The Art of Anger

I was angry last week, not for a long time, but angry nonetheless.  It started as annoyance when a close member of my family, who shall remain nameless, told me that my last post, Invictus (which is arguably my personal favorite post), was too long and that he preferred lighter posts.  I found myself defending Invictus  — I know it’s dense and probably hard to get through I said, but I think it gets at what I struggle with the most, the reason why bad things happen to us, and I feel it carries an important message that is worth hearing, even if it means wading through the denseness and the alleged heavy and even depressing subject matter.  By that evening, my annoyance had worked itself into full blown anger, and not just at this particular family member but generally at all my family members and close friends who have claimed to or, in my judgment, should, care about me, but who, despite this, I just know — yes, I just know — are not reading this blog.  The non-English-reading family members were pardoned from my anger for obvious reasons.  Non-close family and friends were also excused because I don’t expect those people to care much about me and therefore invest the time and energy into reading my philosophical musings.  The anger made me lash out and say mean-spirited things to those offenders in my head as I tossed and turned in bed.  The speech I would have made to them if I had dared was something along the lines of this: 

You who are supposed to care for me, you who are supposed to love me, should at the very least read what I write.  If you truly cared how I’m doing, you would be reading what I think about these days, no matter how sobering my writing might be.  The only reason you choose not to read is because you don’t want to be inconvenienced by my cancer or by me; you don’t want to be reminded that someone close to you is facing an ugly life-threatening disease because God forbid it should interfere with your happy little cancer-free life, where you smile and laugh with your children without the terror that haunts my life now.  You don’t have to worry about how compromised your immune system is from chemo as you hold your feverish crying child.  Lucky you.  You cared about me when it was easy to care, in the days after the surgery.  Your flowers, phone calls and visits were convenient, even expected.  You’ve made the socially obligatory offers to help and yet you don’t even care enough to read to learn how I’m doing psychologically.  You seem to not realize that the best way you can help me is to care about and love me, and the best way to do that in the absence of actual things you can do is to understand what I am going through physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  Now that I am in treatment, you assume — and stupidly at that  —  that I will beat this and you’ve forgotten about me.  You need to make that assumption, to forget about me and to not read my writing because to do otherwise makes you afraid and as cowardly as you are, you can’t confront the fear of all the bad shit that can happen to you and yours.  Well, I feel sorry for you then, because the bad shit never stops coming and one day when it hits you, you will be reeling from it, too terrified to know how to handle it because you chose to ignore the ugliness of the shit that happened to your family and friends, and then you will deeply regret your naive assumption about me and how you abandoned me.

I know — my stream of consciousness that night was harsh, vengeful, bitter and  irrational.  I debated whether to share this unflattering side of my psyche, both for fear that it would paint me in a negative light and also for fear of offending my close family and friends.  I decided ultimately that it is important to explore the role that anger can play in coming to terms with life’s challenges.  I realize that for those who witness another’s anger, it can be an uncomfortable and dark thing, but I have found that the process of deconstructing anger to reveal its true roots is extraordinarily therapeutic, empowering and liberating.

Two new people joined my Tuesday night support group last week, one of whom was an obviously intelligent, extremely sharp tongued woman who could not be much older than I.  I will call her A.  A was diagnosed close to 18 months ago after having lost her job and her home.  Her COBRA coverage is about to terminate and she will be forced to buy her own individual health insurance policy,.  She has been unemployed while in treatment, during which she has lived in the homes of friends and family.  She fears that her friend at whose tiny apartment she is currently living will kick her out the moment her treatment is complete, which will be later this month.  As A shared with us her story, what struck me, and no doubt everyone else in the room, was how incredibly angry she was.  I’m not talking about just your garden variety anger; I’m talking about such intense rage, fury and wrath that I felt overwhelmed and even frightened by it, that I thought the people at the receiving end of that anger might be justifiably afraid for their physical safety.  So uncomfortable was I in the face of her tirade that I had to look away from her murderous eyes.  She expressed anger over the insensitive statements made by her surgeon and the nurses in connection with her surgical recovery.  She expressed rage at what she perceived to be an offensive comment made by a friend.  She described the rants she had subjected medical staff to when they were running behind schedule.  She spoke with bitterness about the minimal support she’d received from family and friends.  The irony is that when she wasn’t venting her rage, she seemed like a completely personable, articular and even compassionate person who had good insights and a healthy sense of perspective for the others of us in the group.  I just sincerely hope A never finds this blog and learns that I’m writing about her.

A’s rage in the cancer context is strange to me.  In general, anger has been minimally present in my life post cancer diagnosis.  Other than the anger I felt when I learned about the results of the genetic testing on the tumor (as I mentioned in Invictus), the anger I’ve had has always been channeled in an appropriate manner — that is toward fighting the cancer itself.  When the transport guy wheeled me in my hospital bed from my room to the operating room, with Josh walking beside me, I made a very conscious and deliberate choice to sit up straight and tall rather than lie down.  It was a gesture of angry defiance — I was not going into this first battle in my war against cancer lying down.  With venom and rage quaking through my body and my jaws and fists clenched, as I was pushed down the wide corridors through countless double doors for what seemed like an eternity, I declared to Josh over and over again “Fuck this cancer!  Fuck this cancer!”  Other times I’ve felt the rage as a part of a meditative process during workouts that led me to envision strangling, crushing and slaying the cancer cells in a hundred different ways (as I described in Armor On! and Coming Home and Getting Real).  But never had I felt the kind of rage at other people that A described.  She made me feel like perhaps I hadn’t confronted or acknowledged this very fundamental human emotion in dealing with grief or hardship.  I mean isn’t anger the most well known stage everyone has to live through before attaining acceptance of a tragic event?  Was I somehow misguided and delusional to talk and write about moments of happiness, gratitude and feeling blessed?  After all, those sentiments seemed completely bizarre in the world of cancer, and certainly in the world of recently diagnosed cancer.  So was my anger buried so deeply inside me that I wasn’t even aware of it?

It just so happened that I met A on the day that family member made those annoying statements about my previous posting.  I give A full credit for turning my annoyance into anger and getting me so worked up that night.  In a support group, where a goal is to have the positive experiences of one help others, negative experiences and emotions can sometimes have a contagious effect too.  My instinctive reaction to all the situations where A’s ire had been roused was:  that doesn’t sound so bad; what’s the big deal? you should give people the benefit of the doubt; after all, they’re just trying to do the best they can; just chill.  Of course, I was afraid to voice my reactions for fear of my head being bitten off.  I also found that others in the group went going along with her anger, agreeing that XYZ hospital was at fault, how horrible it was for all those people to say the things they said and how people have been so disappointing in their failure to rise to the occasion and help.  I suppose I was witnessing the conformity of group dynamics and I felt powerless to fight against it and even allowed myself to be swept along for a time.

My anger incited by A was short-lived because I quickly listened to my own intuitive response to A’s anger, to give people the benefit of the doubt and to believe in their good intentions.  Some have told me my blog is too upsetting because it brings back bad memories and raises the specter of too many fears.  Some have said they need to be in the right frame of mind to read and digest my writing.  Ultimately, I do believe people care as much as they can and show it in the best way they know how.  Whenever I am a guest in someone else’s home, I’m always amazed at how gracious some hosts are, constantly offering  food and drink and striving to ensure comfort.  I’m even more amazed at how some fellow guests are so good at helping the host prepare the meal, set up or clean up.  As the youngest of three, I’m used to being the baby and having others care for me.  I’m not good at being solicitous of others’ needs.  I’ve gotten better since I had my own children, but being aware of others’ needs in this social context remains one of my weaknesses.  This does not mean that I care about my fellow human beings any less.  My mind and personality just function differently.  But I sincerely try to be a good person in the best way I know how.  It’s no different for my family and friends with respect to my cancer or A’s family and friends with respect to her cancer.

By nature, it’s not as if I’m somehow immune to anger nor am I an especially magnanimous person always capable of giving people the benefit of the doubt.  The other day I almost started an altercation with a woman who got in my face.  I think I just have a lot of historic experience with anger and have learned the prudence of thinking kindly of people.  Some of you reading this who knew me in college know how angry I once was.  My residential unit in our freshman dorm designed a t-shirt to commemorate our year of living together.  On the back of the t-shirt was a crossword puzzle filled in with each of our names and with the corresponding clues below, which were generally phrases or other associations that we were each known for.  Mine was “#@*&”, the universal denotation for lots of cursing and swearing.  I was known for my very loud and angry conversations, if you can call them that, with my parents, in which the word “fuck” and other variations thereof were frequently uttered by me.  I raged back then at my parents with little consequence because they would never hold it against me.  But in truth, I was angry at the whole world.  I was angry at God and the universe for subjecting me to this life filled with what seemed like endless and inescapable physical limitations that prohibited me from doing what most everyone else took for granted — being smart, being pretty, driving, hiking, skiing, reading fast, watching movies with subtitles, seeing birds in trees and generally living a full and complete life.  I was angry at my parents and my entire family for underestimating me in their immigrant small-mindedness, at my mother for saying in the sixth grade that she thought I should go to a special school for children with severe mental and physical disabilities, at uncles who expressed doubts to my father about the wisdom of allowing me to go 3,000 miles away from home for college, at all of them for never asking me how I was coping with living with a visual disability and leaving me alone to deal with the trauma of being disabled and the conviction that I was a terrible blemish on the family, at all of them for this inescapable feeling that I had never been welcomed nor wanted in this world.  I was angry at everyone else for staring at me, judging me and pitying me.  And of course, I was angry at my body for not being able to do more.  Indeed, the anger I carried ate away at my soul much like a cancer, invading my every thought, making me feel for a long time that my life was worthless because it was a life that could never be lived to its fullest potential, too burdened by all the what-ifs and all that might have been.

At 22 I walked into a therapist’s office and told her I was tired of being consumed by anger, that it was making me profoundly unhappy and manifesting in irrational rages and crying fits that left me feeling hollow.  Thus began a years-long process of working through that anger and then eventually letting it go.  I came to appreciate the anger for it had been the greatest single motivator in my life.  Fuck all of those who think I can’t leave home at 17 for a college on the other side of the country.  Fuck those who think I can’t travel the world because I’m legally blind.  Fuck those who ever called me a curse and a shame.  Fuck them all.  Unconsciously, I had used my immense anger to succeed, to study when I didn’t want to study, to travel the world despite the fears of traveling alone, to integrate into the world of the fully seeing even though I often felt like I didn’t belong.  Unconsciously, I had set out to prove the world wrong, and in the process, squashed the many doubts I had about my own abilities.  I had used anger as a tool, as a weapon in my war against limited vision.  With the recognition of what I had achieved despite everything came pride in those achievements and the understanding that those achievements might not have been had it not been for my visual disability, that perhaps I should actually be grateful for being born blind.  With pride and gratitude came forgiveness.  I forgave God and the universe.  I forgave those who had tried their best given their cultural constraints.  I had been raised in America, a country that believes in the power of individualistic self-determination to overcome any and all obstacles.  My parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts had known only a fatalistic worldview that focused on the good of the family unit and were understandably uninformed — as exacerbated by an inability to speak English — about all the relatively vast resources available here to help those in this wealthy country with any kind of disability.  I forgave everyone else for having ever pitied me for they too had spurred me on to achieving, and even pity comes from a place of compassion.  And perhaps most importantly, I forgave myself for being imperfect and acknowledged that everyone lives with his own imperfections, that to be imperfect and flawed is to be human, that indeed those imperfections make us imminently more capable of relating to and helping one another.

I still feel anger when I’m slighted, when my feelings are hurt, as they were last week.  But I don’t tend to hold onto anger anymore because I recognize that anger is often about so many other things.  My anger growing up came from feeling lonely, insecure and sorry for myself.  My anger last week came from being hurt by someone insulting my writing; it wasn’t about cancer at all.  To allow anger to fester like an open wound and not analyze its origins is to become a victim of it, to become potentially debilitated by it.  I often voice anger now, telling the person who has offended me my gripe and couching it in terms of my feelings being hurt; admitting hurt feelings to the offender is to expose one’s vulnerabilities to the world and is a hard thing to do.  Nonetheless, I find that it produces the most honest and kind conversations. In response to someone else in the support group talking about her difficulty accepting help from others, A wisely said that to allow another person to help is to give that person a chance to feel grace.  I wanted to tell A right then and there that to let go of her anger and forgive is to give herself the chance to feel grace.  Indeed, I truly believe that in finding ways to let go of my anger constructively, whether it be to confront the offender, to vent to a friend, to write or to channel it into a fight with cancer or other difficulty is one of the kindest things I can do for my soul.  Of course, letting go is a skill, even an art form, that takes practice and a tremendous amount of self-awareness and self-reflection that isn’t always easy.

And so I’m going to use this posting as a means to permanently let go of my anger from last week.  I didn’t start writing about my journey with cancer in order to have people critique my writing.  I started it to keep everyone informed, to maintain a record for my girls and for me to express myself.  For better or worse, when one puts pieces of oneself out there for public viewership, as is true for any form of art — a painting, photograph, movie, television show, book — one cares about what that public thinks, especially when the product is the result of hours of hard, sometimes gut-wrenching effort.  And so, as much as I hate to admit it, I care about what you all think.  I try to care as little as possible, to remind myself that this blog is for me, that the only one who needs to be satisfied with what I write is me.  But alas, I am a type of artist, I suppose, and like all artists, I want my work to be good, to have an impact, to resonate, to endure.

That’s exactly the sentiment Vince Gillighan, creator of Breaking Bad expressed when discussing the show after the finale last week.  It was inevitable that I would make reference to that amazing show about how a high school chemistry teacher copes with his terminal lung cancer diagnosis.  When Josh suggested that we start watching the show a few years ago, I was dubious.  Meth, violence, a washed-up high school chemistry teacher breaking bad — it sounded utterly unappealing to me.  But as I got sucked into the world of Breaking Bad, I quickly realized that the show isn’t just about meth and violence and a pathetic middle aged guy.  It was about a complex man struggling to cope with his anger, about channeling his anger into creating the purest meth — an art form in of itself — ostensibly to make money for his family but really to make him feel worthy and validated.  As much as I hated Walter White many times during the course of the show, I had to admire his ability to take his anger and use it as a source of strength as he entered the terrifying world of making and dealing drugs.  The show was so popular because it spoke to universal truths about the human experience, about confronting death, about feelings of failure and inadequacy, about the potential to completely transform one’s life and the hope that comes with such potential.

Similarly, I can understand why many who would choose not to read what I write because I’m writing about cancer and the possibility of death, seemingly very depressing topics.  But in truth, I’m writing about much more than my cancer and the possibility of my death.  I’m exploring the universal themes of life that we all experience as human beings.  I have no interest in writing about the technical side of cancer or about the boring ins and outs of my life, and you would have no interest in reading such material.  I like to think that I write to remind myself and to teach my girls about strength, faith and love. It’s my sincere hope that you find some truths in what I write that will help you either now or in the future.

Thank you to all who are reading and supporting the writer in me.  Thank you for seeing that my posts are not intended to be depressing.  Thank you for seeing the inspiration and hope in them.  Thank you for reaching out to me and telling me so for it heals the hurt from those who don’t read or otherwise don’t understand.  Thank you a million times over.

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anne Marie
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 12:10:27

    I was angry and frustrated at the world last night – so much so I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning until I finally had to turn on the light and do Sudoku to “reset” my thought patterns. I’m still working on the letting go in life, because I know it’s better for me both mentally and physically. But it’s hard, and for that reason, I respect all the more how you voiced and explored and overcame your anger in the post above. Much love, Julie, in all your %$@!& splendor. (P.S. I still have that T-shirt somewhere, but I think the text has worn off, so I loved the reminder!)

    Reply

  2. Holly Han
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 12:23:49

    Thanks for writing. I write (as a caregiver of my husband who has cancer). I’ve left out stuff about the family that drives me nuts because I know that I still have to spend my life with them. But, I feel your pain and am happy to read what you write because I identify with it so much

    Reply

  3. Tanya Gee
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 12:50:57

    Julie,

    If only you knew the ripple of excitement I feel every time I receive an email announcing that you have a new blog post. I not only love reading your writing, but I love calling my husband to read excerpts of it to him too, so we can both laugh, cry, and nod our heads at how beautifully you are able to describe the “cancer journey.” I savor your posts. Keep writing!

    Reply

  4. Debbie
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 19:31:45

    Your writing always inspires me. Your daughters will learn many life lessons and how insightful and smart their mom is, one day when they read your blog.

    Reply

  5. paddleboardgirl
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 20:23:02

    You did it again Julie! So beautifully written! I have learned to understand anger as vulnerability – when we are angry, we are deep down feeling, vulnerable, sad, hurt, lonely or something of the like. Anger is a much more powerful emotion that most of us prefer over feeling sad and depressed… Anger can be channeled in a positive way – just like you are doing with this fight! You are so inspiring!

    Reply

  6. Paula Roberts
    Oct 10, 2013 @ 23:38:49

    Thank you Julie!

    Reply

  7. Ethan Klingsberg
    Oct 11, 2013 @ 08:16:55

    You knock ’em out

    Reply

  8. Ann
    Oct 11, 2013 @ 08:47:23

    Hi Julie,
    This is the first entry of your blog I have read. Over the next few days and weeks, I will work backwards to read all of your posts.
    I obviously don’t know your family (or you!) but I do remember the day I learned a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was angry with her. I was angry with her because now that she had cancer, it meant it could happen to me. It was supposed to happen to other people, not me.
    What I found most bizarre was when I told her how puzzled I was by my initial response, she thanked me for my honesty. She said most people didn’t want to upset her by talking to her about it. She said most people refused to say “cancer,’ mistakenly thinking it gave the cells more power. She also appreciated that I never said “you’ll be fine!” thinking that only positive thoughts were helpful. She had to navigate her journey on her terms, and my job as her friend, was to support her during that journey.
    Please accept my offer of anonymous support from a stranger…and allow me the grace that you so beautifully describe.

    Reply

  9. Laura
    Oct 11, 2013 @ 09:14:43

    Hi Julie,

    I followed Broc R’s suggestion to read your blog, and am so glad I did. I will work through these posts but, more importantly, I will share your blog with a friend who also is living with stage IV colon cancer. I hope you are able to continue navigating this journey on your own terms and appreciate your thoughts on anger. I’m afraid I am guilty of some of the behaviors you describe above, and will try to be more conscious of providing the support that my friend needs, as opposed to what is the norm.

    Reply

  10. Shan
    Oct 12, 2013 @ 22:17:06

    Another wonderful post – I love reading your blog. Even though this post is about anger and your blog is about your cancer fighting journey, it’s so true that you write about the human experience. Your initial description of A was funny, sad and sympathetic.

    Reply

  11. Jeanine
    May 01, 2014 @ 11:49:55

    Julie,

    Wow! I am in awe of you. Your writing is so profound. I came across your blog two days ago and cannot stop reading it. I went back to the beginning after reading a few of your more current posts. Your parents should be so proud of you. The obstacles you have overcome are a reflection of your inner strength. I I’m truly in amazement over your words. There is no doubt in my mind that you will beat this cancer. It doesn’t stand a chance. I will keep you in my prayers and continue to read your most inspiring posts. God bless ❤

    Reply

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