Goodbye fear, hello fury: Why I am trying to make friends with Anger 

Not long ago, I tried to find a self-help book on accessing one’s own feelings of anger. A counterpart for books about finding joy, finding love – what about finding anger? This proved to be a fruitless endeavour. There are however many books on dealing with and overcoming aggression. Aggression is portrayed as an unhealthy, not a healthy emotion. At this point, I shall add a disclaimer: I am not here to deny the devastating consequences of criminal and uncontrolled expression of aggression. There is evidence for this in every newspaper or history book. But what about the devastating consequences of repressed or unexpressed aggression? Ulcers, depression and self-harm are classic examples, yet I don’t feel this issue receives enough attention.

I believe I can make the bold claim that everybody has legitimate reason to feel angry at times in their lives. Even for the luckiest person in the world, things won’t always go to plan. People will not always act towards them as they wished. When anger arises in us, what then? If imagine a continuum of anger expression, I would put healthy, appropriate expression in the middle, complete inward direction (repression) at one extreme and disproportionate, destructive expression at the other. Where do I see myself? I am sure you guessed correctly – at the repressed extreme.

I believe it is fair to say that I have never had a healthy relationship with anger. Depression and self-harm are both auto-aggressive diseases, and I have suffered from both. Both of these lie in the past. But still, in my everyday life as well as in moments of deep contemplation, me and anger aren’t friends.

The person who first made me realise this most clearly is a therapist I shall call Mr Z. In the clinic where he worked, he was known among patients as ‘the one who hands you a wooden stick and makes you hit a foam cube’. A terrifying prospect for me. Nonetheless, I knew that this could be important work for me, so I agreed to some individual sessions. The aim of the foam cube exercise, he explained, was to bring the action of the body, the emotion, and verbal output, together to express anger. In other words, hit the cube while feeling your anger and shouting it out. I think I managed this, or a very cautious version, for a grand total of three strikes at the very end of our first one-hour session. Looking back now, I think that was a big step already. But so much work left to do.

Outside of the therapeutic environment, examples of my inability to express anger are also plentiful. It is most apparent if the source of my should-be-there anger comes from the actions of another person. If anybody for whatever reason ‘treats me badly’, I get sad. I cry. At most I’ll swear at them in my head, but never out loud. If I do confront them, it’s either tearful, or very measured and controlled. This pattern, I can tell you, is not great. A bus driver acts like a prick and makes a mean comment – I well up. How very grown, empowered woman. Oh  – I forgot to mention – this pattern is infinitely stronger if the ‘source of evil’ is an older male.

Aha! You might think triumphantly, quickly developing an inkling about where this might all come from. Let me tell you my own theory. A the heart of it is fear. Fear of other people’s anger, and fear of my own. The first part was easy for me to see. The uncontrollable, unpredictable outbursts of rage of my father formed the shadow monster reigning over my childhood. Never physically violent, they nonetheless had a great destructive force. In itself, these were scary and traumatising. But I shall make the bold claim that they only got their absolute power status over my family because no one called them out as what they really were: inappropriate, and in serious need of some critical self-reflection or therapy time. Never put into perspective. Instead, we all lived in speechless fear, and my father never received the critical feedback that might have resulted in a change: your behaviour is not ok and we do not accept it. 

With his behaviour initially mainly directed at my mother, I believe I started to grow a pot of dislike for him around the age of twelve. I did not like the way he treated her. In my mind, I referred to this behavior as ‘Jekyl and Hyde’. A complete switch in personality from one minute to the next. Dangerously unpredictable. So of course, due to my fear of this man harbouring a monster inside, I never confronted him directly. Instead, I expressed my feelings in a consistent act of passive aggressiveness that lasted throughout my teenage years. Of course, my father soon picked up on this selective treatment he was receiving from his beloved daughter, and was probably bewildered and displeased. With monthly regularity, I pushed him one step too far and he exploded, his outbursts now directed at me as often as they were at my mother. A pattern we kept going over years. The feedback I received from my father, and by extension my mother, was clear. My behaviour was in the wrong. I was treating my father worse than ‘a beggar on the street’ and he did not deserve my dislike. Faced with this seemingly united front of my parents, I accepted this view and conceded. Every single episode ended in a tearful apology from me to my father. And with great consistency, I came away with the conclusion that I was worthless and did not deserve my place on earth. I was the home wrecker of our family, not him. But my underlying feelings of anger towards him didn’t just disappear. I had to put them somewhere. Enter self harm.

So two things made their firm mark on me by the time I was grown up. A great fear of a male figure being angry at me, and the lesson that my own, passive aggressive anger outbursts rendered me worthless. At university, It took one more paternal-flavoured male first treating me inappropriately, and then expressing their anger at my final rejection to tip me over the edge. Enter depression.

After some very tough therapeutic work, enter recovery.

So what now? My mother finally turned herself around and has started to give my father the much needed critical feedback he never received. This has drastically improved the relationship between me and my father – someone else has taken over the critical torch. I know that I need to forgive my teenage self and retrospectively acquit her passive aggressiveness. Heck, I might even commend it. But most importantly, I need to work on the node in my head that directs every feeling of anger towards sadness, or feelings of autoagression at worst. People will cross me again, but I not prepared to become depressed or cut again. That much I know, and I think it’s a big step.

I am going to make a wild guess and say that the issue I described above is more common among women than men. An angry woman? How unpleasant. An (appropriately) angry man? What a fierce warrior. But that’s another story for another article.

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Going public about past self-harm (radio, TV and youtube)

I made this video for World Mental Health Day 2014.

In my opinion, self harm is still a mental health issue that has a lot of stigma and shame attached to it. When I was actively self harming, which was several years ago and is now firmly in the past, I was deeply ashamed of it. In fact, I used to think I would have to cover my arms up for the rest of my life to hide the scars. I have written more about this here.

A few weeks ago, a local BBC station approached me about doing an interview on my experience of self harm, both for local radio and TV. I said yes, but I was terrified. I have spoken on the news before about my past mental health issues, but not self harm explicitly. I asked my boyfriend and my friends – am I making a huge mistake? Will this ruin my career? They all encouraged me to do it.

I was so nervous. Goes to show that even though I have been stable and recovered for over two years now, some of the shame is still deeply rooted inside me. But I did the interviews, and I felt great afterwards. It was almost liberating. I made the risky decision to post about it on facebook, just saying what time I’d be on TV, not naming the topic. The only person to reply they had seen it was my future step dad-in law. I had forgotten about my boyfriend’s parents. But his feedback was so kind and encouraging, I didn’t regret sharing this part of me with them. I can leave my cardigan off on a hot day on my next visit.

Have you gone public or shared with your friends? Let me know your experiences.

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Today I am grateful

Every now and then I come across something that reminds me of the year I spent in depression. That year ended, maybe 8 months ago. Plus minus 3. Sometimes it’s a song I used to listen to at that time (Most recently: Cher – You haven’t seen the last of me). Sometimes I get an accidental stab into one of my old wounds and I am reminded how much they used to hurt. Sometimes there is a bit of bleeding, but I’m able to get it under control. Sometimes I look at the physical manifestation of my scars and remember how I got them. Other times it’s a piece of clothing I bought during that time. Like my mustard yellow scarf with a bird pattern that I bought while in hospital.

And then I think about where I am in my life right now. How different it is.
Like, this week I worked really hard, probably the hardest since I got better. I felt dedicated. I wanted to do it. My goodness, having the energy and enjoyment for what you are supposed to be doing makes such a difference. Sometimes I just walk down the street and realize that I feel light. I feel happy. No anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure). No dysphoria (chronic low mood). I can’t tell you how amazing that feels.

All my therapists had one big worry in the end. That I would be an eternal patient. That I would never be able to let go of that. Why on earth would you do that? Because that is your Number 1 identity. Because you think you deserve it. Because of the care and attention. Because someone acknowledges that you are hurting. Because it is a manifestation that something in your life went wrong, or is still wrong. Like spending your adulthood with mental illnesses to show everyone how wrong things went in your childhood. Like that hurts anyone other than yourself. I remember being released from hospital and feeling paralysed with fear that they might be right. That I might never let myself get well.

Only time could really prove this wrong. I think it did. I will never take this for granted. Sometimes I feel so much gratitude that it makes me cry a little. I know I will slip. Life will slip. But that doesn’t matter, because I am excited for it. I want to live. I am up for this. Life feels so good right now.

And then there is the miracle of my relationship. Just to give that a sneaky mention.

A year ago I was in hospital. Today I am happy.

To be well is incredible. Thank you everyone who helped me get there.

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The final session (18/07/2013)

Me: I have no amazing present.

E: That’s the present. You sitting there with your arms exposed, talking about your relationship, telling me you can see yourself living past 30. That’s the best present.

She said she was feeling ambiguous too.

I can tell her when I get my phd and when my book gets published.

Massive sobbing.
Me: This was good and valuable. You are the wisest person I know.

E: You know that I know that you found this valuable.

Remember there were times when you were cross with me. When I got things wrong.

Bullet point list. Remind me again why this is the right time.

E: There is a shift in the family system. An opportunity for people to change.

It’s the right time.

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When enough is enough

Tonight my mum told me that she left my dad.

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The Final Sessions: 3 to go

Today was my third last session with E.

After the last one, which was 3 weeks ago, I cried for 10 days ago. Proper full on sobbing type crying every day at some point. Then it got better. The pain felt less acute. It still came up at time. I would think, I can’t imagine my life without her. So dramatic.

I was feeling almost resentful about today’s session. It brought the pain back up. I cried within the first five minutes and didn’t stop until the end.

For the first session or so it felt like we talked about many things but nothing proper. I mentioned that there is a new boy. I said I had made a list of things I still wanted to discuss with her.

With 20 minutes to go and our conversation running out, I said, shall we tick off some of my list? I read through it and laughed and said, no I changed my mind. Too hard. But then I settled on number one anyway.

“Tell her what really happened”

I started to cry more, and then I explained how I felt I should tell her what happened when I was molested when I was 9. I always just used very general terms. I said how I am worried she thinks it was nothing. Like I made a lot of drama over nothing. She said, I’ve explained to you many times how you need to see your trauma in the context of your family situation, which was very unstable, and the massive issues with your dad. She said, I have given you no reason to fear that, have I?

E rarely give me direct instructions, but today she did. She said-

“Just say it, N.”

And so I did.
Afterwards I cried so much. The emotional response is still so strong. It’s like I can still feel the dispair of the 9 year old girl in its full intensity.

I remembered my session with Mr Z. When I got up and stood up in front of the little girl. It wasn’t her role to protect herself. She didn’t make it happen. It wasn’t her fault. Adult me can get up and say No for her.

I’m glad I told E. It’s something tangible. The rest of the session was somewhat… all over the place. Nothing concrete to take home.

I can’t believe this is really ending.

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My therapist is breaking up with me

After going strong for nearly 5 years now, we now have three more sessions, scheduled at 3-week intervals.

I am sad, scared, understanding, grateful, disappointed, worried and excited.

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Patient or PhD student?

Sometimes I don’t know how to be both full-time.

Patient me: “I am sad and depressed, and I want to spend the day crying under my duvet”

PhD me: “I have to read and think and work hard to be the best student I can be”

Compromise me: At my desk in the office, papers in hand, crying.

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“You’ve had too much therapy”

My counsellor E tried to tell me today that maybe I can’t get some of the things the evil psychiatrist said to me out of my head because they are true…

I cried so much and said-
“No. I am not that unreflected. Of course I have considered that maybe I didn’t want to hear what he was saying because it was true. But: Sometimes things are hurtful to hear because they are true. And sometimes things are hurtful and damaging to hear because they are wrong.”

I also cried a lot about the psychiatrist telling me I had had too much therapy in my life and that my therapists had done me a disservice.

I worked so hard in therapy. For the first 100 sessions, I never cried. I did not open myself up. And I beat myself up about that after every single session.

I finally said-
“Maybe I had that much therapy because I needed it.”

She said, yes, he wasn’t there… he didn’t know me when I first started seeing E about 4.5 years ago. And he doesn’t know how long it took me and how hard it was for me to weep like this.

Yes, it took me years to show E my pain. She said – you used to be more resilient. I hardly saw you during the first few years, no more than once a month. I said, I don’t think I was doing that much better. I just wasn’t able to be open about it. I didn’t share as much of my struggles.

She thinks he tried to make me see that it’s dangerous to be a perpetual patient.

But what if you are perpetually unwell, if that’s just your reality? Or what if I just perpetually seek trauma and drama in my life, because I am messed up like that?

She ended the session by saying “We should plan our ending in the next few sessions. We’ll start by me seeing you monthly. How does that sound” More tears. I said – you should have asked me that at the beginning (not now that I am a mess). She said, yes, I just thought so. We will talk more about this in a month.

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Taking my inner child by the hand

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