Last week was one of 'those' weeks. There was a COVID infection brought into a program I run by an unvaccinated 20-something. We had to react immediately to protect everyone, but especially the kids we serve. Then we had to go through the admin headaches of refunding money, the stress of testing every single staff member, the intense cleaning we feel compelled to do, and the PR nightmare of what happens when a kid's program has an outbreak in this environment. 2 days later, my car sputtered when I started it, but I drove off to the gas station anyway to fill up before my commute. When I finished and hit the 'start' button, I got the familiar and frustrating clicking and flashing of a dead battery. It took 2 hours for me to get service and get to work. I was hot, sweating, short-fused by the time I got in to my office. I was fried. I was done. It was 10am.
That was when I got the estimate for the testing we have to do because a transformer blew on the inside of the building the week before, causing an evacuation, smoke, and a visit from the fire department. About 30% more than I'd anticipated... By noon, I'd fielded an anti-mask harrasser on Facebook messenger, a grant rejection, had a computer crash, and an inexplicable phone message (yes, Apple, I DO have a Sim Card in my iphone - so stop telling me I don't!), and then came the email - the one where my child's therapist cancelled on him - for the 3rd time in a row.
I lost it. I got up calmly (but shaking) from my desk, walked out to my struggling car and climbed in the black-leather-inferno (it's August in the South y'all - I could cook in there). I shut the door despite the extreme heat so I could release a full-throated scream.
I was angry. I was so damn angry. Not at any one thing. The therapist wasn't the problem (although seriously, it's probably time to start shopping around for someone new) - neither was it the car, the transformer bill, or the anti-masker. Not even the irresponsible 20-something who infected my program really triggered it.
I was just angry. It was all I had in me to be.
Anger is the emotion those of us with trauma can often tap into.
It's our protector. It's the schoolyard bully that keeps the rest of those pesky feelings theoretically in check. Because let's face it - no matter your trauma - capital T or little t - recent or in the way distant past - handling it probably met pushing it aside at least initially. If your trauma was chronic, like an abusive marriage or insecure childhood, you likely mastered bullying feelings into submission for the long term so you could function day-to-day. And anger can act as our bully most of the time. It's one of the things anger does best.
And then, at some point in your adolescent or adult life, you likely got this barrage of messages like 'You never get more than you can handle' or 'The strongest people can carry their burdens' and you started to believe that this met you were tough and somehow deserved whatever was happening or had happened to you. You could handle it. You also probably got told to 'Appreciate what you have' or something similar, further dismissing any painful or confusing emotions you might actually be experiencing: leaving anger as your lone, but trusted, companion.
As inelegantly as I can, I'm simply going to tell you those messages are garbage. They're toxic. They're poison, and so is falling into the anger trap. Please, stop it. Stop it right now.
You don't have to stop being angry - angry is sometimes perfectly warranted. But when angry is all you've got to give, all you've got to feel, it's time to stand up to that bully and send them home crying to mom.
Because after that scream - which I was glad wasn't inflicted on an innocent bystander like a co-worker or my child - the real emotions followed.
I was spent. I hadn't slept or eaten that well all week. The stress of the previous week was still trailing. I was frustrated with the unvaccinated 20-something and concerned there would be an outbreak eventually. I was frightened by the vitriol of the anti-masker, and worried about my staff. I was upset by the high estimate and the impact to our still-struggling in COVID finances. I was worried intensely about having an unreliable car and having something go wrong when I wasn't somewhere as safe as a gas station in my suburban enclave. I was hurt and sad for my son who wasn't getting the support he needs and deserves. And of course, there's listening to hours of NPR coverage on wildfires, COVID infections, the fall of Afghanistan into Taliban hands, the Haitian earthquake...So, I was angry too. But too is the key here. In order to grow, we have to make room for more than the angry scream inside a car slowly roasting you like a turkey on a spinet.
Anger isn't necessarily bad. It won't kill you (really, it won't) but it sure can cloud your judgement and take way more than its fair share of your emotional bandwidth if you aren't careful. Anger - just like a bully- is a misplaced, actually frightened kid that just doesn't know what to do with themselves.The good news? Anger IS a step at recovering from trauma. As long as you don't stay there, it's moving in the right direction because it's daring to feel something. You can put down the 'I'm tough' or 'I'm stoic' or whatever other little mantra you've been told should keep you swallowing your emotions and tap into your real, authentic self with your real, authentic feeling to move on. You can teach that bully Anger to join in on the kickball game of life with the other players instead of interrupting your recess to steal everyone's lunch money.
I'm glad that this type of anger has been researched by people smarter than me, and that I was able to study it as part of my Trauma and Resilience training because I feel anger more than I (used to) care to admit. And in a world that is literally on fire, sometimes we do have to scream in our (omg SO hot) car to release it. Then, we need to lean in to the rest of it and tap into our self-care strategies to manage those feelings: make space for what's really going on and dare to honor it.
So after I screamed, I removed myself from the hellscape of black-leather-seats-in-August-in-the-South, did my best unguided version of a yogi cleansing breath, and walked my sweaty body up the nearby courtyard to watch some children playing and running to the front doors of the museum I run. Observing untethered joy fills my serotonin meter way up and I can function again. That really matters, because it also lowers my heartrate, centers my mind, and provides a non-exhausted calm that the anger release can't equal.
You've probably been angry recently - maybe you are right now. The world seems to have put us relentlessly in this march of tragedy and trauma that feels unending. And anger is there for us as well as some pretty toxic messaging about how we should - and shouldn't - deal with it. I say, scream if you must - cry if you will - laugh when you can - and wherever you're headed, keep going.