I started off calling this post “I love tears,” but after leaving the text in a metaphorical drawer for a while, I came back and changed it. I changed it because I wrote the first title on a day when I didn’t actually cry…and from that comfortable distance I do love tears. I know they heal, I know they’re a gift; I’m grateful for them. Today, however, was a day I cried, which reminded me of several things:

1. Crying makes me feel dehydrated.

2. Crying gives me headaches.

3. Crying gives me a hangover – I feel fragile and exhausted for hours afterwards.

4. Crying makes my face puffy and red.

5. Crying makes my eyes and brain feel swollen from the inside out.

So yes, I do love tears in the abstract, but really, it’s simpler and rawer than that: I need tears. I need tears, and I’ve learned to take the puffy eyes, swollen brain and dehydration in exchange for the washed-out, wrung-out, red-raw, ready-to-heal heart I get in exchange.

I haven’t always been a crier. In fact, I had the opposite reputation when I was a kid. I used to find it really hard to cry in front of other people and sometimes found myself so unable to express my emotions through tears that it was actually awkward. I remember dreading a particular goodbye with one of my closest friends because I knew I wouldn’t be able to cry. She was moving away for good and we both knew we might not see each other again (I don’t think we’ve seen each other since) but helpful as it may have been to show the poor lass that I really did care for her, the tears remained stubbornly invisible. Awkward.

I think because I went through some intense and difficult experiences in relatively rapid succession as quite a young girl, I must have learned at some point to bury my tears and “move on” quickly. The problem was, it wasn’t really moving on. It was more like stuffing a load of experiences and feelings in a hard-wearing suitcase and zipping it up. This allowed me the mental and emotional space to re-engage with the next new experiences and it was a pretty effective survival mechanism. The problem is that a suitcase is only ever meant as a temporary place to keep your stuff and if you never unpack it, the suitcase itself can become a pretty unsightly burden on your new space. The bigger problem is that if you take this approach repeatedly, as I did, constantly stuffing more and more feelings in…sitting on it, rearranging things and forcing the zip shut…well, eventually the whole thing explodes. The zip gives way, the lid flies open, your dirty laundry is scattered all over your new emotional and mental space and no one around you knows how to make sense of it.

“Really,” you might find a friend incredulously asking as they pick up a smelly piece of previous pain. “This is yours?”

So emotional explosions happened in my life. They didn’t feel much like explosions at the time. They actually felt more like inner disintegration. “I can’t take any more. I can’t hold it all together. I need to be somewhere safe,” and so, eventually, the walls came tumbling down.

Behind those walls were tears. Other things too, but lots of tears. I cried a lot of tears those days and I learned a lot about their magic too. They’re like tiny balms for the soul, tears.

Here’s how it often works for me.

I cry, when I feel safe enough, and something inside starts to open. It’s tempting to shut it down at that point, when tears are welling up but ugly crying is still a safe distance away, but instead I let go of my grip and lean into the pain. The tears increase, carrying with them my first reactions- the defences, anger, indignation and self protection that I have thought and felt in the heat of the moment. As defensiveness’ shouty voice is carried further and further away something else wells up from beneath: the pain. Now tears are bringing me insight, wells of liquid pain carried to me as single thoughts, spilling over, one after another. “I don’t feel loved.” “I miss my home.” “I want to rest.” “You rejected me.” They come, I listen, and they flow away, sometimes circling back to me. I don’t reject them, argue with them or analyse them. I hear them and receive them – if I’m with someone safe I say them out loud – and as I do the tears carry them on. Some come again and again for hours. “I miss her. I miss her. I miss her.” I let myself go and the tears flow freely like tiny salty streams across my skin, dripping off my chin, soaking my shirt and choking my breathing as my body shakes. My muscles start to ache with the shaking weight of healing this pain. The pain is raw and present and real and needs to be felt, to be heard, to be known, to be grieved. I lie with it till the sobs still, allowing my body a rest, before they well up again – those wracking waves, battering me, wrenching me, shaking me. Eventually they quieten down for now, washing in with ever more gentle sobs. The storm is quietening, the waves are still, my body needs rest. I lay my head down somewhere safe and warm, allowing the thoughts and feelings that come to swirl around me. I close my eyes and rest.

When I wake, I’m a little more healed. Not well, maybe, not today, or tomorrow even, but I’m on my way. Crying is healing my heart just as physio heals my knees. I know it, because I’ve experienced it. I’ve been wrenched through my tears again and again and as I’ve cried, and cried some more, and written and spoken those sentences of distilled pain, and cried again, I have eventually found the pains I was grieving, even pains that I had carried around with me for years, are gone. I still find them sad (“I still miss her”), I still care, but I’m not in pain.

Tears are magical gifts. It’s interesting to me that tears are salty water that expose our pain to the air. I grew up in a tropical country where any graze was an infection risk, and a proper cut was bound to turn into an oozing wound if not properly attended to. If you let it go and didn’t look after yourself, it could grow and even turn into a tropical ucler – an aggressive disease that eats you up from the outside in. Emotional grazes and cuts aren’t too dissimilar. They may start small, but if left unattended, ignored or unwashed, they can grow, and in the worst cases they can eat you up, from the inside out.

Do you know what you do with a little cut or graze in a tropical climate? Wash it out, if you can handle the pain, with salt water. You know what you do with an emotional cut? Wash it out, if you can handle the pain, with salt water. It hurts a lot less and heals a lot quicker when the cut is small – I can tell you that much!

Some cuts and grazes still do get infected of course, or are too big for a salty water solution, and then you often need professional intervention. Antibiotics and other treatments can work wonders, and the analogy holds with emotional pain too. Tears are no substitute for professional intervention like counselling, therapy or biomedical help, just as salty water is no substitute for antibiotics or surgery. That doesn’t undermine their efficacy though. Even when you’re taking antibiotics for a nasty seeping wound, you still have to clean it out, and in my experience, even when you’re having counselling for something too big to face on your own, tears still help you heal.

So I cry now – I’ve learned to cry. I still don’t always find it easy or natural though I sort of wish it were. I rarely well up in sentimental romance movies, but you might find me sobbing over a particularly poignant scene of a homeless person who dies alone. Sometimes it’s easier to cry at something a step or two removed from your situation, particularly when doing so in response to a creative work which has mastered the art of pulling the audience’s heart-strings through images, music and words. I lean into that sometimes, deliberately, as a way to bypass my inhibitions, because I know that once I’m inside those walls of inhibitions, the flow of bittersweet simple emotional truths will begin and all I’ll have to do is surrender myself to them and be carried on the river of tears towards that washed out place where my pain, stress and grief are healed.

Tears are a magical gift.

Image by Pixabay user Tobias Wahlqvist