Holding my breath

May 14, 2009

One of Bon’s recent posts started me thinking about anger in a way I hadn’t for a while, of my history with it.

My mother tells stories about my temper tantrums when I was very small.  I would hold my breath until my face turned blue, which scared her (and probably also scared her into soothing the blue-faced toddler with what she wanted).  My pediatrician told her that the best thing to do was just to let me pass out, as I’d then start breathing again.

I used to be kind of proud of this, that I had such strength of will when I was two that I could hold my breath that long.


My brother and I used to rough house together, tumbling and teasing half in play, half in, well, something else – perhaps youthful aggression or sibling rivalry.  One day we were alone in the house (I think I was seven or eight and he was six or seven) when we started playing, and then fighting – pulling hair, punching, kicking, wrestling, the sort of fighting that would have landed us in serious trouble if either parent had witnessed it.  I remember being hurt, feeling pain, and then wanting to kill him, and not in the metaphorical sense.  And I remember this moment when we both stopped and stared at each other, terrified not so much of what we’d been doing but of what we wanted, truly wanted, to do to each other.  We never wrestled like this again.


I’ve mentioned that I was raised by Scandinavian stoics on the prairies of Montana, yes?  There’s a certain code, a certain way of behaving in my family and home community that really doesn’t include many outlets for the healthy expression of anger.  My brother and I would hide near the workshop when Grandpa and Dad were fixing farm equipment and listen to all the f*cks coming out of their mouths – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, it was amazing – forbidden and intriguing.  It was also something men did when they were out of ear-reach of women and children.  It was fascinating, but I knew, listening to it, that those expressions would never be mine.

I hardly ever say it, f*ck, even under my breath.  When I do say it, it sounds like I’m speaking in a foreign language, slightly out of place, slightly wrong.  Writing it is a little easier, but not much.  Not much.

I was the girl.  I was the girl, and girls weren’t supposed to be angry.  And if we were angry, we weren’t supposed to yell or scream or kick or bite or throw things.  We were supposed to contain the anger.  To be fair, I don’t think that I was taught this intentionally.  My parents are loving, kind, people, and I’m fairly certain that, if they’d thought about it in the way I now think about it, they would have worked harder to get both my brother and I to express our feelings in words.  But what we learn isn’t always what we are intended to learn.  I am well-schooled in clamping down on the anger.  I practically have a degree in “Oh me? I’m fine.”


I used to yell maybe once every three years; anger would pour out of me at strange times and for not very obvious reasons, and I would tear someone a new one, feel horrible, and then get on with life.  Back in graduate school, I learned that I could still lose my temper when my new kitten destroyed my precious yellow teapot that I’d brought home from England, and when she would bite my feet as I stayed up at night to finish papers.  I would shut her into the bathroom so that I wouldn’t go crazy, and I would worry in a theoretical sort of way about what this behavior said about any parenting skills I might have.


I think I tend to get angry in ways that my Dad does, which scares me a little.  I was so in fear of his anger – the clenched jaw, the icy silence – we’d anticipate the blow up and even if it never came, I was still afraid, still wanted to hide from it.  I didn’t realize till late in high school how much anger Dad had grown up with, how hard he tried to shield us from it.  When I get angry at N, I clamp down on everything and turn cold and unresponsive and distant.  I simmer and brew, an icy, difficult-to-approach glacier.  I do not, by the way, recommend this as a way to build healthy relationships.  He hates it, and it always ends in both of us feeling miserable and sad.

When I was pregnant with Teddy, I watched N’s sister with her daughter, and marveled at her patience and gentleness, and at the way our niece responded to that gentleness.  I wondered if I had that in me.  I worried that I’d be brusque, that I’d get angry, that I’d take frustrations out on N, on Teddy, that the stress of being a new parent would be too hard for me to handle with grace.  I worried that I’d be cold to my child, that my child would come to fear cold anger.

And now I don’t have the kind of anger I worried about having.  I have something else, and I wonder if I may have to learn better ways of expressing it in order to heal.  It bubbles up inside me all too often, and I retreat with it, I pull myself away from people before I can scream at them, I try to write it out, I try to hold it back, I try to drive it away.  I try, very hard, to keep it from turning on myself and I’m having only limited success.  It has nowhere to go, no appropriate target, no clear path to follow, but it wants to hurt something.

I wonder if my toddler tantrums were not the result of strong will, but simply a way of dealing with feeling a great deal of anger and not knowing how to express it.  Even so, I really wish I could still hold my breath, turn blue, pass out into oblivion.  Oblivion is harder to come by now, and tends to involve money and hangovers.

I took a self defense course about eight years ago and I still remember how good it felt, to kick a padded wall, hard as I could, and yell “No!”  Perhaps my anger wants a dojo.


One comment

  1. I have that anger too. And I don’t know what to do with it either.

    Last week it escaped though. I tried to keep it bottled up but it got out anyway.

    My husband ended up with salad all over him (and all over the furniture). And our TV in the spare room got thrown (deliberately) by me onto the floor.

    It’s a pretty HUGE anger inside me.

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