Anger Management

Out of Control: From Losing Self to Finding Your Soul - Part I: Individual/Family Perspective: Can "The Last Angry Man" Last?

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

What images or emotions come to mind when you read the phrase, "Out of control?" Do you picture someone screaming violently or hysterically or, perhaps, someone coming unglued in a panic state? Or maybe you work in a field office and out of touch HQ policies and procedures (or lack thereof) evoke that sense of vulnerability and helplessness. Yet, what about the idea of "letting go," trusting in a different and, hopefully, higher and wiser authority? Also, can you envision being "out of control" as a momentary escape from a habituated, addicted or compulsive state? Here your mind is no longer trapped in a rigid cast; it's more like wet clay capable of being sensorially and sensually shaped and sculpted with novel fluidity and elegant simplicity. Of course, your hands are an essential part of this potentially synergistic redesign process.

Control has been on my mind big time. I was returning to my family of origin roots - New York City. While American novelist, Thomas Wolfe, may have been right - "You Can't Go Home Again" - two recent episodes (with Type A personalities - what do you expect it's the Big "A" for Apple) highlighted that you can go home and feel out of control again. Or, at least, you may have to deal with some powerful dynamics. This two part Shrink Rap Essay is an attempt to better understand the dangers and opportunities for "losing self" or "recovering some soul" when dealing with "out of control" issues regarding: a) an aging parent's inexorable mind-body deterioration (Part I) and b) highly cerebral, cynical and controlling research analysts before and during a corporate workshop (Part II).

Individual/Family Perspective -- Part I: Can "The Last Angry Man" Last?

A classic aggressive (and likely manic-depressive) personality, my father survived over thirty years as a salesman in the heart and heat of the jungle - New York City's garment center. Eventually, all that pressure and angry flamethrowing seemed to culminate in a serious case of burnout and premature retirement. Walking (or perhaps crawling) away from work had its ups and downs. Some of the former aggression (and need for achievement) got productively exercised and exorcised on a tennis court; some tension would be released by competitive and confrontative jousting between two fairly hyperreactive adultsmy parents. And like Old Faithful, boiling steam would build and, at some point, culminate in an eruption.

More specifically, when feeling endangered, my father would use raw aggression to frighten and push people away. (My mother once shared a dream of being streamrolled, literally, by dad.) My mother's arsenal involved intellectual condescension along with insisting on the last word. If she couldn't sufficiently release her anxiety, then a high pitched verbal explosion ensued. This aggressive system of give and take, and make up, mostly worked because these two often exasperating yet mostly lovable oddballs, despite some personality frictions and communicational dysfunctions, were genuinely fond of each other. (The saving grace occurred about fifteen years before my father retired. He slugged out some hard-earned understanding and emotional release through a dozen years of group therapy. For a man of his generation, this was pretty damn heroic!)

However, these last few years, aging and a life of fighting depression and just fighting have exacted a toll, especially on my old man. In his mid-70s, prostate cancer and a series of strokes, a fairly serious one preceded by Bell's Palsy, for a while definitely compromised memory and motor control. (And whether his memory had previously been weakened by years of shock therapy is a debatable point; though I can readily imagine a burning desire to forget the ECT trauma itself.)

Still, his considerable recovery from these physical and psychic blows has been nigh miraculous. All the hours of tennis over the last thirty years, being in basically good physical condition (though with a cholesterol problem) were likely the prophylactic, if not lifesaving, factors. My father finally had a mission as important as his former career - his recovery: a) he started a low fat, high fruit and high fiber diet; he sticks to grilled salmon in restaurants, b) he's now taking cholesterol-lowering medication, c) he continues with a less intense tennis regimen, and d) he's added daily walks on a tread mill. Dad has had to learn to not overexert and to pace himself. (This being no small accomplishment for an honorary member of the Type A Hall of Fame.)

However, despite these adaptive adjustments, he still harbors a Type A Achilles heel: rapidly going on anger alert if not an openly enraged state, when feeling endangered by a perceived adversary. And, of course, the world is still populated by "goniffs' or thieves and crooks; not to mention a spouse who can quickly trigger his over reactive hot buttons.

The Red Flag

A very recent explosive encounter may have brought them both to a critical - more literal than figurative - turning point. My folks were planning a theater outing. When presented a list of potential plays, my father mentally ruled one out because of the complexity of the background subject matter - the field of physics and Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle." (Please don't askI'm my father's son. ;-) However, he neglected to share this mental edit with my mother, though initially he was convinced he had. In the play's aftermath, my father kept aggressively questioning why she had made the selection. My mother increasingly exasperated by his badgering and disbelieving, finally exploded. Suddenly, my father started losing his balance, facial muscles tightened and his mind processing slowed as if unexpectedly enveloped in a disorienting fog. If he wasn't having a mini-stroke, he sure was on the edge.

Not surprisingly, this sequence scared them both, and the retelling of this trial by ire was practically the first words that each shared separately with me. My intuition told me to start with my father. Seeing him alone in the kitchen, I coolly announced, "Come with me into my office," and directed dad to the living room couch. We sat side by side. After reviewing some of the details, I asked, "Dad, how does it feel having an impaired memory and these periodic motor control attacks?" While the acute attacks are disturbing, he felt the loss of memory and having to slow down was not such a big deal.

I wasn't convinced. I wondered if all that has gone on these last couple of years doesn't have him feeling compromised, maybe sometimes feeling like damaged goods. He paused, eyed me thoughtfully and, then, for me a flash of insight or, at least, a hypothesis worth testing. I asked if some of the rage and shame associated with years of shock therapy wasn't getting reawakened now. Both his past shock years and present stroke phase provoke a kindred and painful feeling of not being a full or complete man.

My father again disavowed awareness but conceded these feelings may be rumbling around his unconscious. I was persistent because feelings of humiliation and helplessness so often ignite defensive aggression. For my old man, this eruption can easily be a diversion away from his depressive history and potential; it may cover past and present feelings of being out of control.

Affirmations and Interventions

After affirming the importance of connecting to some of these feelings, of getting centered to lower the magnitude of his fiery reaction, dad countered with some humor: "I better get centered so I won't lose my balance." We then went over some constructive "I" messages to use with mom when he senses mounting tension. The message, "I can't handle this right now," dad thought would work.

Finally, my mother and I also had an exchange. She and I have a less consistent history of being able to openly discuss and emotionally battle tough issues without wounding each other. Certainly, I could empathize with her frustration. Two weeks before she had been venting about the challenges living with dad since his strokes. But in the same breath she clearly said, "I will bear with himHe was such a savior for me with mom (her mother had a variety of physical illnesses, leg amputations) and Rusty (an uncle in and out of mental hospitals the last ten years of his life). I owe him." With eyes starting to water, I touched her hand and nodded my head.

Now I encouraged her to set limits on her hot reactor tendencies (tactfully acknowledging this can be an issue for me as well). She initially countered, "Sometimes I just can't hold it in any longer." I encouraged her to call a friend or to call me or Larry. (When they are in New York, my folks return to the Queens apartment, now inhabited full-time by my brother. However, when it comes to sharing feelings these three usually have a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.)

I could feel a beat of hesitancy upon volunteering for the family crisis hotline post. But my conscious outreach seems to be less anxious ambivalence and more a sign of having grappled with and having achieved fairly clear and healthy boundaries with my mother. Amen!

So here are some existential questions: 1) can his crisis challenge my father to confront past and present narcissistic injury while channeling shame, helplessness and anxiety into constructive assertion rather than self-destructive aggression? and 2) can my mother, historically uncomfortable with and ashamed of her emotional pain and vulnerabilities, reach out for help, acknowledge dependency needs and talk out her fear and anger without bottling up tension and then lashing out? (I always had a gnawing uneasiness and lurking sense of shame around a favorite pronouncement of hers: "God helps those who help themselves.")

If each can modify just enough habitual yet increasingly self-defeating ways of maintaining control perhaps these two heroic, embattled survivors can carve out more inner peace. At the same time, with such an "it's never too late" learning curve, mom and dad just might give renewed meaning and life to the concept of soul mates. And I'd even bestow my highest honor: Here's to the future "Practice Safe Stress" poster couple!

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