By Lora Mathis.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the information our communication styles carry about our childhoods, histories, and traumas. The ways we communicate with others — especially in moments when emotions run high — are maps to how we have been hurt, our perceptions about the world, and the defenses we have built to navigate it.
Last night, I read through screenshots that my close friend Sam* sent me of a text conversation with their recent ex, Alex*. Too tired to offer a helpful response, I allowed my eyes to lose focus of the paragraph-length messages, and went to sleep.
When I combed through the messages in the morning, I realized that as much as I could relate to Sam’s heartbreak, the conversation contained toxic expressions of anger. I knew that to be a friend was to not simply validate their hurt, but to point out the ways their conversation seemed harmful.
I bring up my friend’s experience (with their consent) because of how many pieces of myself I see in it, and how, through it, I became aware of how my anger has shifted in the past year.
My childhood was a time of confusion and blocks in the road. I moved twelve times in ten years, and more than I can remember most childhood memories, I remember my consistent feeling of disorientation. I was confused by the moving trucks parked outside our home every summer. The new schools, the loss of built-up friendships, and the continual lack of familiarity did not make sense to me. Nor did my mother’s pain — how she would sob in the car while driving my brother and I to school, then spend hours crying on the phone with my drunk step dad and tromp downstairs, her voice sharpened into a tool of rage.
To mark time in my memory, I think back to the homes our small family had shared. Eleven years old was a three bedroom apartment in North County San Diego, decorated almost entirely in white; the couch was white, the carpet was white, the walls were white — and we were not to touch any of it.
I remember how routine it was, in this spotless space, for my brother or I to provoke my mother into a fit of fury. I cannot vividly recall the actions that would enlist one of these fits, only that it would not take much.
My mother would react to our behavior by turning so red she was almost purple. Her face would contort into the shape of a rotting berry and she would begin to scream. Her loudness filling our small apartment, until the sharpness in her voice gave way to choking. She would chase after whoever was the cause of the rage in that instance, sending us running to our shared bathroom, hurriedly locking the door behind us. From the corner of the living room, my sister would yell, YOU'RE KILLING HER! as my mother’s face transformed into a terrible, purple thing, spilling hatred.
I did not know how to make sense of the rage that overtook my mother. Instead, I learned to navigate interactions with her with great care — to swallow the noise in a room, to tiptoe in my speech in order to judge her mood. This navigation took a significant amount of energy. And, as time proved, silence did not necessarily put an end to the fury, nor was it easy for me to maintain.
I would bite my tongue until I cracked. Sometimes my cracking would come as an instance of seemingly uncontrollable rebellion. All at once, I would grow tired of my quiet, my unwilling obedience, my hopes that silence would cease the screaming. In those moments, a rude comment would spill out of my mouth, provoking a larger fight and unraveling my carefully crafted self-preservation methods.
In other instances, my mother would make a calloused remark, one that I would typically respond to with controlled patience, but — perhaps because of a bad day or my defenses being worn thin — I could not handle at that moment. I would begin to scream, to cry, to punch myself in the face, to tear at my hair and bang my head against my bedroom walls. The rage would take over, transforming me, like it transformed my mother, into a thing made wild by its own hurt.
Each time I succumbed to rage, I would be filled with an intense amount of self-loathing. My anger made me feel weak and uncontrollable. Following each break down, I would tell myself, It will be better next time. If I just hold my tongue for longer. If I just learn to be quieter, silently hoping to will myself into the shelter of invisibility.
This was the pattern my mother and I played out for years, with our rage mostly ignored outside of the moments it was expressed. Occasionally it would become a joke passed around the dinner table, my mother laughing about my inability to remain calm when provoked, and my self-inflicted rage bruises. She confidently deemed me angsty as I self-consciously touched at the ever-sore purple spot on my cheek that I told friends was caused by me slipping on ice.
It took me years to recognize my household as a site of emotional trauma. To realize that this place of screaming and anger was not present in everybody’s homes. The few times I brought friends over, my shoulders were hunched with dread, fearing that at any moment my home would descend into fury. I worried that someone would witness this anger and be horrified. The time I shared with friends allowed me to momentarily shrug off the dysfunction of home, and to craft the illusion that it was escapable. For them to witness the anger, and discuss it with me outside my home, was to dismantle that illusion. That illusion was what made my home manageable; it was what allowed me to exit my mother’s car before school and walk into first period with my tears wiped away, a wavering smile on my face.
Later, I would learn that this anger would not disappear once I left my mother’s home. It had weaved its way into my speech and reactions, and become an almost-physically present coil to untangle. Still, when I left my mother’s house to move to Portland with a partner, I was thankful for the escape from that environment.
Portland was a dim, moldy basement that was always on the verge of flooding. I treasured the safe place my then-partner and I created out of our friends’ art, Craigslist free-section furniture, and objects from abandoned homes. It was not an especially cute room, but it was ours. To me, who had previously lived in a place where I never felt like anything was mine, it was everything.
Still, there were nights when my emotions were pummeling waves that left me no time to catch my breath. Leaving my mother’s home meant accessing bits of myself I had long pushed down and coming to a deeper sense of self-understanding, but it also meant crying on our mold-ridden carpet and not understanding why, or how to stop. It meant running into the street some nights, overwhelmed by my own emotional weight, while my then-partner continued to fold laundry, unaware of the roar of the waves I was under.
Now, as I read the texts Sam sent to Alex, I remember my behaviors at the end of my relationship with my then-partner. Back then, my head felt like a foggy terrain I was navigating without a flashlight. When I was upset, I would shut down, and rather than explaining what was in my head, I would begin to cry, sometimes ceaselessly for hours. Other times I would leave to tearfully stumble through the shadowed neighborhood, dizzyingly exhausted by my own dramatics. Or, I would spit out a brash, reactive comment to whoever had prompted — or was witnessing — my cracking, which, at that time, was often my then-partner. Following these emotionally charged reactions, I would feel immense self-disgust for my lack of control and for behaving this way in the midst of someone I cared about.
It was not simply that I was spilling out fury senselessly, it was that I did not know how to exist beneath the weight of memory. A slight tone of rudeness in someone’s voice would provoke me into tears. A swell of life-suggestions from my then-partner — even if they were rooted in the desire to help — would cause my defenses to harden. Criticism from them would feel like a return to helplessness. In all of these instances, I often communicated my feelings unproductively; my voice whittled into a tool for rage, my anger a thick flame beating hot and resolute.
I text Sam, Although I know you're very angry with them, and you do have valid reason to be, I think it's still a good call to pick apart the language you've both used and see how you both bring out toxic bits of each other.
Sam tells me they’ve been silent and quiet and good and chill this whole time. They tell me they feel crazy, and I understand. I know how trauma can shape a person into a wild thing, filled with a rage that they do not comprehend. How it can cause you to take out your anger on those who are undeserving, and to behave self-destructively. How it can leave you with a mangled mess of learned communication habits that you must work to untangle, while also trying to validate the feelings that produced the anger.
Last month, I flew from Philly to the West Coast to visit my then-partner in the hospital. In the car with my mom, driving from Los Angeles to her house in San Diego, I was silent as our small talk gave way to her telling me that abuse is cyclical. That how she communicated with me was a result of the way her mother has treated her. I stayed quiet. I had waited years for her to say this to me, but was hesitant, waiting. I wanted what she had to say to be said without me forcing it.
She told me about how the last time she visited her 93-year-old mother in Montreal, her mother had turned to look at her at one point and spit out in French, Look at you. Five husbands. What have you done with your life? You failure.
Later, she chased my mother out of her apartment by hitting her with a dish rag. My mother recanted, I had nowhere to go. I had just cancelled my hotel reservation because she asked me to stay with her. With a mother like that, who needs enemies?
I was surprised when my long-kept anger was swallowed and I calmly replied, She is jealous that you were able to leave toxic marriages when she stayed in her own till he died. She is 93 and her life has not turned out how she hoped. It’s not fair or okay. You deserve to be treated differently. She has a huge amount of hurt that she does not know where to put, so she takes it out on you.
Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s car, watching Southern California move past us as a blur of apartment buildings and dead shopping malls, I became aware of the depth of hurt that is carried in my family. How the women in it have held it close to them for years. They stayed in unhappy marriages and homes, believing that solving their unfulfillment was secondary to fulfilling familial and societal obligations. I realized how similar my mother’s pain looks to my grandmother’s, and to mine. Everything my mother says about her mother, I have felt about her.
My mother said, She’s evil. I’m never talking to her again. I’m never going to see her again.
This filled me again with a pang of familiarity, as I remembered my childhood desires to leave without a note, to slip out at night and have my empty, tousled sheets be combed over. How, under the yellow lamplight of my bedroom, I would craft escape plans that would quickly feel too difficult to carry out beneath the exhausting weight of helplessness. As my fantasies of getaway travels wilted, my desperation to get away melted into perpetual suicidal urges. I wanted so badly to find relief from the fighting, to be gone.
I thought of some of my close friends who have cut toxic mothers out of their lives, and how I have unwaveringly supported them in their decisions, knowing someone should never be asked to unwillingly maintain a relationship with someone who has hurt them.
Still, with a patience that surprised me, I broke my quietness by telling my mother that while her anger is valid and I understand it, I did not want her to not say goodbye before her mother died and regret it.
She sighed and told me I did not understand.
I admitted to her that I had thought about cutting her out of my life the year before, when, right after my then-partner and I had broken up, I moved to Philadelphia. I told her how I had considered changing my number, not providing my new address, and never contacting her again.
That’s ridiculous, she said. You would have hurt yourself more than me. Your anger will eat you up.
Although I was hurt by her shrugging off my desire to escape, I knew she was right. My anger was eating me up. Instead, I want to change things. I want to redefine what our relationship could look like.
There is an Anne Carson quote, from Grief Lessons, that says: Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.
When I study my anger, and my mother’s anger, and her mother’s anger, I see it as a processing of grief. It is a grieving of unlived dreams, of plans suspended to tend to obligations, of hopeful selves which were deteriorated by duty, of loves that spoiled, of painful childhoods, of families that did not show us the validation and care we craved. We are in grief, and so, we are furious.
I text Sam, I understand you've been fighting to be heard and that the aggression probably comes partially from the place of being silenced. You gotta find a way to validate yourself and to communicate with them with a clear head. You gotta get out that anger, see what it's rooted in, and then express the roots — not the anger itself.
I suggest that they apologize for lashing out. They tell me they are tired of being the bigger person, that they are always apologizing without receiving one in return.
And then they text, Reminds me too much of my mom.
I type, I feel you, it sucks so much to constantly be the one apologizing. No one who has hurt you will ever create the space of acknowledgment and care you crave. You gotta create that space for yourself, sit yourself down and remind yourself how valid your pain is, and how deep it runs.
I am surprised that the advice I gave myself for the past year, in the shadows of my Philadelphia bedroom, has now become my initial reaction. I tell them the things I have been teaching myself for a year. That we must remember that anger is not the starting point. That pain comes first, and anger is almost always a reaction. That learning our anger allows us to know whether we are responding to a present situation or a built-up well of invalidation.
For two years after I left my mother’s, I carried intense bitterness whenever I was around her, even if she was polite to me. I would remember previous fights, and become upset, often making defensive comments until the talk was pushed into fury.
I waited years for a conversation with my mother that I hoped would take away all pain. I wanted for sorry to be said until all childhood aching was scrubbed away, until there was nothing but glowing clarity. But the conversations we have had about past events have not provided the deep validation I have waited for, nor do I think they ever totally could. It has been found in time I’ve spent unraveling the tangled ball of my learned defense tactics, slowly and carefully working myself through.
Sitting on the roof of our Philadelphia row home in the humid, mosquito-ridden summer, my friend Terra tells me how she tries to ensure that her communication is non-violent. When I talk to her about a text I am writing to express my discomfort with a situation, she nudges at bits of my language, trying to get me to see from the other person’s point of view. At first I am internally defensive about this. I am right!, I want to tell her. But when I sit with this feeling, I realize she is not trying to invalidate me, nor declare anyone as right, but instead, cause me to look deeper.
I delete any passive aggression woven into my message. The “lol” at the end of a comment. Any instance of finger pointing. With care, I pick apart my language to see what of it is being used to garner a specific reaction.
Untangling passive aggressiveness and apologizing for lashing out do not have to be complete acceptances of the hurt others have caused. They can be awareness that our anger, and how we express it, is our responsibility, even if we didn’t ask for it.
I tell Sam, It is painful to have all this hurt and want someone to make it go away, but we have to learn how to communicate with others in a healthy way. To apologize when we lash out. To know that our pain is valid but that people aren’t punching bags. To heal ourselves by sorting through all these layers. It’s hard work, it's lonely work, but it's necessary.
Anger is a twisting, mangled root, and working through it involves breaking the soil to trace it to the stem. I want to break my family’s cyclical fury. I want to validate myself in a way I have been searching for my whole life — in a hoped for apology in my mother, in the safety I create with my friends. I want to forgive myself for the ways I have taken out a hurt too big for me to understand — both on myself and others — and to do better. I want expressing my hurt to leave me feeling well-articulated and clear-headed, not ashamed. I want to grant myself permission to move forward. I want to keep writing myself into understanding; my fingers deep in thick soil, my anger an uprooted thing drying out on the dirt, shriveling in the clarifying Southern Californian sunlight.
*Names have been changed.
Lora Mathis is a writer, artist, and musician from Southern California. Their work is used as a tool for internal healing, and often focuses on unlearning, intimacy, and self-awareness. They are the author of two poetry collections, the most recent being instinct to ruin, and have been featured in The Huffington Post, Paper Mag, Words Dance, and more. You can keep up with their work on Patreon, and follow them on Instagram @falling_n_laughing.