My father was angry. Again. He worked long hours, or did other things, and when he came home, he was usually exhausted, and he was angry. That anger shrapneled everywhere: anything might set it off, from dishes left on the counter to shoes on the floor to papers on the kitchen table.
He abhorred mess and disorder. But I have ADHD. I would be told, for example, to let the dogs in, but I’d forget to wipe their paws. Muddy footprints would smear across the kitchen floor. They terrified me; I knew what would happen. I’d frantically scrub at them, but I knew I wouldn’t do it well enough. And I wouldn’t. He was already angry, and that anger would suddenly swing in my direction.
I do not speak to my father anymore, for unrelated reasons — he’s toxic, and we don’t allow him in our sons’ lives because of his chronic unreliability. But decades later, I still have not escaped his anger. I carry it with me. It terrorizes me to this day, to the extent that it damages my marriage.
There is something that happens to someone’s face when they’re angry. Anger twists the face; anger changes it. A person’s eyes may widen or narrow; their brows draw down. If you are forced to stare at them because you must “Look at me when I talk to you, goddammit!” you can make them blur into a meaningless shape when you don’t blink. I had to look and I could not cry. If I cried, I would be yelled at that I had better stop, or he would “give me something to cry about.” This is not the way to stop a child from crying. I got scared. His anger rose. The vicious cycle continued. I could not escape. I can’t emphasize this enough: as a child, I had no power to get away from his anger.
It terrorizes me to this day, to the extent that it damages my marriage.
I’d hear my full name screamed from downstairs: “ELIZABETH ANN, GET DOWN HERE!” and I would know. I wouldn’t know what I did, but I’d know that something had set my father off, and I was about to bear the brunt of it. I hate my full name to this day because of it. I learned to hide when he came home. I learned to watch for signs: for his anger at something else. That anger meant that, sooner or later, I would enrage him. It didn’t matter how good I tried to be. He would find something.
Today, my husband gets angry sometimes. He doesn’t get angry often. He’s a level-headed man, generally, a kind one. But like everyone, he gets frustrated. Often he has a long day at work as a teacher. He currently suffers from chronic pain, and some days, he simply can’t do it anymore and loses his temper. Usually it happens because the house is messy, and he’s the one who has to clean it. He already cleaned it yesterday, and the kids have already destroyed it again. Or one of the kids is whining, and they won’t stop, and he’s getting frustrated with the number of things people are demanding him to do at once.
And he snaps.
His snapping is not what anyone would call yelling. His voice doesn’t raise; only his tone changes. His voice speeds up; it develops a mean, frustrated edge. He doesn’t say the types of things my father did: “Do you have a hole in your head?” or “Don’t you have any common sense?!” In fact, my husband’s anger is very, very rarely directed at me. It doesn’t matter. To me, anger shrapnels.
When someone — a male someone — becomes angry, this anger will eventually fall on me. It doesn’t matter what I do. Whatever they decide to direct their anger towards will eventually become, somehow, my fault. Or they will find some fault with me, and I’ll bear the brunt of whatever’s coming. So, instinctively, when my husband gets frustrated or mad, I freeze. My voice gets higher in pitch. I shut down. I make myself small; I look down and busy myself with my phone, trying to make myself as small as possible. The anger, I fear, will come for me next.
I inevitably crumple into tears and tell him I’ll do whatever, just please please stop yelling. I will do anything as long as the yelling will stop.
But sometimes I snap back. He’s my husband. He’s not my father. I gather my courage and yell back at him. I yell at him to stop yelling at me when he’s only asked me to do something, when he’s made a request, or simply changed his tone. I didn’t yell at you! he’ll protest. You did! I yell back. I only changed my tone. This is not yelling. You don’t understand what yelling is.
No, darling. I understand all too well what yelling is. I carry it around with me every day, and every single raised voice sounds like yelling. When my children fight, I have put my hands over my ears and screamed at them to stop it. When my husband and I actually do fight, and he raises his voice for real, I inevitably crumple into tears and tell him I’ll do whatever, just please please stop yelling. I will do anything as long as the yelling will stop. I will agree to anything.
This is what I carry with me from my childhood. It’s been 30-something years, and it has started innumerable fights with my husband. He feels as if he can’t show any anger or frustration. His emotions are invalid. “I’m not allowed to have emotions,” he snaps at me. “You’re the only one allowed to have emotions in this house. How do you think that works out for me? I’m not allowed to get mad at the dogs, because you end up cowering. How do you think that makes me feel?”
Pretty shitty. Even I admit that.
But I don’t know how to stop. I hear an angry male voice and I freeze. You can’t condition your way out of that. There’s no way to immunize yourself against it. I’m suddenly small and frightened again, sure it’s coming.
I have forgiven my father many, many things in my life. But the way his anger has impacted me for the rest of my life, with this gut reaction to an angry male voice?
No. I haven’t forgiven that.