When I started in therapy for my abuse, one of the first symptoms to be addressed was my flat affect (lack of emotion). I talked about the abuse as a matter of fact, as if I were discussing data from a marketing report. I just couldn’t “feel” about it. I couldn’t get angry about what my parents had repeatedly done to me. My doctor and therapist asked me how I’d feel if my parents abused my children in the same ways they had abused me. I think my reply was something like, “The first thing I’d do would be to take a shotgun to my dad’s balls.” In other words, I had no trouble getting angry at just the thought of my children being hurt. That certainly helped me understand the problem I was facing.
When I was hospitalized, I was on the Trauma Unit, which deals primarily with people who have been abused, I attended the Anger Management group. It sounds like it’s for people who have a problem keeping their anger under control, and that’s true. It’s also for people like me, who couldn’t get angry. After attending a few groups, I discovered that one of the problems I faced was that I was afraid of being angry at my parents. I had seen the consequences of expressing anger with my parents. It wasn’t pretty to say the least. In one situation, my dad took a bullwhip to my brother. The fact that my parents were hundreds of miles away and had no idea I was even in the hospital, let alone what I was discussing didn’t make a difference in how I felt. Facts often have little to do with emotions.
Facts are, however, where we have to start. Fact: I was sexually abused. Fact: My father did it. Fact: My mother knew and did nothing to stop it. Fact: I was now royally screwed up because of it.
I started by getting angry, because my husband and children had been hurt: by being separated from me every time I was hospitalized and by my suicide attempts. In Anger Management we threw balls of clay at a sheetrock “board.” The first few times I just threw the clay as an exercise in connecting my body to my emotions. Sound strange? I was only able to acknowledge the possibility of anger toward my parents in my brain. I needed to reconnect with my body, and throwing the clay helped do that.
After a while I could feel a little anger, call it frustration or annoyance, and I tried to let those feelings connect with the clay and fly out of my body onto the board. The feelings gradually and slowly grew into appropriate feelings, and I got angry. Really angry. I was encouraged to yell or scream if I needed to as I threw clay at the board. The point is connect with the anger, feel it and then leave it there with the clay on the board. I had to practice staying with it while I was throwing. I would approach the anger, then run away out of terror of the feelings.
I learned about healthy anger that alerts me to the presence of a problem that I need to deal with. Now, it also took practice to know where, when and how to express it. Sometimes, outside the hospital and the Anger Management room, I’d get angry and express it inappropriately. Caused some embarrassment for my family a few times, which I regretted. Eventually I learned to get it right, at least most of the time. The old adage, “Practice makes perfect,” is not really true, as my daughter’s orchestra conductor taught her. Instead, “Practice makes permanent, and perfect practice makes perfect.” So when I’d get angry, I’d slow down before just acting on it. I’d think about where, when and how to best deal with it. I’ve gotten better with it over time. Occasionally I still express anger inappropriately, which means I’ve gotten really good at saying I’m sorry and asking for forgiveness.
I’ve learned a lot about anger, and I’ve had to admit there are other ways to deal with my anger at my dad besides shooting his balls off, though once in a while, I admit it is a somewhat satisfying visualization.