When keeping it together hurts
This past year, I’ve been grieving. Grief can be an alarmingly unpredictable thing, swinging you perilously between panic, numbness, stomach-turning sadness, and peace, sometimes within the course of a day, an hour, even a minute. And oh boy, the tears. We have a difficult time with tears in our culture, don’t we? There are times, of course, when crying is inconvenient or feels inappropriate. There are other times when crying is thoroughly inescapable and you have no choice. Other times, crying is inaccessible and the tears that match how you’re feeling are trapped below the surface. But for a month or two this past fall, I had to re-learn the well-known lesson that making a habit of resisting tears adds to the burden of pain. During that stretch, when tears bubbled up, I shoved them down and hightailed it in the other direction. To be fair, sometimes you do just need a break from being sad. Looking away for a time can be a way of taking care of yourself. But as days of plowing past the tears stretched into weeks, my body was tied up in knots. My migraines became more frequent and severe and I found myself doubled over with mysterious cramps that scans and doctors couldn’t diagnose. The harder I worked to suppress the tears, the more it seemed my body revolted. And each time, after “keeping it together” for a couple of weeks, the pain won out, and I’d finally surrender, sobbing until I was exhausted. And each time, when I emerged from the tears, I felt astoundingly relieved of the physical pain. Few things can be as cathartic as a good cry. When you stop gripping onto your composure and finally let go, your lungs may hurt and your body may ask for a long nap, but you feel lighter. Biologically speaking, it makes sense. Tears (the emotional kind, not necessarily the chopping onions sort) wash cortisol and other stress-related chemicals out of your body. The muscles that have been tensely armoring you against your own emotions relax. Your body releases pain-relieving endorphins, your breathing slows down, and you feel a little freer. The immense work of habitually suppressing and resisting our own tenderness can take a toll. So it’s a bit of a relief to know that we don’t always need to try so hard to be ok. Sometimes we can care for ourselves best by letting go, letting go, and letting go some more. May you feel safe and free to let go when letting go feels right.