I am told that I am passionate, and that this quality has certain disadvantages. Passion is akin to obsession, more often than not a cancer that pushes aside everything in its path, by degrees. Healthy tissue squeezes into impossible spaces; a lump of evil grows and obliterates whatever it touches. It’s not something for which one asks. One wakes on a cold morning to find coal in one’s stockings. You are the doomed, the one chosen to follow the flame to wherever it leads. And it can lead to horrible places.
Male psychiatrists love to reduce their female patients to “feeling machines,” and “menstruating machines” follow closely behind. “You are sad.” “You are envious.” “You are angry.”
The latter is a favorite of Dr. B, who last I knew worked at the Short Term Unit at McLean Hospital. He tried to convince me that I was the angry one that harbored this cancerous feeling, that I didn’t know what to do with my anger, that I acted on anger inappropriately (often turning it inward, he said). Convening with other patients proved correct what I suspected, that the good doctor had repeated this exact same anger mantra to every patient on the floor. We were amused, and our amusement heaved up like an iceberg. Yes, the doctor himself had made us all rather pissed off.
But back to passion: I am embarrassed to admit that I was once passionate about ending my life. All my thoughts and actions were channeled into a single, forbidden, one-way path where the sky was not luminescent, where blood was rigid and eyes dull, where a weary person could find some rest by a cold fire. For about six months I thought of nothing else. My therapist, Dr. M, reminded me at every session that her job was not to help me die, but to help me live, and should she find herself in the former role, she would politely bow out.
It’s not something I talk about much. Talking about suicide annoys people, and it annoys me to hear others ruminate on the topic (I generally “taddle” on them). I spent days by the railroad tracks memorizing the train schedule, but when it came time to lie on the tracks I decided to wait–just one more day. And for those months I walked that tightrope.
It seems incredulous to me now that I kept a journal throughout that difficult time. I kept careful records of everything from what medication I was on to how many cigarettes I’d smoked that day. I kept all my papers in neatly labeled notebooks: “Julie’s Progress.”
I suppose a therapist would place utmost importance on what followed, how I found cyberspace and discovered that I was capable of making friends and helping others in ways I never realized, how I broke the cycle of self-generated codependency and stopped allowing life to jerk me around. I discovered writing.
At first it was little more than writing in my journal, but soon I began a novel and finished a draft eight months later. I kept on writing, wrote two more books, majored in writing, and graduated from Emerson College (www.emerson.edu) summa cum laude in 2003. All this you probably know from visiting my site, www.breakdownlanetraveled.com.
And you know what followed: Joe’s death. The notice of his passing still tops my website’s home page. I can’t let go of it, even now that three years (this August 19th) have passed, even now that I have reluctantly been in other relationships. I miss him like crazy. I also lost my dog, Tiger. She is in heaven with Joe.
Writing stopped at that point. Two days after Joe’s funeral I found out I’d been accepted into Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. I accepted the invitation but worked at school half-heartedly, having lost my drive to write entirely. My fellow student and friend, Jennifer, and others have reassured me that every writer goes through dry periods, that I should simply open a blank document and write. Just do it. But I can’t.
I don’t look the same anymore, having put on over 100 pounds from the medication Seroquel, an antipsychotic doctors love to prescribe because it makes us shut up. As I increased in size, obsession over my weight grew, a cancer that pushed aside all passion for writing, and masked my grief for Joe. It’s easier to think about my weight than to feel grief over the man I loved passionately for 13 years. When I should have been writing, concentrating my efforts on sentences and paragraphs, I was dieting instead, stepping on the same scale over and over.
During my last hospitalization I revived my journaling. I picked out a cute pink notebook decorated with coffee cups from the Occupational Therapy room and began to write: “In this setting, we are treated like children. The groups are like third grade all over again. Today we had coloring….I left the group because I didn’t think it would enhance my treatment….I didn’t know where I was, even though I’ve been [to that place] many times. I lost five things today. When people talk, I can’t hear them properly, and when I talk, all hell breaks loose in my head.” That notebook is mostly filled now, with comments on various life activities, rants, and stories of QB, my new dog. And yes, there’s plenty in there about my weight.
I’ve started going to the library to write, in attempt to smother out the diet-centered self and allow room for the writing self to grow. Can passion truly be redirected? I am making an effort. I am opening documents and starting to write. Folks who read my words don’t care what size I am.
Come, follow me as I blog along, as I stumble, shake myself off, and then begin again.
A REPEATING DREAM
Following one of my hospitalizations, my parents rent an apartment for me. Usually the apartment appears very small. The building is on a hill much like the dormitory area at UMass/Amherst where I once lived. The apartment is at the far left as you face the hill, and the entrance is in the back. It was tough finding this place, and I can hardly wait to move in. There is a halfway house about–yes, halfway up the hill that rents rooms and serves meals, but I have no interest in living in any situation that compromises my independence.
One evening, I ride my bike to the trolley stop, which apparently is in Newton, Massachusetts, a ten-mile bike ride from the hospital where I’ve been staying. The bus to the top of the hill runs every 20 minutes or so. I leave my bike by a tree and just make the next trolley.
The ride is quick. I get off at the last stop and wander about. Aren’t the shrubs arranged differently? Where is my building? Where is the apartment?
Alas, I’ve rented an apartment, don’t have the telephone number or address of the landlord, and haven’t a clue where the apartment is. I try the key in several locks, which brings suspicious looks from neighbors, and one resident picks up her phone to call the police on me.
I step onto the next trolley back to Newton. Without an apartment, I have nowhere to go except back to the hospital. The trolley is near empty because it is late at night, and the ride goes without incident.
I head back to where I left my bike. But my bike has been stolen! Why didn’t I lock it? What am I going to do now?
I wake up wondering why I have this dream repeatedly. It has been a long night.
This really rambles….
I once had a bout of insomnia that lasted several months. I slept two hours a night. After a time I became agitated. On a walk with Tiger (my dog) I saw a man standing by the side of a tire shop, smoking a cigarette, and I wanted to kill him, just because he was there, and at that moment it took everything in my power not to do him harm.
It all started when I saw psychiatrist named Dr. Michael Detke, who eventually stopped treating patients and went into research. He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t sleeping, so he sent me to the sleep clinic at McLean Hospital.
There I met with a psychologist (not an MD) who told me I had bad “sleep hygiene,” meaning poor habits regarding sleep, and that’s why I wasn’t sleeping. (Looking back, there was nothing wrong with my sleep habits.) The psychologist told me I should turn my clock so that it doesn’t face me, and stop listening to the radio as I fell asleep, and those were the only changes she could think of that would help. I had to keep sleep charts, which was my first and only reason for using Microsoft Excel, noting what time I went to bed, what time I woke up, and so on.
This continued for several months with no improvement. At my last appointment, the psychologist told me I was doing “extraordinarily well.” As he said these words, I struggled to keep my eyes open and my head erect. I was on the verge of collapse.
Meanwhile, Dr. Detke continued to raise my Effexor, a stimulating antidepressant, and lower my Seroquel, a very sedating antipsychotic. At the hospital, it was more of the same: insistence that I needed more antidepressant.
The doctors at the hospital were just as incompetent as Dr. Detke; in fact, my first inpatient doctor was fired from the staff while I was there. I was transferred to another incompetent, Dr. Abraham, who raised my Effexor more, then threw his hands up in the air and said, “Your insomnia will take a year to solve. Goodbye.”
Goodbye and good riddance.
On that note, I was released from the hospital. I had no desire to see Dr. Detke ever again, and I found myself with a wonderful doctor named Dr. David Brendel. He asked me a few questions, to which I sleepily replied, then he looked at my medication list and said, “Whoa! Your medications are all wrong.” He took me off Effexor entirely and gave me more antipsychotics, including Thorazine. After two weeks of treatment with this new doctor, I slept.
It is said that Pope John Paul II slept only an hour every night. People suffering from mania sleep very little. I need about eight hours. Most people with mental illnesses notice their symptoms worsen when they are sleep-deprived; I am the opposite. I have deliberately deprived myself of sleep at times, to “protect” myself from Evil Beings, and it works. I wish I could keep it up, but eventually my body forbids me to stay up any longer. A periodic all-nighter does me a world of good. A research study suggested sleep-deprivation can help people with depressive symptoms, but the study was dismissed as unsubstantiated, and I’ve never heard of sleep deprivation as a “cure” for psychosis–quite the opposite. For instance, last night my puppy woke me for his usual midnight romp. (Pain in the butt that he is, I do love the little squirt.) I felt restless and stayed up the rest of the night. Today I feel cleansed of illness.
People of certain religions believe that denying oneself food is cleansing to the body and soul. Many religions encourage a modest lifestyle and restraint regarding pleasurable activities. A person who eats excessively is a glutton. One who sleeps too much is lazy. A drinker is a drunk and a woman who overindulges in sex is a slut. But to hold back, to restrain oneself is considered stoical and brave. I am reminded of the giving up of pleasures for Lent, a practice traditionally upheld by Catholics and many non-Catholics nowadays. To quit smoking is admirable. Giving up sweets will improve one’s oral health. But to quit entirely something the body or mind requires for functioning is impossible or at least unwise.
People with severe mental illnesses require medication to stay mentally healthy. A certain few will refuse medication and still live fairly reasonable lives, but the vast majority of us require medications. Stopping medication is the number one reason that mentally ill people are re-hospitalized. I have occasionally gone without medication, though at these times I usually am mistaken as to whether I’ve taken the pills, and the result was hospitalization each time. Even lowering medication, without my doctor’s approval, has led to disaster. Unlike restraint for the purpose of cleansing, going without medication is not only looked down upon, but also considered damn stupid. Almost all violent acts committed by people with mental illnesses are done while the patient is not taking the required medication; patients who “cooperate with treatment” are no more violent–if anything, less violent–than the general population. Perhaps we can consider it an act of discipline to take one’s pills every day!
When I can’t sleep, I suffer; when I choose not to sleep, I thrive. Perhaps choice is the factor here. To take control of one’s life is to choose wellness over excessiveness, moderation over extremes. To be in control of one’s actions, though one can’t always control the results of one’s actions, is a reasonable way to live.
But what of adventure? Don’t I need to give up that control every now and then, to set out without a map or compass just to see where I end up? Certainly, a person with an excess of control has little enjoyment in life. I have known a handful of people who wrestle with that problem.
To control what one can, and to let fate control the rest, is the key. To rest my head on my pillow is my choice; whether I sleep well is less controllable. I choose to take my medication (though I hate taking it), and take good care of myself, but that won’t prevent breakthrough symptoms to appear now and then. Adventure has its place, as does regularity. I’ve deprived myself of sleep–or, perhaps it is my puppy who has denied me sleep–let me sleep well tonight. If I wake up tomorrow morning alive and breathing, I’m having a good day.
Many people have asked me to write about the Beings and The Thing. I am only now beginning to be able to write about them effectively. This video illustrates what it can be like living with Evil Beings:
The Thing was worse.
Sometimes I try to write about The Thing and the Evil Beings try to interfere. It can get very complicated.
I ran into this at www.schizophrenia.com. It’s old news but I thought it was interesting. Discussion followed on the boards. I can’t quote any of it because of the confidential nature of the boards, but I can say that there was some talk of whether Mark Vonnegut was part of the “antipsychiatry” crowd, and whether he was oversimplifying or generalizing. Someone pointed out that the DSM definition of schizophrenia has changed since the time Mark Vonnegut was diagnosed with the illness (1970’s), and if he were diagnosed today, the DSM-IV would have him classified as bipolar. I will give you my opinion shortly.
Mark Vonnegut Speaks at Convention
May 17, 2003
Mark Vonnegut, M.D.
I’m happy to be here. Thirty years ago I wrote a book about
going crazy and have been trying to blend in ever since.
It’s about time I came around to see what NAMI was all
about. I don’t rush into things.
Thirty-two years ago I was diagnosed with schizophrenia but
with newer definitions my disease is more consistent with
manic depression or bipolar disease, mostly because I’ve
gotten better. These labels can be more trouble than they
are worth. There are manic depressives who don’t get well
and look more and more like chronic schizophrenics as they
go along. With the deck stacked against them, a considerable
number of schizophrenics do get better. Until we have some
unambiguous diagnostic test, we are all talking through our
Whatever the diagnosis, the care for serious mental illness
is in disarray. Meaningful leadership and reform in my
opinion is more likely to come from patients and their
families. The needs of patients and families dealing with
manic depression, schizophrenia, autism, depression,
substance abuse are very similar. We need a commitment to
improving care and the means to do so…
I’ve been lucky. I received good care early, and have had a
small number of episodes. Rather than a suicide or
chronically disabled son, brother, friend, I’m what they call
A &W, alive and well. The turn around on the investment for
recovery is substantial. I’m happily married, have a
wonderful life and three strong handsome very smart sons who
would not otherwise be. I could be dragging down a dozen or
If nothing I say sparks any thoughts or identification, it’s
possible you’re taking too much medication. If it’s the
greatest talk you’ve ever heard, you’re not taking enough.
There will be some tangential thinking and loose
associations. Being crazy has had a definite effect on how I
think. Not all of my good ideas are good.
Family history. My mother’s mother’s father was an alcoholic
who I strongly suspect drank to keep the voices away. My
grandmother was a very smart very accomplished woman who was
in and out of psychiatric hospitals much of her adult life.
She warned my mother not to marry my father because there
was instability in his family. My father’s mother who was
addicted to barbiturates and wouldn’t come out of her room
for weeks at a time and who eventually killed herself on
Mother’s day, told him the same thing. I’m the fourth
straight generation in my family of people who hear voices,
have bizarre delusional thinking and hyper-religiosity.
We’ve each saved the planed earth several times. My famous
father Kurt is not manic depressive. He’s not particularly
well, but he doesn’t hear voices or get all pumped up.
My first episode was in 1971. I believe I would have gone
crazy eventually regardless of outside events although they
were very crazy times. The assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK.
Kent State, the music, the drugs, the counter culture… My
father, was transformed from a not very good car salesman
who couldn’t get a job teaching English at Cape Cod C.C. to
a guru super star. By the time I started hearing voices so
many other unlikely things had happened it didn’t seem out
of line. I assumed everyone was hearing voices. To try to
find out and so as to not appear unsophisticated, I remember
sitting down next to someone and saying, “So what do your
voices tell you?”
There are many people who fully recover from major psychotic
episodes and go on to live full rich lives. Most of them
choose to keep quiet about it. In the middle of my illness
when I was far from sure that I would survive, I made a
promise to remember and tell the truth about whatever it was
that was happening to me. I think it helped. For me,
remembering and trying to tell the truth is part of my
defense against this disease.
Thorazine, ECT, massive doses of vitamins, were the initial
medical intervention tried on me. It should be noted that
I’m a very positive person. I’ve responded positively to
virtually everything that’s been tried on me. If you
sprinkle happy dust on me, I get happy, at least for a
little while. What I loved and continue to love about the
medical model more than the actual medical means, is that
it’s hopeful. It lessens shame and blame.
Now, just about everyone accepts the medical model. We have
more effective medications with fewer side effects. I should
be happy but I find myself uncomfortable. More and more just
about all the questions and all the answers about mental
illness are about medication. Mental illness causes poverty
and poverty causes mental illness. The same is true of
trauma, prejudice, lack of education, lack of skills, loss
of spiritual values. Learning how to live well in spite of
your illness is at least as important as medication.
I saw a study the other day showing that some atypical anti-
psychotic was at least as good as mood stabilizers in
preventing suicide. It’s a very good thing to decrease
suicide but we should care at least a little if I’m not
killing myself because I feel better or if I just can’t
remember where I put the damn gun. I want patients and
families to have more power. When the interests of patients
and families are not perfectly congruent with those of the
insurance and pharmaceutical industries, the patients will
I would never advise patients to waste as much time as I do
ranting and raving about the insurance and pharmaceutical
industries. What is much more important is to make, for
yourself, in your own terms, a clear distinction between
yourself and your disease and where you want to go as
opposed to where your disease wants to take you. Doctors,
therapists, medications can only be helpful when they are
helping you go where you want to go. Otherwise all the help
is just a bunch of crap strewn around a messy room. The road
to medical school started with a job mowing lawns I was far
from sure I could handle.
People with mental illness are very much like people without
mental illness only more so. What we loose with a psychotic
episode is the comforting assurance that we can’t loose our
mind. When most people look down they see solid ground. When
I look down, I’m no so sure.
Crazy thoughts are not the problem. Everyone has crazy
thoughts. Hallucinations and delusions tend to catch the
attention but aren’t the problem. The problem is that the
world becomes discontinuous. We can’t attend to the world
and take care of ourselves. So others try to take care of us
and they do an imperfect job of it. There is no substitute
for being well.
Patients and families should not be left to play one on one
with big corporations and providers whose resources dwarf
their own. Patients and families should not have to re-
ent the wheel over and over.
Even though I’ve only had 4 psychotic episodes and I am now
17 years and 4 months from my last hospitalization, I still
worry about it happening again. The bad news is that the
worry doesn’t go away. The good news is that worrying about
your mental health doesn’t have to stop you from having a
full life. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I’m a
hypochondriac in other areas. Headaches that last longer
than an hour might be brain tumors. George Gershwin died of
a brain tumor, why not me? Anxiety or chest pain might be a
heart attack. Just because they haven’t been yet, doesn’t
mean much, nor do the normal EKG’s or stress tests I’ve had.
Tests are often wrong. Doctors are all a bunch of miserable
quacks avoiding their own problems by hanging out with sick
My job was and remains, to be well enough to be able to
politely dis-invite the beneficent attentions of others as
many steps as possible prior to hospitalization and
It was not easy to go from being one of the seven righteous
pillars holding up the whole planet and human race to being
just another mental patient. I remember talking to a woman
who was ending racism and asking her if it was part of a
bigger program or if racism was the whole deal. As someone
who had gone back to the beginning of time and dealt with
issues of whether or not life itself was a good idea, I
wasn’t sure that just getting rid of racism was a big enough
When I got a good look at the inner workings of the universe
and sadly realized that I couldn’t go back to life on the
planet earth knowing what I knew, the voices suggested that
I could go back but it would have to be through a
psychiatric hospital with the cover story that I was crazy.
“Ya. Like who’s going to believe that?”
In the eighties when I was called out of retirement to
defeat communism, it was over my strenuous objections. “I
don’t even dislike communism all that much,” I objected. “It
seems so beside the point.” “The Republicans are going to
take credit for this and ride it into the ground,” I
correctly predicted. After winning many many preliminary
rounds which I honestly hoped I’d loose, I was smuggled into
what was thought to be just another psychiatric hospital
where the Russian bear took one look at me, declined to
dance, and the rest is history. My delusional world always
felt kind of tinny and hollow, but that never helped me get
out of it.
As a form of gross overcompensation with a chip the size of
Montana on my shoulder, I decided to try to go to medical
school. I applied to 21 Medical Schools. Most rejected me by
return mail, probably on the basis of my age and
undergraduate grade point average. I didn’t need a
psychiatric diagnosis to be a questionable applicant to
I gave serious consideration to saving the $50 and not
applying to Harvard at all. I honestly think that they
admitted me partly to prove that I wasn’t schizophrenic,
partly because they thought I’d be a good doctor, and partly
just because they’re Harvard.
It’s amazing that I’ve been through what I have and practice
medicine. Today I’m glad I don’t see any particular cosmic
significance or purpose in these events. I just feel lucky.
Today it’s nice to be able to entertain odd thoughts without
having to marry them all. Thank God. I can think whatever
the hell I want. Entertaining odd thoughts won’t make you
crazy. Refusing to entertain odd thought won’t make you
During my recovery from my last episode a very wise friend
told me that other people’s business was not my business. I
felt insulted that he bothered to tell me such an obvious
thing. He then said that what other people thought about me
wasn’t my business. Harder but still not earth shattering.
He then went on to say that what I thought wasn’t really my
business either, which has kept me puzzled ever since.
I’ve come to believe that I’m at my best and that it’s a
beautiful world when my feelings are like the weather and
that what I think is not my business.
A surgeon during my core surgery rotation said that he knew
who I was, but that he was going to treat me as if I were
normal. I sincerely thanked him and said I’d do my best to
act that way.
Are people who have been crazy held to unfair standards?
Of course, but it’s not in your best interest to complain.
If you’re paranoid and people are looking at you funny it’s
best to let it pass. Psychotic people have an uncanny knack
for making their own worst dreams come true. Depressing
things happen to depressed people way beyond what you would
expect from random distribution.
I don’t think the people today who start hearing voices,
stop eating and sleeping, and run amuck are likely to get
good treatment. Having more knowledge, better diagnostic
capabilities, better medications with fewer side effects,
can’t make up for the fact that most patients are being
treated by doctors, therapists, and hospitals, who are
operating under constraints and incentives that reward non-
treatment, non-hospitalization, non-therapy, non-follow-up,
non-care. Lost to follow-up is the best outcome a health
insurer can hope for.
I take Lithium and believe that it has saved my life. I wish
I didn’t need medication. I’m not wild about the tremor and
think I might be 20 lbs lighter without Lithium, but what I
really hate about medication is that it helps me, which
means I’m not nearly as perfect as I wish I were. I should
be able to maintain my mental health by the exertion of my
There’s a big difference between believing you can fly and
flying. The romance about creativity and mental illness has
come from the hard work of great artists struggling against
the illness not giving into it. The best defense against the
seduction that mental illness will make you creative, is to
actually be creative. Please don’t give the disease that
tried to kill me credit for my writing and painting.
Let me be clear that there’s no romance. I never want to
dance that dance again. The more times your wheels go into
that rut, the harder it’s going to be to get out. I dread
nothing more than the next break, and am certain of nothing
more than that there’s nothing positive for me in the
You can’t look a the paintings of Van Gogh, and other
achievements of manic depressives without concluding that
there are positive capacities associated with this illness.
But those positives are AS A RESULT OF FIGHTING THE ILLNESS
RATHER THAN GIVING IN TO IT.
What you do when you accomplish something is to say, “bugger
off disease.” This disease is never your friend.
My illness, my enemy, is a valuable compass. I can usually
figure out whether or not something is moving me closer to
or further away from a break. And I can lean from others
what things they think help defend them against the next
break. The way to live a healthy life is to get a chronic
disease and take good care of it.
It’s alarming that someone like myself with such a
pathetically underdeveloped respect for safety issues became
a pediatrician. When asked by parents about car seats, I
have to work at not letting it slip that I don’t really
care. I also can’t stand it when mothers talk to their
babies in high squeaky voices. It’s a true miracle I’ve
lasted as long as I have.
I’m supposed to tell adolescents about high risk behaviors.
I told one moth
er who asked me to give her son THE LECTURE,
that if one more person told her son about sex, drugs, and
alcohol, he was going to vomit. I told him I thought I
should have posters on the wall saying:
“If you’re having trouble with decisions, smoke marijuana.”
“Safe sex is better than no sex at all.”
“Drink yourself into a black out whenever you can.”
This is all by the way of leading up to say that alcohol and
drugs will almost make things worse for anyone recovering
from mental illness but each may have to learn that for
It’s possible within any given moment of any given day for
me to choose between self and disease. I am rarely faced
with big heroic choices that will settle the matter for once
and for all, though the disease likes to tell me otherwise.
I look for the smallest positive step. I try not to argue
too much. If I’m right, I don’t need to argue. If I’m wrong,
it won’t help. If I’m OK, things will be OK. If I’m not OK,
things don’t matter.
Thank you for your time and patience.
Here’s a reprint of my famous writing on anger, written in June, 2006. Note that this is Part One, and that I never did supply a Part Two as I had promised. A Part Two follows.
ON ANGER, PART ONE
There are three kinds of anger: annoyance, anger, and rage. What most people don’t realize is that about 90 percent of all anger is mere annoyance and the remaining 10 percent anger, plus a minute sliver of rage. Many people never experience rage in their lifetimes. I can only remember two times that I’ve felt true rage, and these incidences were within a month of each other around August 1997, which I will discuss in a future post. Since then, the anger I’ve felt hasn’t even come close. There is no particular reason for this, except that no one has pissed me off enough to merit my getting into a rage state.
I am terrified at the thought of another person getting angry with me, a trait I’ve had since I was very young. This explains why so many of my “friends” dominated me when I was a child and teen; all they had to do was to threaten to show anger and I’d do whatever they asked. I suppose I learned this fear from my parents, who used scare tactics when I did something wrong. They talked to me in booming, ominous voices. They were big and I was small, helpless, and scared. I remember the word “Bad” repeated until it sunk in, a word similar to Evil, which has special meaning for me even today.
I am less afraid of my own anger than I am of that of others. I generally dismiss most things that anger me as annoyances. This is what you do about an annoyance: you let it go. The neighbor’s dog goes poop on your lawn: clean it up and let it go. You get a parking ticket: pay the fine and let it go. You hold the door for someone and he or she doesn’t say, “Thank you”: then assume the person was lost in thought, let it go, and for god’s sake don’t be obnoxious and say, “You’re welcome,” just to teach the errant person a lesson.
Many people won’t let go of annoyances. This causes all sorts of problems, and these people I would think of as “angry people.” Still others are proud of their anger and claim that it is fuel for action. My feeling is that it takes something other than anger to initiate activity; it takes passion. After reading about conditions that face inner city kids, you volunteer to work with them. When you notice a neighbor hasn’t shoveled his walk, you write a letter to the town paper regarding homeowner responsibility in winter. And here’s my favorite, a habit I have that no one seems to understand: When someone doing a service annoys me, I over-tip. If the cab driver is rude, or goes a roundabout route to get me home just to increase the fare, I tip 30 percent. When a waitress served me instant coffee instead of regular–horrors!–I tipped nearly 150 percent, adding a dollar bill and some spare change to the 69 cent coffee price (for that amount, what did I expect, really???)
Anger that is more than annoyance must be dealt with carefully. When you are angry you do get a chance to think about your reaction. You don’t have to go with your gut every time. A man stopped his car to yell at me regarding my dog messing on the yard. It happened to be my own yard, but he didn’t realize this. I should have ignored him but instead we got into a screaming and swearing match–this was quite a while back–and it ended badly, with the man threatening to call the cops and I feeling damn stupid to have argued with him. Looking back, I should have thought first. A more effective reaction would have been to thank the man profusely for his kind advice, and to walk away.
You can’t argue with an angry person. They are thinking irrationally, and they are probably much more worked up than need be. It’s like trying to argue with a drunk, because the person is in an altered state. At times like these you can only feel sorry for him; he is to be pitied while still respected. If you pray, try praying for the person who is angry with you or with whom you are angry. Wish him the best. Have a happy day. God bless you. You don’t need to believe in a god for this to work.
I must admit I’m no expert on rage, having only experienced it twice. Unlike anger, rage has to come out, and there’s no way it’s going to come out constructively. I have seen people in rage states for days on end. Most of the people confined to the “quiet room” on psychiatric wards are experiencing rage. I have seen it happen and wouldn’t want to be witness again if I had the choice. I remember screaming into a pillow more than once. Some people harm themselves. Some commit suicide. I have never known rage to last forever, and it never starts suddenly; there is a buildup, of which many are unaware. I saw a woman in the hospital progress from worrying about hygiene products to full rage in about two days. There’s no way to predict what one may do when in this state, but I can state from experience that it is never comfortable, never constructive or useful in any way. Perhaps the key is to diffuse annoyance and anger before they become rage, in the manner I’ve described above, if at all possible.
Today I have not been angry, just annoyed when the bus driver wouldn’t give me a transfer, and annoyed at myself for being such a lazy housekeeper. The dog hair billows out from under my door into the hall, and someone will surely complain. I’m annoyed that it’s been raining so much lately. I’m annoyed, but very shortly will forget all that and concentrate on writing: There are three kinds of anger: annoyance, anger, and rage.
Rage is akin to fear.
There were two times in my life that I was in a rage. Both times I feared that circumstances would take Joe away from me. I was uncertain as to what these circumstances would be. Fear of the unknown is the worst kind of fear.
Joe had the same fears. He told me he was afraid, at that very same time, when he said goodbye to me, that something would happen and he’d never see me again.
It was at a time when The Thing, an Evil Being that lived in my head, was very powerful. It was at a time that God was just as present in my life, but I could not feel God. When I prayed, The Thing answered and told me I was a phony.
One evening Joe turned down the radio in the van and we held each other as if we’d never see each other again. Joe didn’t have his beard then. His neck felt damp, and I could feel his heart tapping in the soft spot between his clavicles.
“We might not be able to get together like this–like we do now,” he said.
“We will.” I knew I didn’t sound convincing. “Baby, please?”
He lit a cigarette and said nothing for a long time, then put the van in gear. “I’ll take you back to the hospital.”
“We’ll see each other tomorrow, won’t we?”
But we didn’t see each other the next day, or the next day or the next. Circumstances got in the way. God was engineering the world in a way that wasn’t convenient for the two of us. Here was the first point of rage. As I type these words, my hands tighten, my forehead bristles, my ears become more sensitive; I am on high alert. It’s scary just to think about it.
The second point of rage came when I was put in the position of taking care of Joe. The past two years he had taken on the role of caregiver, and suddenly the roles had been reversed. I was angry with the doctor who had given Joe the medication that made him so doped up he couldn’t help himself, but I was enraged at Joe for being the needy, dependent one. I couldn’t even take care of myself; how was I to take care of another person?
I came home, feeling sick. The Thing kept repeating the number 4 to me. Four this. Four that. I took four Tums to settle my stomach, then four Klonopin to calm down, four Benadryl to get to sleep, four Risperdal in attempt to squelch The Thing, then four more Benadryl, then four Tylenol, four, it had to be four, four, four….
Death is secure. Death is knowing. When Joe died, I did not feel the rage I always anticipated I’d feel upon losing him, because I was certain of what had happened, and there was nothing left to fear. To say I felt flagrantly cheated would be a more accurate way of putting it.
Anger is drive. Anger can be creative. Anger is occasionally useful. Anger is even occasionally funny. Rage is filth. Don’t go there.
A couple of days ago I played my MP3 player too loud. For hours afterward, my head felt raw, as if some of its lubricant were missing. My neck creaked. My skull bones rubbed hard against my brain until blisters formed. All the sounds I heard during those hours were like the crunching sound one hears and feels underfoot following a powder-crisp January snow in Vermont, while trudging to the barn, or worse, to the outhouse.
I came to the library to find sanity, instead I found the “Faire on the Square” happening next door, with booming music and families bumbling about from booth to booth, grabbing cotton candy, hopping on rides, admiring pumpkins–the noise! I tried turning up the music on my MP3 player to drown out the drums and singing out there, but it was hopelessly noisy. I felt like strangling Curious George, who had taken up residence outside the library to amuse and be amused by us all.
I moved. To a corral away from the windows. I’m parked there now. The kids downstairs make constant noise. I turn up my MP3 player loud to drown them out. Out with you all! Out, out! Music up so loud my ears hurt. Castrate Curious George! Louder, louder! Kill the kids! Kill ’em! Kill ’em all and stuff ’em in the toilet! Get out of MY library!
Problem is, toilets clog when you stuff them with kids, especially big kids, and police sirens make an awful lot of noise.
It is a time to look back. My brother Ned recently commented that young people derive pleasure and hope from looking ahead; the old feel hope looking back on the past. Of course I’m not old; I’m not yet 50. I think I am at a point of reflection because I feel an era has passed, that with the addition of Topamax to my medication regimen I am less likely to fall over; the base under me is wider, more solid.
There were other turning points, times when life drastically improved for me; two that come to mind are when I began to take Lithium in 1984, and my 40th birthday in 1998. But those were not times for looking back. In 1984 I was a mere 26 years old, too young to look back as there was so little to look back on, and in 1998 it was too terrifying to reflect on recent years, as those were the times that I was the most ill.
Now is a time that not only am I digging up old blog entries, but I am peeking at old journals, times of pain in particular, to try to understand them. I am at a place right now that I’m able to handle that pain. What’s important is to face it and understand it without re-experiencing it. Why? Because I want to be a better person. Because I want to shed the bullshit. And because I am ready to do so.
Here’s a watercolor I did a number of years ago:
Here’s the most offensive ad I’ve seen in a while:
As soon as they started running their bikini ads, I took my profile out of their database. Since when do all us “singles” look like that? Pl-lease!