“I am angry enough to die”. The words jumped out at me from the page whilst I was skim-reading the chapter, and they brought me up short and made me pause. It’s perhaps a strange thing to say – why should anger make one want to die? But I connected with the familiarity of the emotion straight away. Not just familiar to me, but familiar from the writings of other BPD bloggers as well. Only a few days before I had been reading a blog post by ‘Big Battles, Small Victories‘, where the author spoke of immense hurt and anger at being disappointed, and wrote “I want to not live”.
“I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”.
Those words seem so connected. But they are separated in time, if not in emotion, by more than 2,400 years.
I read those words, from the last part of the Old Testament Book of Jonah, while I was sitting in church a few Sundays ago listening to a talk on the earlier part of the book. I confess, I was not paying as much attention as perhaps I should have been, and I also wanted to turn to the end and see what was in store.
For those with faith (of whatever persuasion), or those with none – I should say straight away, as I’ve noted in a recent post, that my own faith is ‘on the rocks’; this is not a sermon and this post is not about Jonah. You don’t need to know or believe anything about him, in order to, I hope, find something helpful in it. This post is about BPD and anger: the reference to Jonah provides only the context for a look at that subject, and it does so only because it was helpful to me personally, in starting off a chain of thought on this issue that touches the lives of so many with BPD. If the context seems irrelevant or makes you uncomfortable, I can only apologise – that is certainly not my intention. Equally, if you have sympathy with the context, but are uncomfortable with some of the interpretations towards the end of this post, I must also apologise. It is not my intention to be irreverent in any way. I am not ‘taking scripture lightly’ – perhaps I am, however, allowing myself to give in to the temptation that we sometimes have, to project our ‘difficulties’ outside ourselves, and to see them everywhere. In the lyrics of a song, behind the story of a film, in the pages of a book. And in the person of someone that we meet (or read about).
The first part of the DSM-IV Criterion 8 for BPD reads: “Inappropriate, intense anger, or difficulty controlling anger.” Until a couple of years ago, I always thought of myself as someone who never got angry, and as with a number of the DSM-IV criteria, it took me a while to really understand how this one applied to me. And I have realised that the reason for that, is that I have been defining the criteria in very particular ways.
I defined abandonment purely in terms of physical abandonment, rather than emotional abandonment and being left to cope on my own with what I was feeling. I defined ‘black and white’ thinking purely in intellectual terms and the ability (or lack of) to appreciate all sides of an argument, and the grey areas in between. It took me a long time to realise that ‘black and white’ thinking is in some ways much more about ‘black and white’ feeling, and is fundamentally emotion-centred, rather than being about intellectual flexibility. And anger? I defined anger in terms of physical or verbal manifestations – being physically violent or verbally abusive. I didn’t do those things. I was never angry. How wrong I was.
I remember one instance of ‘feeling angry’ (as I originally defined it) when I was growing up. That instance stands out because it was unique. It was the time, when I was around seventeen, when I became convinced my mother had read my diary. Although my memory of the event is patchy, I think I shouted. I think I told her that I hated her.
You might argue that that is a relatively common thing for a teenager to tell her parents. But not for a teenager who grew up with a whole suite of things she was not supposed to say or feel. Some of those things brought disapproval or dismissiveness; others brought emotional suffocation. Feeling or expressing anger; needing or expressing a wish for privacy of thought and emotion; being depressed or admitting to depression – those were all among the former. Fear, sadness, pain, loss – those were all among the latter. They were emotions which, should I ever have admitted to them, would have led to similar emotions in my mother, which she would then have allowed to flood over me.
So I expressed neither the things that would have been disapproved of or dismissed, nor the things that would have been too difficult, emotionally, for others to bear. And so I always thought of myself as someone who was never angry, and passed, incredibly successfully, for someone who was never sad. And yet for years, I was both sad and angry, and didn’t realise quite how much. For years, my mind was filled with imaginary conversations and scenarios between me and the one or two people at those times in my life, who I jokingly thought of as those I ‘loved to hate’. People who I now understand that I had ‘split’ into ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, and was at that time devaluing. Hateful and vengeful thoughts and words – how could I have been so oblivious to the fact that what lay behind them was anger, pure and simple?
Over the last few years I have been more conscious of the emotion of anger within me – particularly as it relates to how I feel about my parents – and the vehemence of it sometimes takes me by surprise. Nevertheless, as I never gave it expression, I still thought of myself as someone who ‘did not get angry’. I have even been conscious of the inappropriate nature of it, set off sometimes by the smallest disappointment or hint of criticism or control – and yet I have still, somehow, managed to sideline it and failed to appreciate it as a part of myself. Perhaps it is because I always have, and still do, find anger and confrontation very scary. I hate them. I feel battered by them. They feel like an assault on me and on my emotions. They drive me emotionally underground and behind a barricade. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that I find it difficult to acknowledge that anger may have a seat within me.
As well as being more conscious of the emotion of anger within me, I am also becoming more conscious of where it comes from, and how it affects my behaviour and my sense of self. And as with many an emotion within the BPD landscape, I have come to the conclusion that at least for me, anger too, is intimately connected with the issue of expectations. I talked about BPD and expectations in a recent post, in which I said that I agreed with blogger Cat Earnshaw (‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’), that ‘great expectations’ were at the core of BPD. They seem to me to form the hub from which hang the rusty and twisted spokes of abandonment, depression, disappointment, hurt, and anger, amongst others. What makes BPD anger ‘inappropriate’ is not just the degree of its intensity, but also the nature of the ‘expectations not met’ that underlie it, and the impact it has upon the sense of who we are.
And that is precisely what struck me about those two stories, more than 2,000 years apart, that I came across within the space of a few days. “I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”. I may feel ‘battered’ by another’s anger – but my own anger assaults me too. Occasionally, it makes me want to die. But often it makes me want to hurt myself. Is it because I’m so ‘conditioned’ not to turn it outwards? Is it because I always saw anger as a ‘bad thing’ to feel? Does part of me feel that I have to punish myself for it?
I always thought that the reason I persisted, when I was a child, in winding up my mother when she was cross, to the point at which she became so angry that she smacked me, was because I saw it as a ‘victory’ to push her to a point where she acted in a way she did not like. That belief (though ‘retrospective’) has allowed me to retain the sense that I was in control of the situation, and that I was punishing her – (or was that her thought, rather than mine?) – but I’ve recently started to wonder if there was something else going on. Awareness of the self-destructiveness in me now, makes me wonder how long it might have been there for, and how much it might have been responsible for. If I was arguing with my mother, was I angry? And if I was angry, was I, even if I did not realise it at the time, so angry that I needed it to hurt?
I think that Jonah needed it to hurt. Jonah was angry because God hadn’t acted in the way that he had expected him to act. It seems to me that Jonah’s expectations were at the root both of his anger, and of his original decision to run away from God. He knew that God would disappoint his (one might say ‘unreasonable’) expectations – and he would rather run than face that disappointment and despair. When he was faced with it, he wanted to die. He went out into the desert in what feels like an incredibly familiar attempt to both test the one who had disappointed him, and to inflict further pain on himself. It’s clear that the scorching desert sun was wearing him down, but it was the blazing heat of his anger that continued to consume him.
We’re not told how the story ends. And, much though I would like to, I’m afraid I don’t have ‘an ending’ either. I wish I had some wise words to say about anger, some advice to give, some ways of dealing with it or working through it. When it comes to trying to understand anger, I’m right at the beginning of my own story. It’s a story in which I hope that, contrary to usual belief, anger will be redemptive (and I don’t mean that in a religious sense). I hope that by acknowledging and accepting my anger, and even (though I shudder to think about it) by giving it some sort of appropriate expression, I can build a healthier relationship both with myself and with those closest to me.
Being able to say ‘I feel angry’ would be a good start. Maybe I will try it on my therapist – goodness knows it’s often very apt. But that’s the subject of another story…..