietly following my every step, but never expressing itself. My parents weren’t crying. Not in front of me anyway. So maybe I did not need to either? I was still just a teenager, clueless about what “swallowing your emotions” actually meant.
I would swallow many things again and again for the next 10 years: sadness, loneliness, sorrows, heartbreaks.
The time I realized it wasn’t ok
After college, I moved abroad to volunteer with foreign students. Three of us were sharing a tiny apartment in the suburbs. I was an only foreigner in a big group: only one who had to take a plane to come work on this volunteering project, only one who had no friends or family in the city. And at first, things were hard. Then it also got hot: the city was melting in the summer heat, so was our little apartment and so was my ability to “hold it together”. In a strange city, I was feeling alone, isolated, misunderstood. I needed a release, so I grabbed my keys and run out of that sweaty crowded apartment. There was a park nearby, and I remember heading there with a clear purpose: I needed to be alone and cry.
But the tears did not come. I was calling them in. I would force, push, even moan. By then I could feel tears would bring much-desired relief like rain would give a fresh-breath to a city boiling of heat. No, not that time. I could not shed one tear.
The time when it became my own norm
I was a girl who could not cry. Even when I needed it for my own benefit. It almost became a part of my identity. Getting into relationships, I would quickly announce to a romantic partner that I would easily shut down when things got tough. And when things did get tough and dear friends would see me in pain I knew nothing better but to say: “I know you are trying to help, I trust you like nobody else in the world, but I really don’t know how to share the pain”. From not knowing how to express emotional pain in tears, I start getting confused about expressing it in words too.
I felt like a disabled person: I really want to tell my girlfriend what was hurting so bad. She would be sitting in front of me, patiently waiting and waiting and waiting. My words just would not come up, forming that nasty lump in the throat. It wasn’t a metaphor. Every time things got tough I felt that block in the throat, spreading into facial nerves, reminding me of this “disability”.
The time I was able to break the pattern.
Of course, I always considered that side of me as something to work on. I lovingly called this disability “my dragon” and was hoping to make peace with this dragon.
It was early January, a few days after the New Year party. That year I set an intention of coming on good terms with at least one of my dragons (yes, there is another one, but that’s a different story). Doing some housework, I clearly saw a piece of my life that was missing. It was my grandmother, or actually her story to be exact.
At the beginning of this piece, I told you that my relationships with not-crying started after 3 of my grandparents passed away all within one year. She was the 4th one: the one who left us years before I was born. I knew her name: Lida. But that’s about it. At the age of 28, I knew nothing about how she lived and nothing about why she died. It was then it all started to come together. This big story: the story of someone so close to me was always present in my house. In fact, in our living room we had a giant carpet she purchased for my father. No matter where we lived and how we would decorate the interior, the carpet was constant.
And though it her presence was constant.
Another constant was silence. Not even once we talked about her with either my father, uncle of the grandfather. I knew she bought a carpet, I knew she passed away at a very young age, I knew we did not talk about her.
No wonder, when other losses happened in the family we adopted a familiar model: grieving silently. No wonder I never learned how to process emotional pain.
In a well-produced movie, I would next ask my father to tell me about her, shed my first tear while listening and have a new-found ability to cry after that. In real life, it still took years and is probably still in the process.
I was quite afraid to bring up a topic with my father (hey, he did not touch it for my whole life, it MUST BE emotionally loaded). Turned out he was not avoiding it, just not much of a talker. I, however, needed to close this chapter, so I ended up interviewing everyone in the family, building a family tree, finding every detail I possibly could to fill the gap.
I slowly started crying too. When empathizing with a friend or with a character in a Disney movie, and even for myself sometime. It now has been 3 years, and I still experience that familiar lump in the throat sometimes. I cherish this ability to cry like an actual superpower. I remember how different (and hard) life was without it. I’m actually proud of being able to try. Even tho the tiniest tier which was brought by true emotions, exhaust me on a physical level as if I just run a marathon
I know the dragon is still here. The dragon is here with me for this lifetime, I believe, he is a part of who I am: the girl who did not know how to cry but then understood why and started slowly learning. I now starting to see there might be another dragon: an ability to express anger, taming this one will be a whole new journey.