[Note: this is another post moving from the other blog to this one. I am not, at present, particularly angry with anyone other than the inventor of the child safety cap.]
In my family of origin there were four people. Two “had tempers” and two were “martyr lip biters.” I fell into the latter category, and have spent much of my life genuinely astonished by displays of anger. I could not, did not, understand, for example, how people could say terrible, painful, accusatory and (frequently) inaccurate things and later say that they had not meant those things because they had “said them in anger.” As far as I was concerned, if you said a thing it was said and could not be un-said, unless one was actually clinically incapacitated at the time of speaking. (in which case it still can’t be un-said, but you have to forgive the person). It was also true when I was growing up that we had a fairly genteel household. There was no rough and tumble pummeling or screaming between siblings; it just wasn’t permitted. My brother could ignore this ban and pitch a fit if he was angry enough, but I couldn’t cross the line. I became a sulker, a stewer, a planner of elaborate plots in which I would die, and then everyone would be sorry that they hadn’t allowed to smack my little brother when he cheated at Battleship and then lied about it.
The flip side of being a lip-biting martyr is that, of course, you do get angry, you just don’t express it. I have long been a physical catalouge of unexpressed anger – tooth grinding, tension headaches, stress-related rashes, and the odd panic attack. Ironically, if you asked five people who know me well (excluding my husband, who really does know me well) they would tell you that I am very calm, that I “take things in stride” and “handle things well.” The truth of the matter is, that until recently, I was “handling”things by suppressing and internalizing them to the point where I was literally, physically falling apart.
I can get angry now, I’ve been working on it. I can almost express it, although I tend to get stuck in the realm of the passive-aggressive. Its tricky to go from St. Annie of Perpetual Calmness to a person who sometimes raises her voice, swears, or snipes. No one likes it much, it causes disruption, and its easier all around if I remain calm and smoothe things over. (Its really not terribly attractive behavior to yell and swear, but sometimes it is natural and human). I am now able to understand that I can argue back with someone who loves me, and that they still love me, even if I disagree with them. I can talk politics with my husband, who is a member of the Other Party, and we will still be married and agree on most other things most of the time. I can spar with my mother (a member of the Tribe of Temper) and then go out to lunch with her and adore cute babies as if nothing happened. It is a freeing thing, this ability to express anger when I feel it, and I am confident that my natural reserve and compassion will prevent me from becoming abusive or excessive in that expression. It still takes a great deal to make me angry, and I really can’t imagine devolving into a person who could commit acts of Road Rage, or hurl invectives at my child.
At this moment, I am angry at a friend, and working to sort it out in my head so that I can express my feelings without doing harm. It is one thing to raise my voice in the heat of an argument or to rise when I am baited, and quite another to be the sole angry party when one is feeling wronged and the other person is intentionally or negligently oblivious. If a tree falls in a forest and only I know that it was carelessly cut by someone and that it fell on my foot and broke it in two places, does it make a case for legitimate anger on my part when the guy with the axe walks around as if there was no problem?
I have to drive this train, if I want it to go anywhere, and I am not on ground as firm as that I travel with my family. (The ground, perhaps, being weakened by the staggering weight of that horrifying metaphor). I can feel my heart pound at the injustice I perceive, I can predict the itchy skin, the headache or the extraordinary fatigue that will result from tamping this down as if my feelings and reactions were ridiculous. But what if I’m wrong? What if I’m crazy, what if I’m over-dramatizing? What if this is a circumstance that nine out of ten other people would accept as “business as usual?” How does one ever know that she is justified in anger, short of a blatant injury like theft, dishonesty or unfaithfulness? When am I allowed to be angry? Who gives me permission?
I do not want to be one of those women who burns with righteous indignation because my child doesn’t get the lead in the school play, or writes to advice columnists when family members refuse to pay their share for an anniversary dinner. There is a line between projecting one’s own standards onto the world and being angry when those standards are not met, and being legitimately unhappy about being treated with disrespect or unkindness. I am so accustomed to believing that I am wrong all the time that I automatically question my anger and challenge myself to make a case, to prove that its acceptable for me to feel what I feel. I give myself tests: would Amy feel the same in this situation? Would Beth? If so, then its okay to be mad. If not, then I need to suck it up.
I guess I had always imagined that by the time I was somebody’s mother, I’d have all of this stuff down. Apparently there are growing pains into middle age, or wherever I am, and they are just as painful and confusing as they were when I was twelve and outgrowing my elementary school friends, or twenty two and pining for unavailable men. I’ll think, I’ll write, I’ll medidate, and I’ll talk to people who provide sound counsel. (Well, honestly, I’ll also eat chocolate and watch “House” re-runs, and fantasize the horrific humiliation of my tormentor). Then I’ll either find a way to express the anger that is threatening my equilibrium and peace, or I’ll acknowledge that I just don’t have it in me to stand up for myself and the kind of treatment I deserve as a human being. I think maybe I’ll just go buy the chocolate now.