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#207: Why did this fictional story make me cry? Could it have something to do with these awful hints about my mother?

WhiteWillow

It's hard not to crush on the cute girl who saves the day.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Okay.  I am worried at the lack of emotional intimacy in my life, I think?

On Thursday, I ignored my flu, got gussied up, and attended a two-author required reading for my fiction class.  The first author read an entertaining chapter of his book on taxidermy (yes, it was really good!)  Then the second stood up.  She would be reading about a young girl’s first lesbian experience, she said.  Fine with me, sounds lovely.  She would also, if we had time, be reading about the girl’s road trip, with her conservative aunt, to a degaying camp.  I knew immediately that I would start crying soon.

Why would I start crying?  I’d never been to a degaying camp.  I did have the flu.  My mother had been fairly awful about my coming-out.

I wanted to leave, but kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t:  this being a required reading, having to step across all the people in my row, the writer on stage thinking that I left to make a statement of homophobia (I really don’t look queer).  Now I have a script in my head that I could have used.  I should have left when I knew it would get awful, apologized and explained to the teacher later, and asked him to pass on the message to the writer.

Instead I sat through what should have been an enjoyable reading–it was a really good book!–dreading the words that would make me spill, looking up at the ceiling when my eyes got too full, and sniffling a little too much even for the flu.

I actually managed to get through the reading and make it to the building’s kitchen for a cup of tea without crying.

 But then I had to ask this really dykey girl, the only other person in the room, where the hot water was and my voice was so tight and high and she asked me if something was wrong and I burst into tears.  She helped me to a chair and sort of hugged me and made me tea and asked what was wrong.  I kept apologizing and trying to stop crying.  She was really cute, suddenly.  I’d seen her around before and only semi seen how cute she was.  She asked me if I wanted to talk about it.  I desperately did, but I didn’t want to overload her.  (In an earlier draft of this letter I told you all about it, but I deleted it.  It was right after “My mother was fairly awful about my coming out.”)

I haven’t really told my friends about this.  Sure, I relayed the facts to them:  “I actually cried at the reading!  I felt like an idiot.”  But ever since that Thursday, I haven’t been able to stop worrying that my friends don’t really like or care about me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this girl, or my mom.  Maybe if I’d told her all about it I wouldn’t be so fixed on it all right now.

When I get drunk I sometimes tell people a fact about my mother:  “She told me that when I lived with her, she checked my panties to see if I’d gotten wet that day!”  It gets a lot of shock and a little flurry of caring, which I really like but feel guilty about taking.  I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to talk about it sober I feel like they don’t tell me things like that, even my closest friends whom I’ve known since before high school.

So I wonder if any of the people I hang out with really like me.  And I think about finding that girl on facebook and sending her some kind of perfect message that would explain the way I acted, and somehow also make her want to flirt with me.  But I know that my sudden crush on her isn’t totally about her, so I try not to think about it.  What I do think about is:  how much is it okay to complain to people?  How often do most people cry?  And what are the probabilities that none of my friends like me?

Signed,

Not Degayed

Oh, sweetheart. First things first: please see a therapist, as soon as possible. It sounds like you are in college, so please take advantage of the fact that you almost certainly have access to free counseling, probably with people who have been specifically trained in sexuality and family issues. I know we always push therapy around here, but seriously, a therapist’s job is to listen to you and give you tissues when you cry and not be weirded out if you think they’re cute. If your campus resources aren’t right, check out the resources recommended here.

This is one of those letters that I’ve sometimes seen the Captain answer where most of the detail is rather superficial and then BOOM MAJOR PROBLEM glossed over in a lone phrase. You had a super shitty day that culminated in a cute girl letting you cry on her shoulder, naturally making her look even cuter because she was your surprise angel of comfort. That’s what you spend most of your letter describing, but that’s not what you are asking about. Here’s what you ask:  Why would I start crying?  (Because you were emotionally triggered by a work of art on a day when you already felt vulnerable.) How much is it okay to complain to people? (It depends on which people—there’s no rule that everyone but you knows.) How often do most people cry? (It depends. After my mother died, I cried multiple times a day, every day, sometimes because I had a cookie and cookies are nice and nice things made me cry, just like not nice things make me cry. Mr Machine, on the other hand, only cries at kids’ movies—I’m looking at you, Iron Giant—even when sad stuff is happening in his life. You cry how much you cry.) And what are the probabilities that none of my friends like me? (None. Your friends like you. Your friends love you.) It sounds, to my completely nonprofessional ears, like you are depressed. Depression has a way of making you feel like you do nothing but cry and complain and nobody likes you, but that’s not actually true. You, for instance, are capable of getting up and enjoying a fiction reading even when you have the flu, and of flirting with a cute girl even when you’re sobbing your eyes out. You’re doing okay! You should go to therapy, but other people can’t see the black hole of terrible emotions that are coloring your worldview right now.

nosylucille

Did someone say "lack of emotional intimacy"?

But now, of course, I have to tackle the thing that destroyed me when reading your letter, the thing that turned it from the tale of a FEELINGSBOMB into a “Holy god what is this” kind of letter. I think you already know what it is, because you did kind of a meta thing with how you dropped it into the letter:

When I get drunk I sometimes tell people a fact about my mother:  “She told me that when I lived with her, she checked my panties to see if I’d gotten wet that day!”  It gets a lot of shock and a little flurry of caring, which I really like but feel guilty about taking.  I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to talk about it sober.  I feel like they don’t tell me things like that, even my closest friends whom I’ve known since before high school.

(Emphasis added, obviously.) Whatever else your mother did to you after you came out, that detail alone is a horrifying invasion of privacy and a clear act of psychological abuse. I am so sorry that she did that to you. I am so sorry she did whatever other awful things she did to you. It is not your fault. The reason your friends don’t tell you “things like that” is not because they’re not your friends but because that does not happen to most people. No matter how strained a parent-child relationship can get, panty-sniffing is so far beyond the pale that there’s nothing “like that” a person who was not abused can tell.

What is so striking to me is the way you tell this awful thing: you spit it out while drunk, you drop it in an aside at the end of your letter. Of course you’re worried about emotional intimacy, girl! Your emotional and physical life was being monitored abusively by your homophobic mother. What I’m getting at, Not Degayed, is that whether you pursue Cute Angel of Comfort or not (maybe? but don’t do it in a FEELINGSBOMB kind of way?), whether you cry in class or not (and hey, it’s okay if you do—as a teacher, I can tell you that it happens and no one will be mad at you if you leave), whether your friends have awful secrets to tell or not—you lived in an abusive situation, and you survived it, and now you need some help figuring out how to get close to people again. Get thee to a therapist.

–SM

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24 comments
  1. Lyla D. said:

    Oh, LW.

    It’s okay to cry just whenever. I cried while reading your letter, and I still am.

    It’s perfectly fine to confide in your closest friends about the things that have happened to you. That’s what they’re there for, and chances are they would want to hear it so they can offer comfort and let you know you’re not alone.

    And Ms. Sweet Machine is right, seeing a therapist is the way to go. They are a designated ‘person to unpack all of these emotions and things that happened in the past’ around, and I think having that go-to person might make translating how to communicate that sort of thing to others a lot easier.

    Can I offer you Jedi-hugs? Because I really want to hug you right now, but the internet is in the way.

  2. darkofthestars said:

    God amighty, you, letter writer, sound like me in my freshman year of college (so long ago now), suffering from post-traumatic family life syndrome, feeling the need to tell everyone at the drop of a hat, crying *all the time* (it felt like). Don’t do like me and wait 20 years to see a therapist!

    Your life will get better, I promise.

  3. Caito said:

    Jedi hugs, LW.

    It’s normal to be triggered. Sometimes you can shield yourself from a trigger. Sometimes you need to inform people of your trigger. It’s okay.

    Crying happens, to everyone, for different reasons, and they don’t necessarily have to be good. I have felt in need of a good cry, and intentionally watched tragic movies in order to have an excuse (ah, catharsis!). And you definitely wouldn’t be the first queer person to survive a hostile home environment. People who are cool will understand that.

    And honestly sometimes it is nice to confide in and receive comfort from a kind stranger/acquaintance. I don’t worry about their reactions as much as I would a friend’s, for some reason. I’m… pretty sure that’s why this community exists, actually.

  4. KL said:

    So many Jedi hugs for you, LW. I’m so sorry this has happened to you. All the advice above is good, but also: your friends probably just don’t know what to say. They love you, and they want to comfort you, but since you drop it into conversation like it’s no big deal, they’re not sure whether or not you want them to.
    If someone I care about brought up something like this when we were both drunk, I would give them my unconditional sympathy, but if they never mentioned it at any other time, I would feel awkward about bringing it up.
    NONE OF THIS is your fault or makes you in any way unlovable. You’re doing really well, and it’s fine to cry sometimes.

  5. JenniferP said:

  6. katie1421 said:

    Hi LW! I haven’t commented here before, but I wanted to drop in because I really connected with your letter. I haven’t gone through the abuse that you have – which sounds genuinely awful, and I’m so sorry that it happened to you – but I have been suffering from depression for what seems like an absurdly long time at this point. I’ve had the need-to-escape-rooms-because-of-sudden-crying incidents, drunken allusions to sadness that I would never mention while sober, and a really long-term inability to tell anyone about any of it, because I was terribly afraid that it would be a burden to people, or that they didn’t really want to hear about it. I was also convinced that none of my friends actually liked me at all, they were just being polite. My emotional intimacy was pretty much non-existent.

    This went on for years, and I just started to see a great counselor about it three weeks ago. I was never a big believer in therapy (I thought I should just be better at stuff!), but I honestly can’t recommend it enough now. It didn’t magically fix everything, but it’s amazing how opening up to one person (who is trained at helping you through it) can make it easier to open up to other people. It’s terrifying and a little bit awful, but it’s also sorta wonderful. Making the appointment is scary, and the first couple times I tried to talk it turned into an inarticulate crying-fest, but it’s kind of amazing how much it can potentially help. At the very least, you’ll feel like you’re trying something, being proactive, and then can help all on its own.

    I’m sending you all the Jedi hugs!

  7. Simone Lovelace said:

    As someone who is that master of crying in class–or on bus–or in the basement by the laundry machines–I just wanted to say this.

    It is totally okay to cry sometimes. People who love you won’t love you any less. Strangers will not care.

    It is really, really okay.

    Also, things will probably get better with time and therapy, in which case you will naturally find yourself doing a lot less crying! That is what happened to me! But it can take time. Be gentle with yourself, okay?

    • Yes! And even if your crying leads to an awkward moment, it’s STILL OKAY. We are all allowed to have awkward times!

    • Yes! I blubber over music and movies and sunsets and documentaries and puppies and pretty much at the drop of a hat, really. I used to think I was really weak, but really, every time I cry, I reveal my emotional responses, make myself vulnerable, expose myself to ridicule or judgment… things that lots of the “strong” people I know have been avoiding strenuously all their lives, and they are so, so much poorer for it.

      Fuck that. Doing all of that because I feel intensely is a hell of a lot more courageous than locking my heart up.

  8. BethanytheMartian said:

    Oh, Letter Writer, my heart is breaking for you my dear.

    I’m going to second Sweet Machine here- your friends don’t tell you stuff like that because stuff like that isn’t normal. It’s one of the things all abused kids have to deal with at some point or another, figuring out exactly how warped their child/parent relationship is or was. You need a therapist to help you sort some of this out, someone who can tell you “That was not okay, is still not okay, and it is perfectly normal and right to be sad about it.” It’s a really hard road to claim, to even get to the point where you can say “I was abused as a child.” A therapist can help you get there.

    Also, next time you see the Really Nice Cute Girl who made you tea, here’s what you do: You thank her for helping you out and taking care of you, tell her you had been having a really rough day and needed a friendly face and a cup of tea. Then, maybe, ask her to hang out or have coffee with you or something. She might say no, but I have the feeling you’re on the front edge of developing a Thing for this girl, and the longer you wait the worse that possible ‘no’ will feel. So thank her, and ask her out. Tell your therapist about it, either way.

    Jedi Hugs

    • Christen said:

      In addition to therapy, I think the LW might benefit from a (therapist moderated) support group, probably specifically for queer survivors of family abuse. Abusers try to make you think that 1) what they are doing is totally OK and normal (and deserved) and 2) you are completely alone (either in receiving the abuse in the first place, or in not liking it).

      LW, what your mom did to you was not OK and not normal and I’m really sorry you had to live with that when you were young and powerless. Part of you knows that you are OK and that your sexuality is totally, and that even as a child and teenager you had a right to enjoy your sexual feelings in privacy, and that it is unconscionably fucked up that your mom robbed you of that. Another part of you wants to be blemish- and baggage-free and to believe the happy-family story most abused kids have to tell the world when they are growing up. That part of you is also the part that keeps telling you your friends will abandon you if they find out what you had to live with when you were young.

      Abusers, especially abusers who are supposed to love you and take care of you (like partners or family) excel at making their targets feel like love is conditional. Sometimes they actually tell you this — that if you weren’t such a flirt they would never go into jealous rages and break your stuff, or they say that if you weren’t queer they wouldn’t have to invade your privacy and treat you like shit. Sometimes they don’t say that but you internalize it anyway while you try and piece together the reasons they act the way they do. (It’s easier if there are reasons people are awful to us, because then we can adjust our behavior to make them love us! Until we notice that the goalpost is always moving and we’ve run ourselves ragged trying to reach it.) As discussed elsewhere on this blog, just about everybody has a jerkbrain that sometimes makes them feel like their friends hate them or that they’re too weird or flawed to be loved — this is true whether we’ve been abused or not. But it IS a script abusers use and that survivors internalize and sometimes knowing that can be helpful. (Sometimes I have to say, “Hey, jerkbrain, can you maybe SHUT UP and stop repeating a script written by somebody I haven’t even seen in 10 years and who was wrong then? I have stuff to do and you are NOT HELPING.”)

      All this lady you met knows about you is that you heard a story about something that really exists in the world that is not normal and not OK, and that it upset you. That makes you cool and sensitive, not weird. I think you feel weird because your crushy feelings are all mixed up with your worries about conditional love and your embarrassment at having been all emotional in public and a sense of having been rescued. That is all understandable, and I agree that what she thinks of you or what happens next isn’t as important as you deciding that you are OK, that your reactions to things are OK, and that some of your past is decidedly not OK, but that it does not define you. As you navigate dating and make more friends, remember that — your past is part of who you are (and it is OK to talk about it) but it isn’t you. And people don’t love you in spite of it, and they also don’t love you because of it (although the way you’ve dealt with it — living your truth even when your family and society tried very hard to make you feel ashamed — is one reason everyone who knows you should be proud they do). They love /you/.

  9. Jesus, I just cried because my dad suggested I work out a housework schedule with my husband so we could better deal with new baby + 2 dogs + basic hygiene. He wasn’t being intentionally rude or judgemental, because he would rather chop.off an arm than hurt anyone’s feelings, but it didn’t stop.me from feeling judged and defensive and overwhelmed.

    TLDR, crying is a normal human response to Things That Make You Feel Bad. It takes extensive and very cruel training to make a crier into a non-crier. Don’t feel bad for crying. And yeah, if you have access to it, it sounds like you’d benefit from some therapy. *Jedi hugs*

  10. *hugshugshugshugs*, LW.

    Been here. so fucking much, been here. Almost creepily similarly, actually; complete with the underwear-checking – bonus pulling-off of clothes in order to check, even! My mom and grandma were pretty awful around my coming out, too. And the sexualised control of your life…yeah. That gray area where you can’t say it was sexual abuse, but it was definitely sexualISED abuse (I think of it as sexuality abuse, myself), it sucks, and it’s traumatising and invasive and hurts. It hurts a lot. And yeah, therapy helps an awful lot.

    That flurry of caring you feel guilty about, and want so much? I have that exact reaction, too. I think it’s mostly to get the voice in my head that thinks that that behaviour was all right, really, to SHUT THE FUCK UP. It took me a while of saying things like “For the record, despite my own feelings about what happened, I’m glad my parents knowingly left me vulnerable to a child molester and essentially told me to protect the other kids/women around by distracting him,” before someone stopped, blinked at me and said “Uh, for the record, that was incredibly abusive of them. You know that, right?”

    I felt like the world collapsed in on me that day, because hey… somebody finally believed me. It’s that belief you’re looking for, LW. The validation. The acceptance. The chorus of voices backing up the bit of you that knows, to its bones, unflinchingly and loudly, that the shit that was done to you was inarguably WRONG. And you know what? If it’s necessary to get your jerkbrain to stop telling you that what happened to you was all right really, get it. Get the validation, get the shocked looks and flinches and hugs and “I’m sorrys” and the people telling you it’s Not Okay. Wanting that is all right. It’s good, even. Work on getting to a point where you can remember that it was wrong, without having others confirm it, but don’t make that a high priority. And yeah, seconding the Captain: the reason your non-abused friends don’t have stories like this is, well, that they weren’t abused.

    Many more long-distance hugs, LW. And please, please do see a therapist if you can manage it at all. I swear it helps.

    • I am so sorry that your mom and grandma abused you. *Jedi hugs* Thank you for the term “sexuality abuse” — I was looking for an appropriate phrase when I wrote this post, and that fits perfectly.

      • *Jedi hugs back* Thank you. I’m far away and much further towards healed now, and it feels really good to be able to reach out to others who had that same gray-area sexuality abuse; fuck knows I felt pretty alone in thinking I was wrong that it was horrible, because it wasn’t abuse-abuse. (Except it was *sheepish* )

        And yeah, that really is a pretty apt term. I don’t remember where I read it, but I remember breaking the fuck down for a few hours over it.

  11. Case-in-Point said:

    LW, Whatever you are right now, whatever you will be in the future– gay or straight, crier or stoic, painter or poet or nurse or construction worker– you are great. People will love you because you are flawed, not in spite of your flaws. Great art, literature, friendships, and love affairs have a way of mirroring our strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and shining moments and helping us to understand and value them in ourselves and each other. It’s easy to cry when we see a flaw or a weakness or a horrible memory mirrored back at us, but remember that that’s not a bad thing. The best mirrors are the ones that help us understand and deal with the horror in our own lives. People who see you in a weak or weepy moment and judge you for it are not worthy of you, but I think you’ll find that most people don’t judge.

    You were abused horribly. You need a therapist and a good support group. As you get more comfortable talking about the realities of your life and discover an ability to confide in your friends, you may discover that they discover an ability to confide in you. They actually may already confide in you, it’s just that most people’s horrors will be smaller than yours.

    PS, I also think that you should read the book and weep over it in private when you are feeling stronger. Something about catharsis and feeling at least a little bit understood.

  12. Yeah, that was exactly what I thought when I read the letter.

    intense feelings-ok. cute girl-ok. cried at a reading-ok. do my friends really like me-ok. I tell people different stuff when drunk than when sober-ok. my mother checked my panties to see if I got wet that day-WUT!?!?

    Having come from an emotionally abusive birth family whose abuse manifested itself in exactly that kind of judgmental intrusiveness, that hit me like a ton of bricks. As far as what to do, I agree totally with all suggestions made above.

  13. foolsgame said:

    What I am getting from this letter is “Is the way I am dealing with all my awful feelings okay?” and there are two answers!

    One answer is YES: you are not asking too much of your friends by needing them to be supportive and caring and patient with you. It is okay to need things! It is okay to ask your friends for hugs or need to talk stuff out. It is totally okay to crush on a cute girl who was kind to you when you were vulnerable. It is okay to set limits about what sort of things you can’t deal with in art and fiction – and it is also okay to confront those things anyway and feeling the feelings they make you feel.

    The other answer is, sadly, NO. Your awful feelings are coming from shitty stuff that happened and the shitty way your mother treated you, and as much as you can and should totally rely on your friends for support, the awful feelings aren’t going to go away unless the shitty stuff that caused them is dealt with. Therapy is the way, my friend!

  14. KL said:

    Also, regarding the “how much crying is ok/normal?” thing, there is no normal, I promise. Some people cry at everything; recently I heard a really beautiful song for the first time, and I totally lost it. That’s fine, and no one was mad at me. I also know people who almost never cry, even when they’re terribly upset. That’s fine, too.
    To come out in a family situation like yours, you must have done a lot of very hard work to expand your ideas of how people can live well, of the variety and diversity of happiness we can achieve. You’ve gotten out beyond the narrow place where you were raised, but there’s always more to do. One day you won’t judge yourself for crying. You deserve love and happiness and safety. We all do.

  15. Sheelzebub said:

    LW, do you feel that? It is my legion of Jedi hugs.

    First, I’m with CA here. There is someone very close to me who once told a story about something that happened in her family when she was a kid–something that I found horrifying and scary and psychologically abusive, but she was telling it as if it was a funny story. I realized that to her, this was normal. And that almost made me cry right there.

    Get thee to therapy, where you can work this stuff out. (It did a WORLD of good for me.) And FWIW, if someone cried or had to leave during a reading I was giving, I would figure that it could be one of many things (triggered, sick, upset about something else, etc.) and go on my way.

  16. Camilla said:

    Tears and being ashamed of crying in public are a potent feedback loop for me.

    Sometimes it’s more graceful to directly acknowledge the fact that you are crying (and if possible, the one sentence summary as to why). Tears feel the most awkward to me when I don’t know if I should be pretending it isn’t happening, or offering comfort. It is generally fine to fish out kleenex and wipe your eyes at an artistic event.

    I have been known to say, “stories that deal with the protagonist lying always make me cry” and then go on to join in a discussion about said story; the result is that other people stop feel free to follow my lead and shrug it off, rather than fussing over me, or tiptoeing around me.

    (As previous commenters have said, it’s not a sin to be awkward. Just that if the awkwardness is a major part of the problem, it may be easier to come up with a strategy for crying non-awkwardly, than for never crying at all.)

  17. Araliya said:

    LW, I have to echo everyone else here, but particularly macavitykitsune because this:

    “And the sexualised control of your life…yeah. That gray area where you can’t say it was sexual abuse, but it was definitely sexualISED abuse (I think of it as sexuality abuse, myself), it sucks, and it’s traumatising and invasive and hurts. It hurts a lot. And yeah, therapy helps an awful lot.”

    Call it sexualised abuse or sexuality abuse, but I’ve been there too – same underwear checking/sniffing, comments and questions on any bruises or marks anywhere on my thighs, and on and on. It’s horrible that the people who were meant to protect you could warp that into abuse, but it’s NOT YOUR FAULT. Get yourself to a therapist and TELL. Talk it out, and hear them when they say it wasn’t ok and it wasn’t your fault. It’s important to hear someone say that and then important to deal with how that makes you feel about everything.
    Also, as you’ve seen from the comments here, it may not have happened to that many people, but you are nevertheless not alone and you CAN work it out. In fact, you’re doing it already.

    Much love and strength and hugs to you.

  18. Julie said:

    Hey, LW, I just want to add a quick note even if it’s a few days late. I had a mother like that — she actually did check our laundry to see if my sister and I had dirty underwear that was, let’s say, dirtier than she thought it should be. This wasn’t about being gay (my sister and I are both straight) it was just about being intrusive and controlling and mean and humiliating. Which may not actually be four separate things.

    As other commenters have said, when you are living like that, a part of you knows it’s wrong but another part of you has to believe it must be right and deserved. It takes some time to sort through all the things that have happened to you and reassess them in the light of normal, healthy behavior. Years from now, you might remember some incident from your childhood and realize suddenly how wrong it was. But most of that processing will happen over the next couple of years, especially if you have a good counselor and some good friends, and some distance from your mom. Group therapy could also be really helpful, because a lot of this process is about reality testing and learning what things were wrong and what should have happened instead.

    I’m not much of a crier — which caused my mother to frequently accuse me of being cold and unfeeling. I’m not. I just don’t demonstrate those feelings by crying as often as some people do. Just like my mother made me feel broken and wrong for not crying, it seems like you have been taught to think you are broken and wrong for crying too much.

    And of course intimacy and love and friendship are problems for you. You have grown up learning that intimacy is humiliating and people who “love” you are intrusive and mean. That information is wrong, but finding your way to normal still takes some time. It gets better. It really does.

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