It is in childhood, often very early, that we see anger expressed by someone else. Someone we know. Someone we love.
We stayed in the extra bedrooms upstairs when we visited Aunt Lydia. The big two-story house with its sloping roof and wide lawn sat in a nice Chicago suburb. My sister Beverly — was she four or five? And I was two years older — caught our first fireflies on that lawn next to the tall blue fir tree. We made a lantern by scooping the tiny living lights in a mason jar. There they dimmed and went out.
Bev and I were reminiscing about that summer over the phone recently. I was sitting in the upstairs bathroom, looking out the window, she said. Then you walked past. I was so surprised! She pulled up her panties fast and came out to ask me, How did you do that!? A flash of excitement stirred the hot, boring afternoon. Look, here’s a little door, I pointed. Together we stepped onto the slightly slanting roof. What a splendid way to see the green grass and the fir tree below. Standing on top of the first floor we were not one bit bored. We took a few steps on the tar and gravel shingles toward the edge. Oh the thrill! After exploring the tiny patch of roof by the door and a narrow sort of walkway that passed the bathroom window, we went back inside. What an adventure!
I think we got in trouble for that, I said.
Beverly stopped me. Trouble? Don’t you remember? Remember what? Mom lost it. She came upstairs and asked, “What have you been doing?” And I told her. We went out the door and walked on the roof. Next thing we were face down on the bed and she was whipping us. I told her the truth and she whipped us. Don’t you remember? And just like that the smell of the humid room and hot bed sheets came back to me. I was writhing, buttocks muscles clenched, my voice a ragged wail. The length of leather flew. (A belt? the dog’s leash?) Again and again it stung. Anger flashed through me, a flame filling my body and mind. Trapped, I raged with all my being. Then dimmed and went out.
I blanked it out. My seven-year-old self could not process it. A part of me went into hiding.
Mom never spoke of the whipping. Ever. Beverly’s words nudged the memory that had been too raw for me to hold. In a few sentences a blank page of my story filled in. But instead of the fire of anger that had been too much me, I found only the ashes of sadness. Sadness that anger was expressed as violence. Sadness that so much shame surrounded the emotion and actions that Mom never spoke of them. Sadness that my mother had no tools to address her anger in healthy ways. And I grieved that I didn’t have tools to talk about it with her before she died. It was after her death that I began the work of facing my own dark emotions. The exploding and imploding of my own rage.
How does this story serve?
I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.
Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever.
Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.” ~ Brené Brown [emphasis mine]
- I know the value of having someone bear witness. My sister shared the experience. I was not alone. We can process this together.
- When the body and spirit cannot make sense of reality, the mind shields it, provides armor — sometimes for years — until it is ready and something, or someone says, Don’t you remember?
- As I face a dark memory, a piece of armor falls away & leaves me lighter.
- Early examples may teach us one thing, but we are capable of learning new, healthy ways to cope. Learning may be painful and take time, but it is totally worth it.
- Wrestling with writing about this led to a rich conversation with my own daughter. I told her of my fear of being criticized — for telling family secrets, for having “wrong” feelings, for sounding bitter. She listened well. She reminded me that people will think whatever they want. No matter what. She confessed that she has grieved the time before I began addressing my fear, anger, and loss, and these seeped into our relationship. She said a bunch of other wise, funny, and gracious things (yes, I cried) and she reminded me of the words of Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger.
Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful nor pointless. Anger simply is.” ~ Harriet Lerner
Or as my daughter paraphrased, “Anger is neither good nor bad, it simply is.” (I’m thrilled that she quotes from a book I gave her!)
With this view anger is not taboo or frightening. We can face what is and find out what it has to tell us. As we do, we can mend our fractured trinities; bring body, mind, and spirit back into alignment. Owning and telling our stories is how we find integration.
This is not easy writing, it may not make easy reading. Thank you for coming this far.
There are certain notions about what is okay to say about people and what is not. This is especially true of dark experiences. We live in families and communities. When I tell my stories I also tell pieces of other people’s stories. My account is just that: mine. My goal: 1) To write from a place of peace — knowing that I am always processing, wrestling — to live with body, mind, and spirit in closer alignment. 2) To say This happened to me. Maybe it happened to you too.
If you missed earlier essays from this series click on the links below: