I’m mad as hell and I’m probably going to take it a bit more, if I’m honest

Close up on blazing orange and yellow fire.Well, people are shitheads.

The Guardian ran a blog post by a white man about why a photo of a white woman sitting on a chair made to look like a bound, near-naked black woman wasn’t racist, not even a little bit.

xoJane, a site I’ve written for and whose articles I’ve previously enjoyed, published a piece inviting readers to share stories about the “craziest” people they’ve ever met, i.e. people with severe mental illness. And readers responded in their hundreds because hahahahahahaha it’s so much funnier to laugh at people and perpetuate stereotypes than to have a smidgen of compassion.

Disabled women are twice as likely to be abused as able bodied women and on average earn 7p less per pound, yet many of the discussions I see and hear about intersectionality mention disability as an afterthought, if at all, and most high-profile feminists seem to be more consumed by banknotes and pubic hair than disability rights.

This stuff makes me so mad. I want to to have increasingly fraught discussions on Twitter or in comment sections, to shout, to scream, to SMASH SOMETHING, to… Oh.

If you’re angry all the time and it’s everyone else’s fault, what’s the one common denominator? Yeah. I’m the shithead.

I’m not saying that I’m wrong on any of these topics (heaven forbid), or that they’re not all worthy of my offense. And sometimes righteous, chest-thumping anger is the only way to be heard. This is not a post about how ladies need to calm down and sit quietly with their legs crossed at the ankle, crocheting pictures of cats. But for the sake of my mental health and my blood pressure, I might need to turn my boiling anger down to a simmer.

Because while the things that I’ve got worked up about might have changed, my tendency to get incredibly pissed off has been around for a while.

Here are some shithead things that I’ve done:

When I was about eight, I had an argument with my friend across the street because I’d brought her a stick of rock from my holiday, but she wanted my stick of rock, which was a different flavour. I really didn’t want to swap and thought she should be grateful for what she’d been given, so THWACK! I clocked her on the head with both sticks of rock. Hard.

When I was nine or 10, I had an argument with my mum and in a fit of frustration slammed one of the doors on the built-in wardrobe my dad had made for me so hard that it came off in my hand and I had to live with the shame and the cracked hinges for the next eight years.

When I was 22, I was staying with my long-term, long-distance boyfriend and he was upset because his grandad had died and I was upset because of depression, and he shouted something like, “It can’t always be about your illness!” and I was like, “I KNOW that!” (even though I really didn’t) and I threw a glass of red wine at his wardrobe and it spilled and smashed into tiny pieces and he always maintained that I was throwing it at his head which I very deliberately didn’t, but I’m still not sure that entitles me to any moral high ground.

Yeah, I might have an anger problem. (I feel like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman: “I was very angry with him.”) I managed to squash it down more and more as I got older, so much so that when I used to read about people getting incredibly pissed off I’d be utterly unable to relate to them, thinking, “Huh. I’m glad I don’t have an anger problem.” Which is probably the biggest sign that you do.

After I was diagnosed as clinically depressed a therapist told me, “Some people think depression is anger turned inward” and I scoffed, because me, angry? I was so numb I couldn’t relate to that emotion at all. Years later, when a man barged onto a tram as I was getting off and I was so overtaken by rage that I screamed, “THAT’S OK, DON’T MIND ME!” it was a sign that I’d made progress. But what I am so angry about?

Part of the problem is that I have a disabling physical illness that makes me exhausted all the time. Part of the problem is my blood sugar. Part of the problem is that women aren’t encouraged to express anger in our society so we tamp it down until it becomes explosive. The biggest problem, though, is that anger isn’t a real emotion.

In my experience, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s always stuff under it, stuff we don’t want to explore. And as off-putting as anger can be and as shaky and awful as it makes me feel, in many ways, it’s better than depression. It feels active instead of passive, there’s an energy to it.

But after every fit of anger I’ve ever had, I’ve burst into tears. When I get angry about social injustice and discrimination, it’s because I care about those issues, of course, but also because I feel unheard and overlooked and sad. Because I had to drop out of university and be ill for a decade and a half when I thought nothing unfortunate would ever happen to me. Because life isn’t fair and I never got over it.

That’s why anger management is such a crock: anger isn’t something that needs to be fought against and suppressed, it’s something that might actually be healed if you can get to the root of the problem. Much as John McEnroe or Charlie Sheen might want to punch me for saying so, they probably need a hug and a good cry more than they need “coping skills”.

When I told my current therapist how angry I’ve been feeling lately, she said it’s something I need to prioritise working on, not just because it feels so bad but because anger isn’t good for you, it turns out. She says it can hold illness and stress in place, like an aspic for dysfunction.

I have had rare times when I felt calm as I dealt with something that annoyed me — like when I got a lot of comments on a piece about abortion and was able to respond in a rational way. When that happened, I understood how great it was to feel not-attached to every bad thing, every internet thing.

Being able to be relaxed, even as you know that something is wrong, also allows you to escalate your attitude as needed, which is so much better than being constantly on the brink of such a fury that you could give yourself an embolism.

So I guess I’m going to be crying more in 2014, and hopefully being less of a shithead as a result.

  • The Goldfish

    I have a cold so my brain is running slow, but this is such an important and neglected subject.

    In case it’s helpful to know, a typical person who would benefit from conventional anger management, like group therapy, is someone who is doing problematic things when they get angry. They are regularly raging, shouting at people, driving aggressively, smashing up property and, in some cases, exacting violence against others. There’s an adrenalin rush and a cortisone release involved, plus shocking or scaring folk and breaking the rules can make us feel more powerful – on some level, acting out feels good. So the behaviour begets the emotion begets the behaviour – aggressive behaviour makes people experience anger more and more frequently, and the behaviour has to become more and more aggressive in order to get the same kick.

    Given that you remember a time you were sarcastic to a rude stranger on the tram, I think all you need to worry about is this dysfunctional aspic (a phrase that made me think of these)..

    I have some trouble with this myself. But just being ill, in pain and not being able to think clearly makes me extremely frustrated while simultaneously denying me most healthy releases – like going for a nice long walk on my own. These last few months have been heavy-going, and as well as one sudden meaningless death, there are so many difficult situations with family and friends which I can do very little about but worry or feel angry about, because they are bloody unfair and some involve people behaving very stupidly. My anger has nowhere to go, and I’d much rather bury it away but, like you, I’ve largely unlearned that particular bad habit.

    In fact, what you say about bursting into tears straight after an outburst reminds me of a time when I was angry with my ex and he sneered, “This always happens the same way. You’re getting yourself all worked up about nothing and in a few minutes you’ll burst into tears, apologise a thousand times and feel stupid about the whole thing.”

    And it’s true that was the pattern – and that is exactly what happened – but in that moment, in the clarity of that anger, I knew what I felt was entirely justified – it wasn’t a muddle of frustration with life, myself and everything (which is what I’d tend to put it down to afterwards). And it didn’t happen again because I left before it could.

    I don’t think there’s a single negative emotion – guilt, hate, sorrow, jealousy – which doesn’t have its moment. Nor can we always disentangle these things from one another – for me, I’m prone to guilt more than anything and feel guilt in place of fear, sorrow, frustration – even envy. And later on I’m going to feel guilty about writing such a long rambling comment, but it is an important subject and I wish you the best of luck dissolving that aspic..

    • Oh no, don’t feel guilty! I do still think that people in anger
      management are experiencing the same thing I’m talking about, though —
      the anger feels powerful and good because that hormone release lifts you
      out of sadness/depression/self-hatred (and I have many more examples of
      my own anger I could list, but there’s a limit to how much I want to share online). Tools to cope might be helpful, but I
      believe (and of course I might be wrong) that there’s always an
      underlying psychological issue, usually low self-esteem. (Not that that negates abusive behaviour, of course — that has a lot to do with power dynamics.) I’m so sorry you’ve been having such a rough time lately, that sucks. And yes, I’ve definitely thought that if I could exercise it would help!

      I’ve also seen a therapist who described anger as a “secondary” emotion, and that’s how it always feels to me, and what I tried to express here — while it might be justified at times, that doesn’t mean it’s the root emotion, IYSWIM. Again, I can only speak for myself, but I feel we don’t often get to talk about how emotions work for each of us, and it was a huge relief to me to understand my own pathology.

      • The Goldfish

        I’m sure you’re right – I suppose there’s a good comparison with addiction. People get hooked on things for all variety of reasons, and the most effective addiction treatment addresses both the behaviour and what’s underpinning it all.

        Otherwise, I was just musing. I’m interested in the idea of secondary emotions – I guess it’d be possible to frame anger as the second half of the flight or fight mechanism. After all, non-human animals exhibit anger but it’s never about a principle, it’s always about some form of fear or insecurity.

        I’m really glad you’re working this out and sharing it with us.

        • Thank you! Thank you for reading and commenting, and sorry for my horrifically late response. Yes, that’s an interesting comparison re: animals. There’s also some v interesting (if nascent) research into our addiction to specific emotions, which I plan to delve more into in future, too…