I’ve always considered myself a modern man. I’ve never been afraid to get in touch with my feminine side, I love talking about feelings and relationships, and all my best friends are women. I don’t have a killer instinct, I don’t like confrontation or aggression, and I’ve never understood the obsession with competitive sports.
I even did a course in Gender Studies at university where I wrote essays about ‘The Patriarchy’ and the artificial creation of gender norms based on notions of biological sex. And this was twenty years ago, before it became mainstream.
I’ve always believed that it’s okay for men to show emotion. When I’ve been with men as they’ve cried, I’ve been sympathetic and supportive and assured them repeatedly that there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s entirely okay. I always maintained that crying is entirely normal, understandably human, and nothing to be embarrassed about.
So why, as I recover from the abuse I suffered, do I feel so ashamed crying in front of people?
Throughout my life, whenever I shed my tears I do it in private, behind closed doors, and entirely alone, as though to have witnesses would somehow un-man me. I know it’s not a sign of weakness to cry, but it is ingrained within me, as it is drummed into all men, that “Boys Don’t Cry.”
At my first school, I was known as a Cry-baby. Everything would set me off, every day. When I was 8, we moved and I started at a new school, and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t cry in front of these new children. Tears attract bullies, I told myself. Tears expose weakness. They make you vulnerable. So I’ve spent a lifetime keeping my tears in check, and been very successful at it.
Until the day I ended my marriage to my abusive wife. Since then, I can’t count the number of people who have seen me cry. Far more tears have come in public than in private. And every single time, I try to fight off the tears, try to control how I’m feeling inside. I try to hide it.
They come when I least expect it. They come for silly reasons, and for important ones. I hear a sentimental song, and I cry. I see families out for the day with their children, and I cry. I see Wellington boots lined up on a porch – a daddy pair, a mummy pair, and two child pairs – and I cry.
I cry for the children I miss. I cry because they don’t live with me; because they’re not growing up in a loving household with their daddy. I cry because I’m not there to take them into school in the morning or tuck them in at night. I cry because I can’t hold their little hands or wipe away their tears.
I cry when I go somewhere I once went with my family; I cry when I go somewhere new without them. I cry in parks and at the beach; I cry at the cinema; I cry in the support group. I cry in front of friends and support workers and other survivors of domestic abuse. I cry in cafes and at dinner parties. I cry in the bath and in bed; on the sofa; in the car. I cry while walking the clifftops, while cycling in the forest. I cry; I cry; I cry.
I cry for the person I used to be and the things I used to do. I cry for the emptiness I feel inside. I cry for the loss of my future dreams and because nothing feels the way it should. I cry as I search for meaning in this new life that was thrust upon me against my will.
I even cry over my wife, the person who brought me to this place. I cry when I think of our wedding, for the happy future we never had. I cry on her birthday; on Valentine’s Day. I cry on our anniversary. I cry that we’ll never grow old together, because despite knowing that she was bad to me, and bad for me, a part of me still loves her and always will.
People tell me it’s normal – that after having to keep it locked inside all the years I was being abused, it’s no surprise that as I start to recover from the trauma, a backlog of emotions comes pouring out. I’m sure they’re right.
But it doesn’t stop me feeling humiliated when it happens, like my dignity is being taken away again, the way it was for all those years.
I think the reason I’m so ashamed of doing it is because it’s a reminder of what she brought me to. Each time I cry in front of people, it’s a new trauma that adds to all the others. That’s the legacy of abuse – a never-ending series of indignities, vulnerabilities and exposures that last long after the abuser is out of the picture.
I just wish I knew how to stop welling up when I’m out and about in the world, because even though we all know that men have emotions the same as anyone else, nobody wants to see a grown man cry.