Interpreting Tears



Last night I was greatly encouraged and inspired by Rob Bell when he came to talk and sign books at our local bookstore. It would’ve been even better had I not been preoccupied with the incident that occurred just before he came. See, my friend and I were looking for a place to sit and I sat right next to this person who I knew was a local author and tried to strike up a conversation based on the totally cool t-shirt she was wearing. Then she and my friend pointed out to me that the seat I was in was reserved and I had to move.

I was humiliated and so I tried to outwardly make light of it but inside I began to feel that familiar heaviness and the urge to run away would have overtaken me had my friend not been there to ground me a little bit.

They’ve probably already forgotten it, she said and I knew she was right. But that didn’t stop the tears from escaping and, since I knew this was not an appropriate thing to cry over, I discretely wiped them away, one by one. It’s okay for a child to be upset over such an embarrassment but a grownup? I should’ve moved passed those kind of emotions long ago.

Tears-1998Tears don’t seem to function for me the way they do for most people, though. I remember church camp when I was a teenager and that one night towards the end when the speaker would invite everyone to surrender their lives to Christ and then we’d break into our individual church groups where everybody would be crying. It came to be so expected at church camp that when I returned as a counselor in 2004, it’d been dubbed “cry night.”

But I didn’t normally cry on “cry night.” I’d maybe cry every single night but cry night, though, whether my peers and counselors were aware of it or not. It’s just when everyone else broke down, my tears seemed to dry up. But hey, at least I was free to comfort them without the need to be comforted as well.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 23 provided some explanation for my extreme emotions but still left a few unanswered questions. For instance, my suicide attempts were usually not linked with strong emotions. Sometimes I’d cut my wrists when I was feeling nothing at all. I was kind of cathartic in those moments and self-injury sometimes calmed me. That’s when the doctors decided to make borderline personality disorder my Axis II diagnosis. Annoying as the label was, it made me eligible for dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) where I was taught to be less judgmental of self and others and to practice mindfulness.

DBT had homework assignments built into it. We had to practice each new skill we learned and then talk about it the following week in group therapy. I wasn’t necessarily the best student. Just like back in my university days I was scatterbrained. I wanted to learn everything so I could be a productive member of society and so I could make and keep friends but I couldn’t quite find the mental strength to fight for those things.

At least I stopped self-harming and the suicidal thoughts almost completely disappeared. Meanwhile my medication was working and aside from a few undesirable side-effects, I felt pretty good.


But the crying spells still manage to creep up on me now and then and I’m quite sure they have nothing to do with the bipolar disorder because they’re brief and triggered by very specific circumstances.

When I was a child, authoritative figures had a lot of power over me. Maybe that’s why I behaved so well at work and school. When Mrs. W, my fourth grade teacher, visited with her new baby, we had a small party with her and I joked with my classmates about how she was my teacher to which her replacement, Mrs. R, said, oh no, Clara, don’t say that. She’s everybody’s teacher. And I immediately started to cry.

I didn’t mean it like that, I said through my tears. I was just kidding, I didn’t mean to say anything wrong.

The teachers reassured me that everything was fine but the tears had already surfaced and there was no disguising the depth of my remorse.

Fast-forward to university and not a single professor could confront me about missing assignments or low grades without provoking tears. In one class an assistant professor called on me to answer a question when no one would raise their hands and I answered best I could. However, my answer was unpopular and being forced to say anything at all brought tears to my eyes. Fellow students who passed me on the way out actually stopped to console me saying we know that’s not what you really thought. You were just under pressure.

Let’s not forget my work-related problems. I don’t think there’s a single boss I’ve had who’s never seen me cry. Even when I knew the news would not be good, I couldn’t prepare myself enough to hear it.

So why has this happened as recently as last night? What am I still hanging on to?

I went to see the Rend Collective on my birthday this year. They were playing in Portland so I used it as an excuse to see my best friend as well. Now I haven’t been to a concert in a long time so I’m not fully schooled on proper concert etiquette. The venue did not have seats so everyone was forced to stand for the whole concert and ticket prices were the same for everyone. That meant that if you wanted a good spot, you had to arrive early. But I didn’t realize that also meant I’d have to stay in the back the whole night. I thought the absence of chairs meant I could move around so I did only to be scolded by another attendee who said, you can’t move forward because some of these people came four hours early just to have their spots.

I apologized and moved to the back again. I moved quickly too because I felt the onset of tears the second she told me I’d messed up. I can’t cry over this. This is stupid.

My friend and I took a walk outside so I could cool off in the fresh air. It was raining but the rain felt wonderful and masked my tears quite well.

Last Fall I went to the National Geographic Multimedia Storytelling Workshop in Santa Fe and there were many tears that week! They didn’t come all at once but by the third day they were unstoppable. My assignment partner seemed to be scolding me for not pulling my weight and instead of discussing it like an adult, I ran out of the room to a solitary spot and wept freely.

Later, when the tears had subsided and I was more composed, she addressed my reaction to her words. She said she felt she was walking on eggshells with me and I didn’t know what to say in return. I wanted to tell the truth but the stigma accompanying mental illness is still quite strong, especially with the older generations. So I decided to tell her I have a mood disorder and that my emotions are kind of difficult to control sometimes. I assured her that it was nothing she said.

That was a lie, of course. I may not have realized it but I was lying to both of us. What she said did trigger an emotional reaction but since I wasn’t even fully aware of what was going on, I couldn’t exactly describe it, even to myself. Mood disorder was all I could muster and at least it didn’t feel like a lie.

I think it all boils down to my lack of self-worth. I won’t go into why it exists but I’ve never quite had the confidence it takes to achieve any of my dreams. I started college as a vocal performance major. I loved singing on stage but when I moved up to the college level I began to feel like I wasn’t good enough and lost the courage to audition for choir solos. In retrospect I probably wouldn’t have made much money as a singer anyway but the reason I dropped the major had more to do with how little I believed in myself.

And that essentially is how therapy works. We start by identifying the problem and then take it from there. I think I know where to focus my energy now.

To be continued….