I have been taught to fear anger. Anger is unsafe. Anger is unstable. Anger means maybe shouting at someone, and shouting is violence, and violence is never acceptable. Anger means maybe saying something unkind, and unkindness is sinful, and sin leads to misery, and my existence is supposed to be joyful and peaceful — if not now, then after I’m dead. But not if I get angry.
“Anger is a secondary emotion,” says my dad. He explains that its only purpose is to cover up the primary emotion, the real one, the one that actually matters. Anger isn’t useful or legitimate, only the emotion underneath. “A kind word turneth away wrath,” he reminds me, quoting from the bible. Outdated psychology and conservative Christianity go hand in hand.
Anger means feeling anything when the other option is feeling nothing. I’m good at getting angry all through my teens, when the depression is so bad that I’m sleeping at least 17 hours a day. When I’m awake, I eat a little bit, I empty my bowels and my bladder, and I get angry. I get everyone else in my family angry. Being pinned down on the floor by both my parents so I can’t hit or kick anyone or anything, while I scream every profanity I know — just an average weekday night. My sister off in her room crying would have to wait until someone finished dealing with me, until I was all worn out and only able to bawl my eyes out about how horrible the world was.
I’ve been called a “human tape recorder;” my ability to parrot back pieces of conversation nearly verbatim has been extremely useful throughout my life. When I get angry, I feel like that “tape recorder” gets switched off — if I’m in a situation where I’m angry and interacting with someone, I may be able to talk about the general idea of what happened, but I won’t have the exact words that were used.
“If everyone carried tape recorders, the world would be a safer place!” That was me at the family dinner table one night, and for years afterwards that was my family quoting it back with a laugh. My naive little mind thought that if it were simple to prove “yes, that’s exactly what I said, you can’t lie about it,” then there would be less anger, less yelling, less violence. A safer place.
It makes me angry to know that I’ve been lied to throughout my life. Getting angry is not only acceptable, it’s even expected in certain situations. What’s my response to betrayal? What’s my response to physical assault? What’s my response to a verbal attack? I was taught that the “right” answers were forgiveness, offering myself for further assault, and a quiet smile with an expression of gratitude and an apology. Lies — all fucking lies. The answers are anger, anger, anger.
I rarely say what I really feel when someone hurts me. I’m too good at burying my response until I no longer feel the same way, and then offering something sweet and palatable in my answer, and finding a way to smooth things over. Instead of “What the fuck?! Just yesterday I spent almost 15 minutes pleading with you to keep me in the loop with scheduling, because being isolated and trapped and dependent on you to escape is a really scary position to be in, and you’re making it worse by leaving me with even less control!” — my response is more like “Hey, it was frustrating to not know what your plans were today; it would really be useful to know what’s going on, if you could… please? That’d be great. Thanks.” Instead of “Get your fucking hands off of me — that’s the third time I’ve told you, and I’m not buying your ‘I forgot, and I didn’t mean it as disrespect’ bullshit excuse this time. Touch me again and lose a finger, motherfucker.” — my response is “Um, if you could do me a favor? Please don’t touch me without asking first. Yes, I know you’re just a touchy-feely kind of guy. Yeah, I get it, you’re being polite, you’re a hands-on kind of person, okay, but please don’t do that with me. Yes, I’ll remind you if you slip up, no worries.”
There’s plenty to be angry about. The world is fucked in so many ways. Racism, sexism, violence, destruction, war, murder, poverty, institutionalized injustice. Everywhere you look, there’s something to make your blood boil. “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” says the bumper-sticker wisdom. Anger can motivate you, get you DOING something, get you Making A Difference! What happens when anger is the only thing you feel? What happens when anger is your default state? Don’t you get exhausted under the weight of all that anger? Maybe you’ve been lied to, also. Maybe you’ve been told that if you stop being angry, it means you’ve stopped caring. That it means you’re not doing any good. That you’re letting down the people who still do care. Well, maybe I’m letting somebody down, but I can’t run on all anger, all the time. I’ve learned how to get angry about lots of things, but none of them have been things that benefit me in the short term. Yeah, maybe all that anger will someday make the world a better place, and I can still tap into that anger when I need to, still use it for motivation, but I can’t — I won’t — stay that way, live my life that way.
Fuck you. I’m glad you saved me the hassle of cutting you out of my life; I was wringing my hands over how to proceed when things got bad enough, knowing I’d have to reluctantly do away with a source of income along with gladly ridding myself of someone I had grown to hate. I was miserable, trying to pretend to be someone entirely different from myself in order to smile and have lunch. Starting at least 24, sometimes 48 hours before your scheduled arrival, I overhauled my personal space, made it into a hollow shell and a mockery of what it would be if it were kept for my own comfort, because it was easier than dealing with the same complaints and the same lectures full of disapproval all over again. You had plenty to say about how I was wrong, what I needed to change, the things that made you angry about me. You always had plenty of anger about plenty of things. I prepared myself mentally and emotionally for the minimum of one verbal fight during each brief time we spent together, and made sure to have a friend available for aftercare, someone who didn’t make me want to scream, someone who didn’t leave me angry. You saw very little of my anger. You saw even less of some beautiful things about me — things I had to hide from you. And there are some things you never saw, never knew, never will. There are things that you would hate me for, and I’m glad I don’t have to worry about hiding them from you anymore.
You’re an idiot. I’m glad I got the chance to see just how clueless you are before I invested any more of my wasted energy on you. How many times can you repeat a backhanded compliment before you hear the insult you’re delivering? You haven’t seemed to pick up on it yet, and I’m not holding my breath. There are things you’ll never know about me, either, and in fact they’re some of the same things as #8. There’s not a chance in hell that I’d tell you some of my most wonderful secrets, not when you take every opportunity to steer — and by “steer” I often mean “hijack” because you lack the capacity for anything resembling subtlety or planning — any conversation to loud condemnation of everything to do with those very things which I hold most dear to my heart. You would see me dead if you knew who I really am, and I can’t claim that’s hyperbole.
I’m continuing to realize just how angry I am with you. Just how deeply you wounded me, just how much I opened myself to you to be crushed even more. A relationship built not only on the inability to trust, but on the inability to even talk about trust, isn’t much of a relationship. You found every reason for why it couldn’t work, from the most sensible to the most ridiculously far-fetched fantasy fiction scenarios. I should have listened instead of pouring myself into you. I don’t have enough confidence and self-worth and motivation and hope to fill a bottomless pit, not even enough to fill the deep tub that you’re continually opening the drain under. I lost myself in you, so much so that I was shocked to find myself the moment that I walked away.
Anger is a tool, and like any other tool it can help and it can harm, depending on how it is used. Sometimes it can do both with the same use. Keeping in mind my goal of seeking pleasure first, and constantly evaluating the harm or good that results as second to that, I will use anger as I need to — I’m still working on getting better at doing that, but it’s most of a lifetime of learning to undo. Some of the things I’ve written in this post are things I should have said long before now, things that I no longer have the chance to say because I’m not as good at using anger as I would like to be. That will slowly change, I hope, with time and with effort.