I recently saw an image of Joan Crawford swinging an ax. There she was, in her 1940’s hairstyle and thick eyebrows, looking like she was going to land that sucker right in someone’s living room couch. I immediately said to myself, Been there, sister.
One of the biggest hurdles in my recovery process has been the anger/forgiveness issue. Forgiving those who have hurt me doesn’t exactly make me jump up and down with giddy glee – forget about forgiving myself for bad choices, including my addictions and compulsions. Embracing rigorous honesty, facing real life issues, apologizing and changing behaviors isn’t fun. They involve work – consistent, tedious and sometimes painful work.
Recovery encourages us to do that very work. Refusal to do so threatens our progress, our relationships and our health.
Anger gets a bad rap. That’s where some of the confusion starts. Whatever our addictions or issues may be, most of us tend to inaccurately assess our anger – what it should be and what it costs.
As a kid, I was thoroughly indoctrinated in the belief that anger was bad. Whenever I expressed it, I was a bad girl. Girls were supposed to be “sugar and spice and everything nice” – pleasing and accommodating. Just try to meet that mandate when you live in an abusive environment – then add addictive tendencies and unmet needs. It is the perfect equation for self-destructive anger.
My dad was controlling and verbally and emotionally abusive; he isolated my mother and me. We couldn’t come and go freely. We certainly couldn’t speak our minds. If he ever caught so much as an eye roll or a frustrated sigh, there would be hell to pay; and he’d start throwing things.
I learned that keeping his standard of peace was paramount. By doing so, I could keep some of his rage at bay.
In this excerpt from my book, Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder, I noted the following:
For three years in a row, I did not miss one day of school, knowing that I would win a perfect attendance certificate, tangible proof on paper that I was worthwhile . . . So for the next few years, I went to school with colds, sore throats and influenza.
When I reached junior high, I once became so sick I had to stay home . . . Three days at home, according to my dad, was enough . . . He decided he would take me to school . . . I got up the nerve to ask him, “Do you still love me?” His answer? “If you do this again, I won’t.”
That launched my anorexia. Food, weight and body image issues had been brewing for years. But this was the activation moment. If I’d had an ax, I would have swung it.
Swing I did – not with an ax, but with my anorexia. By age 19, I swung all the way down to a two-digit weight. By age 20, I had made a bulimic 100-pound weight gain. I struggled for years looking for love, inner peace and meaning in my life.
When I arrived at the doorstep of recovery, I was confused. I thought anger was power. Not a good thing to run with if you want true peace and healing in your life. When it comes to a life in recovery, the Twelve Steps have much to say about both.
There was no sign of an ax anywhere in the Twelve Steps. And trust me; I was looking. My disordered eating behaviors became my outlet for anger. I wasn’t interested in recovery; I just wanted to rage!
It took God’s grace, love and mercy for me to heal. He loves me in spite of me being a flawed human being. Human beings become angry. It happens. But for those of us riddled with bitterness and resentment, anger is right up our ax-wielding alley, isn’t it? Fortunately, this was not the end of my story.
When I first sought therapy years ago, I learned the concept of the swinging pendulum of emotions. In my attempts to cope with dysfunction in my family, I slightly overreacted. Okay, let’s get real – I got ver-r-r-r-y angry. Me, the nice girl.
I realized that my inaccurate assessment of anger caused me to often over-correct and swing things in the other direction. If the pendulum swung in the direction of “anger is bad and unacceptable for me to express,” then, of course, the opposite swing was, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore! Gimme that ax!”
Ideally, the goal in recovery is moderation – finding a healthy balance between those two extremes. However, if one is unskilled at being appropriately angry, getting there can be messy. I have had my share of embarrassing meltdown episodes, but have learned that these rages had nothing to do with others. They were always about me.
In those moments of rage, when I found myself at the forgiveness intersection, God was there coaxing me to forgive. But just as with my anger, I had an incorrect understanding of forgiveness.
In short, forgiveness is not a feeling; it’s a decision. In life, we have many opportunities to practice making this decision. I saw how my self-destructive decisions, including my refusal to forgive, were messing me up.
Anger and its evil twin, refusal to forgive, both eat away at our lives. But they’re difficult to get around. Spiritually, forgiveness is a necessity. As the Lord’s Prayer states, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.”
For years I believed lies that did nothing but dig me deeper in the hole.
Anger + Bitterness + Resentment = Power. I need power to avoid getting hurt.
People who hurt me in the past fully deserve my wrath.
To survive my pain and anger, I need to turn to my addictions.
My addictions help me function; I cannot be without them.
I don’t want to let go of my anger. I just want more of my addictions.
I flailed and seethed. I tried to get beyond the pain. But God kept bringing me back to the forgiveness thing. I didn’t want to go back to that. Nevertheless, God kept nudging me to forgive my dad.
Not only that, God wanted me to ask my dad for forgiveness. C’mon, God! Shallow end of the gene pool here!
After a lot of arguing, rebellion and pouting, I finally forgave my dad. Did I feel all “forgive-y?” Nope. But I did eventually start feeling peace.
Did it help in my recovery? Yes. It’s not instant or perfect; but forgiveness has become a tool for me to support, not sabotage healthy choices.
That doesn’t mean all my anger cancelled out. I experience it; I feel it. Sometimes, I express it in less than noble ways. But today, anger is a “check engine” light for me. I have to be real and honest about its presence. I have to deal with it, preferably without an ax.
Although I don’t always respond perfectly, my anger is relevant to my recovery. Denying it or suppressing it does nothing positive for my wellbeing.
I try to remember – even in the middle of my angry “ax-y” Joan Crawford moments – there’s no anger too difficult for God to handle.
Thank God for that!
Copyright ©2014 Sheryle Cruse
Sheryle Cruse of St. Paul, Minnesota, found healing with the help of therapy, the Christian community and – most importantly – God’s patient love. Her recovery experience is chronicled in her book, Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder. Cruse writes, speaks and ministers to others about the underlying causes and issues of eating disorders. For more information, visit her website http://freewebs.com/daughterarise.