My Quest to Find Out Why I Can't Cry
I've gone through breakups, friends' funerals, and family illnesses without shedding a single tear. It's made me wonder if something is wrong with me.
Growing up I spent a healthy amount of time crying.
But, as I've gotten older, it's become so infrequent that I can easily list all the times I've done it in the last few years: Once in 2015 after seeing footage of a hospital in Homs being hit with a barrel bomb, and once this summer while rewatching Brokeback Mountain.
It's begun to worry me. Crying is a natural, healthy release, and my body does it so infrequently, the function appears to be broken.
When I try to remember instances of male friends crying from emotional distress rather than physical pain, I have to work my brain so hard it gives me a headache. So I'm not entirely alone in this. I'm pretty in touch with my feelings, and get sad relatively often, but dust and onions have made me cry more than my emotions have.
If I talk to male friends about it, the majority of them say they hardly ever cry. They're sad, miserable, and often depressed—but they don't cry.
My dad could cry a river, but he's an exception. My friends' dads cry less than statues. I think it's fair to say, at least from where I'm sitting, that the state of male tears in 2017 is the following: Men are just as sad as ever, but that sadness is not manifesting itself in wet cheeks.
Deducing that this, like much of society's ills, is somehow tied up in masculinity, I spoke to a cognitive behavioral therapist, Luise Behnke.
She told me that, in her practice at least, men often cry. "My sessions are very intimate," she said. "[They aren't] the usual environment. Men trust me, and they're more open to crying. Quite often, for men, because crying is still not socially acceptable, their experiences of crying outside therapy have been bad."
I asked her what she'd do with someone like me, who would like to cry more often but can't seem to.
"We'd talk about memories," she said. "We'd look at the memories where you feel sadness or anger or things you can't process. Sadness is always about a loss. Together we would try and find your loss."
Personally, I've gone through breakups, friends' funerals, and family illnesses without shedding a tear. I wanted to but just couldn't. In all of those situations, I don't think I was embarrassed to be seen crying. My problem felt more engineered, and as ridiculous as this sounds, I've considered that the pipes leading to my tear ducts might be blocked. I worked for a time as a bricklayer; all that dust, you never know.
Dr. Carla Schmartz is an ophthalmologist in Luxembourg. She debunked that one pretty quickly. "Tear ducts have no role in actual tear production," she said. "There are many syndromes—some that occur after surgery, and one in particular called dry eye— and some medicines that prevent people from releasing moisture into their eyes, but at your age, and if you're not exhibiting other symptoms, my opinion would be that you shouldn't blame the tear duct for your lack of tears."
So I went back to looking at masculinity and tears. I spoke to a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Oisin Butler. He explained that, between the sexes, there are no absolute terms. "At a general level, you can see differences, in the same way you could, at a general level, see height differences between males and females, but the male and female brain is the same."
"There is not," he said, "much appetite in the scientific community to study gender differences," he concluded, crushing any dated, binary theories I might have been formulating.
I get that reducing men's responses to "fight or flight" and women's to "tend and befriend" leaves little room for any kind of gender fluidity. I've had arguments where I fought, tended, befriended, and fled all in the space of five minutes. And I know that myself and many of my friends are fairly feminine, so gender shouldn't play such a determinative role. So why are the majority of men I know more likely to shit themselves in front of me than cry in front of me?
Oisin did point me in the direction of the amygdala, though, and to a 2000 study on brain differences between males and females during sadness. The paper came from an experiment using a mood induction procedure and 13 male and female subjects during happy and sad states focusing on the amygdala part of the brain. The result, according to the paper, was men and women experience pain and sadness in different regions of the brain. Men's pain tends to focalize almost entirely in the amygdala—a region associated with fear and trauma—and that could explain why men's sadness often manifests in anger rather than tears.
"Men who are experiencing sadness often compensate with alcohol," said Behnke, the therapist. "Or due to emotional confusion release that sadness as anger."
I asked her if she ever prescribes medicine to help people cry so they don't get angry. "It doesn't exist," she said. "Only the opposite does. Tranquilizers are often prescribed for people who are overwhelmed by their emotions."
When I talk to my buddies about their crying or lack of it, they mention a sadness that they've had the tears educated out of them, and that society still doesn't accept that males need to cry, or realize that when they don't they just get angry. The world needs everything but more angry men right now.
The last person I spoke to when writing this article was feminist adult performer, Natalia Portnoy. She said that she experiences dacryphilia and gets turned on by tears. She explained that the vulnerability of a macho man is like a treat for her, and she would like to shoot a sex scene where the man is crying.
Why haven't you yet? I asked her.
Casting it has been impossible, she said.
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