It’s much better than it was—the tight, furious ugliness that I learned to call “my temper” when I was a child and “my anger” when I was older. Screw that—it’s rage, pure and simple.
People who believe one can “get rid” of anger do not know what rage is. They think this is a choice, this storm of energy that fills the spaces and caverns in the soul. They believe I can turn on and off the violent winds of self-loathing, self-hatred, self-contempt—the voices living in my head that tell me over and over that I’m ugly, stupid, lazy, fat.
“Ugly” is the earliest of these voices, and it speaks in the tones of the older women in my family. When I was not yet in school they sat with me, talking to each other over my head while I played with a baby doll—the kind with yellow curly hair and blue eyes that opened and closed. “She’ll have to wear bangs to make that big nose look smaller” and “I don’t know how much makeup it will take to cover those moles” and many other comments on what it would take to “fix”—not fix up, but repair—my face. After all, I was a good Catholic girl—it was my job to find a husband and have babies. How I looked was important, and my looks were not good enough. I can still see my own hands on the doll as my grandmother lifted and placed my hair, trying to see which was the most remedial style. Today I can’t stand those dolls.
“Stupid” and “lazy” are intertwined, and the voices are also. I used to hear these two vocal tracks in my father’s voice until I spent enough time in therapy to understand that my mother was also speaking. My first year in school I brought home perfect marks every time—straight A’s. My second year I got lesser marks—these were all B’s. Now I wasn’t living up to my potential because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I was too bright to waste my time and energy. Didn’t I know I had a responsibility to use the gifts I was given? Clearly I was lazy and undisciplined, and not bright enough to understand what I was doing.
And there is a corollary—a vocal counterpoint—to being “stupid” and “lazy”: don’t look too smart. Men don’t like smart women. Don’t hide it, just don’t show off. After all, it’s only some men, and maybe you’ll be lucky and find a man who appreciates you for your brains as well as…well, for your personality. (The voice of my grandmother “fixing” my face enters here.) It took a very long time to understand how much my mother was telling me her own story, and how little appreciation she found in my father’s long, cold silences.
My father’s voice is clearest in that last of the quartet: I am “fat.” I will always be fat. I cannot avoid being fat—and I should try harder to lose weight. As a child I was a dancer, and I was far from overweight. But mom tended to eat her anger, anxiety, fear, and depression, so my early example was that food solves problems. And there was my father’s voice—very clearly his voice—lecturing her about her weight while standing there with a box from the bakery. He would buy half a dozen of whatever he liked, eat one, and leave the box sitting there for a week. When mom had one, the lecture would play like a recording. Then he would do it again in a couple of weeks.
It was dad who told me the story of my mom’s mother—she had “died on the table” when her appendix burst because “she was so overweight the surgeons couldn’t find it.” I never knew that grandmother; she died before my parents were married. But the shadow of her bulk looms over me.
So as a girl approaching puberty, I understood that fat was a horrible condition that was genetic in my mother’s family and that I would most certainly inherit. It could only be avoided by a life of self-denial and pain—and it must be avoided, or I would never be attractive to anyone. Since food was the medication I had learned to use for anxiety and pain, it was the treatment for the side effects of the “cure” for the disease that was food that was the treatment for the side effects…
Many, many years of therapy—all of it wrapped around the damage my rage did to myself and others—and I have learned how to manage and use the energy that rises from the structures of brokenness deposited in my personality by well-meaning relatives. I still get angry, but I don’t throw things. I still scream once in a while, but much less often and rarely at anyone. Occasionally I still binge on food, but my body is older now and doesn’t take the abuse without consequences, and I can and do learn from my body. Unlike the voices embedded in my circuitry, my body tells typically reliable truth.
Most helpful in recent years have been the many friends and colleagues who have, often unintentionally, given me versions of myself that do not match any of my inner voices. Affirmations do not quell or vanquish the demons, but I have learned to compare the two, and there are (by now) many more positive images—strong, competent, smart, wise, beautiful, compassionate, hardworking, talented, dedicated, e.g.—than there are ugly, stupid, lazy, fat ones. And the rage is more useful and less volcanic.
And yet. Today an old acquaintance whom I was just getting to know again after almost a decade of absence decided to teach me how to live my life. She did this in a public forum—and when a couple of my closest friends called her on it, she told them that “we’ve known each other for years” and that I would understand the point. It seemed to really bother her when I did understand all too well; I called her out on the issue of talking down to me and patronizing me—implying that I’m stupid. My responses were sharp, and I tried to keep them civil. She offered a public “my bad” and a private non-apology (in the “sorry you’re so sensitive” style) and posted an indirect chastisement of me on a public forum. After some back and forth in private messaging, where I pointed out that she did not have the right to say that she and I had “known each other for years,” she is not speaking to me. To be sure, this is not much of a loss, but it’s a slap in the face—several, actually—and it hurts.
And I’m angry. I can’t sleep, I want to throw things, I want to scream. None of those obvious, superficial responses will do more than take a tiny edge off the blade and make it too dull for effective use. So I write, wondering if I will publish this, knowing that part of me, in the most petty and vengeful way, really wants to threaten my erstwhile acquaintance with some dire outcome from treating me badly—her business will fail, all my friends will despise her—something. And I spend time running possible conversations in which I triumph over her rhetorical inadequacies.
All of which is fantasy that benefits me not at all. It wouldn’t benefit her or benefit the world around us—the place where all our children live. So instead I use the energy to write, I stay up too late, and I mourn the delusional arrogance—mine as much as anyone’s—that keeps open the chasm between people in all kinds of cultures and circumstances. In the other side of the fantasy, I really do want us to all get along and more or less like each other.
One minor, negative personal interaction, and the volume on those early voices spikes. My anger is not about her thoughtless and unaware insults. My anger is the outward expression of the self-contempt, self-hatred, self-loathing that grew from those voices. The anger is not about her or her actions; it’s about me and my own history.
My hurt feelings at being treated unjustly will scab over. The voices in my head that feed my rage will never be gone—they are integrated circuits in my identity. All I can do is remember to use the energy wisely, and try to keep the volume low.