This transcript is the original that I wrote for my talk on anger this past weekend. I am sharing it here for your perusal.In 1994, I began working for the Arizona Department of Corrections. After 19 years of service, I retired last September. No, I wasn't a Corrections Officer, I was the Warden’s Secretary – Clerical Goddess was the term I liked to use. In 2000, I successfully competed for and promoted to the Education Department and became a Librarian to the inmate population.
I loved my job working with the inmates. Like all jobs there were good times and there were bad times. I was known by officers and the administration and being “spot on” concerning the knowledge and application of policy and procedure. I became the “go to person” when there were questions surrounding policy and procedure for both inmates and staff.
In 2002, our 22 year old son became one of two defendants in a highly publicized and controversial case in our community. It was front page news in the local newspaper that morning. I remember reading the article and I felt a chill run down my spine. I knew, I knew my son was involved, even though no names were mentioned in the article. A mother’s intuition? Perhaps. I tore into his bedroom and woke him from sleep screaming at him, “Tell me this isn't you, tell me!” as I threw the newspaper on his bed.
He tried to assure me it wasn't him. By this time he was quite adept at deceiving his father and me. I wanted to believe him so badly, but my heart told me otherwise.
As the case progressed the next time it appeared in the newspaper, again on the front page, his name was listed as well as the other defendant’s. When I arrived at work that day, I entered the Yard Office and all conversation stopped and the officers avoided eye contact. I was crushed. I gathered up the library books, the mail and inmate letters, but before I left, I turned to my co-workers and said, “If you read today’s newspaper, you realize my son is in some serious trouble and will probably be serving prison time. Here is what I want you to know: I love my son, I am deeply grieved that he has made bad choices, but I want you to know that I am still the same Tamara that you've always known. I still follow policy and procedure and will continue to do so. I am hurting beyond belief and sometimes I may need you to come along side and put your hand on my shoulder or give me a hug.” My co-workers did indeed circle around me and hugged me and encouraged me.
In June of 2003, my son was sentenced to 2.5 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections. The other defendant served no actual prison time. Somehow that didn’t seem fair and it left a bad taste in my mouth and a lot of questions. Questions seek an answer, but what about when the answers don’t come? Unanswered questions can lead to anger and they certainly did in my case.
When we came home from the sentencing hearing, my husband and I sat in stunned silence. We questioned ourselves and asked what it was that we had done to cause our son to commit a criminal act. Were we such bad parents?
I finally got up, changed my clothes and went into my son’s room. I stripped the bedding, packed up his clothing and cleaned, and cleaned, and cleaned to the point of exhaustion. Cleaning is what I do when I’m angry. Cleaning and rearranging furniture.
Cleaning is good, after all, as women; we are to be the “peace makers”, the “reconcilers”, not the ones who become angry, not the ones who seethe and rage and weep uncontrollably. So I “stuffed” it.
My son’s bedroom became my prayer closet. The head of his bed became an alter at which I kneeled and prayed for him. It was also the place where I raged and screamed at God. I spewed out my anger to and towards God and raised my feeble, clenched fist in angst.
I also very effectively alienated people. Some very dear people, friends who were wise enough to know the pain I was going through and kind enough to give me space and to forgive my transgressions. (Thank you, Church Lady!)
The hardest thing I have ever done during my tenure with the Department of Corrections is to leave work on a Friday evening and then on Saturday morning cross that “invisible line” and become a visiting inmate family member. Our trek home was always accomplished in silence.
Our son was released in 2005. I wish I could say that “we all lived happily ever after” but that would not be the case. He now has a daughter and son (from two different women) and has never been married. He committed another felony and in 2012 he was again sentenced to prison for another 2.5 years. He was released this past April to our residence.
The Roman lyrical poet, Horace said, “Anger is a short madness,” and if that is the case, then bitterness is anger that has been boiled, simmered, and then found so unpalatable that it has been thrown into the deep freeze of our hearts and our unconscious psyches.
In May 2009, the Los Angeles Times printed an article called: “Bitterness as mental illness?” It stated: “Bitter behavior is so common and deeply destructive that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness under the name post-traumatic embitterment disorder.” I am that poster child!
We all know bitter people. None of us wants to be that bitter person. It sneaks up on us and robs us of any joy we can find or have found elsewhere.
I was angry, but then even Jesus got angry, right? He drove the money changers out of the temple after turning over their tables and throwing their money on the ground! I’m in good company, right?
Only what Jesus did is called ‘righteous indignation’ and frankly there was nothing righteous about my anger!
My anger and bitterness only made my sense of wrong grow. It did absolutely nothing to heal the wound caused by the injustice. In fact, it causes that wound to become infected with anger; it developed into a raging, seething, oozing, putrefying sore.
A saying I use to quote is, “The circumstances of life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” Oh, I could quote it; I just didn’t apply it to my life!
Here are some things you might try to overcome bitterness and anger:
Learn to Forgive
Unforgiveness is like taking poison and hoping the other person will die. Forgiveness does not mean pretending everything is “OK.” It doesn't mean forgetting the hurt either. St. Augustine said that forgiveness is simply the act of surrendering our desire for revenge; that is, our desire to hurt some-one for having hurt us. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. It enables us to stop picking at the scab and allow healing to take place.
If you are comfortable doing so, you can let “the person” know you have forgiven them. That can go bad however, if the person tells you they don’t need or require your forgiveness. Just remember, forgiveness isn't so much for the other party as it is for you.
AND – you don’t even need to reconcile with the person! There comes a point in our lives where we just realize we don’t need or want to be hurt anymore. Forgiving is one thing and forgetting is something entirely different. They are not one and the same. Forgiveness allows you to free up the energy you need to begin healing the wound.
Make a plan
It can be tempting to give into feelings of “woe is me”, “there’s nothing I can do” but resist those feelings and self-talk. In fact, if you feel this way and can’t think of solutions, talk to a professional to “check your math” before deciding that the only thing you can do is to grieve and mourn your loss. If, after consultation, you find that there really is nothing you can do to reclaim what was lost or taken from you, focus your energy on developing new goals that will help to reconstruct your future in a positive manner.
Stop Dwelling and Retelling
When we are hurt, we have a tendency to turn the painful events over and over in our head or tell anyone who will listen about our pain–over and over again. It is fine to talk to people we think can help us heal the hurt, facilitate reconciliation or help us rebuild our lives, but other than that, we should do what we can to stop dwelling on the story of our injury ourselves and stop speaking of it so freely to others. When we are tempted to “dwell or retell” the best course of action is to refocus on what we can do–TODAY–to take at least some small step toward the goal you developed in Making a Plan. The more you are focused on solutions, the less you will experience the sense of powerlessness that comes from pondering on the hurt.
It can be next to impossible to heal some wounds without God’s grace. Bitterness causes us to ignore God’s grace in favor of obsessing over the wound. If you are holding on to bitterness I encourage you to take it to God in prayer. Please don’t be insulted by the suggestion. I know that you have a right to your pain. Still, holding on to anything except God’s love, mercy and healing grace can separate us from the life God wants us to have. If you can open your heart to prayer, you may receive the healing that God wants to give you. It can help you surrender the pain and powerlessness as you begin to discover new options. Stop hoarding your hurt and seek grace!
Seek Professional Help
If the bitterness won’t let go even after you've tried all of the above, it might be time to seek professional help. Working with a professional can help you see possibilities that your pain has blinded you to and give you new tools to heal the wounds that are holding you back. If you have a professional in your area that you have worked with before, it just might be time to reconnect. Perhaps one of our Spiritual Leaders could lead you in the right path.
That was my choice. I sought a counselor to help me work through the anger and bitterness. One assignment she asked of me was to write out “what is that thing up your nose”. You know? That awful feeling that there’s something up your nose that someone other than you can see! So I wrote it out (actually in the form of a poem) and gave it to her at our next appointment. That was when she and I both knew I was going to be alright.
That also began my habit of journaling. A journal is a good way to put it “in black and white”. By writing “down the bones” you can transfer it from your internal to the page. It is a catharsis, a purification of sorts. You can make it ceremonial by neatly folding it, letting it sit for a determined amount of time, perhaps re-reading it and then burning it in a fire pit or ash tray, then watch the smoke rise skyward… as if it were a burnt offering to God.
I continue to journal to this day. I try to make it a daily practice and in the course of journaling, I have a practice that I call “seeking everyday grace”. I look for a gift from God and jot it down. A beautiful sunset (or sunrise), a hummingbird at the feeder, a kind word spoken, or an unexpected note or card in the mail can all be an everyday grace.
I can write this, I can share this, and I can believe this with my whole heart. However, I still have a tendency to slip back into the comfort of bitterness. It takes an act of faith and prayer everyday to not look back, but step forward.
Yes, indeed, the circumstances of life are intended to make us better, but not bitter!
That sums up the talk I shared with the women whose lives have been impacted by prison in one manner or another.Wishing you everyday grace... Every single day!