Mad as Hell

For Caretakers and Friends - January 30, 2015

The day after we learned of my husband's cancer diagnosis we tried to resume some of our normal everyday life habits. It felt comforting to do "normal things" like read my Facebook feed. After reading for a while I suddenly got really angry at my friends. I was very upset and felt a ball of anger well up in my stomach because they were posting jokes and silly things. I thought to myself "How can they be telling jokes at a time like this?" It only took a few moments before I realized the ridiculousness of my thoughts. Of course they were posting lighthearted things on Facebook, this was a normal day for them. We had not told anyone of his diagnosis yet and even if we had they certainly had every right to live their lives and post jokes. I was surprised at myself and suddenly embarrassed at my thoughts. However, feelings of anger are a common and normal part of coping with illness.

Whether you are newly diagnosed or have been dealing with illness for years it is important to acknowledge that you feel anger about the situation. Even if you've been diagnosed with something that is relatively minor and curable it is still very likely you will feel a bit of anger that it has happened to you. Feeling anger is a natural and normal part of illness. I believe that it's important to accept it rather than try to hide it or repress it. Be honest with yourself that you feel angry even if you think it's not appropriate. It is impossible to deal with an issue that you do not acknowledge exists.

In my experience processing feelings about anger is different from other emotions such as sadness or fear. I believe that it is critical to have a physical component to processing feelings of anger. For me the only way to really let it go was to do something physical to work through the anger and to consciously set aside the time to do so. Yet when my husband was sick it seemed nearly impossible to find extra time to do anything. The idea of going to the gym or taking a class didn't seem realistic. Someone suggested to me that a good way to process anger is to take a tennis racket and hit a bed. It's a quick and simple way to exert yourself physically and doesn't require much time or advanced planning. Since I don't play tennis I found a nice stick and used that to smack the bed. It was a very cathartic thing for me to do. I would close my eyes and use all the force I had in my body to smack the bed over and over until I was completely exhausted. It usually only took a few minutes. When I was done I felt like a new person, it was as if a heavy weight I had been carrying was lifted from me. I found that over time it took less effort to get to the place of exhaustion and freedom. You may find other ways to physically process your anger such as hitting a punching bag, running, stomping your feet while you climb stairs, punching a pillow, or even yoga. You may find taking a class or going to the gym and working out hard until you are exhausted works well for you. There is not one particular right way to do this, all that matters is that it works for you and is safe for you and others.

You may start to notice a pattern in your anger. There may be certain people or places or events that tend to trigger your anger. I noticed that a few well intentioned friends and family members often said things that angered me. For whatever reason, they seemed to have a knack for making comments that set me off. I'm really not sure if the things these people said were inappropriate or thoughtless but that is how it felt to me at the time. If you recognize that a particular person tends to say and do things that anger you, you might want to limit contact with them. It does not require a big explanation. Simply make alternate plans if this person invites you to do something or let them know you aren't up for anything right now. It is also fine to tell the individual that what they said or did upset you. Being honest and direct about your feelings is generally a good practice. However you may also find it easier to simply avoid those people and situations. I found that most of the time explaining to someone why something they said or did made me angry just lead to more anger and upset. When you are coping with illness you have so many things to manage and a limited amount of emotional and physical energy. So for me it made sense to choose to save my energy for other things.

The reason I believe it is important to take steps to cope with your anger is that it gives the patient more space to focus on healing and allows the caregiver to be more effective in supporting the patient. I found that in the first few months of my husband's illness before I started to deal with my anger it had a way of cropping up anyway. Dealing with scheduling medical tests, insurance providers, and hospital bills is stressful and sometimes frustrating. I found that my underlying anger would sometimes cause me to be curt with people in those situations, which wasn't helpful and often made things worse. I also don't think it was good for me physically or emotionally to hold onto my anger. It is stressful when you are holding onto anger and there is a well documented connection between stress and health problems. So if you are a patient or caregiver I strongly recommend you find creative and safe ways to process and let go of the inevitable anger that will arise from illness.