I knew something was wrong the moment my mom walked into my room. It wasn’t just that she was crying, though she was. In a moment I was crying, too, because it was my mom waking me up to go to school that morning. Which was not her job. My dad was the one who woke me up for school in the morning. The moment I laid eyes on my mom I knew: my dad finally left her.
I was in fifth grade. Not quite ten years old. It was the early ’80s, and I was very shortly to have the disctinction of being the first kid I knew whose parents got a divorce.
It wasn’t a surprise. Like I said, I knew right away what had happened. And to be honest, I can’t — and could not at the time — remember a time when my parents weren’t fighting. I didn’t know what they were fighting about, didn’t really even want to. It was just a thing that happened, and when it did I would go to my room and play with my toys or read a book or I’d go outside and ride my bike around the neighborhood or go knock on a friend’s door or one of the thousand other things kids did back in the days when parents weren’t expected to schedule and supervise their childrens’ entire existence.
That morning was the last time I cried about it.
Because like I knew what had happened the night before, I knew what was expected of me. What was expected of any boy who wasn’t girly or gay or soft or weak. No one had to tell me that boys don’t cry.
So I didn’t. I tamped that shit down, put on my game face, and went on a field trip to Sea World with the rest of my class. As I recall, my dad was one of our chaperones. I didn’t ask him what happened. I mean, it wasn’t like it was a surprise. The real surprise was it hadn’t happened sooner.
I remember being very proud of myself for being so mature.
It wasn’t long after that I started acting out.
“Anger is just misplaced pain.”
It wasn’t til my mid-thirties someone told me that, a very wise woman I was lucky enough to befriend at a writers’ workshop. I remember the sense of epiphany when she told me. Like someone had opened a door in the house of my being that I’d never even seen, much less glimpsed behind. Left to my own devices, I don’t know if I ever would have. Because anger was a huge part of who I was. It was my handiest tool, the source of my power, the force that kept me moving when life went to shit and the light that kept the darkness inside me at bay.
Never mind how much darker the darkness was once anger’s fiery flames flickered and went out. Never mind how I added to the weight of guilt and bad action I carried when those flames burned someone else.
See, that’s the problem with anger. It’s a double-edged sword. Yes, it turns pain into power. But it’s a mostly destructive power, hard to tame, easy to lose control of, and then you do and say things that hurt other people. Too often they’re the people you love, because they’re the easiest targets. They’re close, and they’re vulnerable. It’s so easy you almost can’t help yourself. And when you’re in the throes of it, you won’t even care.
I never did. Not until later, when the flames died down and I sobered up and the thing I said or did in the heat of the moment, that had seemed so clear and right and even just, now served to horrify me. I’d apologize. I’d even mean it. But the damage was done. To my target. To our relationship. To myself.
But I wouldn’t try and get help. That was weakness. I was strong. I would master myself through willpower alone. I would do better next time.
And, very often, I did. Until I didn’t, and the circle went round again. Pain feeds the anger, anger creates pain, and, bit by bit, the darkness at the center grows deeper.
Anger can be intoxicating. When you feel empty inside, it will warm you. It will fill you with energy and purpose. The feeling never lasts, but it doesn’t matter while you’re in it. The drunk never worries about the hangover morning will bring. The fire gives no thought to the woodpile.
Even knowing what my friend taught me, it took me most of another decade to stop turning my pain into anger. To give up easy power and begin to build something like strength. It’s funny, because the first step was to admit and accept I was weak. That I’d done wrong. That I needed help sometimes.
That boys who don’t cry might grow into men who should, sometimes. That pain can be turned into other things besides anger. That it can, with some work, be made into compassion, determination, kindness, and strength.
But to do that, you need more than one tool in your toolbox.
They say when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When the only tool in your emotional toolbox is anger, there’s not a whole lot you’re going to be able to fix. Most of the time you’re just going to make things worse, for yourself and the people around you. Even when you suck it up, try and hold it all in, to protect them — and yourself — sooner or later it’ll be more than you can contain. You’ll blow, and when you do, chances are you’ll do something that makes it all worse. For them, and for you.
It was hard to admit I was wrong. Hard to face all the damage I’ve done to people. Hard to accept the darkness inside me probably can’t be overcome. Certainly not without help.
It was even harder to set aside the thing I had used all my life to fight it.
But there comes a point in a person’s life when he has to look the truth square in the face and at least try and begin to make peace with it. What seemed like strength to me for so long — to tamp down my pain, to pretend that I was alright, that I could overpower the darkness and anyone who said otherwise — was in truth a kind of weakness, a child’s demand that the world be other than what it is. It’s exhausting to maintain that illusion, exhausting-er to demand it of others. Especially those who want to help.
But I’m learning. I’ve mostly set down the double-edged sword. I’ve got my hammer, yes. But I’m adding other tools to my toolbox. I’m building out the house of my being. I’m adding new wings. I built an archway where that invisible door used to be. Installed some lighting in the room it kept hidden from me. I’m learning how to spend time there, how to let others in. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.
And you know what? It doesn’t make me any less of a man. Not the kind of man I want to be, anyhow.