Some family stories get repeated over and over, become the stuff of legends. One such story is about when my mother was pregnant with me, and, from inside the womb, I was kicking so hard that I kicked the newspaper she was reading off her lap. Writing this now, I wonder if it was possible that the news was making me mad even then.
I came into the world, after many hours of labor, kicking and screaming and crying, with a full head of dark hair standing on end.
Then there are the stories about me being a colicky baby who cried inconsolably for hours upon hours, screaming at the top of my little baby lungs, little fists clenched in rage, my face bright red and wet with tears. My father would carry me in his arms and we would look out the window of our apartment downtown and count the windows in the skyscrapers. I was born in the spring of 1968 in Chicago. During the Democratic National Convention in August, my father and I watched the riots in Grant Park from the window. While protesters were being beaten and tear-gassed by police, I was inside screaming and crying and watching.
I remember reading an article saying colic looks the same as anger on scans of brain images. Looking for it again, I can’t find that specific one, but enough articles reference it that I don’t doubt it. I also don’t doubt it because it makes perfect sense to me that I was inconsolably angry from the very beginning of my life, and throughout my entire childhood, and indeed I will be throughout the rest of my life.
As I’m writing this, I keep looking up words, to make sure I’m using the best ones to convey what I mean. I just looked up inconsolable. Inconsolable is usually used in reference to grief, sadness, existential despair, a sense that the world is unfixable. Well, anger is a stage of grief. Grief is a response to loss. What loss am I angry about? The loss of an unrealizable ideal. The world will never conform to my will or meet my needs without an extraordinary amount of struggle, and even then it will never be perfect. There will always be frustrations, aggravations, irritations, misunderstandings, injustices, etc. Wait a minute, am I saying that as an infant I had a concept of existential despair? Well, certainly not in any fully articulated, verbal way, but maybe in a sort of preverbal, visceral, primal kind of way.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, making up a story. But still the legend of Elizabeth as melancholy and angry child, angry young woman (now angry and postmenopausal) goes on.
I like to think my strategies for dealing with my anger have improved, but I might be wrong about that. I certainly try very hard not to allow myself to hurt other people with my anger. Sometimes I take my anger out on the elliptical machine, delighting in pushing the pedals hard and fast while listening to blasting rock music on my headphones. Sometimes I write angry poetry about torturing and killing people. I figure it's better to kill them on paper than in real life.
I think it also helps to just accept that I'm angry. That's me and that's how I'll always be. I think if I tried to stop being angry, my efforts would only backfire and I'd end up being even angrier, while trying to convince myself and others that I wasn't angry and exhausting myself in the process.
I'd rather be angry than depressed. And when I'm really angry, that's when I'm happiest. Because I'm thinking, and I become very articulate. Words and ideas come easily to me and I am able to describe exactly what's bothering me.
It bothers me when people talk as if it's somehow morally wrong to be angry. Anger is a necessary and protective emotion. When someone is angry, it means something feels wrong to them. It's telling them that there's a problem that needs to be figured out, analyzed, acknowledged, and maybe resolved. Some problems can't be solved though. Some just are.