Getting Mad

I read this article yesterday as it made its rounds on Facebook, and something about it hit me like a ton of bricks. I already knew that women are discouraged from expressing anger, and that doing so damages our social capital and makes it less likely that we’ll be taken seriously. I also knew that bottling emotions up is bad, that it damages your body, and makes them bubble up stronger at inappropriate moments. There should have been no revelations here, and yet… 

Anger is diverted in women, who, as girls, lose even the awareness of their own anger as anger. Girls are taught, through politeness norms that suppress disruptive behavior, to use indirect methods of dealing with rage […] Adaptable girls find socially acceptable ways to internalize or channel their discomfort and ire, sometimes at great personal cost. Passive aggressive behavior, anxiety, and depression are common effects. Sarcasm, apathy, and meanness have all been linked to suppressed rage. Troublesome behaviors, such as lying, skipping school, bullying other people, even being socially awkward are often signs that a teenager is dealing with anger that they are unable to name as anger.

Girls, taught to ignore their anger, become disassociated from themselves.
Anger is so successfully sublimated that girls lose the ability to understand what it feels and looks like. Is her heart racing? Does she feel flushed or shaky? Does she clench her jaws at night? Is she breaking out in hives? Does she cry for no reason? Laugh inappropriately during difficult conversations? Fly off the handle over something that seems inconsequential?

Yesterday, I realized that I’m angry. A lot. How could I not know?

I deal with both anxiety and depression, but I’ve always framed both of those in terms of single emotions: fear and sadness. Self-loathing too, maybe, but in a passive, maudlin way. But anger? Never.

And yet. And yet so much of my anxious internal wheel-spinning involves imagining entire angry conversations – shouting, swearing, storming out, direct confrontation – but when it comes time to actually talk about how I’m feeling, I’m calm and deferential. I might, if pressed, admit I’m upset or hurt. And yet sometimes my entire body shakes from the tension of holding it in, and all I can think about is running as fast as I can and screaming until my throat is stripped raw and I can’t scream any more. And yet, just shy of my thirtieth birthday, I’ve worn down my stomache lining to the point that I can’t take Advil or drink coffee, and ground my teeth until the shape of my molars changed and the enamel started chipping off. And the insides of my lips are seamed with scars from where I’ve bitten them, again and again, until I taste blood, because all of that energy had to go somewhere. And I can’t remember the last time I went more than a couple of days without an hours-long tension headache or knots of muscle twisting my spine out of alignment, and making it impossible to stand or walk or hold my sword without pain. And there are days where I burst into tears for no reason, and can’t offer an explanation beyond “anxiety”.

Sometimes, when I get angry in training and it affects my ability to be a good partner, I’ll talk about frustration. When I’m so inexplicably furious that I want to cry and kick my opponent to the ground all at once, I’ll step away and let them know that I’m in a bad headspace. That I can’t get my fight brain right today. That I’m a bit off, and need to step away. The decision is good: I cannot and should not be training or sparring when I’m not in control of my anger and the amount of force I bring to the table. It’s absolutely my responsibility to pull myself away when I’m creating a situation where someone is likely to get hurt. The explanation, though? It’s bullshit. It’s an elision of what’s actually happened; a refusal to acknowledge and name an emotion so powerful that it’s made it impossible for me to continue training.

The closest I’ve ever come to acknowledging and channeling my anger is through writing. I read a lot, and write about things that I care deeply about, and things that make me very, very angry. About discrimination, and abuse, and how terrible people can be to one another. Sometimes, when the rage is incandescent and it burns its way through my fingers and into the clattering of the keyboard, I’ll write a thousand passionate words in one sitting and not even notice the time passing. There’s power, there, in that anger, and it can create some amazing things. But I’m an editor at heart, and those first drafts never see the light. I revise. I add citations, references, clinical and academic justifications for my thoughts. I cut adverbs and adjectives, strip out my subjectivity and sand off the rough edges. I bring in opposing viewpoints as clearly and dispassionately as I’m able. My years of training in academic writing give me the tools to polish the things my anger has produced until they’re cool and safe to touch. Until I sound calm. Reasonable. Worth being listened to.

That first draft can feel like an exorcism, but it’s not for public consumption. That would be admitting, out loud and to other people (whose opinions I probably care about more than is reasonable), that I get angry. Until today, that wasn’t a thing I could do.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. It’s not just an exorcism, but an admission. Yes, I am angry. I get so angry sometimes that I don’t know how to handle it, and bottling it up and pushing it aside is literally destroying me. I have been so afraid of my anger, and so unwilling to acknowledge that it even exists, that I’ve been letting it keep me awake at night, undermine my relationships, and tip me over into the killing blankness of depression rather than showing anyone that it’s there. I’m so afraid of letting this out that I’ve been crying since I sat down at my computer. I’ve been stalling, distracting myself with Twitter and any other excuse to turn away from this mirror. I need to publish this, and I will. But damn, it’s terrifying.

Acknowledging anger is not the same as expressing it. I have no interest in lashing out, or ceding all control in the interest of “letting it all out”. Catharsis is powerful, but so is the harm we cause when we let others become the target of our uncontrolled emotions. I’m talking about this now because I want to stop exploding. I want to stop cycling through walking on eggshells and bursting into tears out of nowhere. I want to make space in my life for feeling angry; for being okay with having this big, scary emotion, and finding ways of processing it rather than shoving it down until I choke. I want to sleep well, and hurt less, and let myself be honest and open and vulnerable with the people I love. I want to heal.

I am angry. One day, I’ll even be okay with that, but finally knowing is a start.