I cried at least once when I woke up in the morning, usually while still in bed. I shared an apartment with a group of other 20-somethings, so considering our thin Brooklyn walls, I’d occasionally wait until the shower. Then, at least once more throughout the day, I’d cry again – sometimes in public, sometimes on the couch, sometimes back in bed. It was never if, so much as when.
Slow moments at my desk or behind the counter at work or staring at the subway floor provided an inroad for a wave of desperation and worry that rose from my stomach into my chest and out my throat. I felt my insides contract and the space behind my eyes burn. My face contorted into a twisted frown and my mouth pulled thin before the first gasp escaped from within and out between my teeth. Crying, for me, was a deep emotion manifested in visceral, physical, sometimes uncontrollable reactions. I cried every day, sometimes for months on end.
If I was at home, I’d stumble-walk to a nearby piece of furniture and collapse like a damsel in an Agatha Christie novel. If there wasn’t somewhere to sit or lie down nearby, I had no qualms about curling into a ball on my apartment floor. Sometimes, I’d grab my pillow and press it to my face. I would scream and curse into the pillow and feel cold, wet tears against my cheeks. I was convinced the neighbors could hear these moments and were mocking me from the other side of our shared wall.
During my first week in the city, I googled “good places to cry in New York” while sitting in the Whole Foods on Houston and Bowery; killing time before an interview. The few internet resources I tracked down reiterated a stereotype that I’ve found to be somewhat true: New Yorkers don’t care what you’re doing in a public space unless you’re being destructive or threatening. A grown man weeping by himself in a grocery store is neither.
The city has lots of curbs along little-used alleys and out-of-the-way parks — ideally suited for a quick sob. Curbed ran a listicle on the subject a few months after my search. I agree with the inclusion of the West Village’s small, winding streets. Fortunately, that’s where my shrink’s office is located.
These breakdowns were often reactions to memories or recognitions; the type you may have every so often just before falling asleep, but for the entire duration of my days. I am terrified of dying because I cannot reconcile the notion of nonexistence. I have done horrible things and have failed to do good things when the opportunity presented itself. I have ignored friends that needed me. I do not know how to break free of the strict good/evil dichotomy that my Catholic-socialized brain habitually uses to analyze both myself and the world.
I often feel like there are so many things that I have cried at (or over) that the emotions blend together, rendering them indistinguishable from one another. I have been unable to find another way to feel feelings, other than through my tears. Anger, sadness, love (and the desperate desire to be loved), remorse, happiness, frustration — all of these emotions bring me to these inevitable tears, even when felt with only moderate intensity.
Here is a list of some specific things that I have cried over:
- In the romantic comedy “Definitely, Maybe,” when Abigail Breslin asks “Did [one of Ryan Reynolds’ various exes] break it” and Reynolds responds “Break what?” and Breslin places her hand over her heart.
- After spiraling into a fit of self-loathing because I misplaced my glasses while repeating, out loud, “How can you misplace your ability to see?”
- The massive amount of information contained in the books in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford; the way they surrounded me, closed me in, and reminded me that, though I am attempting to build a career out of knowledge and luck, I will never know quite enough to feel up to the task.
I hate that I cry at all, but especially that I cry so frequently. I hate how my face curdles into something ugly and red and unrecognizable. I hate how my voice cracks and I lose the ability to effectively express myself. I hate the uncontrollable spiral of despair and shame that I allow myself to fall prey to. I hate that I cry because I do not believe that I have the right to cry. I hate that I so consistently engage in this self-indulgence, but I fail to see how I could go on without it.
I was always the first male in the room — if not the first person — to cry at movies, at music, or in front of my classmates when I received failed test scores (“failed” by my Persian mother’s standards, which meant anything less than an A). To my memory, neither of my parents cried much during my upbringing — at least not in front of their children.
My Muslim-turned-Catholic mother immigrated to the United States shortly before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. She left her father — an officer in the Shah’s air force — behind and lived with her mother, sister, and two brothers in a suburb of Houston, Texas. She spoke little English when she arrived and stuck mostly to other Iranian-Americans.
My father grew up Catholic in a working-class neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. When he was young, he biked to Church every morning before school. As he grew older, he took jobs picking radishes outside the city and driving forklifts in frozen fruit warehouses.
Both worked their way through college at their hometown state schools (back when that was more easily done) and graduated with practical degrees in engineering. They met while working on NASA’s Space Shuttle program at the Johnson Space Center. A few years later, they were married and had me.
The juxtaposition of my parents’ upbringings with my own are a likely source of the guilt I feel when I cry — or express negative emotions at all, really. Unlike them, I have the time and the space to succumb to the weight of the world. I don’t know what I’ve done to earn that privilege.
As Ewan McGregor said in the film Beginners, “Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness that our parents didn't have time for.”
I had two main gigs when I first moved to New York. The first was slicing smoked fish behind the counter at the historic Russ & Daughters appetizing shop on First and Houston (where I was about to interview, while crying in front of Whole Foods). The pace was far too blistering to cry on the job. I made the most out of the half-hour breaks we were allowed during our ten-hour shifts, usually with my head in my hands, squatting with my back against the wall outside Rosario’s Pizza, or on a bench across Houston in First Park.
I gave up my job at Russ & Daughters after hearing a few horror stories about working through the High Holidays and, after a week or two of unemployment, a roommate connected me with a job selling books and making coffee on the Upper West Side. At the time, I was living in a room above a bar in Bushwick that had attached subwoofers to the building’s support beams. The bass-heavy vibrations were borderline violent. After sleepless nights (and early mornings, given Bushwick’s propensity for partying), I trudged to the subway and made the hour-long journey to the store by 2 pm.
Around 5, I’d take a bathroom break before the manager left me to run the cafe until close. I often used the break to eat in the alley behind the cafe, next to the trash bins. I ate quickly, set a timer on my phone, and sobbed with my head hung between my knees until the alarm went off.
Crying in the alley behind the cafe, or while riding the train home each day, were different from other tear-riddled moments. I was less upset about working a dead-end job to feed myself than I was about feeling the job as a punishment; a punishment for not heeding my family’s advice to pursue business or engineering or medicine.
Sometimes I cried for my coworkers as well. Danny was stuck slicing fish when he wanted to write novels about the sex workers and tough guys that were his friends across the river in New Jersey. Liza wanted to break into the corporate side of the publishing industry, but was stuck selling books and operating the massive printing press in the Shakespeare and Company store. Inan was working hard towards a way out of food service, a stable office job, and an apartment to share with her boyfriend. All were stuck in an economic system hellbent on exploiting them until their deaths.
I felt guilty pursuing my own white collar goals outside of these working-class environments. This was an unproductive guilt, but still, I became overwhelmed and needed to get out of that rut instead of marinating in the stench of fish and coffee that clung to my clothes.
I don’t believe my despairing temperament ever caused any professional setbacks, though I didn’t pick up my first “office job” until January and spent most of my post-college corporate career working from my bedroom. Still, I cried in the bathroom stalls at the WeWork space rented by the tax company where I filed paperwork before the pandemic — usually out of frustration at the mundanity of my tasks, or at the fear that I would lose the stability that I was suddenly offered through this gig.
It is easier to wash your face and return, newly composed after a quick cry, to a solitary desk job than it is to return to an angry, expectant customer who doesn’t realize that when a cafe is staffed by only one person, there will be occasional breaks in service while the sole employee must use the facilities.
I wept deep, gut-wrenching sobs of contrition when I had sex with a man for the first time — not because of anything to do with the sex itself, but because of my latent Catholic guilt.
Before my first year of college, my experience with men amounted to the occasional makeout in the basement of a high school party or being offered a parking lot blowjob.
His name was Adam. He had curly black hair and tanned skin and a sharp jaw and stood up straight and liked it when I drunkenly told him I thought I had it easier than him because I could hide my homoerotic desires behind a facade of heteronormativity, because I was still outwardly attracted to women.
I’d come back to my dorm from an off-campus party and sent Adam — the one gay man on my floor — some type of “u up” text. He was. He came over and we had a sloppy encounter that barely qualified as my first time. I’m almost certain that my roommate was not only in the room, but wide awake through the whole event. My roommate never mentioned it.
Overwhelmed by guilt, I cried the entire day following the encounter. My tears were a reaction to one of the most terrible contradictions both in my own mind and in broader American culture. Our obsession with sex has eroded those old puritanical aversions — especially for heterosexual men — while constantly policing the sex had by women or LGBTQ folks. Unwittingly, I had internalized this outlook from an early age under the influence of American social mores, as well as those of my own (vehemently Catholic) family.
My father was a fan of hyperbolic arguments — often involving bestiality — and casually ranted about how sexual deviance led to the fall of the Roman Empire. My mother has never said these sorts of things to me, but after I came out, she demanded to know what errors she had made to turn me into a sexual deviant. She denies this, or will try to claim that she was upset about something else at the time, but I remember her screams all too well — and her attempt to flip our dinner table.
I met the last man I had sex with at a bar in Bed-Stuy. We played pool with his friends and drank three-dollar beers until the early morning before returning to his apartment. I wanted him so badly and it felt exhilarating to feel his hands on my body and my mouth against his. In spite of the pleasure, I began to cry and the awful sickness that I’ve become so familiar with rose inside me yet again. He, understandably, was worried that he’d done something wrong. I got dressed, left, and before making my way home, I vomited on the sidewalk.
The ability to cry in front of someone, and the degree to which I feel shame about having done so, is a good measure for whether a relationship might last. Or, as my therapist would put it: whether I feel seen and understood by a potential romantic partner. As a 23-year-old with little real idea about what romantic love could (or should) feel like beyond what has been presented to me by popular culture, this is a valuable tool. If I connect with someone at a bar, they fall for “Party Ethan,” whose food-industry honed customer service acumen never fails to please. (Standard, everyday Ethan is a bit more cynical and weary). More often than not, I’m not loved by that person (even if I end up loving them).
This need for a person to be my soggy self with is complicated further by my youthful incompetence, particularly when navigating queer and hetero dating cultures, the former of which I have fledgling experience in.
For the first time in my adult life, I knew I was in love with the right person when I cried on our third date. Instead of becoming uncomfortable, she held my hand until we fell asleep.
Her name was Rory. We were both interns at our university’s alumni magazine and we often spent hours together at the office and after work. Rory knew me well enough to see when I was sniveling over something trivial (like a line in a book I was reading on the other side of the room) versus when I was truly overwhelmed and shaking with unplaced anxiety or sadness.
In return, I did my best to not become a toxic drag. I called her during the early drafting stages of this essay to ask if she remembered the first time I cried in front of her. She didn’t. It’s just a part of you, she said.
This understanding allowed the relationship to work for as long as it did, until distance and career goals brought things to an end. I cried then, too — a lot.
A heartbreak sob feels different from others because, at least in my experience, the event causing the heartbreak is often in the best interest of both parties. In the case of my breakup with Rory, I was determined to make it as a journalist in New York while she needed the prestige of a D.C. political science program to pursue her goals.
It’s natural for people to grow apart over time or to need a separation to explore other avenues of themselves or the world — especially during their early-20s. Something natural or necessary, however, is not always easy. As the author Matt Ortile puts it, “The hard part about ending a courtship — specifically when it’s good, mature, and generous — is when you get home and take a shower and change into your pajamas, it all feels like you just woke up from a very lovely dream. I, for the record, would like to go back to sleep.”
Not all of my relationships have been good, mature, and generous — and I certainly haven’t behaved that way during the end of every relationship — but I can say that every breakup has invited me to grow into somebody who embraces those characteristics. Still, there are some dreams that I would love to have never woken up from.
As I’ve gotten back into the dating world, I’ve learned that the trick for evaluating a person’s compatibility with my emotional behavior is to insert a little comment about my mental health into the conversation and gauge my date’s reaction. In today’s era of relatively frequent mental health diagnoses this isn’t usually an issue. Folks are more likely than ever to be comfortable with the idea of dating a mentally ill man who is frequently prone to tears. On more than one occasion, mental health has naturally arisen as a topic during a first date, with both myself and my date cracking jokes about therapy and medication. Still, there is the risk that framing myself as this kind of person will make me come off as unstable, or even dangerous. I try to take the approach that Steph Montgomery lands on by the end of her piece in The Cut, answering questions as honestly as possible while making sure to avoid overwhelming anyone up front.
When I was in elementary school, I once stayed up all night prematurely mourning the death of my family’s German Shorthair, Charlie. He wasn’t dying at the time, but I had just realized that this creature whom I wholeheartedly loved would one day perish. I went down to the crate where he slept, let him out, and held him while I wept with my face buried in his fur. Charlie sniffed me curiously, before shaking himself free and returning to his nook.
Years later, I cried again when I recognized my own mortality. This happened as I began to move away from the Catholic Church, which had always been my spiritual and social home.
Today, I still cry at the idea of death. Frequently. I cry at the mass tragedies placed before me by the same media machine I’ve worked for years to join. I cry at the brutality of the impossibly skewed information-action ratio that permeates the pandemic we are currently experiencing.
A week or so ago, I spiraled into a fit of tears while reading about pre-Columbian Native American societies. The tragedy of the lost culture was a factor, sure, but the real reason for my tears was pure awe at the stretch of time and all that is forgotten by history. I cried for the selfish recognition that I did not matter in the grand scheme of existence, compared to these societies. I will disappear into nothingness as well. I, too, will be forgotten.
The first person to suggest I get some kind of help about my condition was a girl named Zoe, whom I dated for the better part of high school. She was the first to suggest I look into therapy. She was also the first person to suggest that I might be bisexual — something that I was too deeply closeted to have considered on my own.
After a few nudges from Zoe and some long talks with my parents, who were convinced that I just wasn’t getting enough exercise, I saw a psychiatrist not far from where we used to live in Seattle. At the time, I was running between 30-60 miles per week, so their “lack of exercise” assertion was callous at best, outright denial at worst.
After a session or two, the psychiatrist put me on Zoloft. Like many SSRI-type antidepressants, Zoloft can have sexual side effects. I lost my ability to orgasm and started to believe the medicine was fogging up my mind. I stopped taking the pills after about two months and lost interest in both therapy and psychiatry a couple years later.
During my first two years of college, I spent most of my time either drinking or studying or both. By the end of my sophomore year, my mental health was in the gutter and my grades began to slip, so I sought out a counselor through the university health network. He was an older Persian man and could’ve been my uncle — complete with curly, graying hair and a thick accent. I’ve since lost my notes from our sessions, but I don’t remember much beyond leaving his office once a week so drained from sobbing in his large, green armchair that I sometimes had trouble finding my way out of the building. I felt like I wasn’t making much progress — though in retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected to make much progress in the few short months I saw him.
In the spring of 2019, I started my most consistent period of therapy with another Persian man in San José. He was soft-spoken, kind, and otherwise generally unlike anyone in my family. When I moved to New York, he put me in contact with a colleague so I could continue building on the progress we’d made together. His Jungian approach invited me to explore my subconscious and weed out the impulses that drove what he believed to be the source of my crying: a deep-seated self-loathing that I’d learned from an early age.
Until the pandemic, I was going to in-person therapy about once a week and had been doing so since September of 2019, after taking a three-month break while graduating, driving to New York, and bouncing between sublets and friends’ couches. The first draft of this essay was assembled in October 2019. At the time, I was crying multiple times per day, every day. I kept that up while getting back into the rhythm of therapy. Thanks to the help of my current shrink, I managed to get that down to around once or twice a week.
After this success, I began seeing a psychiatrist to finetune a regimen of pills to combat my depression and anxiety. I started with Wellbutrin, but continued to have uncontrolled spirals during the workday. Now, I take a Prozac each morning.
It might make my memory a bit foggy but has mostly prevented me from crying and, theoretically, will help me be a more productive member of society. Though I do continue to experience racing thoughts related to death and dying and the afterlife, I no longer cry about them. I can feel burnt out, overwhelmed, exhausted, shocked by the state of the world — but I stop short of releasing those feelings through my tears.
Admittedly, it is frustrating not to cry anymore, especially since I still want to cry all the time. I want to cry right now. I wanted to cry while listening to recordings of therapy sessions from the fall of 2019, in an attempt to reach the original headspace behind the first draft of this essay. These recordings failed to induce tears.
I have only cried once since the Prozac started to work, in response to a very sweet letter that my current significant other wrote for me (that I’ll refrain from sharing here). Otherwise, I’ve only felt the physical build up that used to end in tears without the usual result.
One of the problems that I’ve always had — and I believe this is a somewhat common experience for people with long-term, low-level depression — is that the conditions of each day seem permanent. If it is raining today, then it will feel as if it has always been raining. If it is sunny today, it will feel as if the sun has always shone. If I am having a good mental health day, then I begin to wonder whether I was somehow faking my mental illness all along. And now, as my work on this essay — as well as this chapter of my life — comes to a close, I wonder if the experience that prompted my writing this essay really occurred. I know, objectively speaking, that I cried in each of the memories that I reference here, but those moments feel like nothing more than hazy dreams, as ineffable as they were exhausting.