Sobs. I heard sobs.
They were coming from upstairs, on our side of the duplex this time, broken hearted, wrenching sobs.
At three years-old, the worn couch swallowed me up. I remember wiggling and scrunching out of its cushions.
“Where are you going?” My father sat near me, his voice scolding.
“I want to go to mommy.”
“She’s just a crybaby. Stay here.”
It is interesting how a moment will burrow its way from sensory perception to belief. The transformation may take years as one grows in understanding. However, this message from my father leapt instantly from sight and sound to a negative and false certainty that eventually nearly cost me my life.
Major depression recurrent severe is the diagnosis given me by several doctors. On multiple occasions, negative perceptions have outweighed hope, and suicide crossed my mind. In January 2011, a barely restrained death wish ripened into a suicide attempt.
No one knew the level of hopelessness this major depressive episode was creating. Truth be told, neither did I. A vigorous effort at stuffing and denying emotions made sense. Hesitancy to reach out for support did also. After all, I learned so long ago that it is wrong to be sad, even worse to express sadness, and no one will be there to wipe my tears if I cry.
“She’s just a crybaby. Stay here.”
My father physically, verbally, and emotionally abused my mother. On the day he did not allow me to go to her, all I had wanted to do was wipe her tears. Until that moment, it was permissible to love her. Then it was not.
I learned to ignore my mother when she spoke. My father encouraged me to resist when she asked for help with household chores. He whispered secrets like he was planning to leave, she would be going to the “funny farm” soon, and she did not satisfy him sexually.
Violence was out of sight at first. Regular assaults moved into common areas like hallways and at the dining table. I witnessed constant fighting. His explanation for his behavior was she made him do it; every problem blamed on her demeanor, personality, words, and existence.
Home was not safe. Neither was the car.
Going places with my father meant hearing his verbal attacks on women. He commented on their bodies, disrespecting even my teachers and other women in authority. He built into me a fear of being female, self-hatred, and another core belief. Women are worth what men say they are worth.
“She’s just a crybaby.”
Until the age of 49, I kept emotions at a distance. Two oaths made as a teenager provided shields: never trust anyone, and never cry. Ignoring the world of emotions meant words like stress and self-care did not apply to me. Happiness, sorrow, grief – nothing was felt without guilt because having emotions was wrong. No one saw those tears that insisted on rising.
After the massacre at Columbine High School, reporters announced therapists and counselors were arriving on the scene. While America reeled in shock at senseless murder, I stared at the television confused and embarrassed for the victims’ families. How was it acceptable to mention emotional needs in public? Why would they say that aloud?
If I wanted to reach out, I did not know how. Efforts to do so failed because how can one explain feelings she does not recognize? False honesty, rationalization disguised as good intentions, directed interactions with friends. Fear owned my social life. Some said I was aloof.
“… crybaby. Stay here.”
Perforations in my resolve caused addiction, depression, self-injury, and self-righteousness. Skin-deep loathing leaked out into passive aggressive side comments and immature reactions. Inevitably, decades of rebuffed emotion exploded into an uncontrollable force.
Acute loneliness grew muscles and knocked out pretense. Major depression twisted pain into despair, severing any leftover will to survive. Ironically, trying to end my life was the catalyst to experiencing it at all.
Immediately following the suicide attempt, therapists and doctors asked questions for which there was no reply. Are you safe? (Well, my windows and doors are locked, so I guess I am safe.) How is your mood? (What am I, a child? I do not have moods!) How can you help yourself today? (Uh… what?)
A litany of foreign words and concepts left me feeling ignorant and fearful. Unused to emotive terminology, I parroted back what it seemed they wanted to hear. Nervously and vigilantly, I waited for signs of dismissal; as soon as they saw how stupid I was, they would throw me out.
Yet no one did, and trust grew.
Adam Levine made a comment on the televised singing contest “The Voice”. He remarked that emotion is why we have music. Again, I was stunned. Not only was he openly speaking of emotions, he was endorsing them. The guilt I had carried for responding to music lifted. It was actually good to feel. People do so intentionally.
Over time, more discoveries freed my heart. “She’s just a crybaby” was a lie. My mother deserved to have her tears wiped away. “Stay here” was unfair. Empathy merits nurture, not death.
The part of me that ceased thriving over 50 years ago resurrected. I love purely. It is a privilege leaving the couch to wipe anyone’s tears away. Striving to live in complete honesty has brought forgiveness, recovery, self-care, and freedom. Openness and humility guide my work. I am learning how to have friendships. Healthy strategies divert difficult emotions to positive action.
Therapists and doctors were right – it feels better to feel better.
It feels better to feel.