May 28, 2017
An old photograph: I’m sitting on my mother’s lap. My eyes are brimming with tears. A moment earlier I’d fallen off my bike while racing down a hill in the neighbourhood. I’d scratched up my face. I was five or six years old.
For the next thirty years I didn’t cry even once. I never cried after a film. I didn’t cry when my wife cheated on me. I didn’t cry when my grandparents died. I didn’t cry when my daughters were born, even though their births were some of the most beautiful and emotionally intense moments of my life.
I learned to hide and control strong, intimate emotions early on in my life. When I began to feel fascinated by another boy (which had to happen eventually!), I looked away and reproached myself: “It’s impossible, you don’t really feel this!” I’d practised this mechanism to perfection, and for years it switched on automatically, especially since I knew my parents wouldn’t understand. I felt it wouldn’t be right for me to say, “Mom, Chris has nice, black hair.” I’d be breaking a taboo – a taboo that existed within my family and among my friends. It was one of the reasons why I believed I wasn’t a homosexual (I didn’t know the word “gay” yet), and after suppressing my feelings for so many years, I was able to cut myself off from them.
In this seemingly passive way, the people in that small, conservative town quickly pounced on any non-heteronormative behaviour and made it conform to their preferences.
In my family we weren’t permitted to experience regret, sadness, longing or suffering because these emotions required effort and sincerity, and who wanted to tire oneself out, waste energy and worry? And so it was far more convenient to sweep everything under the carpet. My parents drank their sorrows away – they poured half a litre of pure vodka for themselves every evening. The rest of the family coped as well as they could. The end goal was always the same – to keep difficult feelings as far away as possible, because there was no way of knowing what was lurking behind them.
When I left my hometown for university, I fixed a huge smile on my face; it was a mask behind which I hid my true self for many years. After a while this smile of mine turned out to be advantageous for me – it made me popular among my friends and even helped me get jobs quickly. So I used it as much as possible. I smiled everywhere and non-stop, even while hearing the news of someone’s death – “I’m sorry, it’s just nervous laughter.” For many years I even deceived myself with this smile, too.
“Please lie on your side, curl yourself up in a ball and open your mouth wide,” said the nurse. Then she rubbed my lips with vaseline and put a plastic sheet on me that had a hole for my face. “The best thing to do is to relax because then the endoscope will pass more easily through the oesophagus.” Another gastroscopy. The third in a short time. The doctors were looking for the cause of the constant and extremely oppressive feeling of an obstacle in my throat. Previously I had also been to a laryngologist, but an ultrasound of my throat hadn’t shown anything. I’d gone from doctor to doctor.
“What does it feel like?”
“As if I’d swallowed a ping pong ball and it was stuck in my throat.”
Months and years passed. I was given various pills but nothing worked. Eventually, the doctors gave up – they were unable to make a diagnosis and didn’t recommend any treatment. I had to learn to live with the ball in my throat.
This strange, unpleasant and painful sensation disappeared when, after 30 something years, I allowed myself to cry. I was driving my car, and not so much crying as wailing. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I pounded the steering wheel with my fists, and tears were flowing down my cheeks. I was surprised by how warm and salty they were. A while earlier I’d met my partner. Love, sorrow, desire, rage, longing, a feeling of loss, hope, loneliness, and a yearning to exist more for another person than for myself – all of this had struck me at once and penetrated every cell of my body.
Recently I cried after boarding a plane: the seat next to me was empty; I was sitting facing the window; there were young, laughing Germans sitting around me, preoccupied with each other. There was serenity, gratitude and hope in the way I cried that day. When I glanced sideways I saw for the first time in my life, in the black switched-off, entertainment screen in front of my seat, a reflection of my face with tears in my eyes. In this reflection, I recognised someone I’d missed very much.