The Anger Problem
Alcoholics/Addicts and the People who Love Them are Angry
All addicts have experienced unexpressed anger, or expressed it so inappropriately that the people around them have been hurt, irritated, frustrated, angry and even enraged with the disease. Most alcoholics have one thing in common: When they were growing up, anger caused everyone pain in some form or another. Even if they failed math, they learned one equation in their home: anger equals pain. That pain may come in the form of heartaches, abuse, abandonment, isolation, degradation, withdrawal, whippings, beatings and shaming. All of which hurt them or the ones they love. At some point most decided that if they just didn't get angry then no one would get hurt, including themselves. So they swallowed their anger, stuffed it into their bodies like they were gunnysacks or body bags. Everyone denied anger's existence or rationalized it away. Some smiled, stabbed people in the back, sabotaged relationships, manipulated, sought revenge, controlled, forgave prematurely, played nice, and got drunk, stoned, high and numb. Resentments turned into thick bricks and were used to build walls around themselves, but the anger leaked out, in spite of the mortar, harming everyone in the near vicinity. Alcoholics and addicts became resentful, a luxury the alcoholic and addict cannot afford.
One of the key criticisms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Al-Anon is that many participants are full of anger, even after being in recovery for many years. They talk all the time about how their sponsor 'straightened my ass out' or 'called me on my bullshit' or 'confronted me and set me straight.' Confrontation, criticism and put-downs of all kinds seem to be acceptable, but they really make most alcoholics and addicts even angrier, though they've learned to look and act like they aren't. As the Billy Crystal character on Saturday Night Live used to say, 'It's better to look good than to feel good.'
I had been thinking for two or three years about writing this book. One Saturday morning I attended my regular AA meeting. Afterward I went to lunch with a bunch of folks who talked about how angry a certain member was after twenty-seven years of sobriety. I wondered if anyone else noticed our own anger, which took the form of gossiping about that member's inappropriate expression of anger. That was when I realized how badly I needed to write this book, not only for others but for myself as well.
Anger is Just a Feeling
Anger is a feeling. It is one of the primary emotions like sadness, happiness, fear, loneliness and gratitude. It is not inherently negative, though if repressed long enough it can have negative consequences, ranging from headaches, stomachaches, and backaches to more serious things like colitis, insomnia, some say even cancer and heart disease. Repressed anger also hurts others when it takes the form of abuse, violence and mayhem. Yet anger is a natural response to life's unfairness, people's unkindness, and the sounds of leaf blowers and lawn mowers before 9 a.m. on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning.
Anger is simply energy in the body that can be used to get us out of stuck places—marriages where the husband or wife is abusive, jobs that pay less than minimum wage but expect us to give 200 percent of ourselves. It can extricate us from unjust or unholy wars, oust presidents and help us get MADD about irresponsible drinkers. Intellect alone, without linking itself to anger, will seldom right wrongs. Anger is the energy to be used to get us out of stuck places.
Everyone Gets Angry
Anger is a persistent and universal problem mostly because no one taught us how to express it without hurting others or ourselves. No one can avoid it 100 percent of the time. It is a natural part of the human condition. The people we love the most are the people who most often trigger our anger. We get angry with our kids; our kids get angry with us. Many adults are still angry with their parents—even if the parents have been dead for twenty years. Husbands are angry with their wives for wanting more tenderness than they can muster; wives are angry with their husbands for thinking intimacy is two or three glorious minutes in the bedroom.
This pesky thing called anger just won't go away; it's the annoying little flea that bites humanity's butt. We all wish it were really that small; then it would be easier to squash or hide. All too often anger is the elephant in the living room: obvious and obtrusive—leaving a big mess to clean up after—yet no one talks about it.
Where Does it all Begin?
Like most things, anger begins in childhood. Children come into this world with a broad range of emotions ready to be felt—until someone tells them that they don't feel what they feel. 'You're not angry.' 'Don't be mad.' 'You don't have anything to be angry about—you have it so much better than the children in Africa .' Children experience early on that showing anger results in punishment. A client of mine, Jason, was told at age six that if he got angry his mother would 'take me to the police station, turn me in and tell them to keep me.'
Most families have one or two people who are allowed to get angry—usually these individuals do so in the most intimidating or abusive manner. For example, most families have the stormy one, the seething one, the silent one, the destructive one, the rebellious one, the overachiever, the 'right' one and the 'wrong' one, the one who leaves and the one who stays no matter how much that one would like to leave. Most people in recovery know that family members tend to assume certain roles: the 'peacemakers,' who are really more like referees and have very little if any peace in their own lives; the 'hero,' whose job it is to save the family and the family name and he or she is usually worn out by the time they are six from slaying family dragons; the 'lost child,' who never seems to be around and who is arguably the smartest of them all but who can never quite find his or her own way in the world; and finally, the 'scapegoat,' who carries the sins of the family on his or her back and is constantly being slaughtered with everyone's anger and rage.
We all know children don't take after strangers. You've never heard frustrated parents say to their child, 'You are just like the mailman.' What is modeled for children early on is what they rely on later in life. Adults learned verbal, physical and emotional behaviors that are abusive or inappropriate when they were children; they didn't suddenly invent them when they grew up. People who grow up in an alcoholic home almost never see anger expressed in a healthy manner. Consequently, as adults they must unlearn the old behaviors and learn and practice new, healthier ways of expressing anger. The question is where will they go to learn?
If a child is given three crayons with which to color, all his life he will use only those three crayons, thinking there are no other choices. Healthy individuals discover there are more options available. They learn how to use colored pencils and markers, and then graduate to painting on canvas. They must practice with their new tools and give up relying on the old. Only then can they paint their lives the way they want.
Most of the men and women I have worked with have said, 'I thought the way our family was, was the way all families were. I didn't know it could be different. Where do we go to learn?' Some reading this are unsure if they even have an anger problem. Many genuinely live with the assumption that it is their father, wife or child that has the problem. If they are the ones with the problem, then this book will help you; and if it is you who has the problem, then perhaps it will help them.
Anger as Punishment and Revenge
Alcoholics, addicts, and adult children of alcoholics and addicts don't get angry—they get even. One of the reasons adults have such a problem feeling and expressing their anger is because anger has forever been tied to punishment and revenge. People who are punished—instead of disciplined—tend to seek revenge and be angry. And the best way to extract a pound of flesh is to punish the actual or perceived offender. You drink—I'll show you—I won't sleep with you. If you overreact—I'll get you back—I'll have an affair.
A few years ago I was in the Asheville airport waiting to catch a flight back to Austin . I was standing close to an elderly woman who was sitting hunched over in a wheelchair in front of her sixty-something-year-old daughter and son. She was silently weeping and the son looked down at her and said in a voice loud enough for all around him to hear, 'Momma, we told you if you cried we wouldn't let you come back to visit anymore.' Do you hear the rage and revenge in his statement? 'That's right, Mother. We told you that you can't cry,' said the daughter. Can't you just imagine that fifty-something years ago this mother probably said to her children, in some public place, 'If you don't stop this crying, I'm never going to. . . .'? She punished them with a threat. They waited fifty years for revenge, and no one is consciously being malicious.
The Difference between Discipline and Punishment
Unfortunately, children are punished and they become, using Alice Miller's words, 'Prisoners of Childhood,' the original title of her important book, later named The Drama of the Gifted Child. Punishment makes children, adults, criminals and animals untrusting at the least, and full of rage at the most. It is capricious—not well-thought-out and not stated before the fact. Where punishment is handed out, you might as well hand out the alcohol and drugs to make those punished forget that they have no choice and that others have extreme amounts of power over them.
One time I asked a room full of counselors, educators and law enforcers if they could tell me exactly what would happen to someone caught in their state driving while under the influence. A couple of them said, ...