I remember vividly the episode of The Simpsons where Homer, attempting to suppress his rage, causes golf ball-sized lumps to erupt under the surface of his skin. Like a fury-fuelled Whack-a-Mole, the problem only compounds with each attempt to force the lumps back in. It’s a good lesson about the damage we can cause by internalising anger. But how do we externalise it safely?
Last week I went to a talk with poet and essayist Ashleigh Young, who said essays are often a way for a writer to use a personal experience as a way into discussing something broader or more systemic. That’s certainly how I’ve intended Writehanded to be.
I started writing because I was angry. Now, I’m more angry than ever, and like Homer’s lumps, mine compound every time I try and flatten them into silence. Writing is a channel, but it’s not a solution to the stomach ulcer I suspect my body is cultivating.
Unfortunately, anger creates a deficit, in me. It has been a useful propelling force, but it is unrelenting. Far from learning new skills to manage the well of rage, I’ve inadvertently let it bubble so high that the smallest thing can send me hurtling into strings of curse words and gesticulations. I’m not saying don’t be angry – everyone should be. There is much to be angry about. What I am saying is finding healthy ways of dealing with it is proving difficult.
I recently read about The Break Room, where you can pay to be handed safety gear and a sledgehammer and be left in a soundproof room full of useless objects for a good hour or two. I’m sure my arthritis wouldn’t thank me for the exercise, but the lactic acid in my muscles would.
Today, I got angry about domestic violence, poor healthcare, systemic welfare failures, and Duncan Garner. I also got angry because while I was hanging up the laundry, a pillowcase kept falling on the ground. I became convinced that the pillowcase had a personal vendetta against me. Last week, a notebook toppled off my bookshelf when I put something next to it. I picked up the notebook – unused, beautiful – and ripped it to shreds. The physical exertion left me in pain and, once the anger was gone, relief filled its place. This is not a rational reaction. Inanimate objects do not have it in for me. Garner’s another story.
I’m trying to accept the need to priortise my health. My body is sending me a clear message: learn to chill, or you’re going to hurt yourself. I slunk into my therapist’s office last week, post-notebook incident, and whispered ‘I think I have an anger problem.’ ‘No,’ she said – the only person I have ever known who can roll her eyes with complete and utter kindness. ‘You have an anxiety management problem.’ I thought about it. Was anxiety at the root of my rage? And if so – how do I dig the whole thing up?
A close family member has been ill for a long time, with no answers. I have felt overcome with rage each time he was denied care; each time he was told his symptoms were due to stress or chronic fatigue. Of course, he suffers those things – experiencing a supposedly undiagnosable illness for years will do that, especially when doctors fall back on a line they like a little too much: it’s all in your head.
A few weeks ago we finally found ourselves in front of the right person: a neurologist. After efficient but thorough examination, he pronounced a verdict that cannot be controlled by anyone’s mind, no matter how hard my family might try.
My instinct – of course – was anger. My instinct was a complaint to the Health and Disability Commission, a complaint to the District Health Board, a complaint to the media. A complaint to god, if they happened to be listening.
I understand the reaction has two key parts; powerlessness, and a sense of deep injustice. It’s also, as stated earlier, a propellant. A way forward. Action, not paralysis.
Unfortunately and understandably, my family have requested I do not take action right now – for my sake as much as theirs. It will consume me. I will choke on it, and the stress will burn through me long before I can enact any real resolution. I can see this. I can see it when I hold my loved one’s hands. I can see it when I sit in the bottom of the shower cubicle, wracked with soundless sobs that leave me too exhausted to dress. I can see it, and still I rail against it.
A couple of days ago a friend stopped me outside the supermarket and asked how I was managing, balancing everything in my life. ‘Poorly,’ I shrugged, laughing. She’d read my posts about struggling with change, my Facebook statuses apologising for not having the resources to be a good friend. She wanted to know if I was OK.
I paused. The changes she was referring to had all come at once – getting off the benefit, returning to being an employee, and moving in with my partner – but I hadn’t allowed myself to ruminate on those things being inextricably linked. The rumination felt pointless: I’d had no choice. Living with someone cost me my benefit, and without his support at home, I could not have hoped to manage the work. There was no chicken and egg: without one there would and could not be the other.
Managing my illness, learning to navigate my relationship, and returning to steady employment after years of isolation has felt, some days, insurmountable. The recent news for my family has only grown the mountain and shortened my air.
I’m not an optimist. But sometimes I wear heavily misted rose-tinted glasses. I love my partner. I love my job. I hated being on a benefit. Moving in together and going back to work should have clipped all the tickets.
That doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I will never, ever stop being thankful for the weight of WINZ lifted off me. I will never stop being thankful for my partner, for my employer’s support and confidence in me, for the fact I have learned to manage my illness enough that working was even conceivable.
That doesn’t mean any of it is is easy. And it could have been easier, in a very obvious way I’d chosen not to think about until my friend mentioned the WEAG report, and the lack of change to rules around beneficiaries in relationships.
If being in a relationship had not cost me my Supported Living Payment – the thing that helps pay the endless costs for the illness I will always have – then I could have given my precious, finite energy to the people who matter to me. And yet, due to the physical constraints of my illness and the financial deficit left by my benefit, I cannot give them anywhere near what they deserve.
I cannot give myself what I deserve.
If I become sicker, again, the blame cannot lay squarely on me for my lack of self-care, or over-commitment to work, or inability to juggle everyone I love.
No. The fact is inescapable – that the exhausting pressure of it all was sparked by one thing: the fact that sick women are not entitled to disability support if they fall in love.
I know all the conservative clap-backs for that statement; I listened to them when I broke this news. ‘It’s not because you love someone, it’s because they should be responsible for your existence if you live together.’ ‘If he earns above the threshold, why shouldn’t he pay for your life?’ ‘Clearly he can afford it if you’re not entitled to a benefit.’
Income testing aside, why should a person who is already vulnerable be forced to rely on another person for their wellbeing? Again, I know the arguments. I had someone imply that I used to be in a relationship with WINZ (ew) – ie, welfare or state dependence – and now that burden was transferred. It’s liberal thinking at it’s best. Hurrah, I’m no longer a deadweight. All I had to do was convince someone to fall in love with me, trust my health in their hands, and risk losing it all by working enough so I can contribute to our household. That seems like a safe outcome for all involved – me, those who love me, and the state that does not want me back.
Ashleigh Young also said that an essay was a way of feeling around a subject; that the writer didn’t always know the ending when they began. That an essay was capable of exploring uncertainty, of containing conflicting and complex feelings. That not coming to a simple or succinct conclusion was not the mark of the bad writer (I think I’m paraphrasing that last bit to make myself feel better).
I don’t always start writing with a conclusion. I start with a feeling in my gut. I usually start with anger. I usually end there, too.
I have no call to action. I have no wisdom to give. I have messiness. I have the end of a week where I have been crying more often than I have been not-crying. I have the moment on Tuesday morning when I woke up, thought immediately of the neurologist’s words from the day before, and spilled a full cup of coffee on myself, five layers of bedding, the mattress, and three feet of the surrounding area. In that moment, and the moments following when I googled how to use baking soda to get coffee out of carpet, when I sat on the floor next to the humming dehumidifer because I could not be depressed in my own bed like any self-respecting person, I thought about anger. I thought about my family, asking me not to be angry on their behalf. I thought about the great need for anger in the world right now, and the great toll it takes on the people who feel it. I thought about the need to balance all that tension, and about how I didn’t know how.
My counsellor, of course, was right. At the heart of anger is anxiety. Uncertainty, to me, is like holding your fingers over a flame and just trying to be ok with not knowing how long it will be until you get burned. I want my life to be like the moment the Ents took Isengard – the hot roots of anger flooded and cooled beyond recognition.
In the moment, all I have is my best impression of Homer Simpson – whacking each lump as it rises and hoping three more don’t take it’s place.
If anyone has a better system – I’m not being pithy, I want ideas – comments are open. I’m open.
… I can’t be the only one ripping undeserving notebooks in half and hiding the pieces under the bed.