February 22, 2010
I get angry sometimes. Maybe too many times. Illnesses have been hanging around my doorstep for decades. The multiple sclerosis is an old companion and only progresses, robbing me of eyesight, motor skills, really the ability to live as I choose. Progress has been slow and steady, and I do not know my destination.
Buttoning shirts and tying shoes, getting where I need to go—all of life’s little tasks—become epic battles. Looking for an address or just crossing the street become difficult challenges. It sounds petty, but it adds up. I do not complain much. I am just explaining now, I swear. I do swear. Loudly, as I get mad.
Colon cancer attacked me at the end of the last millennium and took its toll. My brush with that killer touched off an anger that rocked the house. Rage is a better word to describe my demeanor at that time, when the crucible brought Hell too close for comfort. I was thrown off kilter as the cancer came calling a second time, piling on top of the multiple sclerosis I had battled for decades. I was roaring.
My wife, Meredith, told me I was hurting my children and her with my outbursts and silent sulking. I became cold and distant from those around me, and they are the ones who love me. Something had to give. With Meredith’s help, I found control and I learned not to point weapons in the house. The damage had been done, but reparations followed, and the love of a family won out.
Still, I am an angry person. The line has been crossed. My dependence on others has increased even as I have fought it with all the strength I could muster. The falls are all too common now, in the street or down the stairs. There is a self-loathing that can neither be denied nor explained. High emotion is directed at myself.
When Meredith comments on my anger, she says it upsets everyone in the family. The boys have gone off to college, so I put our 17-year-old daughter, Lily, on the witness stand. She did not hesitate: “It is not pleasant being around your anger, hearing you yelling.” Does it hurt the family? Lily paused. “Well, it doesn’t help,” she answered, pulling her punches, I thought.
I have always distinguished between blasting those around me and firing into the air. I have long believed that anger is a valid coping mechanism if it is a victimless crime. There may be no such thing. Lily told me that just because my anger is not directed at her doesn’t mean it does not get to her.
At the same time, bottling up feelings serves no one either. Like the bubble under the rug, sooner or later it will pop up. Anger is a piece of the defiance I feel toward my problems. I will not go gentle into that good night. Dylan Thomas’s formula for dying is mine for living.
My father puzzled me with his consistent passive acceptance of his MS. He was forced to leave the practice of medicine, which he loved almost as much as he loved his family. He went from cane to walker to wheelchair. The old man lost his treasured independence. Aren’t you ever angry? I asked him. “Why should I be angry? Things could be worse,” he calmly responded. His mother had the disease before him and never complained either.
Perhaps it is childish to rail at what we cannot control. My friend Larry, who appeared in my book Strong at the Broken Places and has appeared in this column, laughed and offered to send me to anger management school. Larry lives with bipolar disorder. It once wrecked his life, but he somehow found his own road to peace.
“Richard,” he tells me, “service is at the core of peace. My experiences broke me, until I learned to serve others.” Larry’s pull to serve others was intuitive.
I, too, am committed to helping others—in my case, the disabled and chronically ill. That work offers wonderful satisfaction. I wish it brought me peace.