Messy Mind
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Messy Mind

Yes, I’m Angry. Why Aren’t You?

How I overcame the pressure to let go of my rage.

If you looked at my hands, you probably wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But that isn’t how I see them.

When I got that shaky feeling that C-PTSD survivors will know so well, it was in my hands that I first felt it.

When I was trying to process the most difficult aspect of my past, it would be my hands that I would always find myself staring at.

When I was being overwhelmed with the pain of an attack, and the rest of the world had vanished in a haze, I would clench my hands into fists as if channelling all my strength to drag myself through it.

But most importantly, when the rage I felt was pounding through my veins until I thought my heart would burst, I would clench those fists, and more often than not, punch a wall, a table or smash one of the few things I owned. For most of my life, this was the only way I knew to release this pent-up fury before it poisoned me, and allow myself to regain the iron self-control I relied on to survive.

Why? Because I was raised to believe to my core that my anger was evil and had to be caged.

The author’s right hand.
Through these hands — Photo by author.

My anger was dangerous, and so was I.

At age 7 my mother had convinced me I was capable of killing.

My mother believed all of her children were monsters, but seemingly even more in my case due to my intelligence, and what she saw as my cold, logical nature. This belief, as skewed as it sounds, justified in her mind that everything she did was for the right reasons. I had to be taught to protect everyone else from what I had inside me.

I had to stay in control. These hands were capable of taking a life.

My mother reinforced this at regular intervals by reminding me of the time I almost did.

I was five years old. My brother had been tormenting me, as was so often the case. Except this time I snapped. But there were no tears, no cries, no red-faced tantrum. My face got cold, my eyes got focused, and I smashed him around the head with the bat I was holding from our back garden cricket game. He was immediately knocked senseless to the ground, only I was not done. I stalked over to him, bat raised, and went in for the kill. Only my father holding me back saved my brother from having his head bashed in.

Though I was reminded of it constantly as a child, I had no memory of this incident.

All the anger in the world, bottled up inside.

Up to the age of 14, regardless of the chaos that was my childhood home, I was seemingly unfazed, numb and distant to everything that was happening around me.

Psychologically this is known as disassociation, which also explains the gaping holes I have in my memory before the age of 13, otherwise known as dissociative amnesia. Prior to this point, it seemed I never really got angry. When pushed to the point where I had to fight back against my siblings, I would lash out with every piece of strength I had, in a vain attempt to fight them off, but even then there was no sign of rage. My face would remain calm, my eyes focused, and I would apparently still be in full control of myself.

Hands gripped together as if holding something in.
Keep the anger in — Photo by author

Before you make your judgments as to whether I am actually a dangerous and violent psychopath, I should tell you that the above incident never happened. I only learned this years later when I reconnected with a childhood friend, and he told me that he was there, playing cricket with me and my brother, and whilst we did get into a scuffle after an argument, the rest was a fabrication. I didn’t knock him down, I absolutely didn’t go in for the kill, and my father wasn’t even there that day, so couldn’t have held me back and thus saved my brother’s life from his coldly psychotic younger sibling.

This was the world I lived in and the one I had to unpick during my therapy. The violence surrounding me might seem the most shocking aspect of my childhood, but actually what did the most damage was the psychological abuse and the web of lies I had to untangle myself from. It was as if my mother’s personality exerted such a strong gravitational pull that everything and everyone was dragged into her orbit and she warped reality around herself. To the neighbours she was the saint who loved her children so much that she would do anything for them. To us children she was the dragon, a creature of iron will and an object of abject fear. An undeniable force of nature with almost superhuman powers. All of us believed the others were the favourites and we were the cursed child. She was never to be crossed, never to be gainsaid, and there was nothing she could not do.

This was the woman who uttered the immortal words;

In this house, I am God.

As a child I would watch her like a hawk, and even then could not predict what would come next. A plate smashed over my head, being kicked down the stairs, or a piece of furniture flying past my nose. And in the aftermath I’d look up at her face and it was always marble-like in its serenity. In her own words, “If you lose your temper, you’ve lost”.

The chains were broken, the rage unleashed

Then came the breaking point, my mother’s attempted suicide when I was 14. My brother’s death, and her part in ensuring he was taken away to the home where he died, had broken her in two. Unbeknownst to all of us at the time, she also had MS (Multiple Sclerosis), and her tenuous grip on sanity was shattered. In the space of one day she had gone from the iron lady to frail and all too mortal. After the initial shock at her attempt at taking her own life, my reaction was anger.

How dare she?

After everything that’s happened and everything she’s put me through, she’s going to try and take the coward’s way out?

You’ll have guessed that 14-year-old me wasn’t exactly filled with sympathy for my mother. She had psychologically tortured me all my life and now, she was going to swallow a stack of pills and escape the dark pit we lived in together. Wasn’t she the one who had said, “God put all the bastards in one family, so they could suffer together”? Well fuck you if you think you just get to check out and escape that suffering and the hell you helped create.

But I was so unprepared for this rage. Up to this moment, I had been the quiet, timid, sullen boy who just buckled under and spent all his days trying to keep his head down and out of trouble. Always one to avoid the fight. Always one to take the beating and not say a word.

No more.

Head gripped in hands
Can’t take any more — Photo by author

I remember so clearly that feeling of staring down at my hands as they shook, slowly gripping my fingers tight, clenching them into fists and punching them hard into my bedroom wall. I remember the blood across my knuckles, even though those scars have long since faded, been replaced, faded again, over and over.

Once the genie was out of the bottle, I had no way of putting it back

From then on I was angry all the time. I would dig my fingernails into my hand until I drew blood as I desperately attempted to rein in this rage, but to no avail. I had to let the anger out.

But despite being subjected to, and surrounded by, violence throughout my childhood, I was not a violent child. I had no desire to physically hurt anyone, in fact the idea was as repugnant to me then as it is now. The one thing I wanted was to be nothing like my parents, who had subjected me to violence my entire life.

But I still had this rage always building up inside me and no way to stop it, and only one way to release it before it overwhelmed me. I took it out on myself, and specifically I took it out on my hands.

After getting my diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and maybe half-way through the therapy that allowed me to rebuild my life, I began to look at my hands as a window to all the trauma I had endured.

Reaching a sense of peace came from accepting my anger, not controlling it.

Years later, in the therapy room, sat across from my counsellor John, I once again found myself staring at my hands. I could feel the tremors barely under control, and I was massaging the ball of my right hand with my left thumb, just about as hard as I possibly could.

Will I ever stop fighting?

No answer was forthcoming. John continued to look calmly at me, almost as if I hadn’t spoken, so I tried a different tack. “Will I ever stop being so angry at everything?

John often declined to answer direct questions during therapy, and at times I found this unbearably frustrating. At one point I even remember telling him straight, “Can we just cut the crap, and for once you tell me the answer if you know it?

But this wasn’t one of those times.

Paul, never lose that anger.

Almost every revelation I had during my 3.5 years of therapy or since, came from within, usually with John’s careful guidance helping me to get there. There are a few that came just as this one did. Words spoken, the immediate and palpable sense of relief and of understanding.

Prior to this moment, I had been made to understand that my anger was something to be avoided, buried, obliterated from within. In fact, during my aborted attempt to get into therapy prior to meeting John, I had a counsellor who was solely fixated on forgiveness as the one and only way for me to achieve peace for myself. I only lasted 4 sessions before the psychological schism this created within me left me bed-ridden for 3 days, unable to raise the strength to lift my arms, let alone stand, as I remained in a fugue state, somewhere between dazed and unconscious.

John’s words freed me in a way I could never have anticipated.

It was ok for me to be angry. More than that, my anger could be channelled into a righteous fury, and from there it could be used as a motive force. It could be funneled into an outrage that makes you say, “No, this is not good enough, this must change.” This is the rage of Greta Thunberg at the UN declaring, “How dare you!”. When Tim Minchin wrote Come Home Cardinal Pell, and detractors took to the air waves to declare their offence, the families of the survivors of abuse voiced their support saying, “This is what rage sounds like”. The great Jon Stewart testifying in Congress on behalf of 9/11 first responders, gave what I believe to be one of the top angry speeches of all time. Change comes from rage, leading to outrage, leading to a refusal to accept the status quo and a refusal to take no for an answer.

Right now the world rocks to the impact of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman sworn to protect and serve. You can see the outrage on the streets and it is righteous.

We have seen that righteous anger spread across the world, and I felt a surge of pride as the people of Bristol, my home town, tore down the statue of a prominent slave trader, dumping it into the harbour, during an entirely non-violent protest.

Anger doesn’t mean violence.

Rage can be peaceful.

Righteous outrage can lead to a positive mobilisation for change.

A clenched fist raised in protest, isn’t a fist raised to strike.

I’m reminded of the uprising against the British Colonial powers in India, when Mohammed Ali Jinnah said to Gandhi that the time was over for “passive resistance”. Gandhi’s telling response was;

My dear Jinnah. I have never advocated passive anything”.

Does my anger offend you?

But this isn’t just about finding acceptance of anger within the therapeutic process, or how anger and outrage can be a positive force within the context of societal change. As I was coming towards the end of my therapy, I was talking more openly, outside the therapy room and my immediate circle, about my past, the nature of my abuse and my addiction to self-destruction.

Can you guess one of the most common questions I would then be faced with?

Are you still angry?

Was I still angry with my parents for the abuse I suffered? Was I still angry about all the lost years with my daughter? Was I angry with the universe for the shitty hand I’d been dealt?

Yes, I was.

I came to understand that admitting to people that I was still angry, and explaining to them why it was absolutely right that I was, sometimes made them more uncomfortable than listening to the truth of the trauma that I had experienced.

Calm, content, but still angry — Photo by author

That I am angry does not mean I am bitter, and absolutely does not mean that something is wrong with me. To not be angry at the injustice you see in the world today, or the lack of action from our leaders to meaningfully tackle the climate crisis, that would be crazy. To not be filled with outrage at the systemic coverup of abuse by the Catholic Church would seem to me to be denying the trauma experienced by survivors and their families. They too have to be allowed to express their pain however they need, including their rage.

If your path is to find forgiveness for unforgivable acts, then I salute you. It isn’t my path, but it would not be right for me to judge whatever it is that gives you peace. But then please respect the journey I’m on.

When I am struggling, as I still do sometimes, my hands will shake and I’ll still stare at my scars. When I feel strong, it is through these same hands that I feel it. Though now I know that I will not ever seek to hurt anyone with these hands. That’s because the reason I am much happier in myself now than I have ever been in my 48 years, it is not because I have lost my anger, or that I am containing or controlling it. It is because I accept it. It is part of who I am.

I have good reasons to be angry. So do you.

The truths we uncover when examining our mental health sometimes surprise us; sometimes they break our hearts; often, they change our lives.

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Paul Fjelrad

Paul Fjelrad

Sailor, C-PTSD survivor and author of The Struggle Continues, out 28-02-21 on Troubador. Causing trouble since 1971.

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