This is the fourth in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.
My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.
January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships
Like most emotions, anger exists on a spectrum. It can range from mild annoyance to blinding rage. Sometimes, anger can be a useful emotion. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and others, fight for justice and equality, and even help us survive in situations when it provides the strength we need to stay alive.
Anger can also be incredibly destructive, and that’s when it becomes a problem.
It can deceive us into thinking it’s an ally. It can make us feel stronger and more able to withstand the pain and fear that has triggered it, while, in reality, it is making us weaker. Like a drug that makes the user feel indestructible while simultaneously wreaking havoc on their health, anger provides us with a shield against the world while at the same time it saps us of our energy and positivity.
Whether it’s becoming violent, losing our temper with friends and family, or turning to self-destructive coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs, repressed anger has a way of breaking free from our mental restraints and leaving devastation in its wake.
In my experience, this kind of intense anger can be provoked by situations that fall into three categories: disappointment and frustration with ourselves for mistakes we’ve made; hurt and mistreatment caused by another person (particularly someone we trust); and pain caused by something beyond our (or anyone else’s) control.
The third category is arguably the most difficult to deal with. While we can learn from our own mistakes or confront someone who has wronged us, we have no recourse when life simply goes wrong and there is no one to blame.
When I started thinking about how I would approach this aspect of mental health, two significant periods of my life came to mind: one from when I was a child, and one that I’m currently experiencing.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in this series, I grew up with a severely autistic younger brother. Completely non-verbal and often violent, it was an incredible challenge for my parents to cope with him. As a result, they inadvertently placed a great deal of responsibility on me at a very young age. My brother’s violent outbursts often came without warning and I was very frightened of him, yet I was frequently left alone with him and expected to keep him amused while my dad was at work and my mum did housework or cooked us dinner.
One day, after so long living in fear, dealing with being bitten, pushed around and forced to follow my brother’s rigid routine at the cost of seeing my friends and having a normal childhood, I couldn’t take it anymore.
He was in the garden driving his toy car in circles around the swing set. It was big enough for him to sit in, and he had already worn a muddy path into the grass from weeks of this repetitive behaviour. I remember vividly standing there staring at him, feeling all my unexpressed anger and fear rising to the surface until I couldn’t focus on anything else. There was a long-handled wooden brush propped up against the side of the house. I grabbed it and waited until the car came closer to me, and then I swung the brush as hard as I could at my brother’s face.
I didn’t really understand why I’d done it, but it became clear to me later on. I wanted my parents to realise that their reliable, helpful and ostensibly strong daughter wasn’t coping the way they thought she was. I wanted them to ask me why I had done something so out of character and give me the opening I desperately needed to express all the fear and anger I was feeling. I wanted them to protect me.
Instead, they reprimanded me for what I’d done, cleaned up the blood from my brother’s nose (which thankfully wasn’t broken), and said no more about it. He went back to driving his car and I was left feeling worse than I had before.
Obviously, lashing out like that was the completely wrong way of trying to deal with my anger, and I still feel terrible that I hurt my brother, but I can forgive myself for that. I was a frightened child acting out of fear and desperation. That said, I wish I had felt able to tell my parents that I was struggling. I never doubted that they loved me and were doing the best they could, but at the time I genuinely believed that they wouldn’t have been able to cope if they knew how I really felt.
I know now that I was wrong and that their marriage actually grew stronger during those difficult years, but as a child I had no understanding of this. All I saw were the negative effects of my brother’s autism. Things like my dad holding his bedroom door closed to protect the rest of us from his uncontrollable violent outbursts. My mum being taken to hospital after he attacked her when she tried to get him to brush his teeth. My parents fighting to stop him from cutting his own ear off with a pair of scissors when he had an ear infection and couldn’t handle the pain.
Children shouldn’t have to see those things and feel frightened in their own home. It’s no wonder that I was angry. Talking about it likely would have made all the difference, and I’ll always wish that I had spoken up.
As an adult who has spent more than her fair share of time with psychologists, I know that talking things through is the best way of dealing with anger, and it’s one of the ways I’m trying to deal with the anger I’m currently feeling. It’s a different kind of anger than I experienced as a child. Not only because I now have the maturity to express it in a healthy way, but because, this time, I have no one to blame. Instead, I have only yet another confirmation of a truth that we all must accept as the cost of living – life isn’t fair.
Last month, my mum was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We lost my granny to cancer last year and my grampa five years before that. They helped raise me and I loved them both so much, and my mum means the world to me, so this news was absolutely devastating. When the oncologist gave us mum’s diagnosis and we walked out of the hospital, it didn’t take long for my tears to dry and angry thoughts to take their place.
Why did this happen? How had the doctors missed it? Why did our family keep getting hit with one blow after another?
Not two months previously, we had been told that mum had beaten breast cancer and that she would likely continue to live a long and healthy life. We had started planning for the future again after months of chemo, surgery and radiotherapy, and I was so angry that the battle we thought we had won was only part of a bigger war that we are going to lose.
In order to be able to talk about it, I have to understand and acknowledge why I’m angry:
I’m angry because my family and I have been through enough hell in our lives already.
I’m angry because the physical pain I deal with every day due to my health problems is making it much harder to deal with the emotional pain.
I’m angry because I won’t have my mum there for me when I get married and have children.
I’m angry because I’m losing the person I love most in the world and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I could easily become consumed with my anger at cancer, at my mum’s doctors for not spotting it earlier, at the universe for this cruel twist of fate – but that won’t change anything. All it will do is taint the time I still have with my mum and rob me of the energy I need to help both of us get through this. I don’t want to let that happen, so I’ve had to figure out how to live with this anger in a way that doesn’t compromise my mental health.
Unsurprisingly, this has involved a lot of talking. My mum and I have always been very close and she believes in having an open and honest relationship, which means we’ve been able to talk frankly about everything from her funeral arrangements to how I’ll cope after she’s gone. That’s been very upsetting at times, but it’s also a huge relief to be able to discuss and work through such a difficult situation together.
One of the hardest aspects of grief can be regret and unanswered questions, so mum and I are ensuring that I’m left with as few of those as possible. We talk even more than we used to, and if a question comes to mind, no matter how trivial, I make sure I ask it – even if it’s just her opinion about the latest reality TV show!
I know there will be times to come when I’ll want to ask mum’s advice and I won’t be able to, so she’s writing me letters in response to questions I think I’ll have in the future. Questions like what advice she would give me if I were pregnant with my first child and what she would like me to tell her grandchildren about her. It’s wonderful to know that I’ll be able to carry those words with me as constant reminders of mum’s support and guidance, even when she’s not here to say them to me herself.
She’s also asked me to try to find something to laugh about every day, which hasn’t been too difficult since this family has always met adversity with laughter. It’s the antithesis of anger and the perfect antidote for the feelings of dread and helplessness that we’re all struggling with.
If I allowed my anger at what’s happening to consume me, I wouldn’t be able to face up to the future and make the most of this quality time with my mum and the rest of our family. It’s time I won’t get back and I know I’ll never forgive myself if I withdraw from the people who love me because I’m too angry to be around them, so I force myself to confront my anger and push through it.
I’ve made a big deal about the importance of talking in this post, so I have to acknowledge that doing so is something that many people, particularly those who struggle with mental health problems, can find incredibly difficult to do. That’s absolutely understandable. When we open ourselves up to others, we become more vulnerable and have to face the fear of being dismissed or ridiculed, but that shouldn’t stop us from reaching out.
Talking about intense and confusing emotions is a skill that can be learned and practised until it becomes easier over time. For years I only wrote about my feelings in private journals and poems, but once I started talking to psychologists and close friends and family, it became a lot easier to express them. As I talked about in last month’s post, I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t learned to do that, which is why I’m encouraging others to do the same.
Since lack of support as a child with a disabled sibling was such a challenge for me growing up, several years ago I set up my own online support group for the siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/110123842407656/
There is also a wider support community for siblings of those with disabilities available via SibNet: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SibNet/