“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
–The Man in Black, from The Princess Bride
I’m in an odd place right now, in more ways than one. I’m attempting to write a sermon on getting angry…while not actually in-this-moment angry. I’m attempting to pretend I’m not grieving…when underneath I’m swimming in deep currents of sorrow and anger and fear. I’m attempting to juggle my usual life as if nothing is wrong…when everything’s wrong…and nothing is wrong, too.
As Inigo Montoya might say, “Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
When I’m alone in the house, I have a tendency to talk to myself. (This is nothing new. I’ve always been one step shy of batshit crazy.) The second I close the door behind my husband and child, I address the walls as if they contain a crowd.
Yes, I have been walked in on by actual, live people more than once during this process. And yes, it’s far more embarrassing than being caught singing in the shower. Because while everyone sings in the shower, I’ve never met anybody else who admits to requiring an empty house to verbally air the contents of her own head to people who aren’t even there. But I digress.
Membership in that invisible crowd changes based on what I need.
Do I need to vent? Then the crowd is friendly–usually a group of my favorite female friends. If it’s marriage woes, then I address my favorite partnered women. If it’s something wrong with my kid’s life, then I address my favorite women who also happen to be parents. And the best part is, I can get their agreement and commiseration and support without risking censure. Not that I get a whole lot of it from my real-life friends or family–I have the dubious pleasure of having become fairly normal over the years, and it’s not often that my reactions to a situation deviate badly from others’. (Why do I say that normalcy is a dubious pleasure? Check out the epigraph to this post. That’s why.)
Do I need to replay an error I made in real life and (perhaps) come up with a better way to have handled the situation? Then the crowd is a carbon copy of the situation I fouled up, and I put my tabletop RPG skills to use trying to figure out what I should’ve done in the moment.
Do I need to blow off the stress of hearing some terrible piece of real-world news? Then my writer’s imagination runs wild, soothing the terrified child inside me with imagined personal badassery, or with completely improbable Hail-Mary saving-throw scenarios.
In short, I use a disproportionate amount of my alone time to unpack the contents of my head as if it were a refrigerator in which something has definitely gone off. Everything has to be taken out and examined–opened, sniffed, and its age reassessed by benchmarking it against firmer timeline points in my memory. Nothing goes back in until I’ve identified the origin of the stink, and verified that nothing else is in imminent danger of following it to the dark side. Then I happily restock my mental fridge with its contents re-grouped into useful stacks, so that the stacks can be pulled at a moment’s notice to make something tasty.
Though it’s a process that requires a stupid amount of alone-time, it works well. It has kept me largely in one piece through a lifetime of being an over-sensitive, over-thinking, overly-concerned trauma case. (Some people have even asked if I’m borderline ASD, and given that my daughter is, I’d say in retrospect that I might be, too. I’m certainly borderline something.) So even though it is absolutely mortifying to get busted while addressing an empty room at volume (especially if it’s the person I’m venting about), the process has been so damnably useful and effective that I’ve never quit doing it. In fact, my health as a human being can be directly measured by how much alone-time I get–because the longer I go without unpacking my head and assessing the state of the perishables in there, the stinkier everything gets…to the point that previously good things get poisoned simply by sharing the same air as the foul thing that hasn’t yet been rooted out.
As long as I get even a couple hours of alone-time every day, I’m a happy camper. As I get longer strings of uninterrupted alone-time, day after day, like beads on a necklace, I make more beautiful art; my addressing-of-the-walls takes up less time as I accomplish it more quickly each day, and I move on with the rest of my alone-time to accomplish all kinds of wonderful things…including my writing. I am at my unabashed happiest when I have days on end of eight straight hours of no one in the house but me, with no sound but the clicking of my keyboard keys and no movement other than me going to get the occasional snack. (I know that sounds like a functioning definition of Hell for a lot of people. For me, that’s Heaven. I’m pretty sure I could have hacked being a Desert Father.)
Unfortunately, if I have to go without alone-time, it doesn’t matter whether I’m doing it for happy reasons (like having my daughter home for Spring Break) or for unhappy reasons (like having my family caregive for me when I was actively ill). It’s taken the work of years to reassure the people I love that I’m not angry with them. I’m just angry. (“No, honey, I love you like my life. It’s just that I can’t abide having anyone near me right now.”) Because if I don’t get alone-time, my head actively starts to go south. Quickly. And if it goes on for too long, all the negative emotions begin to rule my head.
My sense of time begins to slip. My memory gets scrambled. I start misplacing things. I trip on stuff. I feel like I’m being progressively buried alive in the mental and physical detritus of both myself and the people around me. I get to the point where I can’t even get my basic work done because of the emotional people-clutter around and in me. And when just one too many things happens at once–like I’ve got the day’s medical appointment results weighting heavily on my mind as I’m trying to cook dinner and the TV is blaring and my daughter shouts a homework question at me while my husband drops his double-armload of work crap all over my only working countertop and wraps me up from behind in a bear hug and then my goddamn phone rings and it’s the doctor’s office again…
My husband will snap at me, feeling hurt when he feels me go rigid beneath his hands. My daughter cries when I snap at her, “In a minute, I have to get this call!” The receptionist on the phone acts shocked and unhappy when I sound less than sunny as I explain that yes, I already have those results, it’s the other set that needs sent to my oncologist, and no he’s not in the HCA system, he’s in Philadelphia, you should have his contact info already, no it’s spelled S-A…
They’re all so very, very lucky they can’t see the contents of my head. Because in that moment, when my body is rigid–barely functioning enough to put down the spatula and turn off the burner and answer the phone–my mind is going. Absolutely. Apeshit.
DEAR HUSBAND I LOVE YOU BUT ARE YOU STUPID? CAN’T YOU FUCKING SEE I’M STANDING OVER A HOT GODDAMN STOVE? CAN YOUR HUG WAIT UNTIL I’M NOT IN DANGER OF GETTING BURNED? AND COULD YOU HAVE BOTHERED TO THROW OUT THE GARBAGE IN YOUR LUNCHBAG INSTEAD OF DROPPING IT ALL IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ONLY COUNTERTOP I’VE GOT TO WORK WITH IN THIS WORTHLESS KITCHEN? AND COULD YOU HAVE BOTHERED TO FINISH EMPTYING THE COKE CANS? NOW I’LL HAVE TO WIPE IT ALL OUT AGAIN BEFORE I REPACK IT FOR TOMORROW. AND DEAREST DAUGHTER OF MINE, YOU’RE GODDAMN NINE YEARS OLD AND IN FOURTH GRADE, YOU’RE A GIFTED STUDENT FOR GOD’S SAKE, CAN’T YOU MEMORIZE YOUR FUCKING TIMES TABLES? I HAD EVERYTHING UP TO 10X10 MEMORIZED BY THE END OF THE SECOND FUCKING GRADE, DEAR HEART, AND NO YOU CAN’T KILL THE BATTERY ON MY FUCKING PHONE USING THE CALCULATOR TO FIGURE OUT 7X7 WHILE WATCHING YOUTUBE VIDEOS ON THE SLY. I HAVE TO HAVE MY PHONE TO EXPLAIN TO THIS STRANGER FOR THE THIRD TIME IN A SINGLE PHONE CALL THAT I’M IN A CLINICAL TRIAL IN ANOTHER STATE, AND THAT’S WHY MY DOCTOR DOESN’T APPEAR ON HER LIST. AND I’M 45 GODDAMN YEARS OLD AND I HAVE THIS FAMILY THAT APPARENTLY CAN’T WORK WITHOUT ME AND MULTIPLE DOCTORS THAT APPARENTLY CAN’T FIND THEIR OWN ASSES WITH BOTH HANDS AND WHY AM I THE ONE WITH FUCKING CANCER?
Throughout this mental tirade I’m radiating anger the way a hot kettle vents steam. No one can miss the signs. Though I haven’t said a word out of place, though I haven’t raised my voice in any way, though I’ve even done my best to modulate my tone, there is not a single human being within my reach that is unaware of just. How. Angry. I am.
And the longer I go without being able to address the walls, the quicker I get to that point…the fewer infractions it takes to get me there…the nastier and more cutting my calm responses will be…the longer it will take me to let the anger bleed out of me like heat out of a fire, and return to my normal, affable self.
In short, I’m a lot like water in a microwave. It takes me forever to reach a boil…but if you’re not careful, I’ll get there without you knowing it. I look no different cold than I do superboiled. And with just the wrong touch…BOOM. I will explode all over you and everyone else within reach. I look no different…until somebody gets injured.
Ever since this cancer mess started, I’ve permanently had a minute added to my time in the microwave. The problem is, though it’s all anger, I have no way of knowing which expression of anger will come exploding out when someone or something pumps that last bit of energy into my liquid core. Will I be the cold bitch that lashes out with her verbal razors? Will I be the victim who bursts into helpless, frustrated tears? Will I flip clean over into raging mama-bear, angry at the world for doing this to my daughter even as I gently cradle her beautiful face? Will I get blindly angry at my husband, blaming the guy who’s been faithfully keeping this family protected during this ordeal? I keep asking myself, Which anger will come out today, and what can I do to stop it?
Well, it’s the Buddhist in me that answers.
“Self,” my inner Buddhist says, “you’ve got three options here:
One, if you want to avoid the boiling point because you think it’s ‘bad,’ why are you letting yourself get hot in the first place? You recognize that a hug, a question, and a phone ringing were all that happened, right? Why should a hug, a question, and a phone ringing send you into the stratosphere? They’re just a hug, a question, and a phone ringing. In fact, the hug and the question were from people you love. Why should that be a problem? The only thing you’re angry about is the ‘bad’ situation your health is in. But your being angry about ‘bad’ and ‘good’ just upset your husband, your kid, and a total stranger for no reason. Quit struggling against those invisible labels. Accept what is.
Two, if you’ve let yourself get to the boiling point, use it. Think of all the people who love you, and who are watching you go through this. Aren’t they angry for you, too? Take in their poison, too–breathe it all in, one big breath of dragonfire anger, and then let it out…for all of you.
Three, if you’ve let yourself get to the boiling point, you have to let it out somehow. Watch the show, apologize where appropriate, and learn from it. The anger you show is the face of the lesson you need to learn. Focus on what’s scaring you, and why. Ask yourself what you can do about it. If the answer is ‘something,’ then do that something. If the answer is ‘nothing,’ then relax with it. Ride the wave and then let it wash away. It’s all sacred–every bit of your experience, both the things you call ‘good’ and the things you call ‘bad.’ But it’s the ‘bad’ stuff we learn the most from. All things decay and die. And alleluia for that–because it’s the ‘bad’ stuff of pain and dying that teaches us how to be skillful at living.”
So, Self, listen to the Man in Black, will ya? “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” That means, quit riding around with that giant grudge in your head and breathe. Address the walls til you’re blue in the face, because that’s skillful. Find ways to do something similar even if you’re not alone, because…sooner or later…we’ll all have to learn the lesson of pain. It’s up to us to find ways to make the living better on our way there.