The Art of the Crying Jag

Sometimes the unbearable pain and injustice of the world hits home in the moment that you contemplate the stairs on your crutches — the stairs between you and the lunch you would make and, by extension, the illustrious and productive life you would live. A stranger who just stepped into the house might think you were crying because of the stairs. But you’re not. And you are. Even though you aren’t.

Heaven, hell, it's all frozen over.
Heaven, hell, it’s all frozen over and you can’t walk there anyway. 

In my experience, cycling into major depressive episodes more often than most women cycle into diets, a real crying jag never has a single cause. It’s the fibromyalgia of tears: unpredictable, pervasive, and debilitating: more of a diffuse, ill-defined syndrome than a specified, diagnosable malady, and met with varying degrees of credence and sympathy.

I don’t recall crying much as a kid, at least over the normal stuff like skinned knees and dodgeballs to the face, so maybe it’s strange that I’m a connoisseur of tears as an adult. There are grief’s screeching gusts. There are the squalls of pain from breakups or when friends move far away, like diving under a scary wave in the ocean and popping up cold, salty, and bedraggled, but back on your feet. There are the hiccupping leaks on your therapist’s couch that you better sop up within 50 minutes, and the hot, shaky desperation you feel when your pain is edging a nine and the ER doctors are busy with everyone else.

But none of these sneak up on me, or take as much out of me, as the crying jag.

When I get really depressed, I tell myself that no-one is really as happy as he or she looks on Facebook, even while I do my best on social media and on this blog to mold recovery from surgery into a series of heartfelt but ultimately funny and life-affirming anecdotes and pictures. These have not included the crying jag.

Oh, I’ve done plenty of crying in the last month or so. I cried because I needed a nap after taking a shower. I cried because I couldn’t work and I cried because I was lonely. I cried because the stairs were too high or too far down. I cried because I couldn’t put my right sock on by myself.

(I don’t know if everyone cries this much post-op, or if this is the province of very depressed people. Or a side-effect of narcotics.)

But these were nothing compared to last Monday, especially since the whole thing took me by surprise.

I woke up early, enthused to try my first real day back to work, albeit from bed (perk of being a writer). I made my own breakfast and then worked for four or five hours, and then got hungry again. I got on my crutches and went to the top of the stairs.

There, a conversation with a concerned person ensued about whether I was truly well enough to fix my own lunch, and if not, whether it might not be better to learn to ask others to fix me lunch and bring it up the stairs to me, and just generally revamp my whole approach to the internal perception and communication of my actual needs.

I returned to my bedroom, oddly crestfallen. I saw a basket of clean laundry at the foot of the bed, leaned my crutches beside it, and blindly began to pick up clothing. Then I realized I was wiping my eyes on every item as soon as I finished folding it.

Never mind, just fold that laundry.

I was hurting and wanted to lie down but got into a chair when my lunch arrived. I had been hungry fifteen minutes ago, but now I felt nothing but an apathetic canyon of nausea. I began to eat anyway, using my cloth napkin to dry my cheeks, one side after the other, bite after bite.

Work. Work would stop this. I lay down again and pulled my laptop onto my stomach. I faced my inbox again. When my sleeves got too damp I began to squeeze the sheets against my eyes.

I held out for long time before reaching for the Kleenex. To me, Kleenex symbolizes defeat. If I could ask my tears, “do I need to call your father?” finally tugging that tissue out of the box is the shamefaced “yes” before an enforced time-out.

Also, there is only so long one can cry without serious nasal involvement. It’s not a delicate trickling of tears down your temples: vulnerable, endearing, and gently cathartic. It’s just gross.

After an hour or two of this, when the usual distractions lose out (everything from food to work to a new episode of Orange is the New Black), there’s just no way around it. You’re on a crying jag.

The biggest tip-off that I’m on a real crying jag is the absolute lack of catharsis as the episode progresses. Embarrassing as it can be to burst into tears, there’s usually something about it that gets you feeling better, like the fresh air after a thunderstorm. But the crying jag is the American pygmy shrew of bad moods. Just to stay alive, the shrew slakes its world-beating metabolism with a meal every half hour, night and day, snatching sleep a few minutes at a time.  Just as no food ever satisfies the shrew, instead of the tears making you feel better, the crying jag feeds on every bad emotion you can think of, with a fresh surge of gulping, dripping misery every few minutes, until the day has disappeared into a typhoon of tears.

Like this:

I’m hungry.
My sutures hurt.
I’m a terrible communicator.
I’m not hungry anymore.
I need to eat because no-one can take indomethacin on an empty stomach.
Indomethacin makes me sleepy and it’s annoying to take pills and I don’t want to take it anymore.
I have to take it so I don’t sabotage my surgery.
The sutures hurt.
I can’t get out of the house.
I can’t work.
I’m going broke.
I’m a burden.
Nobody loves me.
Of course nobody loves me, look what a horrible sobbing blob I am.
The sutures hurt.
The muscles burn.
The joints ache.
Now I have a headache.
I can’t get any work done.
I will never get any work done again.
I’m going broke.
Everyone hates me.
I’m a burden.
I’m better off dead.
I should never have been born.
I can’t get up.
The sutures hurt.

My psychotherapist, expert and deeply concerned citizen that she is, posits that what I call a crying jag is actually a dissociative state: some unresolved coping mechanism with stakes in my amygdala that go deeper than my depression. She may be right. Though I tend to think of them as an occasional, particularly bad manifestation of depression, crying jags come with all sorts of bizarre, childlike, and irresponsible behavior that don’t accompany my regular depressive states: namely, throwing things in abject frustration and then lying as if physically paralyzed for hours. It’s hard to hear anyone who speaks to me and I feel as if it doesn’t matter at all whether I reply or not. I can’t respond to a comforting touch.

That’s another hallmark of the crying jag: I just don’t care who or what is around me, or who sees me. I may not even be aware. Someone kind may come and clear the mountain of sodden tissues from the bedside table. Do I say thank you? No. Because life is meaningless.

I realize that beyond the misery, there’s a strange kind of privilege in crying so much you can’t stop crying. If any people relied on me more than they currently do, I might not have the luxury of these episodes. This helps explain why chronic pain, beyond the simple frustration of it, can trigger these states. When you’re always in pain, the world doesn’t ask you for much. And you slide deeper into the desperate hole of your own uselessness.

Last Monday, I started crying around 2pm, and I didn’t really stop until 9 or 10pm.

I eventually do get to a point where some strategy must be deployed. I might cry until the blood dries in my veins, or just plan suicide for the following day (retaining some seed of sanity, I have a strict no-suicide-during-crying-jags rule that has saved my life repeatedly over the last few years). Typically, the jag-fighting strategy is a non-fatal dose of diphenhydramine or cyclobenzaprine, which knocks me unconscious for about ten hours and at least gives me a chance, puffy-faced and groggy, to re-set the cycle in the morning.

The only other option, the million-dollar, hanging-by-a-thread option, is to Phone A Friend.

This is tricky, because if you’re on a true crying jag, you’re not likely to realize that you need the help until late at night, and people who can do more than just get out of the way of these states are rare. So that leaves a pretty short list of folks you can call. But last Monday, one was there.

This is where, in retrospect, I realize the true absurdity of my crying jags, swamped in so much sadness that I barely make sense. Nobody lucky enough to have someone gentle, kind, and sensible to spend an hour on the phone with her, starting at 11pm, can really have a reason to cry all day. Right?

I don’t know. This thing is what it is. Maybe every surgical recovery meets it sooner or later. Maybe it’s just the post-op dissociative depressives.

But that, my friends, is how it’s done. And you live to try the stairs another day.

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6 Comments

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  1. Whew. Nice post. For my master-of-the-obvious moment: you’re an awesome writer. Also sounds like you have a good psychotherapist.

  2. Wow. So well described (of course). I’m so glad you have that therapist and that friend. This is a hard one to “like.” You’re on a really tough journey, and I can’t help thinking that the crying jag is somehow healing or necessary.

    • Thanks. Glad it resonated. From what I’m learning, it seems like these dissociative states, if that’s indeed what they are, don’t come out of the blue; they evolved with a purpose in my psyche. The trick is figuring out what that was and tacking it. Back to therapy (again)…

  3. wow, thanks for the honesty. Having had my own crying jags lately, for entirely different reasons, I can definitely say yours are longer.

    Besides the issues you had before surgery, there must be something so primal in a person’s reaction
    to surgery. Just being sliced and diced the way you were, and not being able to get back to normal for so long.
    And, I know your normal is not like others’.

    Love you.

    • Thanks Dee. I agree there is a primal sort of physical and mental processing/recovery from major surgery that took a LOT more out of me than I expected. And yeah, “normal” is very subjective. xo

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