On Love and Rage
When I was four or five years old I slashed my brother’s throat with a steak knife.
I can’t have been more than four or five because I still lived in the small room at the top of the stairs that had no door, but I was young enough to be happily entertained playing by myself inside a cardboard box. Which was exactly what I was doing when my brother appeared and began, as seemed to be his most habitual pastime, to taunt me.
I don’t remember what he was taunting me about, honestly; I just remember desperately wanting him to go away and leave me alone. Usually, I was acquiescent in the face of his incessant desire to make me do things or elicit some kind of reaction. What he usually obtained, and seemed most gratified by, was tears; I was like the Trevi Fountain, spouting water everywhere. It was not until a few years later that I came to recognize my tears, more often than not, came when I was angry. Fighting with other kids on the playground, I would hit and kick and sob, like the anger was a trash chute that dumped me straight down into a dank basement full of grief and powerlessness.
But on this particular day, as I sat there crouching in my box, I skipped straight over sad and impotent. Forty-five years later I can still call up the white-hot rage that filled my chest in an instant. I took the steak knife in my hand that I had been playing kitchen with or some sort of thing and swiped at him, grazing his neck with the dull, serrated edge.
Small beads of blood welled up out of the scrape, not even enough to drip down into his collar, but my fear— of the vicious strength of the wild beast in my chest, and of what would happen now that it had come out— was as huge as if I had gutted him like a fish.
I got sent to bed without supper. I don’t remember if my mother even asked me why I had cut him, or if I would have been able to find words to describe the contours of my rage even if she had. I already knew at that age rage was not on the list of acceptable feelings, especially not for me. Vicious, wild beast was not my job.
As I stumbled into adolescence, like many girls, I turned my rage inward, masking it with academic achievement and hyper-sexualized, obsessive relationships with boys who disliked me but found my fixation on them satisfying.
I never had any memory problems when it came to being sexually abused, which began a year or two before the steak-knife-rage-fit, but it took having one of my campers at the summer camp I worked at in college getting molested by my co-counselor to finally start talking about it. I went to therapy for the first time at twenty years old and began, finally, to put words to my feelings, connecting the dots between my current behavior, my history, and my emotional patterns.
I’m still working on it, nearly three decades later, but it has gotten…easier? My emotional life is still as wild as it’s always been, but I’ve managed through years of practice to become a more compassionate and curious observer of what my emotional weather is on any given day, rather than feeling deluged by it.
I’ve started studying the work of Susan David, a psychologist who wrote a book called Emotional Agility. The core of her work is very much about learning how to develop an open, non-judgmental relationship with our emotions, whatever they may be. She argues that there are concrete, practical steps we can take to create a little breathing room between ourselves and our feelings, so that we can be fully present for the world as it actually is and make values-based decisions about our lives, rather than being dragged around by our emotional stories.
She talks about the importance of our emotions as signposts. They provide us, she writes, with information about ourselves and our values. They are data, not directives. Just because we feel something doesn’t mean we have to act out of that feeling, but the feeling, approached with curiosity and a healthy dose of self-compassion, can tell us what matters to us and what we need.
Then we can develop the courage to live emotionally vital, engaged lives with intention and integrity.
I am still capable of tremendous rage, and it is still a messy stew of anger, grief, and impotence. I wield words now, not steak knives, but even when I say something slightly unkind or unpleasant I feel whispers of the same fear I felt watching the blood seep up out of my brother’s neck— that the beast is still enormous, I will not be able to contain it, and that through it I will do something horrible.
The reality is that I haven’t done anything truly horrible in quite a long time, if ever. But when I feel disrespected, devalued, or violated my first instinct is to come out swinging, crying all the while. I’ve come to appreciate that it makes sense I react that way. Wanting to strike out in response to being hurt is a natural, primal reaction. If I don’t shame myself for it, then there is a hair’s breadth of space between the feeling and what I do with the feeling.
Sometimes that hair’s breadth is enough to be impeccable in my communication. Sometimes it’s only enough to keep me at “just a little shitty”, which I make note of for my own internal sense of accountability. Along with that sense of responsibility, I try to extend myself some grace, in the hopes that I will be more graceful the next time.
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