Two events that occurred twelve years apart shattered my world and tested my vulnerability. The first is well known among my family members and my closest friends. It was the sunny summer day of long ago when I awoke to learn that my young father had died. I was only eight years old and knew little about suffering or sorrow. I had heard whispers about my favorite uncle’s death three years before, but I never told any of the adults that I understood what was happening and that felt quite sad. I suspected that because they did not engage me in discussions of death that it was somehow a taboo topic, and so even after my father had died I kept my feelings to myself. I even learned how not to cry to give away the pain and vulnerability that was lodged in my heart.
Decades laters some of my friends were stunned to know that I had mostly grown up without a father. I had shielded myself well against their inquiries. I rarely mentioned that I was living in a home where the mother was also the father. When filling out first day of school forms asking for information about my parents I leaned over the paper and created a visual barrier with my left hand as I wrote the word “deceased.” Somehow I thought that the people around me expected me to be strong and to carry on without asking for sympathy.
I suppose that to some I seemed emotionless. I had learned how to control my tears in public. When others cried I held my upper lip stiffly in place. Eventually I had practiced such skills so well that being dry eyed even at funerals became easy. I would wait until the dark of night inside the privacy of my bedroom to let my emotions loose. I was determined to be the strong person that I believed everyone wanted me to be.
Twelve years after my father’s death my mother had a frightening mental breakdown. She became so deeply depressed that she kept her home darkened with drapes firmly closed against the sunlight. She was also paranoid, believing that forces were gathering to accuse her and her family of criminal deeds. She refused to turn on the one air conditioner that she had inside her home, nor would she open the windows and run the attic fan. It was so stiflingly hot inside that I was afraid that she would fall ill from the heat. No amount of cajoling convinced her that nobody was waiting outside to take her away to prison. She refused to believe that the food that her sisters brought to her home was edible and devoid of poisons.
Once again I went into action with my strength and lack of public tears I would cry and rage when alone in my car, but smile as though I was just fine when in the presence of other people. I did not divulge how frightened I was or how anxious I felt to anyone but my husband. At least for once I felt comfortable enough to depend on him as an ally and confidante. I don’t think that I would have had the courage to get my mother the care that she needed without being able to collapse at day’s end into his arms sobbing until I fell asleep.
Still, for many years I hid the reality that my mother was chronically mentally ill. I spoke of it only to a small number of people in whom I had total trust. Mostly I pretended that my absences from work to take her for therapy were because of my own illnesses. I had learned that speaking of mental illness was taboo in most instances. People would squirm uncomfortably at the mere mention of the subject. I simply kept up a public persona that hid how truly vulnerable I was feeling.
It was probably around thirty years after my mother’s first cycle of bipolar disorder that I broke down spontaneously in front of a coworker in a fit of tears that I was unable to control. Nothing like that had ever before happened to me, but my mother’s condition was the most frightening that I had seen. Fortunately this kind man understood my fears and my pain because he too had a family member who suffered from mental illness. He comforted me with all the right words. He demonstrated so much kindness and told me that I needed to stop holding all of my feelings inside. He assured me that I would find many exceedingly compassionate people willing to provide me with a listening ear.
I suppose that is when I changed. I began to tell people about my father’s death and how much it had affected me. I spoke of my mother’s mental illness as though I was talking about someone with diabetes or heart trouble. I quickly learned when it was safe to keep revealing my story and when it was time to simply change the subject. I found loving and caring friends and acquaintances who walked with me through my troubles.
Sadly, I have never yet learned how to cry in public. I suppose that my mind is only willing to go so far in showing my vulnerability. I am still the one dry eyed person at a funeral. I don’t cry during sad movies unless I am alone with my husband. I know that I do have real feelings and that I can cry a bucket of tears, but never when others are around. That is the one disturbing skill that I mastered in trying to be the strong little girl when my father died and the competent woman when my mother needed help. I’m working on letting my emotions run free. I wish that I had learned as a child that it really is okay to be vulnerable at times. I know that I don’t have to carry the weight of the world. Luckily I have people who love me enough to understand how I am the way I am.
All of us are vulnerable and that’s okay. This is a lesson that we would be wise to teach our children. Emotional education is just as important as academics. Our journeys through life will be a mix of joys and sorrows. We should demonstrate to our children how to navigate both with their rational minds and their emotional instincts. Balancing those things leads to healthy ways of living. It really is okay to cry.