Pumping the Breaks on Tears

by Ryan Berg, MA

Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.

My friend Alex committed suicide a month ago.  For context, he was not a Veteran.  A week prior to his death, he visited my wife and I at our home.  I met Alex in community college in 2007, and we remained in touch intermittently.  I was drawn to Alex because he made me laugh hysterically every time I saw him – without fail.

About a year ago, we conversed about toxic masculinity on Facebook, and he commented that he was the kind of person that “doesn’t cry”.  Of course, when I learned about his passing, I was heartbroken, but I also couldn’t help but be reminded of our conversation.  I wondered to myself what could have happened should Alex have permitted himself to cry.  Would he still be alive?  I’m also aware that Alex struggled with alcoholism.

He shared with me just days prior to his death, and less than a foot from my face as we sat in my car, that he was affected by childhood trauma.  He described in detail the punishing physical, verbal, and psychological abuse his father put him through.  He detailed how his mother tried to protect him but didn’t do enough.

I know what harsh childhood abuse is like because I’ve experienced it, so I could relate to him, and it hurt me to know he was treated so horribly.  I also know what it’s like to “pump the brakes on tears”, or to not allow myself to cry.  I had just done it one week ago from today during a therapy session, as I recounted a story I read in the news that touched me so deeply I couldn’t speak.  It described how horses on the east coast survive hurricanes:

“A bunch of majestic horses that spend their days frolicking on the beach in North Carolina’s Outer Banks will not be evacuated. 

With Hurricane Dorian quickly approaching, the colonial Spanish mustangs will huddle together and ride out the storm using a trick horses have used for centuries.

They will move to higher ground and gather under sturdy oak trees to shelter from the storm.  ‘They’ll likely ride out winds and rain as their ancestors did before them — in huddles, butts to the wind.’ ‘Remember, they’ve been doing this for 500 years!’

My childhood and adult life has often felt like a hurricane, which is why this story resonated so deeply with me.  As I described this story in therapy, it felt as if fireworks were going off in my gut and chest.  My whole body was shaking.  As this happened, my right foot began moving upwards and back down – repeatedly.  “Why aren’t you allowing yourself to cry?”, my therapist said.  I wasn’t sure.  She continued, “It looks like something is happening with your right foot……. as if you are pumping the breaks on tears?”

I was dumbfounded and completely unaware I was doing this, yet not surprised.  For most of my adolescent and adult life, I pumped the breaks on tears.  Unlike the majestic horses, I never had the huddle, the sturdy oaks, or higher ground.  They weren’t there to retreat to when things were chaotic.  There was no effective and safe way for me to “ride out the storm”.  It felt more like “just get your ass beat by the storm, completely spun around by the harsh winds, and drenched by the rain with no protection.”

I think about how Alex must have felt right before he killed himself.  No sturdy oak trees.  No huddle. No higher ground.

Only hopelessness.

And from what he said himself “no crying.”

This is the essence of toxic masculinity for anyone out there wondering.  It’s not a term meant to shame men for simply being males.  It’s a real behavior and mentality that dangerously affects the lives of men and women.  We need to find ways step into a higher order of masculinity.  One that permits us to feel a fuller range of emotions, and cry when we need it.