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Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Dylan Thomas, Do not go gentle into that good night)

I have an anger problem. I’m what you would call a seether. I seem calm on the inside for 99.9% of the time, and it could be months; but then I’ll have a meltdown (swearing, throwing things, slamming doors, bringing up something that might have bothered me weeks, or months ago, etc.) Never have I been physically violent to a person. It is something I have been working on for the last three decades or so.

Most people who know me think I’m easy-going, calm, reasonable, easy to get along with … except the ones who have seen me explode. I began to recognize the pattern and its destructiveness when I was in my twenties. I realized that I had learned as a child not to express any negative emotions – anger, frustration, disappointment, disagreement, resentment, and so on. Let’s just say such expressions were not well received in my family, so I learned to stuff them away and keep the outside looking good. But that only works for so long, and then some poor fool drops the proverbial last straw onto the load of anger I’ve been carrying around, and I blow like Vesuvius. I haven’t been physically violent during these rages, but I came to realize that the verbal abuse I was capable of was almost as bad.

So, I set about to unlearn the whole pattern and to learn the new skills I needed to recognize and deal with my emotions as they come up, instead of bottling them up inside. The only way I have found to prevent the explosion is to not let the explosive stuff accumulate. It hasn’t been easy. The first thing I realized was that I was very out of touch with my emotions. At first, it might take me a week to realize that something had upset me. Over time, I have grown better at knowing when I am getting pissed off, and now I usually recognize it while it is happening.

The next thing I had to learn was how to deal with people about things that bothered me, and to force myself to do it before the situation became explosive. I had to learn to say things like “It makes me angry that …”, or “I think it is unfair of you to …”, or “I’m really pissed off about …”, or “Wait a minute, you don’t mean you expect me to …?”, and I had to say these things to the people who were pissing me off, not to some third party, or to myself, later. I also had to learn to say “no”. For most people, this may not be a big deal, but for me it was a long hard struggle, and I still have to remain vigilant lest I slip back into my old ways.

So that’s what works for me … when I do it. Probably because of my family history, I find it hardest to do with the people I care most about, because even small disagreements still feel like a threat to the whole relationship. Ridiculous, I know, but there it is. So I try to motivate myself to come up with the courage (and that’s what it takes) to have the small arguments and to air the small grievances rather than stuffing them inside and pretending that everything is fine, while the pressure builds toward the next eruption. I am even learning to do this with a sense of humour, if I catch it in time.

I also have learned to recognize in advance situations that might be toxic for me, and either avoid them or insist on some change that will make them easier for me to take. I think of this as a preventative action, similar to child-proofing a room before letting a toddler loose in it. I suppose I try to anger-proof my life where I can. I confirm appointments the day before (because I know I’ll be upset if I’m stood up), I get the first appointment of the day at my doctor’s office because he has told me that runs the least risk of having to wait … lots of little things like that to prevent stress and frustration where possible.

And I have learned that I have to let myself have some fun, have some of the things I want in life, so that I can tolerate the unavoidable annoyances and disappointments that we all have to endure. I have to be good to myself, and not expect that someone else will always take care of my emotional needs. I try to schedule some guaranteed good days on the calendar, some things I can look forward to, enjoy, and look back on with satisfaction. It helps balance out the crap and the misery. Of course, the downside to this is that it totally conflicts with another need – the need for accomplishment. You can completely waste your life having fun and accomplishing nothing, which kind of scares me.

Some of the first signs I get that I’m approaching meltdown are physical – my jaw tightens, I find I’m actually holding my breath, my hands clench into fists and/or I feel the muscles in one leg tensing as if to kick something. It helps if I consciously relax whatever muscles have tensed – relax the jaw, take a deep breath, relax my hands and arms and legs. It is surprising, but this actually helps me maintain control, and it buys me some time.

Sometimes, I’ll decide at that point to just walk away from the situation. But that is not always possible. If I have to stay in the situation and deal with it, whatever it is, I next try a thought that helps me put the situation in perspective. One of the ones I use is “Will this matter in a year? 10 years? 50 years? 100 years?” Sometimes when I look at the situation in the larger framework, I realize that it isn’t that important, and I’m able to let go of a lot of the anger. Another thing I do is to study people I know who handle difficult situations very well. I actually memorize some of the things they say, so that I’ll have those words available to me when I need them. It may sound artificial, but I had almost 20 years of studying a couple of bad examples of dealing with anger, so I need to work hard to replace those role models with better ones.

I also try to avoid situations that might send me into orbit. For example, I don’t take it well when people don’t turn up for an appointment or planned activity, so I usually reconfirm plans a day in advance. I try to be prepared with a plan for dealing with situations where I can anticipate trouble but don’t have a way to prevent it. I think of the possible things that might happen and decide in advance how I’ll respond to each one. So then, I’m not ad libbing when I’m angry. It is much safer at that point for me to stick to a script I wrote out for myself when I was calm and in my right mind.

I should add, that anger itself is not always such a bad thing. It motivates us, it gives us a huge impetus to change something that needs to be changed – I mean, let’s face it, there really are some things in the world that are worth being furious about. The difficulty for me is in finding a useful direction for my anger, an appropriate and legitimate way to express appropriate and legitimate anger. That’s a lifetime challenge.

I never saw a counsellor about this problem, but I had seen one about persistent depression, and I’m sure some of the things I learned from that, then helped me to find ways to deal with my explosive anger problem when I decided to face it.

Expressing your anger as it happens is very effective, but it’s easier said than done, since for many of us it can lead to rejection. Sometimes I just walk from away from what (or who) is bothering me (if they are non-essential), just eliminate them from my life.

The tide of emotions is fascinating and terrible.

The Black Dog

For the last year and a half, I have been really up and down and the worst thing is that I feel as though I haven’t been myself for quite a long time.

Just recently, things have been getting steadily worse and worse. I’m tired all of the time and I’ve lost the ability to cope with minor irritations, instead becoming irrationally angry. I rarely enjoy myself and I struggle through each day. I’m failing to find the magic in life. The main things that keep me going are pure fantasy and I spend nearly all of my time feeling numb and attempting to escape from reality.

I had similar feelings in my early twenties but after a while, I started to fight back. I started swimming regularly, eating better, reading, listening to more music and learning about anything and everything in my spare time. I had my ups and downs like anyone else but this was an incredibly productive period of my life. I was on a high most of the time, writing music, attending concerts, etc., etc.

During this period of my life, I held down a full-time job, swam 4 or 5 miles a week, completed a degree course achieving a first-class honours degree, plus read and read and read just everything I could lay my hands on. I was incredibly productive and I achieved so much during these years.

After this, I decided to resign from my job (which I hated) and become a postgraduate research student. The first year of my studies was one of the best of my life. I can remember a summer of sitting outside in the sunshine, reading great works of literature and philosophy, listening to Mahler in the evenings and spending some terrific time with my girlfriend. I was still swimming regularly and I even started running on some days, 6 miles being about my average run.

However, after that year, I let things slide and the girlfriend left to study in Amsterdam. Money was tight and I didn’t exercise as much or eat as well. I think that is a major part of my recent downfall. Everything became a real struggle last year and I finally decided to go to see a doctor about it. The result was some counselling sessions. They were useful in the way that I was able to get a lot of my anxieties and thoughts out in the open. However, to be absolutely honest, I didn’t find out anything about myself I didn’t already know. It seemed to tide me over for a while and I carried on. Occasionally, I would have some really dark days and I would try swimming again or whatever, but I didn’t stick at anything and I soon gave up and returned to my usual state of a dreamlike existence.

This year, I have descended to a new low. If it wasn’t for my young friend Melissa, I wonder if I would still be alive. I’m shocked at how bad things have become. I don’t read like I used to. I don’t listen to music like I used to. I can’t find excitement and passion in anything anymore. I miss the old me, who used to be on a high all of the time. Back then, I could do everything and right now, I feel as though I can’t manage anything.

The worst thing is realising that I have been living in a fantasy world for so long. I have recently faced up to reality and realised that I don’t like what I find there. I have always had issues with this world, as I’m sure any intelligent person does, but I’ve normally kept on top of them. I have always had issues with anxiety but I have always accepted this as part of who I am. But it has all become too much for me recently.

Over the last three weeks, I have been trying to turn things around. Starting to swim again has been one step in the right direction. I am also trying to make time for music. Reading is something that I am struggling with as I don’t have much time for it outside of my studies but I am also trying to make some time for personal research. This is hard because my concentration level is fucked.

I think it is going to take me some time to get on top of things again, especially as the very nature of my depression is such that when I am down like this, I cannot manage very much at all. When content and happy again, I know that I will return to my high state and be able to be incredibly productive again. That’s actually part of the depression that feeds back into itself. It is horrible to find that you cannot manage even a quarter of the things that you used to find so easy to do.

At the moment, I’m in a desperate state as I don’t want this dark period of my life to impact upon my research although I think that it already is. The doctors can offer me only more counselling, which I feel is a dead end, or medication. I don’t want to take the latter option as I have my concerns about it. I don’t like the idea that taking medication might take the edge away from my life. I thrive on my anxiety when I find it is at a manageable level. I don’t want to lose it entirely. I have, however, started taking St. John’s Wort after having it recommended to me by my young friend Melissa. I don’t know how much help it will be but I am at my lowest ebb and I will try anything at the moment.

A lot of my darkness has to do with my anxiety and the nature of my personality. One of the major difficulties I have had for my whole life is the ability to interact with groups of people. Unfortunately, I have little or no ability to read other people or understand them on a social level. It causes me an immense level of anxiety to be around people. A symptom of my general anxiety is a mild obsessive compulsive disorder, which can be difficult to live with.

In addition to this, I also have little in the way of practical abilities, which is why I have pursued abstract and intellectual occupations as opposed to remaining in my previous job in the civil service, which I found both intensely boring and also essentially meaningless.

I began my studies with the romantic notion that “truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone” but I quickly found this notion challenged and undermined. Everything must be questioned. This is not only potentially very exciting but also profoundly shocking and quite depressing.

There is also the necessity of making money versus the desire to do something meaningful with my life. I love to read widely and to learn about anything and everything. I feel extremely disappointed with my education up until this point, even though I have a first-class honours degree. There is so much out there for me to learn about and I feel disappointed that I don’t have the time or money to do so. I also have doubts about myself and my own intellectual abilities even in the face of a fairly distinguished academic career thus far.

I also frequently have the feeling that life is somehow passing me by like a dream and I am left with little but a faint indication of what has passed. I wish I had the time and money to achieve so much more. All this, while around me, I see little but stupidity and mediocrity winning the day. I’m drifting on the perimeter of my own life.

Part of the problem is how exhausted I feel at the moment, as though I just have no energy. I feel as though it is impossible to study and to write, and this depresses me even more. I haven’t been writing for the last few days. I thought I would try not to force it. The trouble is that I am running out of time and I really need to start again now. I feel a lot of guilt and fear of failure, which is probably the main reason for the block. The guilt is because I feel I am not working hard enough, even I have been trying so hard to work through the block, but I have nothing to show for this time. I wish I could just get a good night’s sleep too. I have been having very vivid dreams, often involving this fear of failure in some way. I wake up at stupid o’clock and cannot sleep again.

On a lighter note, these anti-depressants are fun, aren’t they? Personally, I just love the sleepless nights, the lack of appetite and the way that I gained weight when I was taking them.

Have any of you ever read the instructional leaflet that comes with them? My advice is don’t, especially if you intend taking them.

The side effects cover just about everything awful that you can imagine. The funniest thing for me is the variation on the theme, with contrasting side effects often listed side-by-side as if the manufacturers and testers couldn’t work out what would happen, so just listed every eventuality.

For instance, I could:

– Be sleepy or have difficulty sleeping.
– Have constipation or diarrhoea.
– Lose weight or gain weight.
– Have increased appetite or loss of appetite.
– Have an increased sex drive or decreased sex drive.
– Have low blood pressure or high blood pressure.
– Experience a dry mouth or have increased saliva.

I could go on but I think you get the idea. Seems to me that they just want to cover all possibilities, with the general message being “these tablets are going to fuck you up, one way or the other”.

My latest theory is that the tablets work by giving you various side effects to distract you from your depression. You end up so busy feeling shit that you don’t have time to feel depressed.

Some of the more worrying potential side effects:

– Ringing in the ears.
– Impotence or inability to reach orgasm.
– Hallucinations and mood disorders.
– Loss of contact with your own personal reality.
– Feelings of unreality and strangeness.

My absolute favourite side effect though, which apparently only has an effect on 1 in 100 people, is that the tablets may make the individual “feel cheerful and optimistic” or experience a “general feeling of well-being”. That’s kind of the point of taking the tablets isn’t it?

All in all, it’s pretty hilarious stuff. You have to laugh, don’t you?

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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