Things fall apart: ‘I never imagined emotions could be scary, but it turns out they can be’
In the last year, Liadan Hynes’ marriage fell apart. She is now working on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apart she is exploring the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves.
At one point during the demise of my marriage, I punched a window. I should make clear that neither I nor the window, were ever remotely in danger of even the slightest injury. I was frustrated, and just trying to find an outlet.
Even now writing this, I am coming up short. Downplaying it. Frustration doesn’t punch glass. It was anger. But I was so ill-equipped as to know what to do with this anger that I resorted to punching a window. Actual harm wasn’t likely – I remember calculating in the split second beforehand exactly what I was doing, and how hard I would hit. But still. I suppose it was possible. Glass, after all.
But anger is so bloody difficult to process. Especially for women. Because what does an angry woman look like? Out of control. Frazzled. Shrill. Too loud. Too much. Hysterical. Mad. Raving. Neurotic. An angry man? Impassioned, strong, threatening, powerful. Who wants to be an angry woman?
But it’s more than that. That’s just the external stuff, the perceptions of others; which at some level, who really cares? Internally, anger seemed like an emotional dead end, best avoided. Skipped over.
Like a mantra, I kept saying to the counsellor, “anger doesn’t serve me”. It seemed pointless to allow anger. As if allowing is the point with emotions. As if I could decide what I would feel, and when and how I would feel it. When your life implodes, you don’t get to choose your reactions, and you don’t get to choose when you have these reactions. This is probably the most exhausting thing about something like this. Anyone who has grieved will understand. The frustrating lack of control. You do all that you can but it can get on top of you out of nowhere. Without expecting it. The up and down nature of your days. Exhausting.
So I decided that anger would not move me forward. It was the stuff of futility. The stuff of whining, of railing at the unfairness of life. That way led to comparing one’s life to others (Instagram is not a good place to be in this mood). Time wasting. The opposite of moving on with life. Dwelling. Resentful. All circular,dead-endd emotions. So I wasn’t indulging in it.
Sad seems an acceptable emotion for a woman, a mother. Soft, sorrowful, but in some way cleansing too. And purposeful. A washing of things out of your system. Anger is violent. Punchy. A bit scary. Capable of warping.
Except that, of course, I was angry. When your life is upended, you are angry about all kinds of things. Loss makes you angry. The fact that your life is not unfolding the way you wanted makes you angry.
So, “anger doesn’t serve me”, I told the counsellor briskly. And she smiled kindly because she knew that anger doesn’t just go away. That my attempts to claim choice in the matter were a waste of time. Anger requires dealing with. “You have to sit with it,” she said, describing anger as like the crescendo of music. It will rise up, and then pass through, but we have to acknowledge it, lest it gets pushed down and warp us.
“That is not happening to me”, I thought. I never imagined emotions could be scary, but it turns out that they can. The fear that they might capsize you. You have to hope that you have the right amount of resilience to return to equilibrium. A sort of emotional equation: grief + anger divided by resilience = return to emotional wellbeing.
I interviewed author Elizabeth Day, also separated, and she told me that at one point in the grieving process she had thought she was really sad, but then she realised she was actually angry. Really angry. She found fast exercise, such as spinning and cardio, helpful. Sometimes a statement stays with you. You don’t realise at the time it is important to you specifically. And then it comes back. Months later I remembered her words.
So I had days of rage. Sometimes they were almost enjoyable, those anger days. Actually easier than sad days, which are heavy and so, so tiring. As if you can’t imagine ever having the stamina to do the normal things ever again. At least anger is energy. And it turns out that you can transform that energy.
I thought I hated running. But running out anger turns the anger into power. Into fuel. Not a dead end at all, as it happens. And not scary.
Photo: Duncan Shaffer, Unsplash