My Anger and Me

Becca Berkham.

Even today the mention of this name causes my blood to boil. Or her actual name does. I might have changed it to attempt some anonymity.

Becca lived down the street from me – in the nicest house in the neighborhood – and the two of us were continually at odds with one another. No one at the time, not even my father, could spark anger in me like she could.

Well, okay, maybe my father… but I couldn’t show it to him.

I could totally let loose with Becca.

Bless her heart.

This girl was the Eddie Haskell to my Theodore Cleaver. The Nellie Olsen to my Laura Ingalls. She had a polished, prissy kind of charm that adults loved but outside, away from the watchful eyes of grownups, she was just plain mean – particularly to the ones who needed a bit of support in order to thrive.

Those were the ones, though, that I latched onto and kept under my protection. This meant that Becca and I were at odds most of the time.

We spent many a summer day engaging in a prolonged screaming match, hurling insults at one another and throwing the occasional punch. By insults I mean the worst possible thing we could think of to say without engaging the use of a forbidden curse word.

I was a good Baptist girl.

Each verbal war was sparked by some injustice Becca inflicted upon someone I cared about. I’m sure it also didn’t help that she wore beautiful clothes, lived in a lovely home, owned all the latest and best toys, and pointed these things out to us on the regular.

She also had a habit of telling my baby brother – three or four at the time – that he was too little to play with the gang.

Ummmmmm…. no. The privilege to reject my brother was mine and mine alone.

I rather enjoyed standing on the edge of my lawn, shouting down the street something like, “If you show your face near my house again, my dad is going to come out with his rifle and shoot you!”

Now, first of all, my dad didn’t have a rifle.

Second, he couldn’t have cared less about my troubles.

He wasn’t going to do anything at all.

Becca’s dad, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to intervene on his daughter’s behalf. More than once I received a stern talking-to about my mistreatment of his girl.

That was fun.

It’s so very confusing to feel both shame over your poor choices (and in the situation with Becca they undoubtedly were) and a sense of righteous anger over the provocation that brought about those choices at the exact same time. And this was a norm for me.

IS a norm for me.

Anger is an easy access emotion. As an eight on the Enneagram, I am prone to passion and am easily riled up over perceived injustices, particularly on behalf of another.

But it’s difficult for me to access pure anger. It’s almost always confused by shame.

The climax of my epic feud with Becca came during my tenth birthday party.

My Holly Hobbie-themed birthday party.

A Holly Hobbie cake was the extent of the theme, but still.

It was awesome.

My mom, being the gentle Southern woman that she was, insisted that I invite ALL the neighborhood girls at or around my age. This party was a big deal to me since it was the first actual party I’d had since I’d turned six, when my parents managed to take three friends and me to see the movie, “Gus,” starring Don Knotts… in an actual movie theater. Meaning, they managed to purchase four child admissions to the movie, then sent the four six-year olds into the theater… alone. A $2 adult admission was too much to spend when the children were just going to be sitting watching a movie anyway.

#shouldershrug #differenttimes

That was a great birthday.

Given the high hopes I had for this tenth birthday celebration, I was sufficiently distressed over the required inclusion of Becca Berkham.

I just knew she would ruin everything.

I wasn’t wrong.

The plans for my party included eating Holly Hobbie, opening presents and walking to the park en masse to play. Muse Park was super close to my house – maybe a quarter of a mile or so, and we walked there by ourselves on a regular basis, so it wasn’t unusual for the moms of my friends to stay behind with my mom to chat over a glass of iced sweet tea while we girls went off to play.

We weren’t far along in our walk to the park when things became heated between Becca and me, as she began to tease and taunt my friend, Karen, about the birthday gift she’d given me. Karen was going through a difficult season as her father’s disability had left him unemployed for a long period of time, causing financial devastation for the family. I was oh too familiar with this kind of suffering, so was quick to defend her.

Things deteriorated from there.

As the insults began flying between us, the other girls got fired up as well. Tensions rose quickly and before you knew it, I was in a knock-down, drag-out girl fight with Becca Berkham.

Truthfully, I was primed for a fight with that girl from the moment my mom told me I had to invite her to the party. I didn’t want her there, the other girls knew it – she probably knew it, too, and so I can imagine she was on the defense from the start – just looking for a way to be in charge of a situation already largely in my favor.

This was a classic catfight.

Hair-pulling, skin-clawing, neck-throttling, and punch-throwing.

And I loved every second of it.

I also got into huge trouble for it.

Becca ran all the way back to my house, by herself, and tattled on me.

Whatever.

Oops, there’s a smudge on the party pic 🤷🏻‍♀️

Honestly, though, at the time I really bought into shame over the devastation that came to my birthday party that day. I believed it was my fault.

I was told it was my fault.

But I was also a house divided because somewhere deep within me was this well of fury knowing something unjust had happened.

I shouldn’t have had to invite her to my party. She was cruel and spiteful. Clearly, we weren’t friends.

If they ever had parties – and they didn’t – I’m pretty sure my parents would never have invited Becca’s parents to the gathering.

Adults can be really confusing sometimes.

And the double standards they can hold over their children, feeding both the shame and the fury within, are the worst.

Growing up as a child of a father with alcohol and prescription drug addictions was chock-full of these kinds of contradictions. Some were glaring, others more subtle. And I have to say that the more subtle ones were the most dangerous. For instance, when my father said to me, “Don’t drink and drive,” and yet regularly did this very thing, it was easy for me to observe the inconsistency there and think to myself, “I will never drink and drive because it’s a stupid and highly dangerous thing to do.” Or if he said to me, “Smoking is bad for you. Don’t do it,” while lighting up his own cigarette for the twentieth time that day, I was able to observe that smoking was taking an enormous toll on his body and determine for myself that smoking wasn’t for me.

However, things were less clear when I was sick or hurt and needed medical attention that my family couldn’t afford, and I was made to feel enormous guilt over the burden my need put on my parents…even though the reason my parents couldn’t afford to care for my need was that my father had either lost his job due to his drunkenness or spent all of our money for the same reason.

I felt shame…and I felt rage. And the rage I felt made me feel more shame.

And even more confusing was my father’s inability to experience and hold space for his pain, physical or otherwise – expecting us to hold his burdens for him and medicating himself at all times to soften the blows that life inevitably threw his way. In this way, he communicated to me that he was allowed to be in pain, but I was not.

Double. Standard.

Shame. And fury.

This is becoming clear to me now – at the age of 50. But as a child it was very, very murky. Or, maybe I did see the contradiction, but it was much easier to be angry with and blame myself when I struggled to carry the load placed upon me than it was to feel those angry feelings about the parents I truly loved.

I still struggle with this.

The adult world of my parents was so confusing, while the rage I could freely feel and express in my catfights with Becca Berkham was liberating. With Becca, I knew the source of my anger and left it squarely on her shoulders. With my father, I still felt the anger, but needed the sense of safety that came when I embraced shame in order to shut the rage down or redirect it towards myself.

When I was fourteen, my father moved us to Huntsville, Alabama – away from our hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, the family who lived there and the support and love of a strong community. It was devastating to me. We lived in an apartment complex, and I began high school without a friend in the world.

Over our first few months there, I slipped into what I now think was my first depressive episode. I was homesick, lonely and very much afraid of the future since my father was more unstable than ever.

I’m pretty sure I was also quite pissed off, but that emotion was inaccessible to me.

I worked hard in school – grateful for something to focus on. We’d begun attending a large Southern Baptist church, but I was initially too intimidated by its size to try to meet other kids there or to get involved.

Fast-forward a couple of months to the Fall Parent/Teacher Conferences at my school, where my parents sat with the teacher of my favorite class (Contemporary World Affairs) and listened to him describe me as an excellent student making straight As, but also one he was concerned about because I was withdrawn and melancholy during the day.

Looking back, I think my teacher’s efforts here were well intentioned. I think he saw a student who was struggling and thought perhaps he could bring awareness and inspiration to her parents, motivating them to step in and better support her during what was clearly a difficult transition.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

In fact, my father came home from this teacher conference, called me to follow him to my bedroom, launched into a tirade about my attitude, and then instructed me to lay face down across the bed while he beat the crap out of me with his belt.

An appropriate consequence for depression, don’t you think?

Not so much.

What’s crazy-making about this scenario is that my father convinced me that it was. An appropriate consequence, I mean.

And he did it so well that I believed it for close to forty years.

Years and years later, when I described this event to my intimates (which wasn’t often), I was confused by the looks of horror and indignation on their faces when I marked this moment as a catalyst for the needed shift in my attitude and perspective on our new home at the time.

My exact words were, “I deserved it and was grateful to my dad for the wake-up call that came with it.”

For the love.

It’s a struggle now to see the truth in this, in the episode with Becca Berkham and in countless other similar scenarios from my childhood and adolescence because the truth is veiled by the weight of shame and years of suppressed pain.

But it’s starting to peek through.

My therapist often tells me that anger is usually covering up some other emotion – like sadness, humiliation, grief or despair. This has often pissed me off, which I know is ironic…and that pisses me off, too.

When I let her help me sit with the anger, though, not resisting it, suppressing it or redirecting it back toward myself, much like my child self was able to do with Becca, I get a glimpse of a deep well of sorrow and loss.

It’s crushingly painful to see it and to feel it, but it passes…and after it fades away I am left a bit more whole than I was before.

3 thoughts on “My Anger and Me

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