We come by anger naturally and early. As infants we leave our private ocean in our mother’s womb and are pushed and pulled into the harsh world of other people. For the next six months if our needs are not met instantly, we scream bloody murder. As 2-year-olds we’re frustrated because we can’t have, and do, whatever we want. As 4-year-olds we encounter adult logic and reason, which makes no sense to us. When 6, our eroticized attraction to for our parent of the opposite sex is rebuffed.
We are pissed off as teenagers because we are teenagers, and when adulthood finally arrives we begin to grasp the concept that we are mortal and, someday, will die. The older we get, the more that reality sinks in and it grinds away at us. How many times a day does the thought of dying cross your mind? See what I mean? The inescapability from death is a persistent downer. It’s no wonder we are all pissed off to some degree.
The size and intensity of our anger packages vary from one person to another and are in direct proportion to each person’s history. The serial killer, who epitomizes anger, got royally screwed while growing up, whereas the upbeat yet judicious optimist experienced a smooth ride.
Anger is a form of psychic energy and, like all energy, it cannot be destroyed and must go someplace. Unconscious anger is diverted, disguised and distorted in its repressed state. It messes up the mind and can attack the body as well. Headaches, stomachaches, hypertension, ulcers, and a myriad of other physical problems are often caused by unconscious anger.
There is a saying, “If you don’t talk your body will.” This is where shrinks come in. There’s nothing we can do about eventual death sentences except, perhaps, prolong them. But there’s much we can do about the other sources of anger that are inflicting harm on minds and bodies. We locate anger packets and then help open the valve to take the pressure off.
The confounding thing about unconscious anger is that it is not clean and discernable. When someone wrongs us as an adult it is an immediate source of anger which we can pinpoint and specifically vent. That’s easy. Not so with anger which comes from childhood and has been repressed over the years, creating feelings of confusion or malaise instead of outright rage.
Let me tell you about “Brian.” In our first session he said he was the son of a converted “love-child” father and sickly mother. Brian referred to his father as a love child because shortly after Brian’s mother died, when he was 15, his father decided to sleep with every woman in sight, especially young ones. He then shared the stories of his “conquests” with his son. This was in the 1960s when free love, peace, and pot had come into vogue. Before his wife’s death, Brian’s dad was practically Victorian in words and actions. Shortly after the funeral he became an elderly hippy.
Brian had one sibling, a brother four years his senior, who left home after the mother’s death and had not been heard from since. Brian remained in the home for two more years until he graduated from high school. Shortly thereafter he received his draft papers for the U.S. Army. At that time the Vietnam War was raging. Brian split.
When Brian first came to see me he was in his late 30s. He’d been married and divorced twice. There’d been no children. In our first session Brian said he had a recurring nightmare. It began when he was a teenager and continued to this day. “At first I’d only have it about once a year. Then it was twice a year, and now it comes about once a month. I heard you could analyze dreams. Do you think you can help? This thing’s driving me nuts.”
His nightmare was short (most are) and always ended with Brian being strapped into an electric chair. But the people strapping him in were not prison officials, “They were two goons, you know, mafia guys and I couldn’t figure out why I was being put to death instead of them. Just before they’d flip a switch I’d wake up in a sweat. Terrified. My ex-wives said I sometimes screamed.” He said when he’s awakened by the nightmare his legs are numb and he can not move them for many minutes.
I told Brian we’d work on the nightmare but first I needed more of his personal history. He agreed to that, telling me “I’ve got lots of time and lots of money — you’ve got to make them go away.”
Brian was exceptionally bright with a sophisticated sense of humor. He took to the analytic process as rapidly as anyone I’d ever seen. He knew that his father’s sexual behavior was bizarre, even in those liberal times, and that telling him about his lovers was extremely inappropriate. Brian also knew that his failed marriages, and innumerable other failed relationships, tied directly to his upbringing. Our sessions were lively. He was fun to see. But there was one glaring problem. Brian never got upset. No tear showed itself, his chin never quivered, no anger appeared in his eyes. Although he was aware that his past was emotionally disastrous, he consistently found humor in it.
One day I asked Brian what made him angry. After a long pause with uncomfortable body language and a quizzical look he said, “I don’t get angry. There is no point to it.” I then asked him if he could ever remember being angry at any time in his life. More uncomfortable body language followed — shifting in his chair, crossing and uncrossing his legs and looking out the window. Finally he said, “Well, there was one time I got a little angry, I guess, but mostly I was just doing what I knew I had to do. It’s probably not important.”
When patients say, “It’s probably not important” — it’s important. “Let’s hear about it,” I said, and he related the following story.
The day after the Army draft notice came to his home Brian told his father he was leaving. He said he would contact him from time to time but would not tell him where he was, so his father wouldn’t have to lie to the draft board people when they came looking for him.
Brian was a resourceful young man and also had money. During his junior year in high school he decided to deal drugs but distrusted the local sources. During the Christmas holidays he flew to South America to purchase drugs directly. This assured quality control and eliminated middlemen, dramatically increasing his profit margins. He also devised a foolproof way to get his drugs into the United States without being detected. Like I said, he was very bright.
His first stop on his escape from the draft board was Kansas City where he purchased a new birth certificate and driver’s license stating he was 21 years of age. He also bought a new social security card and changed his name. From Kansas City he traveled to St. Louis and then worked his way down the Mississippi taking menial jobs. He would work a few days, quit, and then stake out his former place of employment for a few weeks to see if the feds showed up. His father told him they’d been regularly coming to his home. When they didn’t show up at his workplaces he knew his new identity was successful. He finally settled in New Orleans and hired on as a stevedore, a very good job for an 18-year-old.
Brian was stockily built, about 5’8” tall with a muscular body, so the stevedore job was easy for him and he had no problem doing his share of the work. But soon he encountered a problem with some co-workers. Brian had grown a long ponytail, something dockworkers don’t do, and he was soon known as “the hippy.” They kept telling him to cut it off. He didn’t.
One night after work he went into one of the rough waterfront saloons where his co-workers gathered. They were seated at the bar, and as he walked behind them the biggest and toughest, “Earl,” wheeled around on his stool and grabbed Brian’s ponytail. With the leverage gained, and surprise, he was able to instantly put Brian on the floor. “Let me buy you a drink you fucking hippy punk,” he yelled, and poured his beer into Brian’s face. The others surrounded Brian and they, too, poured beer on him. “That ponytail better be gone the next time I see you,” said the leader as he released his grip. Brian got up and walked out of the bar, derisive laughter following him.
Brian walked down the street and got into his vehicle, an Army surplus truck. (He grinned when he told me this, “Want to psychoanalyze the truck, Jim?”) He drove to a telephone booth, looked up Earl’s number, and called it. No answer. “I’d heard his wife left the asshole a couple weeks ago, but I had to be sure.” Then he drove to a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, bought a 20-piece bucket, and drove into the country. Earl’s trailer was in a secluded area of the parish. “He had about five acres of swamp he was proud of,” Brian said.“I was there once for a beer blast.”
When he got to Earl’s place his Doberman charged Brian’s truck. Brian opened his window just enough to fit a chicken leg through it. “The fucker tried to bite my finger off,” Brian laughed. “Then he got real interested in the chicken. I opened the window all the way and started throwing pieces of chicken all over the yard and away from the trailer. The dog forgot I was there.”
Brian then drove up to the trailer, poured gasoline around it, and gave the area above and under the propane tank an extra dose. He then backed his truck a safe distance away, lit a flare, and threw it against the trailer. In seconds it was engulfed by flames. “One of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen,” Brian laughed. “I was about a half-mile away when the propane exploded. I saw the tank in the rearview mirror. It looked like a huge Roman candle. Fantastic!”
By now I was in shock. “Brian you’re putting me on, right?” I said incredulously. “You didn’t really burn up the guy’s house and kill his dog with chicken bones, did you?”
“No,” he said, “The dog didn’t die. Dobies are tough to kill. He came out of surgery just fine.” When I regained my composure I asked him what happened when he went to work the next day.
“I got a lot of weird looks. Everybody thought I did it but they couldn’t prove it. Just to be sure I switched tires on the truck. The ones that left tracks at Earl’s were floating down the Mississippi. They were half way to the Gulf of Mexico by the time the cops came by. From then on everybody avoided me. I worked on the docks for another year and nobody messed with me or my ponytail again. They figured I was crazy. And I am.”
As you can imagine Brian and I spent much time discussing this event in his life. He said he could not recall a feeling of anger toward his attackers. He felt embarrassment while on the floor of the bar but not anger. His decision to “get even” by burning up Earl’s house was not based on spontaneous rage — it took two hours — it was a calculation. “If I hadn’t done something outrageous like that they never would have quit picking on me.” He’d reasoned this out before he ever got to his truck.
Up to this time in Brian’s analysis he’d spoken almost exclusively about his “hippy father,” rarely mentioning his deceased mother. He also entertained me with stories of his felonious life. After the war ended, and the draft board people quit showing up at his house, he quit the stevedore job and returned to the drug business. He was again very successful and expanded his enterprises to include fencing stolen weapons, jewelry and works of art. He made millions but had to be very careful how he spent his money lest the IRS got curious. So he began to acquire small laundromats in cities and towns around the Midwest. “I figured the best place to launder money was in laundromats,” he laughed. “It’s an all-cash business.” By the time he came to see me he owned dozens of them and his life of crime was behind him.
No matter how many stories people have from their pasts they will eventually begin repeating themselves and, after about 20 sessions, this finally happened with Brian. He’d begin a story, realize I’d already heard it, apologize and stop. We then had dead air, which was most uncomfortable for him. One day he said, “Well, I guess I’ve told you just about everything about me. Is it time to terminate?” He knew the lingo.
In the past I had made the mistake of introducing an issue before it was time for the patient to deal with it. But by now I’d been practicing for many years and had learned to keep my mouth shut and let the process evolve on its own. I was most interested in hearing Brian talk about his older brother and, most importantly, about his mother, but had bitten my tongue. He now gave me an opening.
“Brian, I’ve heard lots about your dad and your interesting life since you left home, but there’s at least two other people in your psycho-history that remain a mystery to me.”
He laughed and asked, “You mean my brother, the prick, and my mom?”
“I wondered when you were going to ask about them. I’ll tell you about my brother first. He’s easy. I hate the son-of-a-bitch.” Another laugh.
Brian’s first memory with his brother was being pinned to the floor. “He held my arms down, sat on my stomach, and let drool from his mouth drop onto my face. If I yelled out some would go in my open mouth. It was like torture. I could tell you a hundred stories about that bastard and the shit he did to me.” And he did tell me many stories about his brother all ending with, “You see why I hate that son-of-a-bitch?”
When the stories wound down a few sessions later, I told Brian I certainly understood why he hated his brother. I asked him why he thought his brother hated him. Brian had never thought of that. After a long silence he said, “Isn’t it normal for older brothers to pick on younger ones?”
“Not to the degree your brother picked on you,” I said. “His actions toward you far exceeded normal sibling rivalry. Something else is going on.”
Brian came to his next session leaving his jocular mood behind. “I’ve been thinking about your question and I think I have the answer. My brother hated me because he blamed me for mom being sick all the time and for her dying young. Could that be it?”
“Maybe so.” I said, “Let’s hear about mom.”
Brian told me his mother had been a vibrant, healthy woman until six months after he was born when she contracted multiple sclerosis. Her deterioration was rapid. This realization brought Brian to a remarkable insight: “My brother had a great mom all to himself until I came along. His 4-year-old mind would naturally blame mom’s illness on my birth, which means he blamed me. What else could he think? For the first time in my life I feel sorry for the son-of-a-bitch.” He was not laughing. “I’m going to try to Next Brian and I had to grapple with his relationship with his mother who eventually became bed-ridden and unable to do anything for him. She’d become a fantasy mom. Brian said he loved her beyond measure, but his love was unrequited in any tangible way. She was too sick. This, Brian figured out, was the source of his anger. “My emotional mind was built by frustration and unfairness which converted into unconscious rage. Is that right, Jim?”
“Yes, Brian. That’s exactly right.” He got out of the chair and lay down on the couch.
And, yes, he made the connection of being pinned to the floor by his brother and being pinned to the floor of the bar by his adversaries. “They’re lucky I didn’t kill them,” he laughed, but it was a different kind of laugh. And, yes, he also became aware that he always called his brother “a son-of-a-bitch.”
Brian’s mother, the bitch, could not help being sick – but neither could Brian help being angry that he got cheated out of a mom. He loved her and he was furious at her at the same time. Before she was bedridden his mom liked to leave the house to get fresh air and to go to the store. “But she was in a wheelchair and I had to push her. It was embarrassing. I felt like a jerk. Kids teased me about it in school. I hated it! I hated her! It killed me to push her chair but I had no choice,” he screamed one day. Then he rolled over and covered his face as he sobbed, “But I had to do it because I loved her, too!”
Brian had not mentioned his recurring nightmare since our first session. I had tucked it in the back of my mind knowing it would eventually reveal itself. It just did.
I waited for him to stop crying then said, “Brian, we need to talk more about pushing your mom’s wheelchair, but first, what comes to mind about being killed by a chair?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“A few moments ago you said it killed you to push her wheelchair.”
“I still don’t get it.”
What did we talk about in our first session? Why did you come to see me?”
He thought for a few seconds. “Jesus Christ, the electric chair! I always wanted mom to get an electric wheelchair but they were too expensive!”
“Who owned the electric chair in your dream?”
“The mob. No, the mafia. The MAfia! Holy shit! That’s it!”
Brian would never have that nightmare again. He would talk it out, re-feel the pain and it would be gone.
Early ambivalence is a wrecker ball to the emotions. Brian and I were together for two more years. During that time he found his brother and they are now good friends. He also found Julie, who is the mother of their three children.
There are many ways of venting anger so that it doesn’t consume from within. The appropriate way is to talk about it with someone trained to recognize it in its disguised form. Unfortunately most people vent their anger inappropriately by being physically abusive, passively aggressive, grinding their teeth, silently seething, pouting, hurting themselves or getting sick. This isn’t good for them or those around them. As far as burning down an adversary’s house and attempting to kill his dog, frankly, I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like the proper thing to do, but it worked well for Brian at the time.
Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site, www.smokymountainnews.com. All previous chapters are available online. The book can be purchased at rockpublishing.com/eagles.htm, and may be ordered through bookstores.