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What My (Expletive Deleted) Problem Is

I see it now, as clear and bright as the crystalline drops of rain dotting the red berries outside my window. They hang there, brighter, smaller ghosts of the vivid berries, disappearing if I squint. They are, however, there whether I focus on them or not. Equally present is my anger, a constant companion of late, obscured by the busy-ness of full days and my tendency towards stoicism, but there. Always there.

I was going to beat Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There was no denial, I was not angry, and “bargaining” seemed silly – my mother was dead, and besides, with whom would I play “Let’s Make a Deal” to get her back? I would go straight to “depression,” hang tough, and swan into “acceptance” like a champ. People would marvel at my equanimity, my grace, the fact that I could endure her death, my father’s illness, my husband’s illness, and the trials of daily life without missing a beat. I confided in a few, selected and trusted friends, and when I felt completely broken I would consent to lie on the couch and watch HSN while my husband made me Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and went, on his own, to buy a Christmas tree. Because that is what People do when they are mentally healthy and having a tough time; they acknowledge the leaden weight that holds them beneath the surface and let themselves float until they can swim to the nearest raft and pull themselves up onto the solid wooden slats.

Last night, though, I could not even float. After the macaroni, after falling asleep with a dog curled at my feet, I awoke gasping with panic. I needed help, air, the promise that my heart would stop its wild beating in my chest and that my throat would allow me to suck in a slow, sweet breath. It seemed to come from nowhere. I had brought my father back from cancer surgery in much better shape than his doctors had predicted, and he was safe in his own house with his beloved dog, ample pain medication and a great sense of reprieve. I had only one real work obligation left before the holidays, and I was prepared. “What,” I said to myself at 2:17AM “is your fucking problem?”

I was not kind to my panic-stricken self, and I realized that I had not been feeling particularly kind for a few days. I hated pretty much everybody. I had a list in my head, a growing list, of every slight, every failure and every disappointment perpetrated on me by the universe. I am reading Mary Karr’s memoir “Lit,” which is brilliant and fascinating and written so well that I want to weep with envy. Also, I am bitter and angry about the fact that she writes of finding her way out of dysfunction and alcoholism by praying, “falling on her knees” and, eventually, becoming part of a Roman Catholic church community.

As I flip the virtual pages of the Kindle book, Karr grows stronger, happier, better in every way. She prays and surrenders and things begin to fall into place – a car, a book contract, the courage to leave bad relationships and parent her son with wisdom and love. I wish Ms. Karr no ill, but it seems grossly unfair to me that she, so much more damaged than I am, found a way to be functional. I liked the book better when she was a mess, sitting drunk on her back stoop and listening to music through her headphones. That, I understood.

Because I am a mess. An angry, false-fronted mess. Two days ago, I was at the hospital in Ann Arbor where my father had his surgery. I had not been there since January and February, when he had his first surgery for the same cancer. On those trips, I brought my mother. I pushed her in a wheelchair across acres of shiny floors, maneuvering her in and out of small waiting areas and on and off of elevators. I took her to the cafeteria and plied her with bagels and hot tea, trying to distract her from legitimate worry about my father’s prospects. On this week’s trip,  I entered the hospital through a section she and I had never visited, but when it was time to leave, I found myself walking past a waiting area where we had, literally, spent hours together. I was so tired, and as I caught the first glimpse of red carpet and cozy seating arrangements, I knew I couldn’t look at it, couldn’t think about it, had somehow lost my protective bubble.

I began to walk fast, looking straight ahead, and ran into a group of large women blocking my path. They were probably lost, and maybe another time I would have tried to help them, or smiled winningly and apologized for the glancing blow on the left arm of the one in a Lion’s starter jacket, but I didn’t have it in me. I said “sorry” as I altered my own path, trying to maintain my pace and get around them, away from the treacherous waiting area and into the next part of the building.

“What the fuck is your problem?” One of them said.

“…owns the fucking halls” I heard as I walked even faster. I had this impulse, then, to go back and fight with them. I wanted to tell them what the fuck my problem was. I wanted to get right up in their broad, bovine faces and spit words:

“My problem is that my mom died, and I’m exhausted, and something made me sad and I don’t want to cry in public and look ridiculous, and there is nothing that makes me feel better and people who stop suddenly in a spot where people are walking are fucking stupid and it’s their fault if someone runs into them.”

I remembered that, last night on the couch, and I remember it now; time has not mellowed my uncharacteristic anger. I am only glad I didn’t go back and fight with them, because there were four of them and they were very large. My uncharacteristic anger is, as it turns out, characteristic. At least for right now. The list runs through my head like ticker tape. I am angry at the people who said they would “be there” for me, but really have neither the time nor the energy to be there unless they have some unexpected swathe of leisure time during which they can make themselves feel better by checking on my welfare. It isn’t that I necessarily even want to hear from those people; it just seems particularly careless to offer a conditional lifeline to an unconditionally drowning person.

I am angry at myself for dumping my feelings onto the faithful friends and family who are there for me because I worry that I will wear them out if I do not parcel out my grieving among them in palatable portions. I am angry about the shooting in Connecticut, because the unique and unimaginable grief of a community is being co-opted and exploited by everything from news broadcasts and political squabbles to well-meaning Facebook posts. I am angry that the first Rite-Aid doesn’t have the right antibiotics and I have to drive across town to get them. I am angry that I don’t care about Christmas this year, and that everything about it reminds me of my mother, and that in the midst of the ads and the cards and the trees and the parties I am just gritting my teeth and waiting for it to be over.

That, in an enormous and wordy nutshell, is the answer to “what the fuck is your problem?” Kubler-Ross wins. I’m angry. I’m irrationally, painfully, angry and bitter and spoiling for the kind of cathartic fight that might act as a release valve. I can’t fight with Mary Karr, or strangers at the hospital, or pharmacists, and I’m still compos enough to get that it’s wrong to turn my wrath on my innocent husband and son (even though I know that they would still love me). Instead, it squats hideously in my chest, just under my sternum, rattling me awake and pumping enough adrenaline that I could probably fight five women at the hospital complete with uppercuts and roundhouse kicks.

So, Ms. Kubler-Ross, this is normal, but what do I do? You are precisely no help, being dead and all. I have this great plan about taking a hot bath and burning lavender incense, but there isn’t a full-sized tub in this house. Or, for that matter, any lavender incense. So maybe this: a brisk walk, a hot shower with sandalwood incense (which I actually have), a little Hildegarde of Bingen on Spotify, no newspapers, no TV, probably a good cry. Less junk food, more vegetables. I don’t know how to stop being angry because I’m usually not, but maybe taking care of myself is a start.

Maybe, first, I stop swearing at myself, treat myself like a person I care about, teach myself to channel this anger into something that won’t leave a mark when I move on to the next stage.



[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.

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