Today someone made me angry, and I made that person angry in turn. I happen to think my anger was more justified, but my interlocutor’s was apparently more intense — after a certain point, I was inclined to mend bridges and they pointedly refused to even respond to me and then walked out of the room. And that makes me distrust myself, on a gut level. I feel exhausted.
When I walked into my class immediately after this incident, I asked if I could be open and honest and told them that something had made me very angry, which I couldn’t talk about, and which had nothing to do with them. It was initially mysterious to me that I felt the need to do this, that I was so sure it was right and necessary to do. My affect can be a little inscrutable, even to people who know me as well as these students do at this point, so I probably had plausible deniability in any case.
But as I pondered over this issue on the train, scrolling through Facebook endlessly because I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I saw that I had to let them know because no one ever told me that when I was growing up. I’m sure my mom was angry and frustrated about a lot of things — about having a child too young, about having a husband who worked long hours with a long commute and left her stranded by herself, about any number of thwarted ambitions and possibilities. It wasn’t a violent anger, not the kind of anger that shouts or throws things. It was a surgical anger, the anger of an intellectually agile woman who couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge to herself what was really going on. To keep from having to acknowledge that, she needed me to be in the wrong, and she knew how to goad me until I was, knew I would eventually find the words that were just as cruel and precise as hers and be unable to resist my own cleverness.
I organized my whole life around avoiding that anger. All my deepest habits and rhythms come from my attempt to work around that anger, to carve out a space for myself. Why am I so good with deadlines? Because I remember very vividly the day that I was too tired to do my chores right after school and she caught me watching TV when she got home. She didn’t yell at me, didn’t throw things, didn’t even directly order me to get going with the laundry (my chore of all chores, as people on social media surely know). She sarcastically asked, “Are you kidding me?” I worry that this will sound bizarre or insane, I can’t remember that moment without being flooded with shame.
Best to get it out of the way, then, to be beyond reproach. Sometimes she marvels at how, as a kid, I would practice piano first thing in the morning or declare I was self-limiting my video game time. Doubtless my innate temperament played a role, but above all I was trying to stay ahead of the curve and carve out some space of freedom for myself.
The old patterns continue to haunt me, no matter how self-aware I have become. For example, lately The Girlfriend has been playing a Dr. Mario knockoff on her iPhone. As a joke, I downloaded an NES emulator on my Android phone and got the real Dr. Mario to show off — then got sucked into a hole of playing those old video games. Final Fantasy seemed most functional with the touchscreen controls, and as I played, I grew increasingly convinced that I was doing something wrong, that The Girlfriend must surely be annoyed and angry at me, that she was seething with irritation. It was a sheer hallucination, because the apprehension of my mother’s anger is baked into the nostalgia of Nintendo for me.
I have of course moved on to more advanced computer games — games of comment threads and social media, games where I often find myself angered and respond with a harsh but clever retort. Indeed, I take a certain perverse pride in my ability to land the blow right where a person is most sensitive, a skill that I have honed since my earliest memories. But it scares me, too. I remember once when I was at a party and there was a person there I found irritating — and almost before I knew what I was doing, I shot off a one-liner that utterly and precisely humiliated him. It’s one of the true moments of shame for me in my adult life. And what was shocking was how completely spontaneous it was, as though I had been saving it up for years, as though I had a file that I could instantly access. And sometimes I wonder if I have a file like that on everyone, if I unconsciously save that up just in case, without even realizing it. But in case of what?
One of the most frustrating things I’ve had to come to terms with as an adult is that in so many ways, the person I knew as my mom is gone. She’s changed in so many ways, going back to college, becoming a teacher, traveling all around the world. Our relationship has changed as well. My sister says she’s always walking on eggshells, because she’s worried she’ll make me mad and never see me again. And that person is gone in another sense, insofar as she constantly professes not to remember all those strange and disturbing moments, all those times that I was forced to fight in whatever proxy war she was waging that day — like the time in late high school when she sat me down and berated me for having no ambition or drive and worried aloud that I might grow up to be as pathetic and disrespected as the manager at the bank branch she worked at in high school. Or the time that she sent me to go have a session with her therapist and made me pay.
Hard as it may be to believe, I got a clean bill of health in that, my only encounter with the mental health profession. I cling to that diagnosis still. What I’ve cobbled together out of that sad survival strategy has proven workable as a life. I found my way out — like the ape in Kafka’s story, and with the same doubts and reservations.