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When I Questioned Whether My Bipolar Anger Was Actually Grief

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

I had a right to be angry. I had been gaslighted. I had suffered emotional and verbal abuse.

He told me that when I couldn’t answer his accusations, he wanted to kick me. He made up an obscene song as a “tribute” to me and gleefully sang it to his friends. He said that when I wanted to use the bathroom with the door closed, it was a sign that I wasn’t “open enough.” Once he left me to sleep in the car on the streets of Buffalo while he went to a party. He asked me what I would have done if he were not “supporting” me. When I told him the singers I listened to were popular, he replied, “Eat shit. Twenty million flies can’t be wrong.” He started an affair with my best friend and invited her into our bed.

When I got him to go to couples counseling, he asked me if I was sure I wanted to, because he and the therapist could have me hospitalized. I retreated into self-harm and self-medication with alcohol.

I lived with this for a year with no way of escape except to a separate room in the house, which I began to pay him rent for. My parents came to town for my college graduation and refused to come into his house.

He never hit me. I always swore I would never stay with a man who hit me, no second chances. But he didn’t, so I stayed. When I finally left, while he was at work, he threatened to call the police on me in case I stole any of his belongings.

When I left, I swore I didn’t feel any anger. Denial and numbness were my reactions at that point. A little later, when my feelings started to return, I had minor, ineffectual revenge fantasies, none of which I ever carried out. I started reading about battered women, learned helplessness, and even brainwashing, trying to get a handle on what had happened and why I had stayed as long as I did.

I was clinically depressed, of course (not yet diagnosed as bipolar). And this was back in the days when the standard definition of depression was “anger turned inward.” So, in effect, the mental health community was blaming me for my own anger and depression. I didn’t know enough to be angry about that, either.

I’ve carried that anger with me ever since, for decades. I’ve gotten past most parts of it, but it still haunts me from time to time. I have dreams and flashbacks, which led one therapist to say that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I didn’t believe it at the time, but now I wonder.

Recently, I’ve done some reading on bipolar anger. Among the ways that it affects you, I learned, are friends avoiding you, family not wanting to have meaningful discussions with you, and receiving reprimands at work. I’ve experienced all of those. The sources say that bipolar anger can manifest as anything from irritability to rage. I’ve experienced those too. My rage came when I finally realized that the abuse never should have happened, and that my abuser would never feel a speck of remorse for what he’d done.

A lot of the anger was kept brewing inside me. I’d like to think that I didn’t let it show, but I know I did. It would come out unexpectedly as sarcastic comments that drove people away, for example, and when I was in one of my longest and deepest depressive episodes, as irrational anger at my husband. I remember one particular time when I yelled at him and called him a racist, which he certainly isn’t.

Most of what I’ve read to do about bipolar anger boils down to anger management: avoid your triggers, take your meds, keep stress in check, and talk with a therapist. I’ve never gone through anger management therapy, but I’m not sure if it would work under my particular circumstances. I’ve taken all those steps just dealing with my bipolar disorder, anyway.

Then recently, I saw a meme on Facebook credited to Minds Journal that said, “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” That started me thinking. What if my anger was really grief? I had lived so long with the anger. Was I unable to recognize its true nature?

Examining what happened and my reactions, I have to say that it’s likely. I actually have plenty of reasons for grief – that I was so naive, that my first really significant love relationship was so abusive, that it took me so long to realize it, that it had affected my relationship with my parents, and that the relationship I had been so invested in was based on nothing.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is deservedly famous for her paradigm of the Five Stages of Grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I’ve sat with denial, anger, and depression for a long time. If I’m honest, there was probably some bargaining in there too, which I understand stems from guilt and shame. If only I’d been a better judge of people; if only I’d gotten out sooner; if only I’d never done any of the things I did, from hooking up with him in the first place to letting him control both my feelings and behavior. (And yes, I gave him control. I didn’t stand up for myself. At the time, I didn’t know how, or even that I should.)

So, am I now sitting with my grief? I can’t say that I’ve reached the stage of acceptance. But I’m willing to own both my grief and my anger. Maybe in time, I’ll get to acceptance.

Getty image by EMS-FORSTER-PRODUCTIONS

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