Tag Archives: anger

Growing Up in a Warzone: Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD

It’s no wonder I don’t know how to express anger. The anger in my family of origin was shown to me as a dangerous weapon. My father raged and the entire family cowered. I was four when it started. In these times, the war times, as a four-year old kid, what you need is a comforting adult to pick you up and soothe you. “Everything is going to be all right.” Except, in our family everyone was triggered and afraid. There were no adults in the room. And when my father drank in addition to raging, all hell would break loose inside our house. It was during these times that I escaped to my stick and stone fort up in the hills behind our house.

I was building forts and stocking them with stick guns and rocks. And I would take refuge in the hills whenever things got to hot in the house. And this happened often. And again, what a little kid needs at this point is a parent to come and find him, hold him, reassure him. What I got was relief from the roaring house and isolation. I was a lonely little boy. None of my friends could understand what was happening at my house. Sometimes I was afraid to have them over to play, because I didn’t want them to experience the war zone.

As an adult this coping mechanism is still triggered. And honestly, most adults suffer from isolating behaviors, even if they weren’t born into the anger zone. I think those of us with depression just find deeper and darker silences than most. So as an adult under major stress I head for my fort in the hills. I keep my mouth shut. And I huddle alone waiting for someone to rescue me. The rescue that never comes. The rescue that can’t really come, because I have to rescue myself. No mom or sister is going to come and find me. And even if they did the relief would be temporary.

The fear and isolation are inside me. And in my childhood I learned to be a wonderful performer. I made straight A’s, played all the sports, and even became a profession magician at 12. I was doing magic tricks all the time to keep the family happy. Of course, it didn’t work. I was sad. My family was sad. My dad was rageful.

It is such a familiar feeling when I retreat back into my isolation. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. My broken and alone self is one I identify with. I have been broken for a large part of my life. I was broken at the age of four and the trauma is still deeply hidden. Of course, the body does not lie, and that trauma comes out at shame and lack of self-love. I’m really horrible to myself. My internal voice often says things so mean I wouldn’t say them to an enemy. I’m working on that one, big time.

Still, growing up in an unsafe and hostile family home trained me to be hyper-vigilant. I guard against anger and disappointment, by trying to be a better person. I’ve learned some of my weaknesses and I’ve learned to compensate for some of them. It’s a long process of growth and recovery. Today, however, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even ending a 2.5 yo relationship, I find myself in a “sky’s wide open” future mindset. Today I could go anywhere, do anything.

The path for me now is to be still. I often rush into things before I am certain of the answer. Today my higher power is in charge of the next steps. I’m going to live my life with joy and grace and see what opportunities step up to meet me.

image: anger, creative commons usage

What’s Underneath the Pain?

I’ve been working with my therapist a lot over the last few months, trying to get underneath my major complaint: overwhelming sadness and regret. Sure I am sad and anxious. Those are real feelings. But where is the anger? I have no access to my anger. And this is a problem for me. I avoid anger. I’m scared of anger. But anger is your friend.

I learned at an early age the destructive power of anger. My dad, the alcoholic, had rages that scared the crap out of everyone in my family. I was 5. I learned from then on that anger was not safe. And like my father during his sober times, I learned that anger and disappointment were best kept inside and never exposed to others. I learned dysfunction. I learned to hide my feelings. And most of all I learned to avoid conflict at all cost. I learned to lie to diffuse tense situations. Even if the lie was not in my best interest.

This plays out in my relationships like this. A girlfriend says something really mean to me. A little time later she says, “I hope that didn’t hurt you. I was just telling you how I feel.” “No,” I would lie, “It didn’t hurt me.” But in that lie I was discounting my real feelings, I was not standing up for myself, and I was accepting unacceptable behavior towards me from someone I loved.

It’s no wonder that anger is hard for me to find inside myself. I’d rather avoid anger, conflict, disagreements. But anger is also energizing. And it’s that energy I was missing in my efforts to recover from my lingering depression. And I don’t think my therapist had the tools or experience to handle what I was going through. Sure, he tried to get me to express anger towards him for failing me in my treatment. But he was also my lifeline. He was the only one I was telling most of my fears to. And flipping to anger towards him, no matter how I felt about him, was too hard. So we struggled together. But I’m afraid I could’ve used a less passive engagement. So I’m seeking new counsel.

This pain that is underneath the sadness and loneliness is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Some people try to deal with it head on, with therapy, 12-step groups, or journaling. Some people choose to avoid or cover it up with alcohol or drugs. The first group is trying to get through the struggle. The second group is trying to mute it, escape it, forget about it. But the second group is doomed to more of the same feelings they are trying to cover up. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s not a sleeping med. It’s not a way to relax. It’s a way to forget.

In conscious healing, an individual uses all the resources available to deal with what’s going on in their lives. In my case, the cognitive therapy was unable to counteract the bad chemistry in my brain. No amount of counseling, no amount of journaling, was going to pull me out of my depression. And as the meds continued to fail, I went through long periods of hopelessness. Even in the midst of a privileged life I was thinking about killing myself. Even with two great kids and several family members who were close and close by, I was cowering in my beautiful house trying to figure out how to painlessly off myself. But it was the bad chemistry speaking. And I knew enough to laugh at my suicidal thoughts. Sure I thought about it, that’s called ideation, but I NEVER made a plan.

If you ever find yourself making a plan, call 911. Your brain is trying to kill you.

I have a lot of pain underneath my current sadness. And I have a long way to go to get more comfortable with conflict and releasing my anger in a healthy way. For now, I’m still stuffing some of my feelings, and I’m still scared about some other things that feel out of control. In fact, most of life is out of control. All we can do, all we can focus on is ourselves and our program of recovery. We cannot wait for the other person to change. We cannot cajole them into recovery. We have to let them go, to find their own way, to seek their own higher power.

Look underneath what’s bugging you. Is there anger there? More sadness? Then get some help. Write about it. Reason things out with someone else. Because until you begin to uncover what’s going on inside your head and heart, you will continuously be driven by things that don’t serve you.

Yes, I have lost everything for the second time in my life. But I still have so much to live for. And, for now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m still digging into and talking about my anger resistance. But everything seems to be moving in the right direction in my life. I’m putting in the work on myself. I’m striving for success rather than just survival. Oh yeah, the meds kicked in a few weeks ago and it was like I was a different person. I came out of some sleepy depressive fog, and I could tell my old jovial, engaged self was back.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image: sad clown, creative commons usage


Love All Parents: The Single Parent’s Manifesto


When you become a parent everything in your life changes. The world is miraculously transformed into something mystical, spiritual, and magical. For me, I was able to rise above myself as an individual and recognize the gift that happened in our lifes. That process started long before the birth of my first child, but from the very moment that I helped wiggle his shoulders free from his mom’s body, I was forever aware of my responsibility.

Today, I’m closer to believing that I am happier, that my kids are happier, and even that my ex-wife is happier now, after the divorce.

And now we’re divorced. Hmm. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, but that same moment of realization and awe of responsibility is present with me all the time. As often as possible, when I remember to pay attention to this universal responsibility, I am an awesome co-parent. Other times, I get tired or distracted and I think my ex-wife is more of “the ex” rather than the “mother of my children.” The perspective is important. I am constantly trying to do better.

I am always in the process of becoming the best ex-husband I can be. Yes, you’re kids are the priority, but it’s important to remember the sacred bond between you and your ex-spouse. There’s no escaping it. You both agreed to the deal, you both ushered in new life. And you both have responsibilities to them, but also to each other. YUK. It can be hard sometimes to remember this inclusiveness.

There have been plenty of things in the course of my single parenthood that I would rather strangle her over. However, the trick is to embrace the idea that she is doing the best she can. Always. It doesn’t seem that way when things go differently than you had imagined. It can appear that your co-parent is out to make your life miserable. But in my case, that’s not the truth. It is how I feel sometimes, but my feelings don’t accurately reflect reality. They are just my feelings. I cannot accurately project or predict her thoughts and actions. And obviously, that is not my job. My job is to listen and respond, with compassion. Again, easier said than done, but it’s a process of growth and release. As you release your ex from their faults in your eyes, you can begin to merely support them, no matter what. It’s not their fault they are so stressed out. There is nothing you can do to make them less tired. But you can provide a flexible and supportive response as often as possible.

Here’s the trick for me, when I celebrate the strength and resilience of my co-parent, I can begin to let go of my past resentments. One of the hardest transitions for me was dropping the blame and self-delusion that getting divorced was her idea, and her fault. It sure seemed that way when everything was going down, when I was asking for a reconciliation. However, today, from the 30,000 ft view back into the wreckage that our relationship had become, I can acknowledge that she was indeed doing the best she knew how. She made choices towards what she felt was her ultimate survival plan. Good or bad, the divorce freed us both up to develop into the next iteration of ourselves.

At first, for me, the loss of my primary residence and my unlimited access to my kids was nearly unbearable. The depression and feelings of loss caused me a lot of down time. I struggled. And for a long time I tried to figure out what I could’ve done to save the relationship. I tried to unravel when I had done wrong, or where the two of us had broken some sacred bond. But there were no easy answers.

I wish my co-parent all the joy and love in the world. I can no longer provide any of those things.

We both entered the marriage in order to have kids. Perhaps we compromised or overlooked some of the early warning signs because we were so focused on becoming parents. We did the dream, we had the kids, and we began our lives as a family the best we knew how.

Then, after struggling along for a few rough years, in the best interest of all involved, we divorced. We split into two houses, and resumed our parenting duties.

Today, I’m closer to believing that I am happier, that my kids are happier, and even that my ex-wife is happier now, after the divorce. And even if that is not true, I can only work on my part, my perspective on the situation. I can only do my side of the co-parenting equation. Sure, there are opportunities for escalation, and just over the last two days, she’s been trying to get me to engage in some drama about the family dog, that I simply won’t bite on. Nope.

I can always take the high road. I can refuse to fire back when she’s hitting below the belt, or complaining that things aren’t working out. But I have made a firm decision not to respond in-kind. Compassion first. Then firm resolve to deal with only the part of the relationship that I can control, me and my responses.

I am certain of a few things now, from this 30,000 ft view.

  • I am happier than I was in the final throes of our failing marriage.
  • There were incompatibilities between us that we overlooked in order to become parents.
  • As a young family, we did the best we could at shepherding our babies into young adults.
  • When the mystery and magic of being parents gave way to the more mundane tasks of parenting, chores, and money, we became more functional and less romantic.

I wish my co-parent all the joy and love in the world. I can no longer provide any of those things. But I can be a soft cushion when she needs to hit or collapse into something. I resolve not to hit back. But, I won’t stand-in for the drama any more. I will only take my responsibility. I will only pay attention to the business between us as we continue together in co-parenting.

John McElhenney

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image: dancing, raul r. goncalves creative commons usage

Pause and Reset After Divorce

getting over divorceI have plenty of work to do, even three-years-out from my divorce, to reset myself, my priorities, my relationship to my children, and even my relationship to my ex. But before moving into yet another relationship, I am still trying to take stock of what happened, what I don’t want to happen again, and most importantly, what I do want to happen this next time.

I’ve recently started the path to full forgiveness of my ex-wife, but it’s not always an easy road. Still, even in disagreements, I try to see her as “doing her best.” And occasionally I will use those tired old wedding vows and transform them into a kind of mantra.

“To have and to hold blameless till death do you part.”

Or course the hold, after divorce, takes on new meaning, but the vow can remain unbroken, even in divorce. The seeds of what ripped us apart were there at the outset of our relationship. If I had been in a less damaged place from my previous marriage, I might have been able to identify them, “might” have been able to resist the magnetic pull I felt towards this beautiful high school classmate, and I might have made a different decision. But I didn’t.

While changing my past with my ex-wife is not possible. Gratitude and appreciation for our children is infinitely possible.

Part of my work in recovery from this divorce has been to take my own inventory and understand the emotional mechanics that were at play during my courtship and marriage to my last wife. And as I try and use that information to move forward with a new healthier relationship, next time, I can sometimes get caught up in the “if I’d have known…” what-ifs. And of course, the logical conclusion after I churn a bit on these tidbits, is BUT I HAVE THESE GREAT KIDS.

While changing my past with my ex-wife is not possible. Gratitude and appreciation for our children is infinitely possible. And the love of those children is the gateway to forgiving your ex. At least, it is for me.

Of all the emotions so far, anger has been the toughest for me to grapple with. Initially I was too complacent, compliant, depressed, hurt to really access my anger. It’s okay to be angry. It’s really okay to be angry. The anger can be an energy source for the work ahead. In my case, with a raging alcoholic father, my access to anger has always been difficult. And maybe in my marriage, my passivity, or lack of anger, allowed our relationship careen off into places that were not healthy.

In my family of origin my father’s anger dominated everything. His rage was legendary. There was no room in my father’s house for anyone else’s anger. We all learned to comply. We all sublimated our own anger and hurt at being dominated in such an unjust manner. But we shut up. No good ever came of getting angry back. We saw that demonstrated first hand by my oldest sister, who was a lightning rod, during the emerging sixties, for my father’s horrific tirades.

I learned that anger was bad. And after my father exited the scene around my 6th birthday I was raised by three women who had become skilled in the art of manipulation though indirect subversion. Even today, I suffer occasionally from not being able to access my anger about an injustice that I would like to stand up to, but don’t.

And this happened in my marriage. I didn’t stand up for my own essential needs. I avoided conflict to the point of lying about silly little things, that would later undermine my partner’s trust. (Example: getting a speeding ticket and not telling her or paying it.)

Fortunately, this pause has given me time to rediscover healthy anger. And my ex-wife, naturally, has given me opportunities to access it. Divorce might be cooperative and collaborative, but there are going to be frictions.

And one of the things I’m grateful for in this pause is my rediscovery of healthy anger.

And in the next relationship, if I can learn from this pause and reset, I will build healthier structures for communication and meeting my own needs as well as the needs of my partner.

And this is where my newly found anger skills are a double-edged sword. On the one side, I am standing up after divorce, for things I should have stood up for while still married. The converse edge is trying to understand how my anger is my own, and that she is not to blame for my disappointments or resentments.

To have and to hold blameless. It’s a big task.

But if I move into my next relationship before figuring it out, don’t you think I would soon begin repeating the same behaviors that got me divorced in the first place?

There are a number of lessons from Alcoholics Anonymous that I started learning when I began going to ACOA and Al-Anon meetings. The first was not taking another person’s inventory. We can only be responsible for our own actions and responses. If we begin to focus on the other person’s faults and problems we quickly find ourselves back at blame and shame, first of the other person, but ultimately of ourselves.

So in walking away from my marriage, I am continuing to learn, that this is MY SHIT. Whatever it is I’m dealing with at the moment, she is not the cause nor the cure of the situation. I am the only one who can take action on my behalf. So letting go of her requires me to let go of the blame I can still try and pin on her. Things like, it was her idea, it was her distrust, it was…

It was me.

That’s the only real answer. And in the next relationship, if I can learn from this pause and reset, I will build healthier structures for communication and meeting my own needs as well as the needs of my partner.

Another part of the AA program that I use almost daily, is the serenity prayer. Each line holds a key to our release from whatever it is that is keeping us unhappy. (For alcoholics it’s alcohol, for me it’s emotional depression.) And if we listen to each line as we say it to ourselves, we can allow the reset to happen in our lives.

God, grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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