A couple of days ago I got angry. I felt a kind of anger I hadn’t felt in quite a while. I have worked very hard over the last decade to not let myself be triggered into the the kind of anger that causes damage. As a teenager, when my family was breaking apart due to my father’s alcoholism and PTSD, I was so angry I would yell at my mother that “I didn’t ask for this s*!t”. I would blame her for my confused feelings. One time I was so angry at my fighting parents in the other room, I went to my bedroom, and kicked a hole in the wall. The strength I felt surprised me, and took me aback. My anger turned into sadness and drinking in my twenties. As my relationship with my father (two tour combat veteran of the Vietnam war) was at this low point, I too felt so low that I sought out counseling. In my early and mid twenties I had hit bottom. I could barely go to work and I certainly couldn’t feel open hearted in any way.
That was twenty years ago, and over twenty years after my father came home from the war and had me in 1967.
It has been a hard road of healing. In my 30s I had made progress enough that I met someone and we began a relationship. However, I found that being with this man triggered me in many ways. He was, and is (we are still together after 13 years), a good person, and yet the intimacy of relationship brought up much anger in me. I didn’t like the feeling of my rising anger, and yet it came from somewhere that felt old and deep. Over the years, and much attention on my part, I have been able to tend the parts of me that were hurt by the many aspects of growing up with a combat veteran, and watching his life, and my parent’s marriage, fall apart in front of my eyes.
So, a few days ago I found myself in a situation with a person that really got to me. The relationship had somehow moved into a feeling of ‘family’, the triggering, dysfunctional kind. Over the past few weeks I would catch myself feeling similar feelings, saying to myself “if only he/she would change”, “maybe this will change it”, and ultimately trying to “fix” the long standing situation of this other person’s life. I felt hopeless watching someone I care about going downhill, behaviors and attitudes worsening, self-punishment getting stronger, denial continuing. I am a warrior’s daughter, and my warrior self felt angry that I could not “help”. However, I kept trying until I got a clear sign.
I woke up the other night with the revelation of what I had allowed back into my life. I remember lying awake in bed, running over all the parts of our recent interactions in my head, and realizing that I recognized this combination of feelings (irritation, frustration and anger), as an energy that I could not let “move back in”. I had agreed to help this person the next day, and so I would…but I would have to “take a break” from being emotionally tied to the relationship. I have learned that behavior can certainly change, even if it isn’t as quickly as I would like, so rather than cut this person off completely, I felt I needed a “time-out” for my own mental health.
The next day I helped like I said. I also emoted a lot in the car. I shared my frustration, irritation and anger. I was careful not to be mean, but I felt I wanted this person to know how I felt. I felt I had earned the right to be honest, even if it wasn’t “nice”. At the end of our daylong interaction in my van, I heard, “Look”…Sigh. I saw leaking radiator fluid on the floor of the passenger seat. I knew immediately my mistake. It may sound strange, but I have learned over the years that my anger affects things. I have had numerous experiences in the past where my overt anger immediately breaks something in my vehicle. Some may think that is impossible, and I might even logically agree, yet I have watched it happen in front of my eyes. I had forgotten, and this day I was made to remember. I had overheated, and now I would have to fix something related to my radiator.
Angry outbursts are a symptom of PTSD , and while my father numbed his anger with alcohol, I have often wondered if I got part of his anger that he never expressed. Either way, this moment of losing my cool was going to cost me money. I immediately resigned myself to this fact. I was grateful that I had not had such a feeling in so long, and that now I was capable of dealing with it, and soothing my own feelings appropriately.
There is an interesting twist to this story, which is why I am writing about it here. The overheating incident occurred on Memorial Day 2012. The next morning I took my van in to an auto shop. The Heater Core was busted. (My partner lovingly laughed at my ability to break my own van). The shop had a shuttle service to take me home while they fixed my emotional mistake. The older mechanic started the drive to my house when I asked him if he had a good Memorial Day. By the time he drove me home I learned that he is a Vietnam war combat Marine with 60% VA disability and his own battle with PTSD. He told me how he was a war photographer and got so irritated with people when they figured he never saw any combat. He said “I saw it all”. In 2002 his second wife became overwhelmed with his anger, and his violent nightmares, and told him that if he didn’t do something about it, she was leaving. He also has a son-in-law who has completed multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I told him about my father, and my book, and we connected our stories quickly. I told him about my anger the day before and he said “Gotta watch that”. Yes.
When my van was fixed he came back to pick me up. I gave him three copies of my book and asked him to give them to his son in law and whoever else needs them. He was much more animated than earlier in the day, and he even smiled. There must have been a reason for connecting. It did show me that we are all connected, and our moods and emotions do matter, because they affect many people and things around us.
Later that night, I heard from the Waiting Wife. On Monday evening she had told me that she read my previous blog post about their family to her two boys. By the end of the night they had both told her they loved her, and gave her a hug. This was good progress. After coming home from my van/veteran experience, I got a text from her that her oldest son signed up for the Marines that day. This young man knows anger, and he will probably know it more intimately upon deployment.
To all men, warriors of both sexes, and especially future service members, you cannot ignore your anger. At some point, anger must be looked at squarely, and dealt with honestly. It is not pretty or easy, yet anger ruins relationships of all kinds, always. Even if you can manage to put your anger in a box for 40 years, eventually the box decays from the poison it contains, and anger must be tended. Anger can break many things. Don’t let it break you or the ones you love.