I think I might need anger management.
A good way to tell whether someone knows me–really knows me–is to ask them how I am under stress. A year or so ago, when my department was discussing future leadership, one of my colleagues offered privately that I might make a good chair. Part of his argument was that I am “calm.” When I conveyed this to a friend of mine, he started laughing. Hysterically.
When I was on Tinder, a guy asked me via text, “Are you pretty laid back?” I considered his question over the course of several days, I discussed the merits of various responses with friends on Facebook, I did some research on the subject, and I replied in a lengthy message about conviction, assertiveness, and gendered assumptions about women. I never heard from him again. I should have saved us both some time and replied, “No.”
One of my ex-boyfriends told me I was “high strung.” He paused dramatically, then clarified, “Like an Irish setter.” Sure, he was a one-legged convicted felon who lied to me about his identity for several weeks when we first met, and he was high pretty much 24/7. But he was a good judge of character.
I try to remain calm, and most days I succeed. When I am well-fed, rested, and stress free–or, successfully ignoring the creeping demands on my time–I am pretty chill. The summer is better, because the email tide at work stops rolling in, and I can catch my breath. But if I am honest with myself, I contain my anger because it is in my vested interest to do so. Blood sugar, tiredness, and stress are contributing factors, sure, but the most important variable in whether or not I lose my shit seems to be whether or not I can get away it.
My friends know me to be an intense person, but few of them have actually seen me mad. They have seen me assertive, they have seen me bitchy, but they have never witnessed the fulsome power of my rage. If they had, they would not be my friends anymore, because I have a knack for identifying lines that people never knew they had and crossing them with the cold determination of a Panzer division. I have great capacity for empathy, and I pride myself on being able to understand other people’s perspectives. It’s part of what has made me a successful teacher and scholar, and it affords me some measure of redemption. But in moments of anger, my emotional sensitivity allows me to zero in on what will hurt the other person most. If I know them at all, I can level them. I see it in their passive, broken faces as they endure the onslaught of my words. In that moment, the only thing they hate more than me is themselves. There is no going back from that.
I have had two meltdowns in the last two days. In both cases, I was absolutely justified in feeling anger, if not in how I expressed it. In the first instance, an unleashed, 50-pound dog attacked my 12-pound little sweetheart (who was leashed), grazing her leg with teeth marks that hinted at how close we both came to catastrophe. (I am pretty alone in this world; if there is no dog, there is no me.) The owner, a neighbor with whom I have had some issues–namely, that he hits on me when his wife isn’t around–stopped the attack but then proceeded to slam his own dog to the ground and bash her head into the dirt with both hands. Both the attack on my dog and the man’s attack on his dog were terrifying. I literally ran away. In the second instance, a driver hit my parked car with some force during an aborted attempt to parallel park. Rather than assess the damage and leave a note, she left and parked elsewhere, thinking no one had witnessed the accident.
In both cases, a little voice in my head whispered, “Don’t do this.”
“Don’t open the door to your neighbor’s wife, who is undoubtedly here to apologize and inquire about your dog’s wellbeing.”
“Don’t get out of the car. Don’t follow the other driver.”
I didn’t listen.
Compelled by my rage, I invited both confrontations. My neighbor was so flustered by my obvious hostility when I opened the door that she refused to come into my house. I hectored her on the porch and watched her collapse inside herself as I issued an indictment of her dog, her husband, her marriage, her childrearing, and what I termed her “simpering apology.” I was probably right on every count: Her dog is a menace, because they failed to socialize it properly as a puppy and because her husband is abusive to it. Her husband is a menace, because he gets handsy with female neighbors when she’s not around, and he beat their dog like a savage. Her marriage–well, it seems like she puts up with a lot, and the way she bowed to my rage makes me suspect it’s not the first time someone has cut her off at the knees. And her childrearing–I’m sure she’s a good mother in many important respects. But her behavior during the attack on my dog and her husband’s attack on their dog makes me wonder. The last words I said to her were, “If you think that kind of violence is normal, I fear for your child and I fear for you.” Then I slammed the door in her face.
The young driver who hit my car didn’t know what hit her. She claimed she was going to return to my car, but I am skeptical. Still, Rational Me would like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But this morning, overtired and stressed about being unprepared for an exam just minutes away, I hit her with both barrels when I found her. Irresponsible, incompetent, immature–I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my spontaneous alliteration was positively Sorken-esque. If I were on the receiving end of one of my tirades, I might think, “Wow, I didn’t know people could talk like that in real life.” And then I would burst into tears. She stammered an apology that was profoundly inconvenient to my assessment of her as a person without remorse. I wasn’t having it, and she left in tears.
In both cases, I was shaking and shaken. Then, once the adrenaline dump subsided, I was overcome with shame and regret. When I picture what I must have looked like from the outside–course and loud and raving–I am mortified. That is not the person I want to be. That cannot be the person I am.
But it is.
I accomplished nothing with these confrontations. My neighbor–a woman who might very well be living in an unsafe home–will never again regard me as a decent person, let alone a friend. They will change nothing in how they correct their dog, because I have zero credibility as a person of restraint. If other neighbors hear about my outburst, they will be shocked and appalled. (Just today, an elderly neighbor brought me cookies with a note thanking me for being “the perfect neighbor.” When I think about her witnessing my outburst, it makes me want to die.) In the case of the young woman, I taught her nothing about maturity or accountability, squandering my spot on the moral high ground for a chance to roll around in the mud.
I think there is something wrong with me that I can hurt people this way, yet I manage to hide this terrible skill from most of the people in my life. I would never behave this way to someone who might physically overpower me, or someone who could get me fired, or someone whose love was not assured, or someone who could return my volley with anything approaching equal force. I only do this when I know I can get away with it. And that is a very grim assessment of my worth as a human being.
This doesn’t happen often, especially if I can avoid talking to customer service reps on the phone. It has been years since I really let go on someone in real life. That’s why these back-to-back confrontations have me so rattled. I thought I was doing better, but perhaps I was just stringing mines this whole time, and now I am tangled in the trip wires. I feel ruined, completely defeated, as if recovering from my own devastating knockout blow. I hope I wake up tomorrow feeling better about myself than I do tonight. What’s done is done, and there is no going back. All I can do is work harder in the future to keep it together, to see the other side. Be kind. Be still. Heed that little voice that whispers, “Don’t do this.”
And maybe ask for help.