It’s Alright to Cry

October 27, 2015    BY Leah Holder Wyman

I’m a crybaby. I’ve always cried. From infancy, where it was a basic mode of communication. To puberty, where it was an awkward exploration in hormones. To now, where it’s just a fixture in my day.

The last 13 months of my life I’ve made note. In a total of 402 days, I’ve managed only 4 without giving in to the urge to cry. Dry ducts and deep breaths are big triumphs.

Yesterday was not one of those days. “Stop crying,” my mom told me furtively over the phone as I stood in emotional shambles in the auto shop. I had a flat tire and was making my way out of New York City on a skimpy spare when the dreaded happened: the motor started shaking, the accelerator became sluggish, and the check-engine light started to blink.

“Stop crying,” my mom told me furtively over the phone as I stood in emotional shambles in the auto shop.

Thankful I’d made it to the mechanic safely through rain and questionable infrastructure, I was nonetheless met with a discouraging diagnosis: three worn-out tires, a broken coil, frayed spark plug wires, two dead bulbs, and an “unidentifiable electrical problem.” Due for an oil change, to boot.

After eight weeks on a cross-country road trip, my poor car was giving out—and I was five states shy of home. I was an anxious, weepy-eyed mess.

I’d hoped the trip, an unparalleled life adventure, would bring so much joy and mental clarity that it would fortify me against such emotional incontinence. Choosing the right travel companion was a good place to start. My friend Anine is a strong person who’s sweet and genuine but not “touchy-feely.” From Oslo, Norway, she committed to flying from Europe, meeting in Boston, and spending every waking moment of the next two months with me in a tiny car. So it’s also fair to say she’s crazy.

I met Anine in paradise—Blue Osa Yoga Retreat in Costa Rica where we volunteered for several months. As I’ve practiced yoga off and on, through many physical and emotional states, I’ve been encouraged by leaders and friends: "Be where you are"—something I was keen to do with vibrant people as azure waves rolled in and colorful macaws soared overhead. But our tenure there was short, so to ease the transition out of the utopia of Blue Osa and fulfill a dream of exploring the U.S., we planned a summer-long adventure together. We spent the next months tripping around the most thrilling and fascinating places in the country.

But now I found myself slumped in a chair next to a watercooler in a dark lobby, surrounded by tire displays, a buzzing fluorescent light above me, and Judge Judy squawking in the background. I felt vulnerable, stuck—yet again asking my parents for a financial bailout. And because I’m a crybaby, I (like the car) was having a breakdown. That’s where I was.

There’s a debate among scientists whether humans are the only beings that cry in susceptible states. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin wrote of elephants shedding tears of sorrow over losses in their pack.

“We must not, however, lay too much stress on the copious shedding of tears…as being due to the lack of all restraint,” Darwin states. His words are comforting in light of society’s diagnosis: Tears mean a lack of willpower or the manifestation of sad reality. A love of drama.

Sometimes people find my sensitivity endearing. A man once fell for me when I cried after Steve Buscemi’s death in The Big Lebowski, his favorite film, which doesn’t often render such a sentimental response.

Sometimes people find my sensitivity endearing.

And though I’m always crying, I’m not always sad.

Music and movies have a responsibility to a feeling nation to evoke beauty, wonder, glory—and tears. Once on the treadmill at the gym, I got sucked intoIndependence Day playing on the TV. The closed captioning flashed Bill Pullman’s histrionic speech: “We will not vanish without a fight! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” I came totally unglued. The man on the elliptical next to me seemed alienated, but extremely amused.

John Williams has messed with my tear ducts for years. The credits open in Star Wars and bang! I’ve got chills and my eyes start to water. The sweeping vista of brontosauruses in Jurassic Park paired with the swell of the orchestra has me stirred. Watching this recently, Anine noticed my state and laughed. She liked my messiness.

The lyric “See that girl, watch that scene” in Dancing Queen at once overwhelms and empowers me with sweat and saline. (Although there’s certainly no argument that ABBA isn’t glorious.)

Other times emoting like this is perceived by others as abject manipulation—like “crying wolf” or a tactic similarly used to elicit sympathy or cooperation toward a desired result.

My “G-Mom” (great-grandmother) would have supported fully the latter, and unapologetically used this to her advantage. One cheeky anecdote she loved to tell and tell again was how her crying manifested the elegant, stately sofa that adorned her living room since long before I was born. My great-grandfather came home with a new car one afternoon, to her frustration. In her prissy, Mississippi chirp she started to caterwaul: “You got a car and I don’t even have a decent sofa!” A sucker for her tears, he took her right then to pick from the fanciest pieces in town.

She shared with me before my wedding this golden nugget of marital wisdom: “Turn on the waterworks; you’ll get anything you want.” (How very Scarlett O’Hara of her.)

Her advice is ironic to me now, considering the heartbroken outpour that had no effect on my husband when he told me he was done with our marriage. That man who’d loved me since watching The Big Lebowski almost ten years earlier walked out and left me sitting on our own sofa: staggered, totally raw. The kind of crying that makes you feel like you can’t get your head above water. 402 days ago.

Yes, I’d been susceptible to tearful moments throughout my life, but the evening he left, something came unhinged. Now it’s the everyday occurrence—anytime, anywhere, the floodgates open and I’m a visceral mess, my face a nightmare worthy of janitorial attention.

In the last year I got dumped, divorced. My dog Marvin (the all-time best buddy) was put to sleep. People I cherished passed away, including G-Mom, leaving me that beautiful sofa but less comfort. I’m coping with internal sufferings. My emotions are close to the surface. My heart isn’t on my sleeve—it’s my very skin. Easily sunburnt.

But this slippery flood has got to be washing me somewhere real, somewhere new. The journey with Anine was to repair my heart, change venues, make me feel revived. “I wish I cried more. It’s got to feel good, feel cleansing,” she observed, patiently rubbing my shoulder from the passenger seat during one of my daily gut wrenches.

This slippery flood has got to be washing me somewhere real, somewhere new.

Biochemical studies show that shedding tears can dispose of stress hormones and toxins when levels get too high, leaving the crier more rested and clear after the release process. Anine’s idea of cleansing has the science to back it. But a “good cry” to me still feels like the exception, not the rule. And 402 days in, this release process feels like it’s taking a long damn time.

The yoga mat should be a safe place for this process, but it’s not always easy to approach. The infamous pigeon pose is, for many practitioners, where stored emotions are set free. Hip-openers conjure all kinds of cathartic sobs. But my entire body is a storage unit. Child’s pose can be particularly taxing. And I’m self-conscious the slightest sniffle will jerk those around me right out of the Shangri-La they came for.

How do I bring myself to practice if I'm worrying shavasana will leave me exhausted and wailing for mercy?

I stopped during the trip for a class in Seattle with Jenniferlyn Chiemingo. “JL” is a loving instructor I had met when she led a retreat in Costa Rica. Her class was fiery—full of sweaty postures and compassionate adjustments. After practice, we shared a long hug. She remembered I’d been struggling the past year and while I teared up, reminded me I was brave. From hot yoga to warm conversation, she’d given me the recognition and permission I needed for release—the unspoken yogic encouragement of "Be where you are." For the first time in quite awhile, I left a studio feeling better than when I arrived.

It’s not that I feel constant restriction. I’m blessed with the most steadfast, understanding friends and family. But I worry this serial emotionalism could wear down even my strongest supporter. My mom often reacts with her admonition “Stop crying.” She usually doesn’t cry. She’s made of a different mettle. I admire her for her resilience, addressing head-on those things I’d consider impasses. But sometimes all I hear is "Don’t be where you are."

But I should listen more openly. Because she also tells me: “You’re more capable than you realize.” She knows I can outlive this struggle. She’s seen me do it before. I've sung at funerals, bested physical challenges, and offered comfort to others during their own dark struggles.

But I should listen more openly. Because she also tells me: “You’re more capable than you realize.”

And I did make it stone dry through the movie The Notebook, while every other woman in America blubbered and wiped snot from their faces.

Yoga and life need permission to "be where you are." But both are also about lengthening—stretch yourself to "be somewhere stronger."

As expected, the end of the trip with Anine was bittersweet. She warned me in advance she might not get choked up, but I shouldn’t take it personally. She’s a Viking, not a crybaby. But as we hugged goodbye, both of us welled up. “You big softy,” I picked at her. This experience had inextricably linked us. This was a good cry.

After the phone call to my frustrated parents and about $700 in repairs, I was back on the road. I drove alone for the first time in months, and I cried. A lot. (The tears did get me an unintentional discount. G-Mom and Scarlett O’Hara would have been very proud).  

Hugging my mom on arrival in South Carolina low country, I cried. I’m relieved to be parked and resting, but writing this, I cried. I cried at the sun peering through moss-covered trees while I jogged this morning. I cried rereading Harry Potter on the beach with a beer in my hand.        

I hope tomorrow is tearless, but I know I can be okay with myself if it’s not.

Maybe tomorrow’s forecast will be fair skies. Day 5 of 403 without tears. Of course, I hope it is. But I also remember “Be where you are.” I hope tomorrow is tearless, but I know I can be okay with myself if it’s not. My emotional motor is still shaky and my check-engine light is on. But I’m not beyond repair. I should be okay with myself if I’m not there yet. I just am where I am. That’s where I’m supposed to be.

Leah Holder Wyman
When photographer/writer Leah Wyman found herself in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, she left her job in the church world for the sanctuary that is Blue Osa. A classical singer, composer and conductor with a B.M. degree from Manhattan School of Music and further studies at the University of Oxford in England, Leah is finding inspiring new ways to use her voice--in harmony with howler monkeys, scarlet macaws and crashing ocean waves in Costa Rica.