a woman lying in the fetal position with her arm over her head and swirling emotion around her

The Effects of Crying Without Tears

Not too long after I had started attending regular therapy, but before my dry eye diagnosis, I remember one appointment above most others. I had been talking about wanting to be able to cry, but that I just couldn’t, nothing would come out. I could make the face and sounds, but no tears would flow.

My counselor looked at me and said something to the effect that she thought it was related to my being emotionally stifled, not physical dysfunction.

Crushing to hear

It was crushing to hear but expected. During my decade-long journey to my seronegative rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, I had become used to healthcare professionals telling me that all of my seemingly random physical symptoms were the result of some sort of emotional dysfunction.

By that time, I had spent quite a few years with increasingly worse eye dryness and pain, and I knew deep down that there was a physical cause. Despite that, I was still left without help to figure out how to process grief and sadness when I couldn’t shed tears.

Unable to cry and feel good

When I’m feeling extremely frustrated or sad, I’ve always found a good cry to feel good and be cathartic. It gives me a feeling that I’ve processed and released those emotions. But, imagine you’re devastated by loss or overcome with sadness or frustration, and your body starts all the processes and motions to start crying, but no tears come out. How would that make you feel?

If you’re reading this, maybe you don’t have to imagine. I personally find it odd, uncomfortable, and a distraction from my current emotions. Whatever I was feeling is then replaced by awkwardness and frustration at my inability to cry.

On the other hand, when I do have some small amount of tears that come out, I immediately get so surprised and distracted by the production of tears and how good they feel on my eyeballs that whatever sadness I felt is gone. Feeling joy and relief at the sudden moisture, I immediately stop crying.

Regardless of if I shed no tears or few tears, for me there’s no feeling of really processing or releasing any of those emotions, and I’m left feeling tighter than a drum.

It's hard for others to understand

When a devastating event happens, how do those around you view your absence of tears? Some people may get the impression that I’m cold or uncaring. They might also possibly feel that I’m not in that much emotional pain and therefore don’t need the same level of comfort and social support.

What about crying in physical pain? Granted, if I’m in that kind of pain, I’m probably not really going to be distracted by my lack of tears. But, how do those around you know just how debilitating the pain you’re feeling is when we’re wired to associate crying with pain levels? Will my family or friends comprehend and respect my pain levels if I’m not emotionally crying?

Crying is even illustrated on many of the 1-10 pictograph pain scales at doctor’s offices and hospitals. This is somewhat of a distressing thought, since it wouldn’t surprise me if, in an emergency, my reported pain levels aren’t taken seriously because the healthcare workers don’t see me shed any tears.

Not shedding tears feels frustrating

Within a few months of that upsetting appointment with my counselor, I finally got the official dry eye diagnosis. When I told her, she was mortified and vowed never to make similar assumptions with any of her patients. While I appreciate her acceptance and social support, I still find myself frustrated when I can’t cry and haven’t found any good replacement or coping mechanism to feel good.

Since I can’t change when tears do or don’t come, I’ll have to keep putting effort into accepting my tear production as it is.

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