It’s been nine years. I still have nightmares about what I had become.
My wife and kids are scared in a room. Sitting on the floor, they are trembling. She is hugging them protectively, crying. They are rolled up in the fetal position, sobbing. All I hear is... nothing!
I am yelling at the top of my voice, but I see myself in slow motion, out-of-body, from a distance, all in silence.
Even as a child, I was aware of my temper, that ugly beast inside returning to let everyone know he is still king of the jungle. At least in part, the outward expression of rage is a learned behavior. Growing up, men had yelled at me, making them feel potent, me impotent.
It was, after all, my turn to dominate.
“Please… go away,” I hear my wife plead in between my roars.
I walk out of the house. I slam the door with authority. I return an hour later without fire but with heat.
Five years ago today, a physician colleague who was known to be a gentleman, with whom I would round in the hospital every morning, went home early from work, took a gun and shot his wife and then killed himself, leaving behind two children five and seven.
A year later, I was asked by a famous attorney to see a man in jail who had shot and killed his wife. He was experiencing chest pains. This man, an African American professor at a college in Los Angeles was self-educated and had climbed the ranks with a perfect track record and no criminal history. One day he had come home early from work and found his wife in bed with another man. Outraged, he took a gun and shot her multiple times while the other man got away.
I remember standing at the gates of the jail puzzled why he had given up everything, why my colleague had given up years of hard work in a moment's passion. The words of the attorney still haunt me: "The difference between being on this side of the bars and the other is uncontrolled rage. A hairline separates you and me from them. We all have a point where we snap."
There is always a reason. The house is too messy. My privacy has been invaded. How many times do I have to ask for the closet doors to be closed after use? All I ever wanted… and the tales of unmet expectations play over and over. And then, there is infidelity.
Rage, like rape, is never about the subject, nor the trigger, but a hunter seeking to inflict pain on his prey, a bee that must sting before death- a shattered inner child, incapable of making sense of a world indifferent to his scraped skin, finding sick peace in revenge.
My loving wife waits for me to cool off. In her usual, kind and collected fashion she begs “take medication, see a therapist, do something... You need help. I don’t want you to hurt our children.”
Those last three words pierce my soul, shake my core.
I weep all night. A hideous part of me feels powerful. But most of me, all of my sanity, feels ashamed.
Urgently, I see a therapist. Back at my office, the cabinets are filled with samples of antidepressant- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). God knows I am well versed at prescribing mind altering pharmaceuticals. I choose one. I will do anything to insulate my family from this devil inside.
Medical school had trained me to be disciplined. Sometimes, I think it was my inborn discipline that led me to become a doctor. (It’s curious. See what just happened? Whenever I try to explore an emotion, one that is wrestling with me, I intellectualize- tangentially. My mind plays tricks.)
We physicians often find ourselves in the position of authority as a result of which we come to believe we must always be right. Rationalization kicks in. I am not an alcoholic. I am not a gambler. I am not a drug addict. So what’s wrong with being assertive when I’m right?
A small voice, the same one I used to counsel alcoholics in my psychiatric rotation, speaks back to me “when your habits, behavior or addiction wounds loved ones, you are no longer in control.”
I consider myself a recovering anger-oholic. The label helps me remember. It reminds me of the pain I can inflict. It reminds me who I don’t want to be. It reminds me how I don't want to be remembered. Those of us who are recovering addicts- and honestly, who among us isn’t- know that we are bedfellows of constant self-examination. And, without structured help, the chances of relapse are high.
Judaism is my support system, the voice within. I don’t mean God; God is abstract. I mean Judaism. When you misbehave, you need concrete action. I mean a set of dos and don’ts. I mean understanding that hurting God's children distances you from Him, and that is a sin. I mean realizing kindness toward His children is the best form of religion, and that draws you close. I mean a community that cares and acts as a safety net. I mean reading a Book that is real, whose heroes fall ten times and get up eleven. I mean forgiveness. I mean the chance for renewal, Teshuvah. And, yes, after all that, I mean God.
Each time I see rage and cruelty around me, before I start the blame game, I look in the mirror. I know I have never hurt anyone physically. I know I have no intentions of ever owning a gun. In light of the Orlando shooting, an act of hate, an act of rage, outside all the politics of terror and gun ownership, there is according to that attorney, a hairline that separates us.
Each of us has his own addiction, her place of darkness. It takes honesty, vulnerability, and ultimately strength to know our kryptonite.
Today, I know there is no power in anger. Wrath, one of Milton's deadly sins, merely cuts all ties with what is best in life. It doesn’t matter if you are right. You are not in a court of law. Not what you say, but how you say it, how you make people feel, is how you will be remembered.
To love means to become strong where we are broken.
Rumi whirls inside my head: “It’s the rain that grows the flower, not thunder.”