I feel like my rage might eat me alive. I feel like I’m at the end of my rope, and I’m just trying to hang on.
After being at home together for a year, my boyfriend and I are struggling. We barely talk about anything and even rarely have sex. (I just looked on my period app where I keep records and it was demoralizing.) On top of that, the past couple of years I’ve estranged myself from my dysfunctional, alcoholic parents and family for my own sanity. Over the summer, my best friend went full anti-vaxx/anti-mask/wellness-pastel QAnon, and I miss her and I’m so angry at our country. As someone with chronic illness, I have barely left my house this past year, and people think masks are a scam and an assault on their rights?! WTF?! Watching people get together for birthday parties after being vaccinated when my turn is soon (but seemingly not soon enough) is breaking me, as I’ll soon spend a second birthday (my 40th!) in quarantine.
The final straw is that I found out that I was passed over for a promotion at work for a job I pretty much already do and was told it was because I once casually mentioned I might actually retire someday??! I’m the most senior employee (and the only woman) in the group, and the promotion is going to a man who is my junior who looks to me for help with a lot of things as it is. My brain put together the puzzle pieces during a flashback to all of the times I have put up with the sexist commentary my boss has made, and now I cannot contain my rage, to the point where I am having trouble staying focused and actually working. I want to burn down everything and scream at everyone and hide in the forest after I throw my phone in a lake so nobody can find me and I can take a break from the world.
I talk to my therapist weekly, I eat okay, I need to move my body more (although rage gardening is really productive), and I’m trying to be good with sleep hygiene. I’m not sure what I’m asking exactly, other than how the fuck can I express my rage so it doesn’t eat me alive? Everything feels overwhelming right now.
Elder Millennial Soon to Be Crone
No one is taking care of you, and it hurts. Normally I’d start with something much more empowering than that. Because most of us don’t have anyone taking care of us! We don’t each get our own private Mommy who listens and empathizes and makes things better. Hell, many of us don’t even get that when we’re babies.
But you know what? It’s still so sad to feel like you’re completely on your own. And when you’re enraged, sometimes that’s just the sadness of needing so much that you don’t have. Your anger forms a shell around you to keep you safe from how sad you are. But when you keep putting up a shield, you start to forget about the soft feelings inside. Instead, you want to throw things, or shut everything off and take a break.
You do need a break right now. You’re exhausted and disappointed in almost everything. Jesus, do I remember that feeling! When I was 30 years old, I had a boyfriend who didn’t get me. I never got to explain how I felt, and when I tried, it made him angry. Back then, when I tried to lean on my mom, she’d get angry at me, too. Most of my friends didn’t want to talk about my heavy emotions while I was actually feeling them. Emotionally, in other words, I kept buying curtains to match the rug and lamp and couch and walls I already had.
I know now that my boyfriend and my mom and my friends had their own struggles back then. I couldn’t really attune myself to their feelings because I rarely acknowledged my own feelings. When I was emotional, my compassion failed me. That’s when I’d say things like, “I need a break!” Or “I just want someone to take care of me!” Sometimes I’d have an overpowering urge to get in the car and drive away from my whole life, because I didn’t feel connected to anything or anyone at all. I’d get into bed at night and my boyfriend would be putting Carmex on his lips, which he did every night, and the smell of Carmex was like the smell of dread to me. I’d stare at the ceiling and think, “I hate this. I have to break up with him.” But somehow, by the next morning, I was back to resolving to try harder, be nicer, work more.
The only solution I had in my arsenal was to work harder because deep down, I always suspected that the problem was me. And look, it’s so easy to feel that way, when you live in a world where most people are avoidant and stigmatize any sign of ambivalence or need or conflicted energy.
People are so confused and avoidant that they don’t make sense anymore. No one knows how to sort through anything, so they just keep sidestepping each other’s needs instead. I can’t even imagine how frustrating and upsetting it must’ve been to witness your best friend falling prey to conspiracies and lies. Throw in an unresponsive family and distant boyfriend and you’ve got a recipe for alienation and despair.
You haven’t told me that much about your boyfriend, so I don’t want to jump to conclusions about your relationship. I just want you to understand one thing right now: You’re working too hard and you’re too hard on yourself. That’s where the rage comes from. You’re angry because you believe, deep down, that the problem is you, but you also know that the problem is not you.
And you’re right: The problem is not you. You deserve to have strong connections with people who believe in mutual care and concern. You deserve more than what you’re getting right now.
You don’t have a lot of models of secure functioning relationships in your life, so you can’t really conceptualize a person who prioritizes your needs. But people like that do exist. You just don’t know it because no one you know is secure enough to act that way. You might not be secure enough for that, either. If you found yourself in a very caring, mutually supportive relationship, you’d run the risk of imagining that your partner was taking advantage of you, because you grew up with broken people who used each other, in a society of broken people who use each other.
Until you’re a person who knows what you deserve, it is exceedingly hard to ask for what you need from other people while respecting their needs. Until you have compassion for yourself, it’s difficult to have compassion for other people. Once you acknowledge that you deserve care, your feelings matter, and you need a break, you can move those realizations out of the realm of rage gardening and into the realm of relationships with other people.
Last year, I had to navigate through a lot of scary shit and heaviness. Sometimes I reverted to my former tough “work harder, be nicer!” self. Other times, I found myself moving out of reach of the people who loved me and retreating into my own head. Through all of that, I trusted that my husband was going to show up for me and take care of me if I needed that. I knew that I could stop him during the day to talk about what was on my mind, and he would either listen or gently tell me that he was busy but he could listen later — and then he would always, always bring it up later. I knew I could call my friends and, if I told them that I needed them, they would take the time to help. Let me add: It is still so obscenely hard for me to ask for what I want from people. I mean beyond difficult. Because I spent so many years both being treated like hazardous waste when I was sad and also treating myself that way, I still have trouble accepting that I can lean on my friends, that I can ask for help directly, that I can trust that they love me.
But when things turned scary last year — after the initial shock, during which I shut down completely and hated everyone, lol — I decided that I would ask for help. I decided I would try to feel my love for my friends and my husband more. I resolved to ACCEPT that people really did love me. Why was I so resistant to that idea?
I don’t know. All I know is that the small chunk of me that was resilient enough to finally break up with my bad Carmex-scented boyfriend was the same chunk that recognized that my husband was a trustworthy person when I met him. It was the same chunk that found my husband incredibly attractive, in spite of the fact that part of my brain thought he was a dubious little ween just for liking me sincerely and without reservation. That small chunk of me is responsible for the fact that when I had a big health crisis combined with a mid-life crisis in the middle of a global pandemic, my husband who takes care of me and my friends who take care of me and my kids who love me for who I am were all there, and they saved me.
And I know I’ve come a long way, because when I’m going through some health challenges and the whole world is depressing and gross and everything is getting on my nerves, I still don’t feel enraged or desperate the way I used to. I can slow down and look for something beautiful, something soothing. I can shift my focus without turning my feelings off. I try and mostly succeed at tuning into my gratitude and my compassion, even though I’m still enough of a grouchy asshole that I get sick of those words and the people who use them too much.
Right now, I want you to look for that small chunk of you that knows you deserve way better than what you’re getting. I want you to be a good Mommy to that chunk, which is also where all of your sweetness and your talents and your gardening skills and your sense of humor live.You have to take care of you for now, and stand up for your needs, and take a few risks that will move you closer to the world of secure, relaxed, forgiving people who’ve reached for the lives they wanted in spite of great difficulties. That chunk might eventually quit your job and dump your boyfriend. If that chunk is optimistic and loving when it considers these options, listen to it! Let that chunk be joyful and expansive! Let that chunk believe that we live in this world to TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER.
Because that’s the world I want, and it feels good to want it. When I focus on that world, I don’t attune myself to angry, delusional people who don’t like science or impatient people who don’t understand me and don’t care. I attune myself to the warmth around me, connections that were slowly and meticulously formed over years, fueled by my faith that I deserved love. And I also try to encourage other people to accept themselves and stand up for themselves enough that they start to replace neglect with care.
Sometimes that’s a slow process, and other times, one conversation is all it takes. I had tried for two years to break up with Mr. Carmex, and then on a visit to my hometown for Christmas, I had a conversation that made it possible. I mentioned to a good friend that I wasn’t allowed to call my boyfriend at work. She told me that she couldn’t have stayed married to someone like that. Just a few days earlier, she’d called her husband at work because the baby was crying and the Christmas tree had fallen over and she was too overwhelmed to function. She needed help. Her husband heard the panic in her voice and got in the car and came home.
I couldn’t believe that. I had no idea anyone had a husband who answered a crying call and took it seriously and did something to help. I had no idea people even lived that way: taking care of each other, falling apart and not feeling ashamed of it, trusting each other in their most vulnerable moments.
Does that sound fantastical to you, too? Because if it does, something needs to change. Obviously not everyone has a job where they can drop everything and come to your aid. But you should at least feel like you’re with someone who wants to help you whenever they can. This world is rotten, but love is everything and it’s also everywhere, waiting for you to call its name. We need each other. We rely on each other. Joy is knowing that, trusting it, standing up for it, living it.
And now we’ve landed at the very center of your story, like magic. Your belief in love and mutual trust and care, in spite of everything you’ve been through, is exactly why you’re so mad about your QAnon friend and your alcoholic parents who don’t see you at all. You want to live in a community. You have extra love to give, you always have, and you want to give your love to people who can give it back. You have a vision of how people should live: connected, attuned, with clear boundaries and respect but also with clear devotion, taking care of each other. That’s joy to you. It’s time to make your vision a reality. Turn this anger into action and stand up for the quality of connections you long for. It’s not too late. It’s never too late.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
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