I walked into a healing space this past Sunday morning, a space where people go to feel their feelings, get quiet, and be all lovey-dovey. I took a seat— I totally do the lovey-dovey shit. Immediately bored/ over caffeinated, I started surveying my surroundings. To my right, there was a big childlike sign, a huge white scroll taking up the better part of the wall. Even though the all-caps font was uninteresting, the hot pink lettering was a zing, calling my attention to the words, “DON’T WORRY.” I smirked, yeah, worry is a useless emotion. I swiveled to my left and got instinctively and irrationally angry when I saw a nearly identical scroll taking up the back wall that said (in the same boring all-caps font), “BE HAPPY.” AH, of course, that saying, “don’t worry. be happy.” I don’t like that saying. I’m not a monster—I like the song because c’mon the dude makes magical music with his mouth, but I have a problem when the lyric stands on its own as a pressuring and trivial blanket statement. There is no light without the dark. Sometimes, it IS sad, and sometimes we cry. The broad statement, “be happy” makes me want to throw a protest. I get all defensive and “activisty:” WHY? Why is it shameful to be unhappy sometimes? Isn’t sadness a part of life, and something we have to move through? Isn’t unhappiness often revealing something to us—that it’s time for a change, maybe. Why is it shameful to cry? Why is it especially embarrassing to cry in public? Should tears be stored and saved for only special occasions? What’s the special occasion? The psych ward? Rehab? Jail? A funeral? Because from what I’ve witnessed in my short life, those are the places you go when you just keep stuffing your cells with garbage. How many times have you been told, “don’t cry?” How many times have you watched another panic at the sight of your tears and say something like, “no more crying now, only smiles.” Or, if you had a childhood like mine, then you know what it is to get in trouble every time you cried–to have to hide your tears— your unhappiness, your honest concerns for what’s happening—and build up an armor of “numb” to protect yourself from a heated attack.
OK, fine, so maybe my reaction to phrases like, “don’t worry, be happy,” have SOMETHING to do with my past. . .but hear me out.
My home was a battleground, and my bedroom was my trench. There were land mines, step on one and experience an explosion. No matter how much memorizing I did, no matter how limber, acute, and dexterous I learned to be, there was always a new land mine. I never quite had the system figured out, and I TRIED—in an act of fierce self-preservation, I tried. Smart-enough, pretty-enough, quiet-enough, kind-enough, polite-enough, good-enough are assets that will always lay just outside an irrational alcoholic’s peripheral vision—they do not see “enough.” And, as a child, I didn’t know that it wasn’t personal, and there was nothing I could have done/been to make it better. There is NO hidden map to avoid the land mines in an alcoholic home—you will continue to step on ones, they will shock you, it will hurt, and then, if you’re like me, you will go to your trench and cry. Because crying wasn’t allowed anywhere else.
My father came home out-of-the-blue one day in 1995. My dad wasn’t expected at home much, and he certainly was never expected before dark. . .on a weekday. His absence was delightful. I was six or seven, and my brother was/is/has always been 16 months older than me. We sat on our dirty, old, orange carpet in the living room, playing, while my grandfather watched over us admiringly. My grandfather, a man who might resemble the minds-eye of a jolly candy shop owner—his toothless smile lit up a room and the warmth that came from his slightly overweight body was as comforting as the duvet cover when you’re exhausted. In his endlessly loving eyes, we were perfect without having to do a damn thing to prove it, our existence was enough for him. He was on after school child-duty while my mother worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, a job she needed to take because my father’s Wall Street checks didn’t quite make it home. I remember hearing my dad’s car that day. My heart skipped a beat, his stomping darkness preceded his entrance. I had learned in my seven years of existence how to take the temperature of a room and be hyper/painfully aware of my surroundings. I mean, land mines will do that to you. I could tell without him entering what kind of mood he was in. Energy shifted, I held my breath, and he finally stormed in— his dark hair disheveled, like black paint splattered on his head as his long- legged strut whooshed by us accompanied by a volatile smirk and “hello.” “Hello,” I said, thinking, “speak loud enough so he can hear you but not too loud.” My smile was gone. I kept my voice down, holding my breath, and I waited like a soldier at war, standing-by to see what the enemy might do first; hoping that he would eat something and leave again or eat something and go to bed, or eat something and die— anything but stick around. Instead he shouted for us, and like his little soldiers, we went running, “coming, dad.”
There were some crumbs on the kitchen floor. Come to think of it, they were quite possibly left by my grandfather. He did ALWAYS have a habit of leaving a mote of crumbs around his chair—he was a pastry-lover and eventual diabetic. Regardless of whose fault it was, there were just a few crumbs— something that’s fairly normal in a house with two working parents, two young children, and, that day, a 75-year-old pastry-eating man who couldn’t bend down. My dad’s reaction, I know now, had nothing to do with the crumbs. He probably needed a good cry, he probably needed a hug. My brother and I stood, shoulder to shoulder, as he shouted at us, harassing us and name-calling, “you’re a couple of pigs,” “you’re fucking disgusting, now get down on your knees and pick up every last crumb.” When we got to our knees, on opposite sides of my dad’s legs under the kitchen table, he grabbed us by the backs of our necks, as you would grab a dog, and shoved us into the ground again and again, as you would do to a to a dog who peed in the house, “there are no fucking crumbs allowed in this house.” (That house was super unpleasant and needed a remodel in like 1950. . .crumbs were not the issue). My face was burning and I had that knot in my throat, the thing that happens right before you burst into tears. That knot was my warning signal…HOLD IT IN, SWALLOW, I was shouting in my head, DO NOT CRY, Do not let him see you cry. If he saw me cry, it would be like setting off another land mine. He HATED when I cried and, quite frankly, saw no justified reason for me to EVER shed a tear or be angry or overwhelmingly happy or have really any feelings, for that matter.
We were sent to our bedrooms for the remainder of the night. I wanted to spend more time with my grandfather, but we were told not to say goodbye to him, not to speak, just to go to our rooms. So as we marched sheepishly away, I covertly glanced at my grandfather on my way up the stairs, my eyes begging him to come save me. He looked devastated and helpless. I got to my room, shut the door, sat on my bed and quietly wailed, holding myself while I shivered. I’d always get so sweaty in the midst of attack, and by the time I had my freedom to release, I’d be drenched and cold. I loved my bedroom. I felt safe crying in my 30 square foot dust-box as long as my dad stayed downstairs. That is the most common example I have of my process. I hurt all of the time, and I held my breath until I found solace in my room. My room was a haven— a place to live in fantasy, to cry, and, later, in a natural progression under the circumstances, to do drugs.
My family fell apart and dispersed. I sobered up and became really passionate about my emotional freedom and my growth as an individual. I didn’t want to save my sorrow for my bedroom or even for my house. I didn’t want to “behave,” or “be quiet,” or be the kind of person who said, “stop being over dramatic—pull yourself up by your boot straps.” I wanted to HEAL. I’m all in for this journey—mine and yours—the anger, the grief, the joy, the laughter, the sadness, the mother fucking TEARS. I watch people behave like assholes all day, every day— I live in LA. Customers snap at their baristas or make some sideways comment about the long line they’re standing on or shut doors in your face, or shout unrepeatable things at other cars on the road, but CRYING in public is a fucking taboo. Give me a break. Crying is a necessary part of healing and growing. It doesn’t need to be saved for your shrink’s office. If you need to cry now, cry now. If you’re sad and need a hug, say so. It’s better than going home and taking it out on your family in some ass backwards way. Trust me.
Healing is not easy or fun, but I have solid role-models to show me what ignoring trauma looks like and that looks a lot less fun.My brother is, unfortunately, a prime example. He’s not so into feeling shit. I swallowed years of nasty, condescending language from him. When we were sent upstairs as kids, I would try to team-up with him, feel it with him, and he would shoo me away with a pained and angry stare, “go away.” He never did any crying with me, he never even told me how it made him feel. He called me a “drama queen,” “annoying,” “a pain in the ass,” “a liar.” He stuffed it all, had sudden outbursts of rage, and found a way to numb further. . .on repeat. If you take a look at both of our lives today, I may be the one with Lyme disease, but I am the more healed. No bacteria in my body could ever be a match for the poison that has built up in him over the last 30 years. I am, somehow, with all of the medical shit I have going on, the healthier one. . .sadly, without getting into the dark details, it’s not even a close call.
Twenty years of poison- build- up ahead of my brother is my old man’s example. Not knowing how to handle his own childhood trauma, his own emotions, initially made him a highly unpleasant human, but as time went by, he became a dangerous human. So, when he mounted our suburban front stoop at noon in 2005—a stoop that was supposed to be my entrance to home but instead was my landing pad for a war zone—in a pair of gray boxers, 20 pounds too skinny, and began chasing me and my bloody mother around and cursing at us while all of the neighbors watched, I had to wonder, “what the fuck was SO UNACCEPTABLE about the tears I cried in public? Or about those crumbs under the table?”
Feel your feelings, save the world.
With fun, love, and tasty, salty tears,