Wednesday 21 June 2017

How to Handle Anger Creatively in a Supportive Relationship

If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself.—Cheryl Richardson

In the first of a new series of Question & Answer posts, Anna asks: “Do you and Fran ever get angry with each other? How do you deal with that?” Quoted passages are excerpted from our book.

In any relationship worthy of the name there will be times when one person or the other becomes irritated, frustrated, or even furiously angry. It’s important not to imagine or pretend otherwise, or hide from it when it happens. My six year friendship with Fran has transformed my relationship with anger. I am no longer afraid. It’s not that anger is a good thing in itself, but when it turns up we acknowledge it, and are honest about what is happening.

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that it is okay to get things wrong sometimes; for me to become irritated, frustrated, or angry at Fran; or for her to feel that way about me. In a relationship founded on trust and honesty, we feel safe expressing how we feel. If we allow the experience to flow without resisting it, we can emerge on the other side: still friends, cleansed, and perhaps a little wiser.

In the early stages of our friendship, I found Fran’s manic intensity exciting, but I was shocked at the frustration and anger she stirred up in me. Fran valued the emotional energy and encouraged—sometimes goaded—its expression: “Let your anger flow through you furiously, thoroughly, until it’s totally spent. It’s beautiful.” This was a revelation to me. I had spent my entire adult life trying not to become angry or upset anyone.

Irritations, grumbles, and disagreements crop up all the time, of course. They are part and parcel of life itself. Real flare ups are much rarer, but trust me we do get mad with each other sometimes! The anger is not always directed at each other. Sometimes it is triggered by other people, situations or things. We get to deal with that too.

We were talking one evening, a few months into our friendship, when I mentioned something apparently innocuous. Within moments, Fran was sobbing and furious. She hung up on me. It was the first time she had done so, other than occasionally as a joke. I had no idea what to do. I called back several times, but she failed to answer. I e-mailed her and said I was here when or if she wanted me.

I thought about how I was feeling. I was angry. Not with Fran, but with myself for having said what I did. I had not intended to hurt her, of course, nor could I reasonably have anticipated what my words would trigger. I was also concerned about her, although I trusted her to handle things, however she needed to, and to get back to me when she was ready.

As my feelings settled, I was left with a sense of calm. Something very intense had happened, but it was okay. More than that, it was important. I called Fran an hour or so later, and this time she picked up. We talked through what had happened, grateful to each other for the experience. Out of the apparent mess we had learned something new about each other and our friendship.

The source of Fran’s anger is often frustration: at her situation, at the realities of a life lived with illness, or at other people—me included—who she feels are not paying attention or taking her concerns seriously. A few times we’ve been on a call together and suddenly Fran has been crying and screaming at me that I didn’t get it: that I could never understand what she’s going through.

Paranoia can play a role. If Fran is convinced everyone is against her or hates her, I mention it to her as a potential red flag for illness. (Fran will sometimes notice it first, and share it with me so we are both aware.) But of course not all her rage is symptomatic. The world is neither fair nor pretty. All of us feel frustrated, angry and fearful from time to time. Those who live with mental illness also face stigma, ignorance and discrimination. These challenges are very real, and far more prevalent than many of us “well ones” recognise.

I get frustrated too. I get frustrated that, being 3,000 miles away, I am unable to help Fran as much as I would if we lived closer. I get frustrated if my attempts to help are clumsy or ill-fitted to her needs. And sometimes I get frustrated for no good reason at all.

I am clearer about my boundaries these days, but early in our friendship I felt I was letting Fran down if I could not do what she asked straightaway. We had been friends for about three months when things came to a head. I had helped her throughout the day and evening, but had turned my computer off and was about to go to bed. The description of what happened next comes from my diary, written the following day.

I was feeling overwhelmed about a lot of things, mostly nothing to do with Fran, but I was OK until she called after I turned the computer off and asked me to edit something to post online about wanting a ride to the Bob Dylan concert. I said I was going to bed and would do it in the morning. Fran said OK, but in a way that sounded like she was disappointed. All of a sudden I was furious at her! I hung up and turned my phone off so she couldn’t call me back. I put the computer back on and did the edit she wanted, and then e-mailed it to her. “Here you go, best I can manage. It’s twenty past midnight. I will edit the other things you wanted tomorrow. Night.”

I had no intention of talking to her again that night, but I turned my phone back on after a while, and saw she had sent me the most ridiculous cartoon video of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” All my tension and anger dissolved in an instant! Not just the stuff about Fran, but the rest of it too. I called her and we had a huge laugh about it! I learned three lessons that night. First, it is important to respect my needs as much as I respect Fran’s. The editing was not urgent; I was tired and needed sleep. Second, I have choices. I might have chosen to do the work gracefully to get it out of the way, or leave it until morning. Having a tantrum about it was also a choice. Third, I learned that extreme emotions can be cleansing. Fran defused my outburst with humour, simultaneously releasing the rest of my pent-up frustrations. As I wrote to Fran later, “I needed to get mad at you. Thank you.”

Fran often notices a shift in my mood and asks me about it before it can spill over into anger, but sometimes there is little or no warning. A couple of months ago we were talking together on webcam. Suddenly, I was more furious than I can ever recall being in my life. I was yelling at her, swearing at her, raging at her. I can still recall the fury. I can taste it. I have no recollection now of what triggered my outburst, but I know we stayed on our call. Fran waited for me to calm down. We talked it through. I could ask Fran to remind me what it was about. Perhaps I will. But the point is we can experience moments of even extreme anger, process them, and move on.

How do we do that? First and foremost we are honest and open with each other. We are not proud of our anger but neither are we ashamed. We do not take it as a personal affront or as a threat to our relationship. We talk as soon as possible, looking “under the bonnet” at what might actually have been going on. It can be a very cleansing experience, and allows us to move forward without feeling guilty or nursing bruised egos.

When I began writing this post I joked to Fran that I had enough material already so there was no need for us to get mad at each other for a while. A few days later, something happened. It was no more than a minor misalignment, but it could easily have escalated if we had not been open to exploring what was happening. We were on our regular early evening call (early evening for me, early afternoon for Fran due to the time difference). Fran talked for a while about her day, how she had made a few phone calls and got movement on some things she’s been dealing with lately. When it seemed we’d talked that through, I shared what had been going on for me. I read her a new book review we’d received, and told her about an invitation I’d received to attend a mental health event later in the year.

I could tell Fran wasn’t paying attention, and as soon as I stopped speaking she took the conversation back to what she’d been talking about earlier. I let it go but I felt aggrieved. I’d have liked some acknowledgement of what I’d shared. I was also irritated by some of what Fran was saying about other people and events, as though everything and everyone was against her.

After talking for a few minutes Fran paused. She’d noticed my shift in mood. She acknowledged she was being unreasonable. She knew I was excited about my news, but couldn’t focus on that because she was so worried about what was going on for her. She was also concerned her bipolar might be kicking in again. I realised I’d not picked up on just how concerned she was about everything. Although “tired and grumpy” she had seemed to have things in hand.

It didn’t take long to talk it through. No more than a couple of minutes. Before we ended our call I told her: “I’m proud of how we do this stuff, Fran. You get to say how it is for you. I get to say how it is for me. And we get over ourselves and move on.”


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