How Trauma Changes Us: Anger
anonymous Asks ...
My ex tried to kill me and he burnt down my home. He was abusive for a long time and he swore he'd kill me if I ever left him. I kicked him out of my house and got a restraining order against him after the police were called when he was beating me a few months ago. He left but 2 months later he burnt down the house while I was in it. I got out but my dog died and everything I had is gone. The police can't prove that he did it but I am sure that he did. I have left the city and am in a place he doesn't know about.
I am so angry now all of the time. I have a right to feel angry but it doesn't help me that I go into a rage when someone cuts in line in traffic or when the waitress gets my order wrong. Little stuff that doesn't matter and I totally lose control and scream. I don't even recognize myself after the fact. It's like I become a different person for a while.
Why can't I control my anger anymore? I am sure it is related to what's going on in my life. More importantly, how can I get back in control of myself? I feel like I am not myself and I need some help but I don't really know who to turn to. I don't have a family doctor or anything like that and it seems weird to go to a clinic to tell my story to a stranger, because it sounds crazy. I feel like I am going crazy.
Dr. Richard Schultz Says ...
Thank you so much for writing. I am horribly sorry to hear about the awful abuse you experienced during your relationship, and for the loss of your home and your pet. I am very glad you were able to summon the strength and courage to get yourself to a physically safe place, and that you are trying to move forward in your life.
When speaking of trauma, the term "recovery" is often used to describe the healing process. In some respects, however, this word is misleading because it assumes that we can ever go BACK to thinking, feeling and behaving as we did BEFORE having experienced the traumatic events. As is the case with such dramatic and impactful shifts in life (especially when they are so upsetting, scary and disruptive, and involve such loss), there really is no going back. These events can forever change the way we see and feel about the world, and "recovery" means ultimately coming to grips with what has occurred, resolving acute symptoms, and slowly beginning to construct a new view of life and self.
The good news is that you have already taken some major steps in this direction, particularly in regard to your safety. This is huge, and I hope you will give yourself a massive dose of credit for the work you have done so far.
And you are right on target in your belief that the anger and other difficult, unwanted feelings that have begun to emerge more strongly for you are very clearly related to the terrible and painful experiences you have lived through. Some individuals will respond to trauma with paralyzing fear, some with sadness and depression, and some with anger and rage. Sometimes, a variety of all of these emotions are present. And yes, as you say, of course you DO indeed have a right to be angry. Your world was shattered by violence, your home was destroyed, and you lost your dog. And these events did not occur as a result of a natural disaster, but because of the actions of someone you may have once loved and trusted. It is under these kinds of circumstances, those which are caused by a person, one who was quite close to you at one time, that the anger you feel would reach such great proportions.
The fact that your anger and other painful feelings remain so strong is not unusual, but these are signs that you have not yet been able to fully process and work through the trauma. There are questions and fears within you that have not yet been addressed, and your life is headed in a new direction. It would therefore be unreasonable to expect that you could just "suck it up" and "get back in control" through sheer motivation alone. This is where treatment comes in.
It is said that time heals all wounds, but it really depends on what you do with that time. To best insure that you are able to redevelop a constructive and healthy life, and to begin to work through the residual anger and hurt you feel, I would strongly recommend that you do visit with a qualified mental health professional as soon as possible. If you had been involved in a car accident, in which you suffered many injuries, you might be able to walk away (or limp away) from the scene, but your wounds would still need attention. Yes, the idea of seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist or mental health therapist does seem "weird" to the majority of people, especially since most of us were not raised to seek help for emotional wounds. Physical ones yes, psychological and emotional ones not so much. We are probably quicker to get our car's squealing brakes fixed than we are to get help with our feelings. But that is precisely what is needed in your situation. Your story may "sound crazy" to you, but we in the mental health field are quite accustomed to helping individuals overcome extreme forms of stress, hurt and trauma.
So, effective treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) typically involves re-processing of the event, and the thoughts, feelings and behaviors associated with it, receiving help in coping with physical and emotional symptoms related to the condition, and getting support and guidance as you resume some pre-trauma behavioral routines. If you wish to read more about PTSD, in conjunction with seeking treatment, I recommend the book, "Trauma and Recovery" by Judith Herman.
As for finding a therapist, it sounds like you have already become aware of the existence of mental health clinics in your area. You can also receive guidance in identifying a therapist by visiting www.apa.org, or by contacting your state's psychological association (just google the name of your state and "psychological association"). Of course, you can also ask friends, family or colleagues if they have worked with any skilled practitioners, if you feel comfortable doing so. Based on the symptoms you experiencing, and the trauma you have survived, I would strongly suggest seeking out a provider skilled in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), as this particular type of therapy has been used most successfully to treat PTSD. It tends to be a very practical and goal-focused form of treatment, and the methods and techniques you will learn may begin to provide you with some relief after just a few sessions.
I do hope you have found this information useful. Please feel free to write back if you have additional questions, to keep me posted on your progress, or to get further guidance of any kind.
I wish you great peace and courage in your healing.
Richard E. Schultz, Ph.D.