Simmering Anger

Who would I be without my anger? I don’t know.

Alt Text: A photograph of yellow and orange flame on a black background.

I’ve been going to see a therapist since early May. I call her, Dr. Angela, but that’s not her name. Every week, I sit down on her overstuffed loveseat, which attempts to swallow me whole, and talk about my feelings, my childhood, and my mental disorders.

(This is the first time I’ve gone to therapy after actively avoiding it for decades. I have my reasons, none of them compelling. Some day, I might share them.)

Angela is no-nonsense, and she doesn’t let me get away with easy answers, shallow confessions, or my strained mask of normalcy. She sees through my false cheer — this attempt at playacting at friendliness and ease — and makes me confront things that I have tried to avoid since I was at least 18. She doesn’t put up with my bullshit, and each week, after each 40-minute session, I am grateful. She’s trying to help me become a well-adjusted human being, even as I’m not sold that I can be. I try to take her advice. I try to do what she says.

And yet, Angela wants me to let go of my anger that I’ve held onto since I was a small child. The anger buried so deep that when she explains that I need to get rid of it, I’m unsure what she’s actually talking about. My mind goes blank, and I pause. I almost tell her with a fake smile already plastered to my face that I’m not angry, but I stop myself. I want to be honest with my therapist; I want to be honest with myself.

I’m angry, I say, testing out how it feels to have the words in my mouth.

And the truth, if I’m going to be truthful, is that I feel it, the rage that simmers under the surface and sometimes erupts forth to overwhelm me.

She offered up an exercise to help me release all the pent-up anger. Her directions were simple. Get a cheap spiral notebook, set a timer for three minutes, and write out my anger. Under no circumstances can I do this exercise on my laptop with it’s “smash the patriarchy” and Wonder Woman stickers or any computer really. On a laptop, I might be tempted to edit as I type. After I dump the emotion on the page, I’m not supposed to read it. I’m supposed to rip the page out and tear it to pieces. The fragments of my anger get thrown in the trash. The scraps of paper still caught in the spiral becomes the evidence of how far I’ve come.

The exercise is supposed to empower me and offer some sort of catharsis. Writing out my feelings about my biological father will help me confront and let go of the mental and emotional abuse I manged to survive. Angela uses the word “abuse” pointedly, as if to dare me to contradict her. I still shudder at this word, the truth of this terrible word. Writing out my anger will help me deal with trauma, she assures. I’m supposed to feel better. I’m supposed to heal. This exercise might be a first step to both.

Angela knows I’m a writer, so with a smile and steel in her tone, she reminds me again not to read what I wrote. The exercise is about letting go and not dwelling. Perhaps, a path toward liberation. With tears still running down my face, I tentatively agree.

I put off the exercise for days after my session. I feel good about Angela. I trust her because she seems to see me without judgment, even as her observations cut me to the quick. She seems to know me, even though I’m a stranger who found her on my insurance’s website. She happens to specialize in treating women. She happens to specialize in treating children of narcissists, and I happen to be one.

Am I so transparent? I wonder. God, I hope not.

On a mission to find the right kind of notebook and out of desire to not taint any I already own, I go to Target with my oldest kid. She picks out a spiral notebook for her art with a funky green cover. I pick out a notebook for the trauma that I can barely talk about but keep returning to in my essays. (Over and over, I write about my biological father. He still effing haunts me long after I let him go.)

Mine has a blue cover, and I eye it skeptically. The spiral notebook is key to the exercise, she said. It’s a way for me to see the remnants of ripped pages. Each page a step closer to catharsis. Eventually, I’ll have an empty notebook and maybe feel a little less angry and hurt.

I hesitate. Still. I’m not sure I’m actually angry. I don’t feel angry, do I? Maybe, I’m mistaken. Maybe, I just thought I was angry. Maybe, somehow, I’m already over it. (Clearly, I’m not.)

Finally, I set the timer on my phone and pick up a pen. As soon as my pen hits the page, rage engulfs me. I finally understand what it means to see red.

I’m angry, I’m angry, I’m angry.

I write and write and write, and then, the timer chimes. I glance at the page. It’s full.

I remember that Angela told me to rip up the page as soon as I finish. Reading what I’ve written is against the rules. The anger stays on the page, and I move on. Empowerment, not dwelling, remember. I start to pull the page out of my notebook, and I stop. I can’t make myself destroy what I’ve written.

I pick up my phone and snap a quick picture without peering at the content. Then, I rip the pages to many small pieces. Ripping feels good, surprisingly good. The fragments of the page rests on my wicker ottoman in my office. A deceptively small pile for such strong feelings.

But, I also can’t bring myself to throw them away. Instead, I go the kitchen and rifle through the cabinets until I finally find an empty jar. I stuff the pieces in the jar — they barely cover the bottom — and place it on a lower shelf in my office. The idea of accumulating the fragments appeals to me. My anger is on display; the evidence of it, the truth of it, finally made visible. I want to fill the jar. And then, I want to set the collection on fire.

I tell my partner about my anger jar, and he suggests using my ripped pages as kindling for our campfires on our camping trips with our two kids. I’m reminded why I love him so much in this moment. He knows what I’ve been through and what I’ve tried to forget. Fire feels appropriate as I remain set-the-world-on-fire angry. A campfire to corral my angry, so it doesn’t scorch anything or anyone else. Maybe, it won’t burn me any longer either.

I do the exercise again before my next session. Set the timer and write for three minutes. I snap another picture. I tear the page into tiny pieces with great relish. I scoop them into the jar. I like the way they feel in my hands. I like their jagged, uneven edges that seem to match all of mine.

At my session, I tell Angela about the jar, after she tells me that she’s also diagnosed me with PTSD to pair with anxiety, depression, and another disorder that my psychiatrist diagnosed that I can’t quite come to terms with yet. I struggle with what those letters, PTSD, placed closely together mean; I can’t utter a word. She fills the silence. She likes the idea of burning the fragments to ash. I like her even more.

She probes how I feel. How does it feel to write it and let it go? It feels fine, I say, good even. I don’t mention the pictures. I don’t mention my urgent need to keep a record of my anger. I don’t note my hesitance to let go.

I can’t share this truth: My simmering anger has come to define me. It’s familiar, even if it’s not welcome. The steady hum vibrating my bones. The persistent itch that I can’t stop scratching. The white noise of my daily existence, persistent and always there. Never quite escapable because it’s a foundation of who I am.

What I can’t make myself say to Angela, to anyone really, is that I’m not sure what I’ll do without anger. It’s a long time companion, this rage I have for my father. It used to smother and overwhelm me, but over the years, I sharpened my anger like a sword. It was defense against him. It made me determined. It made me strong. It helped me cut all ties to him go. I learned to tamp it down and pretend it wasn’t there, even as it’s sharps edges wounded me and left scars.

Who would I be without my anger? I don’t know.

I don’t know how to tell her. I keep trying to bring it up but can’t find the words. Maybe, I’m afraid she’ll convince me to let it go. Maybe, I know she’s right. Maybe, I don’t need it anymore. Maybe, I can move on. Maybe, I can’t.

Then, something happened, whether I wanted it to or not. Weeks went by, and I felt different. The anger no longer simmers. I can’t feel its vibration or hear its rasp. It feels harder to locate. It no longer overwhelms. It’s not ready to erupt. My anger feels distant, and I don’t feel a loss. Instead, I finally feel better.

Talking to Angela helped. Writing in that damned notebook helped. Writing essays about my father and his family in the last couple of years helped too. The rush of words, the structure and plot of essays, and the ability to tell my story in the way I needed to helped the anger dissipate. I’m writing the anger away, word by word, page by page. I’m letting it go without realizing that I could.

I can’t hold onto my anger anymore because I’ve learned how to loosen my grasp. Maybe, this is what healing feels like. I hope so.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in Kelly’s TinyLetter, Cold Takes, in July of 2018. To receive her TinyLetter each month, subscribe here.

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