The Terminator: Why do you cry?…
John Connor: I don’t know. We just cry. You know, when it hurts.
The Terminator: Pain causes it
John Connor: No, it’s when there’s nothing wrong with you, but you hurt anyway. You get it?
The Terminator: No.
– Terminator 2: Judgement Day
I read something recently that really shook me up. It was as if someone had switched on a bright light and exposed a great and hideous truth.
I don’t cry. I don’t cry at work, I don’t really cry when I’m stressed and, until the last few years, I didn’t really cry at movies or books unless they packed a big emotional punch. It was part of my Vulcan armour and was why one of my friends still jokes that I’m cold inside. She is a paediatrician and cries all the time, particularly at work – both from the emotional trauma of treating sick babies and from the stresses of working in a busy and understaffed hospital job.
This friend of mine is actually roundly criticised for how much she cries. She’s dissolved into tears on too many shifts and in front of too many senior staff members. She’s been labelled a ‘trainee in difficulty’ and has had to attend special meetings to discuss her progress. At one point they were even considering extending her training as they were so concerned about her lack of confidence. Sadly, they completely missed the point – crying is her coping mechanism. In a moment of snotty and tear-stained release, her stress is gone and she’s ready for the next challenge. She’s never cried in front of patients or their families so could never be described as unprofessional, and she’s never backed down from anything. Despite what her supervisors may think, she is succeeding in an impossible role.
I don’t have that and, if I’m honest, I didn’t think I needed it. I have always admired her ability to be that vulnerable in front of her colleagues but believed that I was different. I didn’t need that sort of reset or release. Also working as a doctor, my role is similarly stressful and involves similar emotional trials, but I’d thought I had just got used to it; I had built effective walls that kept my work out of my life and kept my heart and real self out of my work. My self-care has always been to enjoy life outside of work anyway, and it’s even more true now. I could break bad news every day and shrug it off as I walked out of the door to head home because I have exciting plans for that evening or someone amazing to spend that time with. I could disclose death and cancer, have frank discussions about poor prognosis and failed treatments, and then go home and not only be unaffected by it but be refreshed and recharged by the time away. I was used to it.
Except that I now cry at movies.
I cry at movies all the time. I sobbed at Ghost and at La La Land. I even cried at Fast and Furious 7 for fuck’s sake! (Although I will defend that film to the end – Paul Walker’s devastating and abrupt exit from the franchise following his death was handled with a dignity that you would not expect from a series of movies for motorheads and I am not ashamed of crying like a baby!) And it’s not just movies. I weep at TED Talks, I cry watching TV and when reading. Emotion can swell up inside me and threaten to spill over at sad dog videos or Christmas adverts featuring old, lonely men. I honestly don’t recognise myself sometimes.
I’d perhaps naively thought it was just because I have more to lose now. I’d over romanticised my new emotional responses, thinking I was feeling the losses portrayed on screen more keenly because I had my own someone whose loss would devastate me. My emotional response now had a beautiful face that has a hold on my heart and was not just an intellectual empathetic reaction. I also wondered if being in a relationship, being in love and being vulnerable, means that I am no longer trapped in my emotionless castle. I simply feel more now and this sadness is an inevitable counterpoint to the extremes of happiness that I now regularly experience.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s all of these.
But I suspect that the BMA’s Secret Doctor is right. Maybe this should be a wake up call that I’m actually not doing so well. That the stresses of the NHS as it crumbles around us are taking their toll. That I haven’t become numb to the effects of death, thank goodness. To quote the Secret Doctor, ‘maybe the truth was we just don’t ‘get used to it’ at all.’
When I thought about it more closely, I realised that none of this was new information. I already knew that I was under more stress than ever before and I already knew that I was exhausted more often than not. I have more responsibility now; I am the one who recognises impending death and has to speak to the patient and their families, I’m the one making decisions to withdraw active treatment, I’m the one supporting the family through this as much as I can, while also being the one who has to do so much other work as well because there’s no one else to do it. It’s hard. Frankly, it’s almost impossible. My bosses know this but can’t do much to fix it. They make heroic efforts to find additional staff but no one wants the job, and my current hospital is so worried about our wellbeing that they are genuinely getting a therapy dog just for stressed doctors. But none of this can lift the entire load and we all inevitably take some of it home. And so I end up crying at movies.
I’ve been trying to work out why this bothers me so much. Why am I so shocked that I have what would generally be considered an appropriate emotional response?! Is it because the emotion that I thought I was managing has leaked out in unexpected ways or is it because, indirectly, my job is making me cry.
And, to my shame, I think it’s the latter. The fact that my job could make me cry also makes me feel like a failure.
I wrote the bulk of this immediately after I read that Secret Doctor blog in early February but put it aside as I wasn’t sure of its purpose, other than as another public scream against what is happening in the NHS right now. But when another bullshit task was loaded on my already saturated day earlier this week and I found myself forcefully blinking away tears of frustration because I was damned if I was going to cry over this, I realised that my reaction to crying is important and terrible and outdated and is another sign of internalised fucking misogyny because no matter how bad it gets, I won’t cry at work as I cannot stop feeling that the consequences would outweigh the benefits.
I don’t want my colleagues to rush around comforting me, I don’t want them to think this job has broken me, and, most shamefully of all, I don’t want them to think I am weak. That I’m not strong enough. I don’t want anyone to think less of me because I cried. I would think less of me if I cried. I don’t feel this way about all types of crying – crying when genuinely sad is liberating and cleansing, my father cries a lot from joy and I love that about him, but crying at work would feel like I’ve been defeated and I don’t want to feel like that.
Why do I (we?) feel so negatively about crying? When I understand and value my friend’s use of tears as a stress response, why am I so reluctant to try? And as a feminist working in an industry full of professional women, why I am so fearful of appearing as that stereotypical hysterical lady, particularly when I don’t tar others with that same brush? Does anyone but me even think that way about crying women anymore?
But I know I’m not the only one, and this was reaffirmed again this morning in a blog post on how men just don’t trust women’s emotional responses:
Until she convinces me otherwise, I assume that her emotional reaction to a situation is disproportionate to my opinion of what level of emotional reaction the situation calls for. Basically, if she’s on eight, I assume the situation is really a six.
I’m not going to cry in public and in front of my colleagues when a significant proportion of them will think I’m overreacting! Who benefits from that?
I am OK, I really am. I’m just not in love with my job in the same way that I was, say, four years ago, and I am not used to it. I had acknowledged the stress I was under before realising that it was leaking out anyway, but I am once again in awe of my body knowing what I need before I do and by it’s ability to turn my secret emotion into an actual physical outpouring that does make me feel better.
And to those of you who can cry and who aren’t hobbled with my old-fashioned views, I cannot tell you how jealous I am…