I grew up believing that anger was a terrible thing.
Anger was a grown man looming over you with wild eyes, screaming at you for dropping a dish. Anger brought the humiliation of being yelled at in front of friends, teammates, and even other adults who never, ever lifted a finger to protect me. Anger made me wish that he would finally just hit me, because it felt like I deserved it.
Anger also wasn’t for me. The truth was that I was full of anger all the time. I was a little ball of rage, spiteful at a cruel and unfair world where anger was an excuse for a grown man to scream at me over spilled milk, but there was no excuse for my anger. “Jesus wouldn’t want you to be angry,” said my mother to me one day. She didn’t comment on what Jesus would want of the man she married.
No, anger was only for the man of the house. According to family legend, I was a spitfire of a child, full of passion and talkative and angry at older siblings who teased me mercilessly, until one day when I was trying to hit my brother, who is a full nine years older than me, and my dad snuck up behind me and grabbed me by the back of the neck.
Legend has it that I changed that day. I didn’t talk much anymore. I started spending a lot of time in my room. I don’t even remember the fiery little girl they talk about. But I grieve her still.
The anger never really went away, though. I simply hid it until I could lash out at friends, classmates, and, most often, myself. It was never enough. In adolescence, it mixed with depression and anxiety and soon found release in violent fantasies that I feverishly wrote into disturbing fiction that my close friends were unfortunately given to read. Worse, it began to twist into a sense of superiority. In a way, I feel as though I got a taste of what turns white boys and men into mass murderers. I can almost understand.
What saved me was a therapist. When my insomnia got so bad that I broke down into uncontrollable sobs in front of my mother, my poor mental health could no longer be ignored. I was put on antidepressants and sent to see a strange woman who raised her eyebrow at my mom’s excuses and gave me a knowing look. I dreaded every session, but I was in love and determined not to disappoint her. It took me many months to finally figure out that my therapy was for me.
But even then, I kept my anger hidden. We talked about my mom more than my dad. I learned how to manage my anxiety and how to sleep again. I learned that I have intrinsic value as a human being. I learned that no one is allowed to treat me badly. I learned that I had every right to be angry. She was the first person to ever tell me that I didn’t have to forgive anybody if I didn’t want to.
I saw this therapist for two years before I left town for college. I left confident, hopeful, and excited for the future. College was a wonderful time.
But it wasn’t all Bundt cakes and wine coolers. In my hubris, I went off my antidepressants and crashed a month after I had finished tapering off under the supervision of a doctor. In my pride, I didn’t go back on them. I experienced my first heartbreak shortly before I graduated. I had to get a bizarre and terrible-paying job to make it through the rest of my apartment lease before I moved back home.
I met an incredibly passionate, fascinating man who was just as big and hairy as my dad and held his own anger, but never turned it onto me. After we both moved home to the Seattle area, we desperately scoured the internet for jobs at the peak of the Great Recession so we could move out of our parents’ houses and into an apartment together. We slogged through underpaid, emotionally demanding and/or unbearably dull work in order to be together as much as possible.
At one of my unbearably dull jobs, I discovered feminism, and found in it a treasure trove of anger. A rage jackpot. Here was a community of justifiably angry women telling me that I should be angry and handing me terabytes of blogs, Tumblr posts, Facebook rants, books, podcasts, essays, and artwork all full of beautiful, perfect feminine rage. I learned that anger had been denied to women for centuries. It wasn’t just my family. It was almost every family. It was a system and a culture.
This wasn’t just an outlet for my anger. This was a wonderful reason to explore, revel in, and even learn to love my anger.
“You’ve turned into such an angry feminist.”
No, I’ve turned into a feminist. I was always angry.
Then came the day that I flung a glass at the man I love. I did it out of anger. We were fighting about our relationship. It had nothing to do with feminism, but I was angry. He said something that hurt, and there was an empty glass sitting next to me on the couch. I swung my arm, sweeping the glass toward him, sending it flying through the air close to his head.
A few weeks later, I went back to therapy. This therapist was different from my first, but she was just as amazing. She described herself as a feminist therapist. We talked about my dad and about anger. When my boyfriend and I started fighting about anger and what it was and what it meant to me, my feminist therapist told me something simple that changed my life.
Anger isn’t good or bad. Anger is not a moral stance. Anger is a tool. Anger is the alarm system that tells you when you’re being treated badly, when there is an injustice happening, or when someone is not respecting your boundaries. Anger is a motivator that helps you get stuff done, overriding your fear, shouting in your ear that you deserve better. Every one of us owns this tool that, collectively, can move mountains.
Many of us have been told that we’re not allowed to use this tool. It’s not for us. At best, we’re told when to use it, and any use outside of the approved method and target is unacceptable. We all know why. Privileged people have always been terrified of the anger of the oppressed because they know just how powerful it is. They can’t take it from us. But they can tell us that it’s a bad tool. That it’s shameful to use it. That using it without approval makes us bad, even criminal.
Then there are white men, who, like my dad, are allowed to be angry, but don’t know how to use it. They’re full of anger, and the anger alarm won’t stop screeching until you do something about it. So men like my dad turn it onto the closest available scapegoat that can’t fight back. They don’t even know why they’re angry or where the anger is coming from, so they can’t use it effectively. Instead, they use it to hurt people. My dad’s anger exploded chaotically onto his children and we all came away wounded.
I wish somebody had taught my dad about anger before he left me with complex PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder. But I do take some comfort in knowing that I learned to wield my anger in a healthy way. I still channel my anger into passionate, fiery feminist writing that I hope honors the angry little me who was lost from my memories. I use it to push myself past the constant, ever-present fears and demand respect. I use it for the energy I need every day to fight for justice in a world that so sorely lacks it.
And to this day, I preach the miracle of anger. Anger is not a moral failing. Anger is an essential tool for every human being that some would try to deny those they want to oppress. I seek to tell every oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised person: Take up your anger as a torch and let it guide you to justice. Like monsters, your oppressors fear its power. Don’t let them convince you that your own anger will hurt you, or that anger in itself is violence. It’s only a tool. Learn to use it and take back what’s yours.