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The Fury Trip

How Anger Management Taught Me to Love My Neighbors and Stop Breaking Things

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Scott Smith
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Scott Smith
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Scott Smith
The room is set up like a United Nations meeting, with long conference tables pushed together to form a U-shape and too-bright artificial light beaming down from the ceiling. Looking around at my 15 or so surly-faced, pinch-eyed classmates, I immediately start wondering who did what to get themselves here. It's like a game of pin the tail on the bitch-slapper, or child-beater, or road-rager. I can't help it. It's one of those shameful automatic responses, like rubbernecking or finger-sniffing. You just go there.

It makes me a little uneasy, partaking of such silent criminal-type profiling, but I should also confess that it gives me a sense of being somewhat above it all. Not superior, exactly, but sociologically clued in to the über-situation. It's the same complex gut feeling I get every single goddamn time I walk into a Kmart, knowing some white-trash mom will be swatting her screaming kid's ass up and down the toy aisle. And the reason you don't see this kind of anti-social behavior at, say, Nordstrom is the very same reason there aren't any suit-and-tie types sitting in this anger management seminar right now.

My classmates, in other words, cannot be counted among our society's so-called well-to-do. To flip open another can of worms, I can't help but notice that two-thirds of us here are black. This is another one of those automatic internal accountings, and I know that it could simply be chalked up to the demographics of the neighborhood, or even the random composition of this particular class. Who knows? Maybe anger management classes in Mill Creek look entirely different from those in the Central District. Or do they even have anger management classes in Mill Creek? Something like Laptop Smashers Anonymous, or "Coping with Interoffice Passive-Aggressiveness" seminars?

Face it: Rich people are better, more adept, at hiding their feelings, at least the ugly ones. (Think of the silent desperation of a John Cheever story.) Poor people, on the other hand, tend to let their shit hang out all over the place. Then there's the fact that poverty is one pretty damn good goad to anger in and of itself. Who gives a fuck who does what to whom when there ain't no up? Circles within circles.

For the most part, then, this is a strictly postmodern-proletariat-looking group, ragtag and down-at-the-heel except for the few black girls dolled up with their impossibly long nails and pouty blood-red lips. These girls spend most of the six-week class with their chins in their hands and their eyes on the clock, acting bored and petulant like high-schoolers. The black guys, dressed casual in nylon running pants and Ts, are by turns cool and clownish, smooth and stuporous. The white guys, myself included, are predominantly unshaven mopers, with dark circles under glazed, bemused eyes, like we all just got off a serious jag. A couple of dudes in plaid button-ups and paint-spattered blue jeans give off a sort of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest air of impending disorder ("I want my CIGARETTES!").

Then there's this heavyset, eager, Dilbertish-looking fellow; turns out he and I are the only people who have actually elected to take this class, rather than having it foisted upon us by terms of parole or court mandate. And the one white girl is this birdy-looking, flitty thing; in appearance and demeanor, she reminds me of Shelley Duvall circa The Shining. She spends a lot of time drawing and chatting with herself. I can't imagine her gathering up enough concentration to get angry about anything, but you never know. If you hit the right button, she might be the worst of the bunch.

Even though I'm only taking this class as a secret sharer of sorts, ready to report back whatever I might discover about the social hellfire of anger, it can hardly be said that I am a stranger to some of the dreaded emotion's more overt manifestations. I might have a clean record, but I'm no angel. My own specialty, in the realm of reactive mismanagement, is breaking things. I don't hit people (and it makes me sick wondering who here does). I just bust shit up. I've bashed stereos, smashed telephones, fastballed bowls and plates against walls. More than once, I've been stopped in the very instant of punting my recalcitrant computer off the front porch and into the street.

A few months back, during a particularly weird yet extremely heated diatribe I was delivering to my girlfriend about how untalented and lame and broke I am, I grabbed a Plexiglas writing award I'd recently won and hurled it against a brick wall outside our apartment--for emphasis, to make a point. It made a loud popping noise and snapped clean in half. I felt good, maybe even euphoric, for a second or two, but then I felt stupid. And then I experienced an overpowering urge to laugh, which I had to stifle to save face.

It's a wicked thing to see people lose their shit like this. Such spontaneous displays of pent-up anger hold their lucky witnesses in rapt attention, especially when they involve large-scale destruction. Regarding the hyper-real events of September 11, Jonathan Franzen wrote in the The New Yorker that "[b]esides the horror and sadness of what you were watching, you might also have felt... an awed appreciation of the visual spectacle it achieved." A dear friend of mine who happened to witness the second World Trade Center tower explode and crumble from the rooftop of his brownstone in Brooklyn said it "looked just like the final scene of Fight Club," where terrorist bombs planted by fight-clubbers in parking basements around the city cause the Manhattan skyline to crumble in a brilliant, breathtaking holocaust of steel and fire.

Can I reasonably tie the incident of me breaking a personal object--my tizzy little tempest in a teacup--to the apocalyptic imagery of passenger planes disappearing like so much flammable dust into the World Trade Center? Yes. Do I think that the "fanatics" who steered those planes were feeling anything like anger in the seconds before impact? No. I think they were probably feeling something closer to euphoria. But it was anger, spurred by objective realities, transmuted by theory and endless political rhetoric into a state of emphatic rage, that fueled the deed. I think this is a slightly better explanation of a suicidal psychology than the one recently offered by Vice President Dick Cheney, who, when asked why Osama bin Laden hates the United States so much, answered that it must have something to do with the Arab's childhood.

Anger neither transcends nor undermines morality; it flat-out obliterates it, through a dehumanizing magic whereby any living thing can be attacked as a mere symbol, whether it be a lippy girlfriend, a misbehaving child, or 5,000 faceless office workers seated 80 stories above New York City. The alchemy of anger is perfect, the immediate results exhilarating, even sexy. And the longer you bottle it up, the bigger the bang.

After I threw that stupid award, it took several minutes for me to notice the blood. In my object-demolishing fury, I'd ripped a nasty, fleshy gash in my index finger. I didn't even feel it, and this scared me a little. But it's not nearly as scary as that internalized, brooding, constant anger that I hold close to my chest and that makes me wish, every once in a while--too often, in fact--that the whole stupid, senseless, violent, unjust, pain-warped world would just blow itself up.

It must be something from my childhood.

The class instructor, an ebullient and garrulous Caribbean women, kicks off the first of our six two-hour weekly classes by asking how many among us honestly believe that we do not have an anger management problem. I raise my hand high, along with a few other folks. I'm not trying to prove anything, or set myself apart. My vote is more like a calculated hedge in a society that is rapidly eating itself alive with anger. It began the moment all those paranoid, God-fearing Calvinists set out "Westward Ho!" with muskets and kin in tow, up through the internecine rage-fest that was the Civil War and far beyond, to H-bombs and lynch mobs and Kent State, directly to the horrible amping up of aggression during the last couple of decades, when the magnitude, the frequency, and the sheer, perverted individuality of angry acts have taken on the quality of collective pathology. You know, in comparison to the deep-seated plague of rage that characterizes the present psychic makeup of America--Columbine, Ruby Ridge, Bernard Goetz, professional wrestling, military-industrial war frenzy, gay bashing, racist killer cops, armed-to-the-teeth militias, neo-Nazis, anti-abortion terrorists, flag-waving raghead-hatin' freaks, Timothy McVeigh--I feel that I'm doing pretty okay.

The instructor goes on to outline her "rules to play by": a sort of code of conduct to which she wishes us all to adhere during class time. Her biggie is "show respect," as in no interrupting each other, or insulting each other, or punching each other in the face, or disallowing each other's point of view. She also emphasizes that anger management class is not--repeat NOT--group therapy; while sharing personal experiences is a valuable tool for dissecting the roots of anger, she says, this is first and foremost a tutorial. We are here to learn about anger, its causes and expressions, as well as the means by which we might come to control its myriad dangers; we are not here to confess.

"The face of anger is aggression," our instructor tells us. She speaks of the distinction to be made between anger and expressions of anger. Anger, in and of itself, is never the problem. Anger, per se, is okay. Any personal difficulties we may encounter arise when, through a pattern of deeply imbedded learned behavior, we choose to deal with anger in a way that is irrational and destructive. As a class, she also has us discuss, in very general terms, issues of control, and the idea of living consciously versus living unconsciously, and how the main difference between adults and children is that adults have the ability to manage their emotions.

Ironically enough, I immediately witness this last assertion being put to the test. Sitting across from me is a couple whose little kid--a boy of about four, for whom they couldn't find a sitter this evening--has been growing increasingly antsy-pants over the course of the class. The squirmier he gets, the more he chatters and wiggles, the more strenuous become his mother's efforts to shush him, until... "Smack!" followed immediately by a hiss of "Stop it!" and then crying. Talk about unconscious behavior. It wasn't the slightest bit funny, and yet I almost laughed out loud.

At the end of the first class, the instructor assigns a simple homework project, a short-essay questionnaire about our personal dealings with anger that I complete in about 10 minutes. At the next Wednesday's session, when it comes time to hand in the homework, it turns out that only half the class has completed it. One guy in particular--let's call him D--starts raising a holy stink about not understanding the assignment, arguing completely facetiously that none of the questions "speak to his heart." Our instructor, with admirable patience, counters D's loopy claim by pointing out that, if he had indeed needed help with the assignment, he could have telephoned her at any time, instead of waiting until the last possible minute to lodge a complaint.

And so around they go, back and forth, with D--a grown man and an unconscionable blowhard--offering up excuse after lame, adolescent "the dog ate it" excuse. After listening to them go at it for half an hour, I scrawl this in my notebook:

That guy is so full of shit. Doesn't want to accept responsibility for his own laziness & apathy, channels all his energy and limited thought into explaining himself and therefore conning the instructor (while he's the only one who thinks he's being successful). Loves, just LOVES to hear himself speak. Waste 25 minutes of class just because this asshole didn't do his homework! Now L sets up a private conference with him, which pisses me off royally! And now everyone wants a private conference!

At the end of which I write: Now deconstruct this.

While not exactly the Rage of Achilles, I do believe there's something instructive about such an irruptive display of inside anger, if only because I know how it felt: Bad. And it wasn't the first time I'd let myself become enraged by this guy. It seemed that during every one of the classes I attended, he was pulling some kind of charade, either cutting wise or going on and on and fucking on about his own episodes with anger, how he used to do a lot of "drinkin' and druggin' and such," and how he's so much better now, and he doesn't ever get angry. Always with the goddamn "drinkin' and druggin'," completely oblivious to the caveat that, hey, this isn't a therapy session. Asshole.

Were I able at the time to describe this episode of interiorized rage to my anger management instructor, she might point out that, first, I was unduly frustrated about a situation to which I had willingly subjected myself and upon which I had placed my own (perhaps false) expectations regarding protocols of behavior in a classroom setting amid anger-challenged adults; and that, secondly, I did in fact possess the option of speaking my mind--perhaps letting D know that I felt he was wasting my and everyone else's precious time, and asking him to please give it a rest. And lastly, well... at least I didn't shoot the guy. There's always that.

It's sort of a Zen thing, an issue of power and control and perception. If I perceive that I am powerless--whether sitting trapped in my car in bumper-to-bumper traffic in 95-degree heat after a shitty day at work, or stifled and disrespected in an interaction with some overbearing, condescending asshole, where I am not being effectively heard--then I may react with disproportionate force in order to attempt to balance the situation. And this is where the issue of control comes in. What we can't control but think we can or should be able to control pisses us off to no end. You might know all this stuff, but unless you stay on top of it, the knowledge is useless. That's what anger management teaches: Every angry impulse needs to be identified and deconstructed, and thereby defused.

Now, after having sat my way through the seminar, I might simply avoid contact with a guy as annoying and self-absorbed as D. As William Burroughs put it: "If after being in someone's presence you feel as though you've lost a quart of plasma, AVOID THAT PRESENCE." And that adage, albeit in slightly different terms, is in fact listed as one of the Ten Principles of Anger Control, photocopied on a sheet handed out on the second day of class. My personal favorites are number eight ("Loss of control is usually a result of a buildup of small irritants that have not been dealt with") and nine ("An imbalance of chores and pleasures in your general lifestyle increases the likelihood of your behaving aggressively").

Our instructor tells us about more "positive" outlets for aggression, ways of blowing off steam without fucking stuff up. She surprises me by admitting that she herself likes to watch violent shoot-'em-up movies, that they give her a feeling of vindication. "I think if you want to hit the pillow," she says, "if you want to hit the bag... slam the door... and it's not hurting anybody, and it's allowing you to feel that you're moving the energy from here to there, then that's okay."

During a break, I share a smoke with a guy who works on a construction crew by day. He's one of the grizzled guys, blond, blue eyes, hunched shoulders. I never get the balls to ask him exactly why he's in this class, what he might have done, though I've got a notion it was court-mandated, and it was something aggressive. Because while he's always friendly enough with me--we spend the duration of our cigarettes bitching about Seattle traffic, mostly--it isn't that hard to imagine him beating me absolutely senseless at the drop of a hat. His face is always red verging on redder, and his smile transforms at times into something like a rictus. Wolf-like. He seems always on the verge of a Travis Bickle-magnitude snap--as though the only energy he might be interested in moving from here to there is his fist into someone's face.

Next week, the class is broken up into smaller units so that we can work as a federation of angry little tribes on an exercise about emotions. I get stuck in a collective with the bird-woman, a narcoleptic-looking guy , one of the grumpy black girls, and my smoking partner. Because nobody else really gives a rat's ass, and because I'm the only person with both pen and paper, I become the de facto group leader. Our assignment is to come up with as many emotional states as we can in 10 minutes, after which a spokesperson from our unit will present the findings to the entire federation... I mean class.

Our group starts strong, listing off a quick 20 or so of the big emotions, like hate, love, envy, greed. Basically, we're breaking the seven deadly sins down further and further into various sub-categories, but it feels like we're getting somewhere. To keep up the appearance of group participation, I start throwing all kinds of psychological states out there--floating them like trial balloons--after which we take a vote on whether anyone else has ever experienced said state of mind.

With the clock winding down, things start getting weird. Bird-woman, heretofore silent, suddenly blurts out: "Evil." After this, smoking man suggests "pain," and then "homicide." I decide to push us in a different direction. Just for fun, I say "horny," and when this elicits nothing but quiet and stares, I rephrase it. "Lust," I say. "You know, it's an emotion, sort of."

It's at this point that the grumpy black girl asks me: "Are you a cop or something?"

I still don't understand why she asked me this.

After having missed two consecutive weeks, I show up for class thinking I've got two sessions left when actually this is the final meeting. I feel discomfited, alienated, and lost, as if in a dream of showing up to school naked. It seems to me that everyone is severely disappointed with me, though that could just be in my head. On top of this, I've completely forgotten that, for the last class, the instructor has scheduled a pizza feed. I'm starving, but like hell am I going to take a slice when I haven't been paying my dues. This allows ample opportunity for the kind of self-pity I have always excelled at. And--as I've now come to understand, of course--self-pity is just the inverted brother of self-loathing, which, after all, is just another kind of anger.

As I'm moping thus, the pizza arrives, but it turns out the order was screwed up: The instructor phoned in for four pies, but only two make it into the building. While everyone else is chatting, I eavesdrop as she gets back on the horn to rectify the situation with the restaurant. After she explains to the employee on the other end what's going on, she listens to what he or she has to say. I watch her expression drop slowly into a frown.

"Were you the person who took my order?" she asks, firmly.

"------"

"Then you don't know what I ordered, do you?" she says, somehow giving the impression of raising her voice without actually increasing its volume.

"------"

"Uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah?"

"------"

"It would be nice," she finally says into the receiver, "if you recognized your mistake and apologized."

After she gets off the phone, the instructor sends D out to get some napkins and cups for the soda pop. She explains to the class that the other pizzas should be arriving shortly. She tells everyone to go ahead and grab a slice, no use in them getting cold, and then when the other two pies arrive, we can polish those off too. I overcome my guilt and nab a slice of pepperoni. It's good.

D comes busting back into the classroom, his arms loaded up with napkins and cups. He dumps everything on the table in a pile, then flips open one of the cardboard boxes. He frowns, flips open the other. D, smirking, looks out into the classroom, where people are in various stages of stuffing their faces with pizza. A class member walks up to the table, looks at D, and grabs a napkin.

"MAN!" D yells. "CAN'T YOU ALL SAVE A BROTHER A PIECE OF PIE? WHEN HE GETS THE NAPKINS FOR YOU ALL AND SHIT? MAN!"

The instructor laughs. She points out that here, D has used humor to let everyone know he's angry about what he perceives to be a grand-scale act of selfishness. It is a common technique, she says, and one that helps defuse more aggressive responses. D says this is all well and good, but he still doesn't have a damn slice of pizza.

I can't help but wonder, as I write this, if D ended up getting his certificate. I wonder as well about those two parents with the squirmy kid. Did they pass the class? I sure as hell didn't. Just a few weeks back, a "notification of unsuccessful completion" arrived in the mail from my anger management instructor. The reason for my lack of certification was twofold. First of all, I missed two classes, back to back, near the end of the course. Second, I failed to turn in a journal I was required to keep documenting my daily experiences with anger--thoughts, encounters, musings, observations, and whatnot. No excuses here. I didn't turn in the journal because I didn't do it.

And I didn't do it because there was nothing at stake. Without caseworkers and parole officers and signatures needed on county paperwork, it was easy for me to skip out on the homework. Which is not to say that I didn't learn a thing or two. In fact, I'm surprised at the useful information I came away with, considering how general and repetitive and sometimes touchy-feely it proved to be. I'm also surprised at how it's influenced my more spontaneous forms of behavior.

I don't get pissed off quite as often as I used to. Really.

After the course has ended, I call my instructor to ask if it's okay if we get together. We arrange to meet in her office. One of the first things I ask her is if she finds herself constantly laboring under the misperception that she herself never gets angry, much in the way, say, that a psychotherapist might labor under the misconception that she's not fucked up.

"I do get angry," she says, "but I think I try to deal with it as appropriately as I can. When I recognize my buttons, I stop. To me, anger management is not about not being angry, it's about what to do and how to behave when you are angry. I try to make people conscious of their feelings," she adds, "because they disconnect a lot, and if you disconnect, then you don't really know what's causing anger. If you don't know, you can't manage."

In other words, when it comes to managing anger, it's all in your head. This fits in rather well with the familiar Socratic dictum: Know thyself. Unfortunately, I can't think of a society where self-knowledge pertains less than it does right here, right now. And neither can I better describe the cause of the current epidemic of war-mongering and willful ignorance and fearsome racism that has taken over so many of our hearts than as one massive disconnect. We're now living in a world of fear and loathing that has somehow warped itself into one seriously disastrous form of anger.

By the way, on top of everything else, this anger management stuff helped me finally figure out why Kurt Cobain blew his head off: He was angry. Listen to the music; you can hear it all over the place. Rage turning like a worm. I've got that same kind of anger. It twists and turns inside, gives me stomachaches, too, and makes me blame myself for everything that goes wrong. Causes my thinking to go all haywire. Gives me a taste for chemical oblivion. And then sometimes, when no one's around, I'll punch a wall as hard as I can. What's the difference?

When you're watching a movie in the theater, there's this little white, scratchy blur that occasionally appears at the top right corner of the screen, just for a split second. It signals the changing of reels. The thing is, I never noticed the blur until someone pointed it out to me. Now I see it every single time. That's the best I come up with in explaining how anger management class can actually help: If you're simply aware of them, you'll never not notice when those little alarms start going off in your head, signaling a potential abreaction to whatever external bullshit's going down. It's then that you should take a deep breath, and count to 10.

So, everybody: Count to 10. Breathe deep. Exhale.

 

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Awesome article. Great writing. Thoroughly enjoyed both the perspective and the detail, personal experience really enriching and ... just plain cool. Thanks.
Posted by maddlycreative on May 1, 2010 at 8:29 PM · Report this

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