By: Ariel Fixler
One of the chronic and terminal illness side effects not talked about at length or openly is ANGER. It comes in waves and sometimes the waves come crashing down. They drown the people around them. They make a mess of things. They cause people to quickly clear out and escape as if a storm had just hit and will take a long time to recover from. You almost need a relief fund for the anger storm.
For me personally, I was surprised how my illness OVERPOWERED ME. I was hoping I would be one of those warriors where my illness was constantly EMPOWERING ME. I wanted everyone to think OMG she is like so BRAVE. I thought I would be angry and feel isolated and sidelined, but knowing me these feelings would be my private internal battle. It would never overtake me. I am not that kind of person. I never wanted to be a product of my disease. Anger took over my body, mind and spirit in a way where I didn’t recognize my actions and words. It made be the bitter person I never ever wanted to be. I didn’t want to be mad at people who did not deserve it.
My anger would never spill out onto anyone else and make a mess of things. It would make me pick irrational fights. It made me lash out at those I feel weren’t there for me in the way I felt I needed (or was deserving of). My anger touched everyone around me. Those friends and family who were trying so hard to be there for me, but were also making mistakes. Those who tried to treat me normally and act like I wasn’t ill to normalize me and not make me weep openly.
I was surprised at how vocal I was about my disdain. Whether I confronted people, picked fights or used my writing to display my dismay and anger. Were my actions always right? Were they always fair? Probably NOT. I felt paralyzed by it all. If you know me well, you know I am a pretty jovial, non-confrontational and enthusiastic person. I loved bringing people together, being there for others and letting my inner and outer light shine through. I sound like a Hallmark card GAG…..sorry. The point is illness changed me. Cancer stripped me of the sunshine and the “light that shined inside of me”. It stripped me of the positivity I held so dear. My jaundice and liver failure made me surly and cruel. Every side effect and challenge I faced made more immobile and started to strip me of the “Fixler” I once remembered. Not only did I not physically recognize myself in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the verbose and cunning word play I engaged in. It was like my own real life version of the movie “Memento”.
Who was this monster? I didn’t recognize my appearance in the mirror or the personality that went with it. This wasn’t the usual Fixler joke style of alliteration and quick-witted banter. Wit used to be passed back and forth like a comedy torch that shined bright and regal. This anger was irrational and pointed.
In my eyes, it was rational because no one knew my pain, fear, isolation, terror and sadness. I was jealous of everyone living their normal lives. I thought I had the right as Cancer patient to be this way. I assumed whoever stayed around to support me and was still fighting the good fight with me could take my bouts with anger. They were the winners in the game of Cancer”Survivor” Anger Edition. CBS never would want to buy the rights to my show though trust me. It was a test of sorts of who could handle me at both my worst and my best. Those people who were ready to stick around and stick up for me during the rational and irrational times. They were the last people standing. They were the tried and true support system.
One of my biggest regrets is how I “went at and after” people when I was grappling with my illness. I was charged up and fueled up with anger in my tank. It was unfair to put my grand expectations and hopes of how I thought I should be supported and loved. It was unfair to prejudge how often I should be communicated with, reached out to and loved. I felt the way of controlling that aspect and was to put up a wall before I could be hurt further by people’s intended and accidental actions.
I spent half of my life overcoming that good old mean girl mentality. Trying to be so far from removed from the competitive young woman who was obsessed with popularity, good looks, fancy clothes, accessories and leading the way (in a not so dignified manner). I never wanted to be that person again. EVER. I saw people I knew still traumatized and caring about high school and college politics (trying to associate with people they deemed cool) and it made me so sad. Even when I worked in the film industry it was just grown up ass-kissing and a massive popularity contest. They were still trying to overcome high school traumas, rejection and the past. I knew none of that mattered anymore. To me the word “popular” lost its meaning once I got older. For others popularity just took a different form.
The people who visited, supported and even those I was friendly with before my illness were from all walks of social life. Some were well liked, leaders of the class, others were more reticent but also brilliant and kind. I was mad at myself for not getting to really know them earlier in life. However I was so grateful we were brought together at this stage. Even if it was in the face of illness. I can’t look back in anger (yes I am quoting Oasis). I am a child of the melancholy 90’s after all. I am so glad I got to know such good people I never got to know beforehand and have such a diverse and extending support group.
In the beginning when I was diagnosed I had my original Fixler shiny personality to fight through. Even though I was sitting on the sidelines and missing out on life and adventures. I still chatted like nothing was wrong and was muting the pain with humor. As time went on that became harder and harder to do. I was more impacted by it. I was more angry with those I felt hurt me, forgot about me and were too self involved to see a pained individual in front of them.
I was mad they couldn’t see I needed a shoulder to cry on and not a person to casually shoot the usual shit with. I missed my life. I used to travel around the world for work to film festivals and film sets. I tasted the best food and embraced the most amazing people. I hadn’t even been to a movie theatre or restaurant in years. I forgot what normalcy was when others around me were taking it for granted.
My anger was protruding and I hated that I couldn’t control it. It was lock stock and two smoking barrels and ready to fire. My words were hurtful I admit it. My aim sometimes was not at the right person. It was usually the easiest target or the closest one emotionally or in physical proximity.
Disease changes you and if you don’t address how it changes your personality, you are doing yourself a disservice. You are also firmly placed in denial by not having a self-actualization about it. It makes you so bitter and jealous. It makes your moments of sadness more heightened. You realize sometimes you are emotionally unstable and don’t even remember the words coming out of your mouth. You become manic, feel crazy or even become a manic depressive.
Again I was a mean girl, just in a different form. When did this happen? How did I get here? I wasn’t even paying attention to it or listening to the words coming out of my mouth anymore. The notion I ran so far away from was now my current reality. This time I really didn’t know how to control the anger and mean spirit. I could blame the drugs, the pain, the hurt, the anger, the solitude or too much time alone with my thoughts and failing body. I could say everything and every person was failing me. Was that true or fair? It wasn’t true at all. People wanted to help and be there, but I was so fragile, angry and they were so lost and didn’t know to help. Do they not address the elephant in the room or directly address it? Should they chat and joke like everything is normal? Should they engage in conversations about our friends and pop culture and just BE? Or conversely, should they try to delve in deeper to help me and really sit with me and listen? Are they ready to open Pandora’s Box? Can they be helpful? Will they make it worse? Is that a role they understand and are ready to actively take on? So instead most times confusion overtakes people and silence ensues.
So if you are dealing with someone who is suffering from a disease and are sad they have morphed into a shell of person they used to be (not just physically but emotionally) there is a root cause. That same cause HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. They are lost, they don’t remember their former life. They are filled with envy and saddled with isolation and solitude. The best thing you can do is be there for them. Don’t make them feel bad for being mad. They will apologize in their own way and in their own time. Maybe they are apologizing with this post as we speak. Ahem…….. Cough, Cough, Wink, Wink…..
Even if they don’t articulate their sorrow and apology amongst their anger and hostility you have to know THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE ANGER THEY ARE DISPLAYING. They do not want to be this or act like an asshole. No one wants to be feared. People naturally want to be loved. They no longer have control and be the perfectionists of their own life and narrator of their own stories. They need help and guidance. So they hope they can pass the torch onto someone else who can do that for them. When it is not executed how they imagined they show their anger. Reality check everyone, their anger is really sadness masked in anger’s clothes. They are jealous, they can’t take accountability for their actions. They also can no longer execute their best laid plans. They cannot control their dark and angry thoughts. They are not used to all of this permeating their mind. They make their own mistakes and they are constantly picking on and nit-picking others.
Is it mature? NO.
Is it rational? NO.
Is it happening all around us in illness communities around the world? YOU BET YOUR ASS IT IS.
So if you feel the anger monster associated with illness coming to get you or attack you, try to take it with a grain of salt. That person, that monster, that shadow of their former self does not want to hurt you or be mean to you. They just want their life back and have enough trouble fighting their inner demons. They are tired of beating themselves up and kicking their own ass so they change their aim at the closest target. No matter how much they love that target. Even if that target is the closest person they have in their life. Try to not take it as a personal affront or assault on you, your actions and your character. I know it’s hard and easier said than done, but it will benefit you so greatly in the long run. It will make you bullet proof vest yourself and make you teflon tough. How you handle the patient in your life will make you stronger in other aspects of your life. I am not advocating any sort of abuse. Just let the sick person in your life go on these massive rants and attacks. They need to let it all out.
Lastly, I don’t want you to hold out for the apology you may never get or be waiting for. That is advice for both the patient and their support system (wherever their anger may lie and be directed towards). So to make it easier for you there are actions you can undertake. You can learn more about where this anger is coming from. You can question and tune into why the patient feels this specific anger. In addition why the patient feels this rage is rational (while everyone else sees it as irrational). Be the person who delves deeper, who questions the patient, engages in THE WHY and THE HOW behind the targeted rage. Raise your expectation of your own limitations, you can be the support system who doesn’t get scolded by the anger heat. You can be the GO TO support system (which is rare, treasured and admired).
Walking away from anger heat will make you miss the warmth involved in the support you may miss all together. If you can’t be there for the tough times it will ultimately put you in hot water and fill you up with clouding guilt. The patient may also feel used and not want to let you in on the more positive moment that include healing, remission, celebration and well…. LIFE.