What The Psychiatric Hospital Taught Me About Anger

What The Psychiatric Hospital Taught Me About Anger

“The more you allow yourself to be angry, the more power you give it.  It will fill your soul like the black mold that grows on your tile shower until you clean it out with bleach.”

(Warning- Sensitive, and possibly triggering content. Do not read if you have thoughts of suicide or harming yourself.)

What I Did

If you’ve read My Story, you know that I once stayed a few days in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager (16). I was fed up with life and swallowed a half bottle of pills, hoping it wouldn’t kill me… but feeling okay if it did, so that one of the adults in my life might get over their shit and wake up.

Long and sad story short, no one woke up.

Afterwards I had to suffer many concerned and awkward stares from family and teachers who didn’t know what to say, my poop was black for three days (I know…TMI) because my stomach was pumped with charcoal, and I had to convince some youth-specializing psychiatrist that I probably wouldn’t do it again (even though he would have sent me home anyway as soon as the Medicaid limit was reached).

But all for what? Everything at home stayed the same. Mission failed.

The Boy Who Couldn’t Die

Every experience teaches us something though, right? So, what could I learn from spending three nights in a facility where I wasn’t allowed to have a real fork or wear shoes with laces? And what could I learn from five or six other roommates who appeared considerably more disturbed than I was?

I’ll tell you what I learned about: emotions.

I’ll never forget one teenage boy who was a repeat psychiatric hospital offender. In group therapy he was pretty forthcoming about the several times he had attempted to kill himself. Each time, his mother found him and he ended up back here. On the last attempt, he hung himself in the garage or bathroom with one of those big orange extension cords.  He nearly succeeded.  I could still see the marks on his neck. And he was pretty sure he would try again. I was awestruck by his honesty and dumbfounded that he was still alive. I think his only saving grace is that he was caught on the first attempt and so he was probably not given enough time or the opportunity to succeed. Plus, the Universe just wasn’t ready to let him go. I hope he’s somewhere on the planet still today, winning at life.

I decided that day that I was not these people. I didn’t really want to die, I just wanted to be happy. But I was so angry at my parents for behaving like they did and for all the people in their lives who enabled them. I was so angry that I was born into this life. I was so angry that no one was around to lift me up. I often lashed out at my mother or self-harmed because, as an introvert, that was just easier. But it all stemmed from anger. I hated the world. Worse, I hated myself.

Anger will eat you alive. The more you allow yourself to be angry, the more power you give it.  It will fill your soul like the black mold that grows on your tile shower until you clean it out with bleach.

Group Therapy and Leader Dude

On one particular day of group therapy, the leader dude was doing a lesson on emotions. He asked us to contemplate anger and what it was. I was feeling pretty disgusted that I might be expected to share any personal thoughts with these strangers, and really self-conscious since I also didn’t have my blow-dryer or makeup to use after my shower (oh, teenagers). I was quiet. So was everyone else.

So he did what any good group leader dude would do, and asked one of us a direct question. He looked at the teenage boy who tried to kill himself several times and asked, why do you want to die? The conversation is far back in my memory, but it went something like this:

Boy: “Because I’m angry.”

Leader Dude: “Angry about what?”

Boy: “Angry about everything!”

Leader Dude: “Name one thing.”

Boy: “Okay, angry that I don’t fit in at school and kids pick on me.”

Leader Dude: “How does it make you feel when kids pick on you?”

Boy: “I just told you, dumb-ass, it makes me feel angry!”

Then the leader dude said something like this: “What if I told you that anger isn’t a real emotion? It’s a surface mask for other emotions. And it’s a reaction to the other emotions we’re feeling but maybe don’t want to feel. When I was a kid my parents got a divorce, and I often acted angry towards them when they tried to talk to me about it. But what I was really feeling was sad, confused, disappointed, scared, and alone. So, what I’m asking you, is how do you really feel when the kids pick on you?”

“I guess…I guess I feel sad and alone. Like I’m not good enough to hang out with them. Like, I’m sad that I’m different.”

Then the leader dude showed us a colorful emotions wheel which was supposed to be some representation of all the emotions we might be feeling instead of anger. I’m pretty sure the rest of the time I heard blah…blah…blah blah…blah.

What I Learned

You never could tell by looking at my indifferent face, but what he said struck me like half gallon of chocolate ice cream after midnight.

Anger is not a real emotion. It’s a mask we use to cover up what we’re really feeling, because the underlying emotion is just too painful. It’s easier to leave on the mask and stuff the real emotions down.  If we want to get somewhere we have to take off the mask, name our emotions, and explore them.

So little by little that’s what I did. I stopped identifying with anger. Whenever I felt it rising up, I asked myself what I was really feeling and explored the real emotion underneath it.

Bad things, terribly unfair and even horrible things, will happen. People will mistreat you, scam you, ignore you, talk badly about you.

But that’s their story, not yours. I’m always telling my kids when they argue and fuss, you can NOT control what the other does, you can only control how you react to it.

What You Can Do

If anger is an issue for you, practice confronting it this week.

When your spouse makes you mad because he or she didn’t fold the laundry…again…explore the real emotion in that. Could it be that you’re feeling ignored or taken for granted because they expect you to do it instead?

When your child screams, I HATE YOU, instead of reacting in anger consider the real emotion. Are you feeling hurt by their words, and frustrated because you don’t know how to resolve the problem with a more positive solution?

Identifying your emotions teaches you a lot about yourself and gives you power over your feelings. It doesn’t make the anger go away but it will help it subside over time if you commit exploring it and then discussing it with the person on the other side of your anger.

If anger is a deep-rooted problem for you, or if you just like to talk to someone about stuff, I always recommend counseling. It’s a powerful experience that can only help you feel better.

And if you’re still trying to figure out The Secret to Life, I’ve got it right here! I also have some tips on coping with stress.

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