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Q&A: How do you handle anger?
Coping with Anger After a Spinal Cord Injury
I bite my tongue most of the time. Roll windows up in the car and then screamed at the top of my lungs. And I don’t get angry like I used to, as frequently as I did as a youngster, maybe that’s just age. But I think the injury frames the opportunities for anger and puts them in perspective, some things that used to would have made me angry, are not that big a deal. You learn to value what’s really important, what should really push your anger button, and that the number of those shrinks over time.
Not the best all the time, you know I’m only human. Sometimes I get angry when I shouldn’t and impatient when I shouldn’t. But also, like I said, I’m human, that’s going to happen. But I think that when I do that, I just take a minute to recognize that maybe that wasn’t the best way to handle it and try to not handle it that way going forward or apologize if it wasn’t the right thing to do or the way to be. But also give myself space to know that I’m going to get angry and frustrated, especially in relation to what we are going through. Because it’s still tough, it’s always going to be tough. But just to try and not to let it be a common thing I guess.
Oh, I was angry for a long time, a long time, yes. It went from the day after her accident at literally being angry at every person I saw who had two legs and was walking. That was the level that my anger was at initially, no one was spared; I was angry at everyone. And then I was angry at people who I perceived as denying her opportunities when we couldn't, when certain places weren't accessible or her friends were doing something she couldn't do. And for a while I was angry at all sort of theater and sporting venues because you can only have one or two people sit with someone who is disabled when they go somewhere. So lots of levels of anger, and then it just gradually dissipated over time. You realize that there are a lot people who probably have even worse things to live with than Molly does. And it also got to the point where she wasn't angry, and she wasn't feeling sorry for herself, so I had to let it go.
You can’t expect to parent well and internalize everything, because it’s going to come, it’s going to come out when you least expect it. It’s better if you get some help, talk to someone. I have those moments of anger, and when I get my chance, I make a phone call, or I go to an appointment and I say, “I’m upset about this. I wish my son could’ve gone to college. He’s missing out on the college-dorm experience.” So, you have to address it. You can’t act like you’re not angry when you are, and I address it. I talk about it, I cry, I pray, I watch a funny movie, and then I’ll get over it and get back to life, because dinner still has to be made.
I handle anger, sometimes I’ll bury it. A lot of times my anger will come out at my wife because she’s the closest person around me, and she’s the person that I’m most comfortable with so unfortunately, she has to deal with it most of the time. People that we don’t know as well, I don’t want them to know that I’m angry or upset about something unless it’s something that really bothers me. But I wouldn’t say that I deal with it very well, but it happens few and far between. But when it does happen, I get pretty angry about something and a lot of times it will be something small that will set me off. So, like the other day, my wife was working on something, we disagreed about it and it took me like a day to get over it.
Definitely the emotions are there, and there is anger, there is anger at finding yourself in a position that used to be so easy, to not be able to do that again. And so, from the simple things of pulling things off a shelf, or changing a light bulb, or opening a window—doing simple things around the house, which I kind of took care of the house, and did things, and hammered things and hung pictures. I can’t hang pictures now. And so, there’s a lot of things that you take for granted that you do every day that suddenly, from a wheelchair, you can’t take for granted anymore you can’t do those things. And you try to figure out ways to do it, and then realize “this isn’t working now, what am I going to do?” But it is really difficult for me as a guy, who has taken care of everything in my family, and no one in my family has ever worried. I have two daughters, a wife, I am the man of the house, the dog is female. And I used to do everything. And now suddenly to not be able to do that, it really, you just feel impotent, you feel like you’re not a man because you can’t do the things that you used to do, and now you have to rely on everybody else to do those things. That was a hard place to get through so that I could allow myself to be able to do that. Now, when I call someone to come hang a picture, or when I call someone to do my yard, or to plant plants, or do things I used to do, I tell myself “I’m still in charge.” “I’m still doing this, although I’m now calling other people to do that.” So, my wife still doesn’t worry about it.
I faked it a lot during the day, you know? Of course, I’m frustrated when I’m dropping things, when I’m scraping things, you know, when I fall. Of course, I’m mad at that. The fact that, my clothes don't fit the way they do. I mean, there's a lot of frustration, anger along with all of that. But, I think for me, I didn't want to show that in front of my kids. So, lot of anger and frustration with myself happened in solitude of my bed at light when no one was watching. And the nights were very, very long, you know, and I used to say things like, "Why is the sun coming up when I’m not ready to have another day?" But, regardless, it would come up, and I had to be ready anyways. So, I had lot of long, long, long restless nights. And I still have them from time to time. It's definitely shorter lived, but to say that I’m all cleared, I’d totally be lying to you. I think it's a lifelong process.
That I think it's important for everybody to get past is that you don't let the anger and resentment destroy you. How you do that is a lot more difficult. I don't know if there's any way that you can tell another person how to get over it, other than it only hurts you. I see a lot people with disabilities, especially those that have been in some kind of accident, or injury or whatever, that want to blame, and our society feeds into that, you know, you need to sue this person, or you need to get what is due to you and it perpetuates this notion that you are not responsible, someone else is, and that you need to blame them. And if you let yourself get so pulled into that that, you never can get out, it doesn't hurt anyone but yourself. You have to allow yourself to accept that accidents happen, tragedy happens and then you get past it. What happens to you is not really as important as how you deal with it.
I’m pretty level headed. I don’t get angry very much just because I start working through problems. Of course I was probably more angry at the world than anything. I know I wasn’t a good patient at Shepherd. I just was trying to figure out what was going on, again “why is this not happening?” and more internalize it than anything, but it makes me push harder. So, I was always waiting on the therapist in rehab, I’m like, “where are they, where are they,” and just kind of that because I was ready to push my legs to the limit. But as far as showing it, I don’t probably show anger very much, again it’s inside and it really kind of drives me to the next level really to fix something.
I take antidepressants. I understand that they, "suppress" sounds like too strong a word, but even out those emotions, and I find that I don't get as angry. I used to get angry at Carrie. I don't get angry at Carrie anymore, I don't, there's no point to it.
I internalize it a lot. The anger isn’t as much now, but I think when you feel overwhelmed, and the disability seems very prevalent in your life, I try to focus on the things that I have, the things that I’m blessed with. And try to count my haves instead of my have-nots. That’s helped me get through quite a few things.
Anger come and goes. Sometimes you’ll see, and I’m sure this happened to you, I’ll see kids playing soccer, and it will be like someone punched me in the stomach. It happens, but it’s not anger, it’s just “Aggh.” But, who am I going to be angry at? If it had been a car that that hit him, perhaps then I would be angry. So, I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else, it just happens not to be my case.
Unfortunately, I do internalize a great deal, and so that probably is not the most healthy. I recognize that physical work, working out, doing things that exert energy help process that. At the same time, talking to other people, having resources to go to that have been further down the path, I think, has been really very, very helpful. And even asking people point blank, you know, “do you still get angry?” And hearing that “yeah, sometimes, sometimes things are still frustrating.” But at the same time, recognizing that if I go to work in the morning, and things go well, and I come home, and have dinner with my family, I mean we have a great day. It’s a great day whether I’m in the chair or I’m not, it’s still a great day. At the same time, things don’t go so well, it’s a bad day and the next one should be better. And so, you know, kind of keep things in perspective that way really helps manage the anger issues that probably reside within everybody.
I have anger, but it started way back—when it’s out of your control, how do you react to it? And to me, that’s the biggest thing. So, when we found out that the doctor performed the wrong surgery, he actually came into the rehab room, and I was sleeping, and he woke me up, and I didn’t know he was coming, Dr. McClure, who found the x-rays, and they were wrong, called him to tell him to come in. So, he wakes me up and he says, “I need to tell you something, I operated in the wrong place.” And at 14, I look up at him and said, “well, there is nothing we can do about it now, what’s the next step?” And then, that happened then, and now when something happens, or I go through a thought process—I ‘ve never been a knee jerk reaction now, I can’t lie, I have kids. So sometimes there are some, but overall, what can I control? Is it out of my control? Well, then you have to go with it. And anger is one of those I think that it’s all about I say “control,” controlling your emotion. Do I get upset? Absolutely. Is it on some simple things in life whether the counter, or the cabinet is too high, I can’t reach it? I found these things the other day; it’s some tongs with, that are silicon tips, so now I reach up to get it. There’s answers or solutions to the issues, it’s to me thinking it through and reacting to it that way. Overall, I think I’m kind of an even-keeled person, but those times that anger comes in, you have to look at it and say, “okay, do I have control over it? If I do how do, I correct it? And if I don’t, do I have to let it go?”
It comes and goes, but I get angry at God, I have moments where I just say, "Why?" You know, "What did we do?"—"What could we have done differently?"—or—"Why wasn't my son one of them that, that recovered?"—"Why am I the strong one?"—"Why isn't there at least one other person in the family that can help?" You know, why does it all fall on me? But then, I've got so many blessings too. So I mean it, yes, absolutely, I still get angry. I don't think I would be human if I didn't get angry, or I don't think I would be being honest with the situation or myself if I didn't say, "I'm angry!" You know, I, it's healthy to be angry. I think we always as a family say, "we're angry at the situation," and I think that's a healthy way to look at it. I'm not angry at the person who had the piece of wood that fell off the trailer, I'm angry at the situation, and I think that's the way all of us get through it, and I that's a healthy way to look at it, because then you're free to get rid of it, and to really get angry, you know, without causing guilt.
I was absolutely angry. I mean, I’m a very faith-driven person, and so I hear the words “God wouldn’t make this happen, if there was a God he wouldn’t do this.” So, I was mad, like I had just started going to church, like, “what in the world, why is this happening to me? Because I want to know why, I want to understand the big picture.” And I had a tiny little glimpse then of what the big picture would be. Now I understand; now I see the big picture, but back then I did not. And so, I was very angry at the fact that I felt like I was surrendering my life to something greater, and that something greater was making my life more difficult. And so, I wanted answers, and I fought back, and ultimately, I got the answers. And, it was like once I got those answers, it changed everything. It was like, “okay, I’m going to use this for good, I’m going to turn something negative and the anger into something positive.” And, that’s what I have done ever since.
I was angry, I was very angry. The woman was 30—you’re an adult, it was barely 8 o’clock at night. I saw a picture of her on Facebook smiling recently, happy, and it’s like “no, like that’s not fair. Like I’m dealing with all this, and you’re now happy and doing fine.” That’s a hard thing to deal with.
Music is a very helpful coping mechanism. And sometimes, it just helps to put my headphones on, and put on a song, clear my head. Other times it helps to just talk to someone. I’ll either call up my mom, or dad, or a friend and just talk. It doesn’t necessarily always have to be about the issue at hand, just to talk to someone about something, and you know get some other emotions flowing. It really helps to not be trapped in that one state of anger or frustration.
I don’t want to say I’m completely over it, but I was bitter and mad. I mean, there were days that I would just literally come home, and just scream out loud, like you’d want to pull your hair out scream just because I did not want to be in this situation. I wanted to walk so very badly, well, I wanted to dance. Dancing, like I said, is my passion, and when they took that away, it’s like they took my legs. And for so long, it was just, it was really hard for me to cope with the idea that I wouldn’t be able to dance anymore. So, it was just very hard for me. I went to see a psychologist here at Shepherd, and then I went to see a psychiatrist sometimes. Sometimes it helps just to get it out, the change of environment, change of scene. You’re at home, and you’re in the same place, the same space all the time, you do the same routine over and over. Sometimes it helps to get out, talk to different people, just be in a different setting sometimes. And you can say the same thing to your caregiver, but it’s a different effect when you say it to somebody who you don’t see every day. And you go to their office, and just a change of scene sometimes helps to get that frustration out.
I would like to say that I'm not angry about it; I would like to say that, I suppose, but I think my behavior at times probably indicates otherwise. And while my anger now may not be expressed as causally connected with something I can or I can't do—although, if I trip and I fall, I can get, you know, somewhat angry about that. I just try not to be angry; I just try my best not to be angry.
I’m not generally an angry person whatsoever, I’m more logical one and think problems through. But in that period of time, when I’m lying flat in bed paralyzed, and people were wiping my butt, and taking care of everything for me, I was angry. Well, I actually am way better at right now than I ever was, because I sit down and think about it before I react. It’s patience, which I’ve learned from not having any choice in the matter, it is like, if a caregiver doesn’t show up in the morning, I’m lying flat in bed, not much I can do about that other than find another caregiver. Being angry doesn’t help. So, yes internally I probably am still, but the logical part of me says, “let’s find another caregiver, let it go.” So, I have been better at that.
I bottled everything up in the beginning. I literally held all of my anger in and I know it’s not healthy. About a month and a half in, it was like a dam busted and I lost it. Josh was seeing a counselor, so I went to his counselor and I talked to his counselor. And it’s amazing, the counseling helped a lot. And he let me rage, he let me yell and let me vent. But I learned talking. And I still yell, I still vent, but I try to be a little more positive. Josh and I both try to be a little more positive. So, he’s more positive than I am, but I’m the yeller out of the couple, but I yell more.
I sometimes get very mad, a lot of times at myself. I mean, I’ll get frustrated with something, and that’ll get me really mad because I can’t do something, or I’m trying to do something and it breaks, whatever the case might be. And so, I get very angry with that, the limitations sometimes just really bug the heck out of me. If I’m trying to pick something up with a grabber, a reacher, and you can’t get it, it just sometimes gets really frustrating. And I think that, although everyone tells me that I handled the whole being in a wheelchair well, and I guess I do. There are times—I think everyone goes through it—there’s times when you’re just like, “Jesus Christ, when is this going to change?”—Or, “When is it going to come up with that cure?”
Anger, anger, anger. I get that question a lot now, like “where you put all that anger?” Me being angry at the beginning, like I was in physical in football, karate, and stuff like that, so the only way I could get it out was being physical. So, at first, I started out—I used to smoke marijuana, and drink a lot because I looked at my life was over. I can’t do anything, so I was hurting so much so I just wanted to numb myself, so I wouldn’t be angry, so I wouldn’t be depressed. And so, when that right there wore off, I was still angry and still depressed, I was like “that’s not working for me.” I didn’t like that, I wanted something more effective, and so I started working out more. Whatever I can do from the beginning to as I got better, every time I felt angry I would work out a lot, or I would watch funny movies like “Friday,” anything that would make me laugh. And then just spending time with a female friend that always helped me as well to deal with my anger. And then once I became strong enough, and being able to move and stuff, I had a punching bag, so it had a lot of work.
I was really angry for a long time, and I just kind of realized one day, like, “Nobody wants to hear it.” I was lucky enough to have a great set of people around me. And I realized pretty early on that, like, life goes on. The sun goes up, the sun goes down, you can choose to participate in life, or you can choose to sit. And I was just like, “You know Darren, you got to get over it.” Because people are sympathetic, people are going to say, “Man…”—they don’t even know what to say, right?—“Oh boy, sucks.” But, in the end, if you sit around and whine and complain, those people that love you are going to just get tired of being around you. Because as sympathetic as they are, they’re just not going to want to hear it anymore. And, I was like, “You know, I really have a lot of people that I like, and I really want to be around those people. And I want them to want to be around me.” Now I look around and I’m like, “Jeez, there’s so many knuckle-heads out there that never wake up, I mean all I got that’s wrong with me is that I can’t walk around—so right?” So that’s kind of how I dealt with it.
I was very angry at first. I was angry with God to be honest with you. I’m still not real happy about the situation. But I’ve learned to adjust to it. I didn’t understand why, I’ll probably never understand why, but what you’ve got to do is I had to pick myself up and say, “he’s still alive. He can still have a very good life. We’ve got to find out how to provide that life for him and make sure he goes in the right direction.”
Ok, I'll give you the real easy answer—I swear. I curse, not at my wife, but I curse. Because people that curse don't do stupid things, I think, you know, it's one of our family jokes. I'd rather let it out in a real long nasty sounding gutter mouth than to harbor anything. My anger is actually, it just goes, I let it out through my mouth and it just disappears. It goes into the, goes into the atmosphere, and along with all the other crap that's up there, it just goes away.
I do have some levels of frustration, especially with some things that happened around the house, or things I'd like to see different, or things I'd like to change, but you know what, sometimes you can't sweat the small shit, you just have to go with it. So, I try to overlook a lot of things, and get up and enjoy my day. This may sound strange to some people but, you know, when you get this injury, there' not a lot of people that would like hanging out around you to begin with, and if you throw on top of it the fact that you're angry all the time, or not pleasant to be around, nobody likes an angry or disgruntled disabled person; it's not going to help. It's not going to help your situation, so you know I, you know, I sometimes have some sleep issues, which make me a little edgier some days than others, but you just, you know I would say on the most part, I'm not very angry at all—it's kind of my personality.
You know, I never have ever resented the disability, ever. I have embraced it and I think it’s made our family what it is. I’m really proud to have a dad with a disability. Well, I think it has made me very much more open minded, and accepting and willing to see the good in all situations. Even in difficult situations, I can still look at it positively.
I have been, angry at God, angry at everybody. Why me? Why my baby? Yes, I felt all those feelings, and then I sat back, and I thought about it and I analyzed it. And why not me?—Who am I?—Who am I? You know, so it's like, if you get dealt lemons, you make some lemonade, you know, you deal with it, you deal with it.
I do get angry. When I found out that the guy had shot me was probably never going to go to trial, I got angry. Sometimes, going back to helping my kids with sports, I get out on the field, and I want to run with them and I want to do other stuff. I get angry. Probably, the best way I deal with my anger is, I guess, thinking to how it could’ve been. Changing my anger into, “wow, I’m blessed to still be here.” “I’m blessed to be able to spend time with my kids.” There are other people who don’t have that. There are other children who don’t have their father because of something like I’ve been through, and they weren’t as blessed as I am. You know, just remembering my blessings and thanking God for still being here.
I’ve learned to count and counting works for me. It may not work for everybody, but I just take a moment. Like “well, she said I was snippy,” so I skipped the next phone call. I went outside. I was listening to the birds, and the trees and just took a moment to myself. Like well, I just take a moment. Sometimes you need a moment.
I don’t think I was ever angry in a sense, not angry at spinal cord injury, maybe angry at some of the situation. Some of the encounters that I had, whether it be something that took extra-long, somewhere that I couldn’t get into, someone who didn’t respond to me helpfully or correctly out in public, or something like that. And I guess I can honestly say some of those times may have been frustrating, but the anger I think is where you put your focus on. So, I never put my focus on those people, or those things, or just, and I allowed myself to turn it inside and say “well, Jeremy, what can you do to make it better? What can you do to help the situation?” And because of that, it helped minimize a lot of my anger towards disability.
I have felt angry and for years I pushed it down. And, I remember one day I was driving in the car minding my own business, not really thinking of anything, and all the sudden I was filled with such rage for what had happened. I didn’t know what to do because I had never experienced anything like this. And, I remember screaming, and crying, and pulling over to the side of the road, and stopping, wailing, which is something I do not do. Eventually, I calmed down, and I felt a lot better. I felt like whatever had been building up and building up had escaped. But, it didn’t happen for a long time. It took probably three years when I—I guess what happened was I knew that she was okay, and all the sudden I was filled up with this sense of, “Why did it all have to happen? And why did we have to go through everything we went through?”
I think in the beginning, it was difficult when you're mad at, especially if I'm the non-injured, you know, I'm the spouse of the disabled person. So, you feel guilty—"how could I be angry?"—"how could I do that?"—"how can I think those things?" But, he's still a man, and he still needs to be treated like a man, and I need to treat him like a man. And, I have to call him out if he's doing something or saying something inappropriate. And vice versa, he needs to know that I'll accept criticism, I might be upset, but that I need his support and I need his criticism. And we need to help eachother.
Yes, very mad, I'm still mad, mad that that happened to him, and that it had to change his life at a young age. I'm proud of him, he's done an amazing job, but I'm still mad that that night had to happen. I'm still mad that the circumstances of the accident led to him being injured; it wasn't his fault. He's doing really well. My mom, and I, and my sister and my dad remain much more angry about that night than he is. And, I think that it's been over a period of years that we've realized that if he's okay, and he's not angry anymore, then we don't need to be—we don't need to hold onto that forever.
In the beginning, I vented because I hated who I was. I asked Lord, “Why me, why? There are so many bad people in this world, why did this happen to me” I really hated who I was, and I held it in because what I did—I would fake it during the day when people would be around. So then, at night, I would cry myself to sleep. And, I would make sure I would be alone. That way, nobody could see that I was weak.
Anger is something that comes very naturally to me. Anger was something that I was exposed to when I was growing up. It was a normal part of life for somebody to be angry. As I came up into my twenties, and had the opportunities to express my anger in different environments and relationships, I started to see that it was not a very constructive way of working through a difficult moment. But it was just the beginning in my early twenties. It’s like learning a new faith or religion to get anger out of your life. You don’t wake up one day and say, “anger is no good,” and you turn the anger switch off. Anger is something, at that time in my life, was something that just came to me in the moment. The conflict was there and the anger was there with it. So, anger is something that I had to deal with over a long period of time, and the spinal cord injury was like probably my final exam. Maybe not final exam, it was like Eagle Scout project in overcoming anger, because here I could be angry at the person in the truck who pulled out in front of me that changed my life. I could be angry at my ex-wife for us not being able to find a way. I could be angry at those friends that fell off the map because they didn’t have a place for this to fit in their hearts. I could be angry at my father for teaching me anger. But I think the spinal cord injury really was something that allowed me to feel that I didn’t have to feel angry anymore because everyone expects something brand new after a catastrophic injury. “Pete’s going to come back from this as a different person.” And so, it started with gratitude. Every time the light was green at an intersection when I got to it, I expressed gratitude to the universe. “Thank you for the green light.” When somebody let me pull out in front of them in traffic, out loud in gratitude, “thank you for letting me out.” Every chance I had to express gratitude, I did it, out loud so I could hear it every day, so that I knew every day there were things to be pleased about. And the more I focused on that, the less the agitating things of my life could percolate up to the surface.
I talk to my therapist, I talk to my friends, who are lifelines. Physical activity is a good way to work your anger out and then I counsel myself. “All right, let’s not spend time on being angry about A, B, C, let’s spend time focusing on D and F," you know--the good things.