Epanting through clenched teeth, I examined the kitchen floor, which was now covered in shards of pale wood – miniature utensils and tiny saucepans strewn in between. With a hint of annoyance, I grabbed the broom; I had spent two hours on Christmas morning assembling this toy kitchen set and now it was shattered.
My daughters, who were then one and three years old, stood silently by the dining table and guilt engulfed me like flames. “Mom, your leg is bleeding,” my three-year-old son said. I looked down at where a shard was sticking out of my right shin. I don’t know what triggered this moment of rage, all I remember is looking for objects to throw: duct tape, a slightly moldy satsuma, then spotting the whole kitchen, to raise it above my head and throw it to the floor, so hard that a pane broke. What I remember is that the impact was delicious, all my pent up tension released in an instant.
This happened during lockdown, a period of intense volatility, which involved containing two young children in a warm apartment while writing a book, and managing my second episode of postnatal depression with medication.
However, despite the exceptional circumstances, my rage was nothing new. It had appeared after the birth of my first baby and I had put it down to exhaustion: six weeks after giving birth, I had started writing a 90,000-word book, breastfeeding while typing one hand and live on tracker bars, toast and more coffee than should be legal. It was enough to make anyone irritable. But the rage was more than irritation.
Most new parents are aware of the likelihood of postnatal depression and the symptoms to watch out for: crying, loss of energy, trouble sleeping, and low mood, all of which are hard to distinguish from the typical experience of having a baby.
But what is never mentioned is rage. The volcanic eruption triggered by a misplaced pen lid, a sock on the floor, an innocent inquiry into what’s for dinner. It’s an irrational anger that takes a split second to swell in your stomach, surge in your chest, and blast with a force that bursts the blood vessels in your cheeks, sweats your forehead, and makes you scream so loud your throat is painful for days.
Postnatal rabies is such a taboo that it is almost impossible to find information about it. My solace came from an inner circle of mom friends whose angry confessions came in private messages with blushing emojis.
One day after the toy kitchen incident, I decided I needed help. The shame was so overwhelming that I didn’t feel comfortable confiding in my loved ones, so I called my friend Matt, a no-nonsense American, whom I occasionally turn to as a sounding board. “You need anger management,” he said immediately. “I got it, and it works.” The concept seemed comical: the subject of Adam Sandler films, rather than something anyone I knew had ever experienced. Still, I searched online and came across a psychotherapist who had overcome her own anger, so I emailed her, hoping she might be less judgmental and more empathetic towards my own situation.
Completing the evaluation questionnaire made me cry but convinced that it was the right approach, and so began a 14-week program. My therapist reminded me of Una Stubbs; warm and smiling. She walked me through humiliating memories to identify the sources of my anger: being bullied at school, abusive teachers, family disputes, and racist abuse online. Together we concluded that anger had played a crucial role in my life. My anger had allowed me to persist and thrive in an industry in which I am a minority, it had driven me to shine a light on injustices and alerted me to toxic influences in my personal life. But I also learned that feeling angry and acting angry – or, in my case, outbursts of rage – were two different things.
The aim of the program is not to move from aggressiveness to passivity, but to achieve assertive communication, which requires identifying the sources of anger and stress and, if possible, avoiding them completely by drawing firm boundaries. This meant asking a particular family member not to come to our house anymore. That meant deleting social media from my phone and ignoring unnecessary conflicts. This involved taking two-minute breaks on the landing during noisy bath time and bedtime, which created a calmer, happier environment for my family.
Managing anger is difficult. It’s about undoing learned behaviors and requires physical effort to combat physiological instincts, but the practical nature of the program allowed me to apply the methods on a daily basis, although not always perfectly. No growth is linear, but you never undo progress.
After completing the program, I continue to check in regularly. Every Thursday morning I wonder how I feel and a few times a day I reflect on my emotions, which is one of the easiest ways to notice anger and allow it to dissipate. No more sore throats, burst blood vessels and hot prickly skin. And the last thing I threw away? A birthday party for my youngest daughter.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email at [email protected] or [email protected]. The charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and ChildLine on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255.