I have anger problems. When I tell people this, most of the time they don’t believe me. I often hear, “You seem okay,” or “You smile an awful lot,” as responses. There’s an expectation that there will be some sort of cartoonish outward sign, like I should be constantly throwing Donald Duck-style tantrums, or screaming at people. It’s not like that at all.
Imagine carrying a balloon in your chest. Sometimes it’s small, and light, and you don’t really notice it’s there. At any moment, the balloon could expand and then you can’t breathe, can’t see because that’s all there is in your world.
But it’s not a balloon in your chest. It’s a scream, made of rage and hatred. Maybe you could call it a battle cry if you want to, but even that seems too civilized. It’s primal and terrible and it never goes away.
I’m in junior high. It’s between classes and the halls are jammed full of students, to the point that we can’t move. There’s a girl behind me that I’ve never met before. She calls me a fat bitch and stabs me in the back with her pencil, once, twice… seven times total.
This is normal. This is how I am treated all the time. I get called a fat [insert expletive of choice here] and shoved around because no matter what I do, I’m always in the way. It’s always that I’m fat and smelly and a cunt, like my very existence is an insult to anyone with an even marginal level of popularity.
I want to scream at her, hit her, because it’s not my faultI can’t get out of her way. But I also don’t want to get in trouble. I know what my parents expect of me, and can only guess what might happen to me if I actually start a fight. So I let her do it, I swallow and swallow against that lump in my throat until I can’t breathe, and I let her shove me against the lockers so she can squeeze a scant few inches ahead of me.
I used to have the Donald Duck-style tantrums. I still do occasionally, though they’re few and far between. I lose my temper and throw books, or punch walls, or scream. I hate myself for it when I’m done, because I know it’s the definition of immature. But there’s always that knot of anger in my chest, and sometimes I can’t swallow it down any more.
I’ve scared my cats, and my husband, and my friends occasionally. When that happens I hate myself for that too.
I’ve gotten better lately because I’ve gotten in to exercise. Most of the time, when I can feel that endless scream trying to break free, I have the presence of mind to go for a run, or ride my bike, or do kung fu exercises until I’m dripping with sweat and my muscles are just burning.
When all that anger is too big for my heart, I put it in my hands and feet.
I’m at a football game in high school. I’m tall enough and big enough now that I don’t get casually shoved around any more, and I’ve stopped trying to pretend I’m smaller than I am. Shrinking in on myself has never gotten the insults to stop, and if I stand up straight and square my shoulders, if I glare and go at everything with aggressive sarcasm, people usually leave me alone.
This method doesn’t work on everyone. There’s a boy a grade or two ahead of me in marching band, and he hates me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the sarcasm. Whatever the reason, at this football game he slaps me across the face, three times.
But it’s even more insulting and confusing then that. He makes it a game, where he says, “Watch my hand, watch my hand,” snaps his fingers, and slaps me with the other hand. No one’s ever hit me before like that, and at first I don’t know how to react. It really doesn’t hurt that much – it’s just humiliating. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. He laughs at me while he does it, because I’m obviously too stupid to understand what’s happening. Then I grab him by the coat and grind my heel down on his instep. My best friend drags me away before I can do anything else.
This is the only fight I’ve ever been in, and it wasn’t much of a fight.
But I hit things all the time. I hit walls until my knuckles bleed, or slam them with the flat of my hand until the pain is so intense I have to stop. I bruise my feet and toes by kicking bleachers, and trash cans, and more walls, because I don’t know the right way to kick yet and I just don’t care. I pretend that it’s the walls laughing instead of the people around me.
Maybe that’s fair, since it’s the walls trapping me in this place, filled with people who hate me because I’m weird, and nerdy, and fat, and queer, and different. Because I hate makeup and I don’t care about clothes and just want to be left alone to read my Xanthnovels in peace.
I don’t know why they just won’t leave me alone.
If you’re angry and a woman, you’re a bitch, or a joke. You get called shrill or accused of being hysterical. They ask you if you’re PMSing, because obviously there’s no real reason a woman could ever have to feel angry.
If you get really angry, the kind of anger that’s so overwhelming that your eyes fill with tears (because that’s all crying is, the reaction to any emotion that’s too strong to process, happy or sad or mad) you get smirks, or that thing where they step back and hold their hands off as if jokingly fending off an attack.
Guess they’re afraid I’ll use my girly, pink fingernails to scratch the word unfair into their scalps.
I’m already sitting at the lunch table; the pretty girls come sit next to me. I’m hunched over a fried chicken sandwich. I’m wearing flannel and my hair is cut short. Maybe that’s why they feel the need to point out that I’m fat and gross, and why they call me a dyke, a lesbo, a queer bitch.
I don’t actually know what some of those words mean, at this point. Only that they’re obviously bad.
But there is something else I’ve started figuring out. They’re not calling me those things because they’re true. They’d find something else nasty to say if I was skinny and wore makeup and had parents who could afford designer clothes.
They’re calling me those things because they like being mean, and I look like an easy target.
That makes me angry too.
Things that make me angry:
The phrase “dependence on foreign oil”
People who hurt animals (bullies)
People who hurt other people (bullies)
I finally find a sport I’m good at, in my junior year of high school – power lifting. I get trophies, and it’s the most amazing feeling in my life. The women’s team is small, but we all at least respect each other, even if I haven’t really made any friends.
At this point, I’ve given up on making friends. I just want to survive.
We’re training together in the weight room after school. The other heavyweight is doing bench press. The blond girls (they’re not on the team) that are doing bicep curls with the lightest possible weights whisper to each other about how she’s fat, and hairy, and is probably a man. They giggle.
I hate that sound.
I already know that other girls say things like that about me. I tell myself that I don’t care. I’ve finally found something I’m good at, something I like, and I won’t let them ruin it for me.
But it’s so goddamn unfair that they’re trying to shit all over it anyway.
The anger that lives inside me isn’t some sort of holdover from high school. Fourteen years would be a long time to hold on to slights received from people whose names I no longer even remember. Rather, that was where I learnedto be angry, like an emotional immune response.
That’s why it’s never left me. Because I still see and experience things that make me angry, every day. When you grow up, the bullies don’t disappear. They just get slicker, and smarter, and more subtle.
I talked about this with my mom one day. We were shopping for pants I could take off one-handed, since I’d just had surgery on my shoulder. In the car, I admitted to her that I still have anger problems, that I know it isn’t a healthy response.
She told me: “If you’re angry maybe that means they didn’t win, because in the end, they couldn’t make you hate yourself.”
No matter how much name calling and shoving and bullying I received, I never really bought into the lie that it was somehow myfault those things were happening. I knew that it was stupid and unfair for other people to expect me to transform into someone else entirely to please them. And I also knew that even if I could somehow make that happen, it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference, that I didn’t want to be one of those people anyway.
Maybe this is what winning feels like.
That doesn’t make it easier, when I’m struggling to remain calm, when some jackass is pantomiming that he’s afraid I’ll explode because I want to hit him so badly there are tears in my eyes. But I won. I don’t hate myself. I know the people who wasted a lot of their time and energy trying to make me miserable were the ones in the wrong.
I not only know that it wasn’t my fault, I feel it.
I never really liked the Hulk as a character. I always thought his super power was kind of dumb, and that the idea he was some sort of intergalactic trump card (oh yeah? We have the Hulk!) was poor writing.
But there’s an amazing running joke in the Avengersmovie, where people keep asking Bruce Banner how he stays calm, making the assumption that his apparent cool is the opposite of being angry. Then at the end of the movie, Captain America tells Bruce Banner, “Now would be a good time to get angry.”
Bruce replies: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.”
That, I loved. I still may not like the Hulk, but I love Bruce Banner because I know that feeling. I am that feeling.
There was something else I said in that conversation with my mom. That sometimes I felt like I don’t have a right to be angry, because these things happen all the timeto so many kids, and often worse. It’s not as if I’m some kind of special case that suffered more abuse than my fellows.
She said: “Maybe that’s why you shouldbe angry.”
She’s right. That we accept it as a matter of course that people constantly try to destroy each other is base injustice. I should be angry.
And so should you.