She is the red-nosed, wet-cheeked sodden mess blubbering over there in the dark corner. I have spent decades doing my best to ignore her, scorning her weakness, driven to distraction by her spinelessness, by her weak and easy emotion and her baby tears.
Sadly, oh so sadly, she is the secret me. Actually not so secret, because far too many people have seen me in action, weeping copious tears over not very much at all. It’s extremely embarrassing, especially for those of us who would like to present an aura of implacable fortitude at all times.
I have gone to great lengths to hide this excessive emotion mostly because it makes me look like a jellyfish-crybaby-idiot. Sometimes I pretend it’s hay-fever. Or something in my eye. Or an allergic reaction to certain odours. Once I blamed those unwanted and unexpected tears on recent surgery on my eyes (I’d certainly had the surgery, but it didn’t make me cry).
I tell myself that my all-too-frequent weeping is just a physical response to common emotions. Other people can feel the same things just as deeply and look sad, and noble, and reserved, while remaining adult in their bearing. We crybabies merely have a physical defect, like a hammer toe or warts. Unsightly and best ignored.
Most unfortunately, I can cry at many things: a sad book (even Little Women, believe it or not), and I haven’t even tried to read ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ (the film was too much). ‘Cold Mountain’ left me wrung out and deeply weary from the outpouring. Or the trigger for tears might be a starving and pitiful animal – say, an emaciated polar bear dragging itself across the arid tundra; or a bullied kid in the US crying because his classmates taunt him; or even a soppy story about dog loyalty.
Still, I pale in comparison with the youngest Mitford sister. The soft-hearted Deborah Mitford (sister to the well-known writers Jessica and Nancy) was regularly teased by her tougher older siblings. Rapier-keen Nancy wrote a poem to torment her young sister: “A little houseless match; it has no roof, no thatch; it lives alone and makes no moan, the little houseless match”. The poem regularly reduced the child Debo to tears and, after a while, even a significant glance at a matchbox could set her off.
Movies can get me, even if I’ve seen them before and know roughly when to leave the room. A soppy movie (ANY soppy movie) that features heroism or sacrifice or death or heartbreak can do it. ‘Terms of Endearment’? Forget about it. ‘Kramer Vs Kramer’. Only with my eyes closed and ears well stopped. ‘Steel Magnolias’? An orgy of weeping. ‘Dunkirk’ turned the taps on.
At the same time, I can make an absolute fool of myself at funerals, sometimes, to my shame, crying more than even the dead person’s children and close friends, while hiding behind a large and helpfully billowing hankie. My mother used to call me a watering pot. My brother uses avoidance tactics to keep the crying to a minimum, such as meeting me his front door to tell me that an aged (but much loved) dog had died while I was abroad, so handily keeping me outside where, he may have hoped, my excessive emotion would be corralled.
When we were little kids we learned that crying was a sign of weakness. Babies cry. Adults look concerned. Grown men, particularly, are eyed askance if they melt into tears, although Bob Hawke largely got away with it, and more recently the nearly-perfect Justin Trudeau had an understated weep when a friend of his died. But an adult woman in tears is another thing entirely, often a target for scoffing and scarcely concealed ribald humour.
Anyway, I prefer to think of myself not as a crybaby, but as a Highly Sensitive Person (note well the capitals).
Apparently we HSPs respond “more intensely” to life than ordinary easy-going people. That’s certainly one way of putting it, but my ruder relatives have come up with different, pithier, descriptions.
The HSP is apparently even an object worth of study, and there are academics out there working on an HSP index and observing the more extreme manifestations of the state also called “Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Acutely aware of sensations and emotions, the HSP can be easily overwhelmed by stimuli”.
That will be my response when my brother next blocks me out of his house: “Excuse me, but I’ve been acutely overwhelmed by stimuli”.