Mami once threw a woman down a flight of stairs. I was five. The details of it are blurry. I’ve gathered this much from Mami, Joann, and my own wisps of memories. It was an upstairs neighbor, who was relentless with her racket for weeks, and later months on end. Mami spoke to her, begged her to lower the music and control her teenage boys, and to consider that she had two young girls. Fed up Mami complained. A fight ensued. She called Mami a puta. Mami grew blind in her rage, grabbed, shoved, and pushed. It was the pivot at the end of the flight of stairs that broke the fall. Stunned, but not snitches the neighbors closed their doors. However, the memory has lived in my consciousness since then, unable to be shut closed. And after that I was aware of two things. One, Mami was to be feared. Two, that rage was part of me too.
With every essay I write, I uncover another layer behind the armor I have worn for almost four decades. Realized that what I searched for existed within. Worth. Love. Acceptance. Aware now that my gaze faced the wrong direction, outward. The laptop keys have been like one of those medical cameras that look inward. A new perspective gained. So, I must carve myself out from beneath the layers. The risk to own my story, is that first I must tell it.
Brene Brown says: When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending. I know this is true. I may have learned it as a researcher but I live this truth as a daughter, a partner, a leader, a sister, a mother, and a friend. When we push down hurt or pretend that struggle doesn’t exist, the hurt and struggle own us.
So, this is my story on my rage. How it has accompanied me throughout life. A shadow that I once feared, but now expect to cast alongside me. Part of me. But does not define me.
I have different names for myself when I’m angry. When I have blacked out with rage. I label this side of myself: Connie from Sunset, Gettin Sunset, and also personified my anger. As if this rage is not part of me, but a secret side to me. An alter ego to be feared, to not be provoked, or taunted. Named Concha. She takes over when I feel scared. Threatened. Protection, her sole purpose. She’s loud, her words like the stones in a slingshot meant to pelt. Hurt. And like a boxer in a ring pushed out with the intent to knock out the opponent, Concha comes out ready to swing. Lips set to the side, neck twisted, tongue positioned at attention. Jabs and upper cuts powered by intimidation. Once the moment has passed, Concha resides, like huge deflated parade balloon. Until the next time. Because there always is. And I’m left tired and exhausted. Haunted by my actions and the look across everyone’s eyes. A montage of my words on an endless loop. Rage subsides and shame remains.
This week I told one of my girlfriends over the phone after I wrote My Shame Back Pack essay a shift occurred. A release. The universe took note. I received bits of good news throughout the week. Parked in front of my daughter’s dance studio I looked up at the swirl of colors, and marveled at the beauty of the sky. Sunsets stopped me in my tracks as a child, and still do. A bright post-it scribbled with a reminder. Despite what the day brings, the day itself is a gift.
“Maybe because I let go of something that I hid, even to myself… my shame. Did that make room?” I wondered aloud over blue tooth in the car. “If I hadn’t, there would be no room for the good.” I answered myself.
“I think so,” my friend answered after a pause.
I closed my eyes and wondered what else remained to be released.
I’ve always taken pride that I’m a good student. Loved to learn. I started therapy in my mid twenties after a series of full blown panic attacks. Rolled up my sleeves and dug through my memories. In those silent pauses as my therapist waited for the memories or words that I’d spoken to settle. I studied them. No different from the notes for a social studies or the outline of a research paper. I became lost in my quest for comprehension. He complimented me at the start and end of each session about how much I’ve grown. My effort noticed. So, I studied harder. And I did this once a week for four years, only a six-week hiatus after my daughter was born. My approach the same during my one year of marriage counseling. Recognition fueled my therapy. Forever in search of the accolades that being a good student yielded.
I could now discuss my emotions, articulate what I felt, and look through my memories like a photo album. But I could not feel my them. I could think through them, but was numb to what I felt. My heart no different from a hand across a wall in the dark, blind in the search. The absence of light made illumination impossible.
In my mid thirties I searched for relief from my bouts of PMS and seasonal depression in acupuncture. Committed to once a week for eighteen months of hour-long sessions on an acupuncture table.
“We can work on physical symptoms or do emotional work?” Brittany, my acupuncturist asked in one of my early sessions with her.
“Can’t we do both?”
“We can…”she started.
“Then let’s do it,” I insisted.
And as I laid still on the table I counted the needles off. The more needles, the more improvement I hoped to gain. I smiled at all the improvements I could mark on my checklist. Points for depression, anxiety, PMS, worry, tense shoulders, sinus congestion, achy shoulder, and focus were ones that I welcomed. Only one that I shied away from. Anger.
My first session on anger left me chest filled with pain. So, much so that my hands mid session came up to my chest, and felt about. The image of cement poured heavy and thick over a hole took hold of my mind. I worried that the pain would seal itself, and my chest would turn to concrete.
“How are you?” Brittany asked once my time was up. She walked around me and plucked the needles off of me.
“I thought we would work on anger?” I asked propped on my elbows.
“We did,” Brittany pointed to above my ribs, and to the space between my throat and heart. “These are the points I used for anger.”
“Oh,” I said.
“What did you feel?” Brittney’s eyes rested on my face.
“It hurt so much,” I looked up at her. And was moved by how kind her eyes were.
Her eyes wide with compassion. “So, we hit the right points then,” she said.
“But it’s never hurt like that before,” I rubbed my chest.
“Underneath all that anger…” Brittany motioned with her hands, sifted layers in the air.
My heart hunched over, “hurt”.
I was one of those kids that was always quick to cry. If I got reprimanded by any adult I’d sob. Unable to be comforted for hours. If I fell and got hurt I cried so much so my body shook from the force of my tears. Mami saw my sensitivity as weakness, blind to the fact that it mirrored her own. She began the task to make me tough. The first lesson on Mami’s syllabus was, no tears. No llores tanto. No vayas a ser boba. El mundo es cruel. Que no dejes que te la monten. And her words became ones that I etched deep inside, beside where I held my feelings. And with every repetition her words erased the part of me that collected them. Feelings. Don’t cry. Don’t be a fool. This is a cruel world. Don’t let anyone make a bitch out of you. Her words like bleach washed what I felt. Soon, I felt nothing. Except in the absence of all my emotions, one grew. Rage.
And comfortable with my anger I tended to it like a pet. Gave it attention, fed it, and grew to love it. My mind hustled to seek justification. So, I collected reasons why I should be angry. Why my rage was necessary, even beautiful.
- Well my mother was a rageholic, so I inherited it. No different from her high cheekbones. DNA complicit.
- I’m Latina. Our ancestors were pissed, and I was given no choice in the matter.
- You gotta act tough even when your scared shitless. To do anything but puff out your chest, would label you a punk. An act deemed punishable in Sunset Park.
- I have reasons why I should be angry. You too would be angry. My childhood while not the worst was far from the best. So, there.
But another list formulated as I wrote this, how my anger has betrayed me. Lied to me. Tricked me to think I was in control. Despite that I was often left with a sour stomach, tense shoulders, jet fueled mind, and infinite sadness.
- The time I mouthed to the cop after I was pulled over for cell phone use. I ended up with a ticket for Disorderly Conduct, and the one for being on my phone while driving.
- When I invited my first landlord to a fist fight, in a parking lot, while my husband watched horrified. My husband shoved me in the car before my fist struck out.
- How I ranted and stomped around in my Abuelo’s house in Colombia. After my Aunt’s husband insisted I adhere to the 9:00pm curfew. But only after he muttered that only a whore stayed past that time. Unafraid to create a scene and wake everyone up. I welcomed the audience. My rage grew as more eyes watched. Hypnotized by my fury I dared them to stop me.
- That rainy Friday afternoon my neighbor from downstairs complained that my two children were being too loud. I opened the door and roared. My words a round from a semiautomatic, meant to destroy. And like a frightened kid in the midst of a nightmare I kicked and screamed until I could open my eyes. And once opened, I saw the shock on her face. But greater was the look in my seven-year old daughter and three-year old son’s faces, at the time. Fear.
That list is bullets long. I refuse to add more. A voice in me fears disconnection, and begins to whisper. Now you went too far. You will be judged. They will look at you different. Shame a deterrent. My eyes closed, head bowed. Anger once something I bragged about, and a billy club I swung to warn others. Don’t fuck with me. Leave me alone. Perhaps underneath those words was another set of words. Don’t hurt me.
I have these scaffolds set in my life in order to battle my enemies: anxiety, depression, stress, and obsessive thoughts. I pray, I go to the gym often and work up a sweat, read self-help books, go to yoga classes at the gym, go to acupuncture now every couple of weeks, listen to Buddhist teacher Burgs audio clips while I drive. http://theartofmeditation.org And now I have these essays that both give me the words to feel and allow me to feel too. I work all these scaffolds like I did therapy and acupuncture.
My anger remains, like a wild horse. Difficult to tame. I have been unable to saddle my anger and hold tight the reigns. Worry creeps across my shoulders and I wonder if I will ever be able to. So, I write to understand. I write to own my story.
And the other day Concha was beckoned. She’s a sneaky bitch. Waits on the sides ready to jump in, like in a double dutch game. She can’t wait to show off her rage. But I only let her jump in for a while. I was not blind in my rage, there was an awareness. Still unable to harness the horse, but my hand reached out and grabbed it, however brief. And for the first time ever I didn’t fear the hurt. I just felt.