Life

The Crying Game

I bawled my eyes out every day for nearly three years. So I hatched a radical plan to take back my tear ducts.

An illustration of a man up to his nose in water (tears) with his glasses floating away.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I have always been a pretty emotional person. I blame frequent childhood viewings of Free to Be … You and Me for my lifelong conviction that it’s all right to cry at just about any point, whether I am mourning a loss, celebrating a victory, or simply excited to be eating a really good sandwich. Forget wearing your feelings on your sleeve—I wear mine like a full body stocking.

Over the past few years, though, my tendency toward tears has become truly exhausting. Since March 2020, I’ve done more crying than in all of my preceding years put together. Granted, there’s been a lot to cry about: public and private health crises, a broad existential dispossession over the perceived lack of purpose in my life, the fact that Eric Clapton’s kid fell out of a window and died. (Yes, that happened 30 years ago, but it’s still very sad!) I’ve also found myself crying for no perceptible reason, or over things that a grown man should not cry about, such as being unable to find street parking, or how much I appreciate my dentist. If teardrops were dollar bills, I’d be one of the lesser Walton heirs by now.

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This exhausting trend recently reached its nadir when I spent an entire cross-country flight sobbing because I had left my hat in the back of my rental car. To be fair, it was a good hat, but it was also only a hat. No hat is worth crying about for hours in the emergency exit row. Come on, man, I told myself through my tears. You’re being ridiculous. You can solve this problem. You can go get a new hat at Lids when you land. The prospect of having to go to a Lids made me cry even more.

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I’ve tried to analyze the progression of my runaway weepiness, both by myself and with the help of qualified clinicians. To make a long story short, the pandemic kicked me in the brain, and my brain still hasn’t regained its former shape. The anxieties, stresses, losses, and solitudes of the COVID era have eroded many of my internal filters, and have turned me into a shitty geyser. I’ve transformed from an endearingly sensitive soul into someone a stranger might plausibly describe as “that weirdo in seat 15C.” I’d fully lost control of my emotions—and I wanted it back.

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This is one reason why I recently became interested in learning how to cry on command. The ability to produce tears on demand is a critical part of the professional actor’s playbook. When the script calls for crying, you need to be able to do it, even if you might not feel particularly sad at that moment. I aspired to this level of control over my own mind and body. I wanted to see my tears as a choice, rather than just an involuntary emotional reaction—and I wondered whether, by gaining mastery over my tear ducts, I might also learn how to shut them off at will.

And so a mission was born, even if I was unsure whether it actually made any sense. If there are therapists or academics who recommend studying crying techniques as a means of controlling one’s own runaway emotions, I haven’t found them. No one in my life has ever suggested that I should learn to cry on cue as a means of learning how to stop crying not on cue. But, then again, no one ever recommended that I subsist exclusively on a diet of CBD products for two weeks, or that I watch YouTube videos in order to learn how to shower, but I did both of those things anyway, and look at me now! I’m cleaner than ever and my bloodstream is still 85 percent industrial hemp byproducts. In the spirit of a new year and of my previous semiprofessional misadventures for this magazine, I thought I’d try to wrest control of my feelings the way the professionals do. Off I went on a deep dive into the weepiest corners of the internet. In my quest to use fake tears to kill my real ones, I found unlikely answers.

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As it turns out, the internet is full of fun tips for how to muster tears at will. (The internet is also full of fun tips for how to stop crying when you have started involuntarily, such as breathing deeply or touching the roof of your mouth with your tongue, but I was looking for tips that would also be useful if I were to suddenly decide to audition for a stage adaptation of Brian’s Song.) An aspiring weeper can yawn, or access painful memories, or chop an onion and let the syn-Propanethial S-oxide work its lachrymose magic. Some of these tips were more relevant to my goals than others: I wasn’t about to go and start slicing up onions willy-nilly out on the street corner, lest I be mistaken for a participant on some hidden-camera Netflix cooking show. I resolved to run through a bunch of other techniques for crying on cue and deploy them in various private and public situations to see what happened.

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An illustration of a man crying so much that the people surrounding him are up to their eyes in water.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I was also interested in further exploring the social consequences of crying in public. Since March 2020—hat-related in-flight meltdowns notwithstanding—my crying has largely been restricted to private spaces, viewed only by my very close friends and family members, some of whom, I gather, are getting a little bit sick of my constant bullshit. I cry much more often than my wife does, and while we have both long been fine with me being a man who cries a lot—I am 6’5, and I think we both sort of appreciate that I’ve never felt hemmed in by society’s emotional expectations for someone who is my gender and size—these last two and a half years have really pushed the boundaries of a lot. Would random strangers be a more compassionate audience than those who are bound to me by blood, law, or shared personal history? I spent a couple of weeks test-driving various methods and gathering data.

Technique 1: Hydration, Yawning, and Staring

In a 2016 appearance on Conan, the actor Bryce Dallas Howard—who, during a previous appearance on the show, had displayed her talent for bursting into tears at will by doing so in response to an impromptu monologue from host Conan O’Brien about his love for Home Depot—revealed that crying on command was a trick that could be mastered through a strict regimen of hydration and yawning. The hydration tip intuitively makes sense: If your body is parched, then of course you’ll find it more difficult to excrete water from your eyes. This common-sense observation was verified by me when I went to the coffee shop while very hungover one Sunday morning and tried and failed to cry—for science, you see—upon being told that they were out of egg sandwiches. Instead, I just sort of choked and gasped and squinted as if I were going into convulsive shock over the news that I would have to choose something else for breakfast.

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But what does yawning have to do with crying? “You know how when you yawn, your soft palate lifts? Everyone yawn with me now. Do a yawn,” Howard said on Conan. “You see how your eyes start to tear?” O’Brien’s eyes didn’t, and neither did mine when I first tried to yawn myself disconsolate. But Howard’s tips were backed up by other sources. According to a 2015 New York Times article, yawning “often increases the secretion of tears because of muscular tension on the glands,” which can turn the lubricating film on your eyes “into a small waterfall of tears.”

So I chugged two pint glasses of water, waited a few minutes for the hydration to work its way up to my eyeballs—I assume this is how my body works—and started to yawn. I yawned and yawned to the point where I started to feel sleepy. I wasn’t crying, but I was certainly ready for a nap. I actually closed my eyes for a little bit, and then, feeling a bit more rested, I had another cup of water and tried again. It took about 12 consecutive yawns for my eyes to become moist, and a few more to squeeze out an actual tear. This was hardly the deluge I had hoped for. It felt like all this yawning had made my tear ducts constipated. On the other hand, I very much needed to urinate. This wasn’t the sort of water I’d wanted to shed!

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This tactic strikes me as pretty inefficient, frankly—if I were a film director who had to wait for someone like me to yawn 20 times before producing a single tear when a gusher was called for, I’d fire me and recast the role with someone like Bryce Dallas Howard.

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I then tried something that Jennifer Lawrence mentioned once in an interview as her go-to tip for crying on cue: “I just hold my eyes open really wide for a really long time.” Sounds like something I could manage! I set a timer and set about not blinking—or at least I tried. In practice, I found this method incredibly stressful and torturous. After three minutes of holding my eyes open like a Tex Avery character, I wasn’t crying, but I was so physically uncomfortable that I abandoned the entire experiment. This technique might work for Lawrence, but it just made me feel like I was being hazed or something. I vowed to find another, better way.

Technique 2: Harnessing Sad Memories

These technical tips didn’t work very well for me, so I decided to instead switch to a more elemental technique: trying to summon and inhabit sad thoughts and memories. This is the most “actor-y” way to cry, insofar as it’s rooted in authentic emotion. With the caveat that none of these cry-on-cue methods are particularly “honest,” producing tears by remembering what it felt like when your dog died or whatever strikes me as a more honest way of generating tears than bugging your eyes out as if you’re undergoing the Ludovico technique.

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Like many people, I have no shortage of sad thoughts and memories to dwell on—and after spending most of the past three years dwelling on them, I’m already pretty good at quickly spinning sorrow into tears. While walking into CVS one afternoon, I started to settle into a familiar line of thought about my failure to do anything with my life. This is not particularly justifiable—I’ve done a lot with my life!—but it is certainly an effective technique for making me feel bad about myself.

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My brain works fast, and as is my custom these days, my personal anxieties soon transmuted into generalized bad memories. Remember when Mom had that awful infection?, I thought, and all at once I was transported back to October 2020, caught up again in the emotional strain of sudden parental illness. By the time I made it to the checkout line, I was sniffling; by the time I made it to the self-checkout kiosk, I was openly crying. It was so hard, I told myself as I keyed in my ExtraCare rewards number. None of the other people in the checkout area said anything or moved to intervene, perhaps because they just didn’t notice, or perhaps because none of them were particularly eager to interact with the hulking maniac weeping at the self-checkout kiosk while clutching an economy-sized package of wet wipes.

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This technique worked, but it also made me feel like trash. I wanted to learn to cry on cue to reduce the hold that the last few years have had over my emotions, not to give my pandemic-era sorrows even greater reign over my life. I left the store, opened the package of wet wipes, dabbed my eyes with a pre-moistened tissue, and went home, intent on finding a better, less painful way to cry.

Technique 3: Stretch, Relax, and Focus on the Belly 

If you’ve ever taken a voice, acting, or improv class, you’ve surely been told more than once to “center” your “energy” into your “belly,” whatever that means. Back when I was taking these sorts of classes, I chose to mock and disregard this advice, in part because it sounded like something you might hear from a clerk in a store that sells healing crystals. But I gradually came to realize that these tips were just methods to make you more aware of your own body and your breathing as a means of training yourself to be present in the moment.

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I’m generally pretty good at being in the moment, a byproduct of 15 years of semiprofessional improv comedy experience, as well as a lifetime’s worth of pretending that the future doesn’t exist as a means of validating my many unhealthy life choices. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that there is indeed great emotional power in an enhanced awareness of the ways in which your body exists in space. So I was receptive when I read one actor’s claim that the key to unlocking tears on command lies in exactly this sort of mindfulness: relaxing your body and dropping your energy into your gut.

“Our deepest emotions emerge from the belly. It’s a very vulnerable place,” writes Joyce Hshieh in a blog post for the website Off Book It. “In order to cry, you have to learn to relax and open up the belly.” Naturally, I decided to test these theories during a trip to the supermarket.

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As my wife headed toward the produce section, I lingered in the cereal aisle and tried to limber up. First, I rolled my shoulders down over my torso and bent as if I were touching my toes. I uncoiled slowly, trying to raise myself back up one vertebra at a time. Then, as per Hshieh’s tips, I relaxed my stomach and began to sigh deeply. I was standing in front of the Fiber One, which has been my breakfast cereal of choice ever since I learned that I have borderline high cholesterol. The fact that I eat something so depressing each morning was itself enough to make those sighs legitimately “connected to frustration and sadness,” as Hshieh recommends.

My belly sufficiently loose and relaxed, I walked over to the produce section, where my wife asked me to locate a package of mint. I drew my energy downward as I scanned the herb section. There wasn’t any mint to be found. “Connect to the loss. Tears of grief stem from having lost (or the imminent risk of losing) something or someone precious,” Hshieh writes. A package of mint was critical to that evening’s recipe. Without it, dinner just wouldn’t taste the same.

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“I can’t find the m-m-mint,” I called out, my voice quavering as I dropped this emotional trigger into my stomach. My wife looked at me and started laughing, under the presumption that I was doing a bit. I was doing a bit, but not in the way that she thought. I felt a little frustrated, so I dropped that frustration down into my gut as I tried again.

“They’re all sold ouuuut,” I whined, contracting my abdominal muscles over and over again, as if I were squeezing out the sobs. I was heaving and shaking as if I were wailing, but no tears were flowing, thus reinforcing my wife’s belief that I was trying to be funny.

“We can just suuuubstitute some baaaasil,” she said, elongating her syllables in response to mine.

“But it won’t taste the s-s-saaaame!” I cried. Sure enough, I felt the wisp of a tear starting to form. As I heaved and sobbed, another tear came into being. I felt delighted and pathetic all at once.

“No, it woooon’t!” my wife said, mirroring my quavering voice and shaking shoulders. The other shoppers, who could definitely hear and see us, kept their distance from our marital meltdown in the produce section. I was starting to realize that crying in public—especially if you, like me, do not project physical delicacy in any way, shape, or form—is a great way to make strangers want to avoid you. Anyway, the fish definitely didn’t taste the same with basil subbing for mint, which, later on, gave me another frustration to drop into my belly and fake-cry about.

Technique 4: Using a Menthol Tear Stick

Sometimes, when professional actors are unable to muster tears on command via natural methods, they resort to a little gimmick known as a “tear stick”: a tube of goo that, when applied to the face underneath the eyes, stimulates the tear ducts. The magic ingredient is menthol. Its vapors so irritate the eyes that they cannot help but produce tears. While they don’t sell tear sticks at any of my local pharmacies or supermarkets, they do sell small canisters of menthol salve for use as a nasal decongestant or pain-relief balm. Close enough, I figured, so I paid $3 for a little can of Mentholatum and set to work tricking my eyes into crying.

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While the Mentholatum box was very clear that the product was not to be applied to the eyes, it said nothing about applying it directly underneath the eyes. So I carefully smeared two generous globs high up on my cheekbones, like an athlete applying eye black. Almost immediately, my cheeks started to tingle, and I realized that this idea had been a very, very bad one. My cheeks felt inflamed, my entire face smelled like menthol, and I wasn’t even crying. Musing that there perhaps wasn’t enough pain-relief balm on my face, and deciding that I might as well double down on this awful idea, I smeared even more Mentholatum on and headed out for a slice of pizza.

As I walked, my face felt tingly and active, as if my cheeks had just done several lines of cocaine. My loose-fitting eyeglasses began to slide down my nose, and I became irrationally concerned that they would somehow come into contact with the Mentholatum and track the smelly goo into my eyes. What if I forgot that my face was smeared with smelly goo? What if I rubbed my cheeks and then inadvertently rubbed my eyes? I didn’t want to lose my sight! Don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face, I reminded myself, and all at once I was transported back to the earliest days of the pandemic, when scratching your nose felt like you were taking your life in your hands.

I started to feel anxious and sad. I wanted to cry, but the menthol vapors were—I think—being dispersed into the air and weren’t generating any tears, and anyway, I was afraid that if I cried I might inadvertently blind myself with Mentholatum. Also, I couldn’t enjoy the pizza I eventually purchased because I smelled like a septuagenarian’s medicine cabinet. I would not recommend this homemade method of crying on cue. If you have to use a tear stick, use the real thing.

Technique 5: Listening to Sad Songs

As a wise man once observed, sad songs are nature’s onions. Who among us hasn’t cried at “Danny Boy,” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or perhaps even at one of the many songs written after 1943? Even the most stoic soul can be moved to tears by the right song at the right moment. I figured that listening to some classic pop-rock tear-jerker might help me cry on cue. So I turned to Mike + the Mechanics’ 1989 chart-topper “The Living Years,” a power ballad about a son who wishes he’d talked more with his father before he died.

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Though I cannot directly relate to this particular situation—my own father, who is alive, calls me approximately seven times a day, usually to get my opinion on a spectrum of banal topics such as what he should have for dinner or how much is too much to pay to renovate a bathroom—“The Living Years” is a very sad song, featuring heart-tugging lyrics, an impassioned vocal performance, and even a children’s choir. I remember listening to it on cassette over and over again when it was first released and bawling my young eyes out over the prospect of my father passing away before I’d had the chance to tell him all the things I had to say, such as that he should have a rotisserie chicken for dinner. (I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said that I’ve always been a pretty emotional person.)

So I left my apartment, cued up “The Living Years” in my earphones, and headed out for an emotional stroll. Yawning as I walked in order to put some healthy pressure on the ol’ glands, I tried hard to listen to the lyrics and really feel them. Is this the same guy who sang “Tempted”?, I asked myself. I put that question out of my head and tried to be in the moment with the song, tried to really feel the pain of the intergenerational familial strife it depicts. Tempted by the fruit of anoooother, I sang to myself.

This technique wasn’t working, so I went home and tried to readjust. Maybe my emotional connection to the song wasn’t strong enough? Maybe I wasn’t yet in the right state of mind for it to have an effect? If you’re looking to cry over a sentimental tune, sometimes it helps to be a little intoxicated. So I went to a bar, ordered a couple of drinks, and sat there by myself, headphones in, watching the video for “The Living Years” over and over again on my phone as everyone else in the place was watching sports.

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Right around the 87th time that I’d been urged by the song to say it loud and say it clear, I started to have some feelings. What am I even doing? I asked myself. Why am I sitting here alone listening to Mike + the Mechanics like a weirdo? Instead of savoring the experience of being around other people in a socially lubricated third space—an experience that, after not being able to go into any bars during COVID, I will never again take for granted—I was hunched over my phone sending off serious do-not-approach vibes. Every good bar needs at least one weird loner—the “Paul from Cheers” principle—but that’s not a role that I wanted to play. I cued up “The Living Years” again and quivered at the now-familiar sound of the “Tempted” guy’s voice. Then I got a text from my cellular service provider informing me that I was out of data for the month and was being charged an additional $15. At long last, I started to cry.

As it turns out, it is very difficult to cry on command. The techniques that work for some people might not work for you, and the techniques that do work for you might not actually produce all that many bona fide tears. You’ll spend a lot of time heaving and shaking and sounding like you’re crying, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether you’ll be able to consistently spin those histrionics into actual tears. There’s a reason why Jennifer Lawrence gets paid the big bucks to act in movies while I, an emotional amateur, am writing this article in pajama pants.

My public crying ambitions didn’t help much either. I get it: I’d want to flee from a large man crying at the grocery store, too. A large part of my issues over the past couple of years have been rooted in enforced isolation, and I really have no interest in creating new opportunities to separate myself from other people. If I were to go out and intentionally cry in public again, I would probably try to pair my tears with a robust belly laugh so that people would think I was weeping with laughter and might come over to ask me what the joke is.

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But trying to learn how to cry on cue did provide some insight into how to better control my own emotions, if not in the ways that I’d expected. In my daily life, I’ve realized, I spend a lot of time crying because of generalized feelings of sadness born out of the various traumas in the past couple of years of my life. I’m not ashamed of this. The past few years have been objectively traumatic, after all! And yet the best ways I found to cry all involved crying over something specific, and I think that’s a good lesson for me. Going forward, when I get weepy, I’m going to try to take a moment to interrogate my feelings in hopes of whittling generalized emotionality down to specific triggers. In 2023, just like back in pre-COVID times, I want to know what I’m crying about every time I shed a tear.

Recently, my dad called to tell me that he was planning to throw an elaborate birthday party on very short notice for my grandfather, who was turning 95. As he talked his way through every single name on the guest list, belabored the precise wording of the invitation email, and informed me that planning this party was as much my responsibility as it was his, I noticed myself starting to quiver. Why is this phone call making me cry? I asked, and I realized it was because my father is an irritating interlocutor who does not respect my time. I was delighted by this newfound self-awareness, and my incipient tears began to dissipate: Just let him talk. You don’t have to pay close attention. You can always hang up if you need to. I was developing strategies in real time—and they were working!

“So do we have a plan?” my dad finally asked.

“We sure do,” I said. My eyes were as dry as the desert.

“Great,” he said. “Now, what do you think I should have for dinner?”