My Stepfather's Rage Addiction

By Shannon Dorrie 02/20/17

“Anger can lead to similar ‘rushes’ as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction."

A man in the background shouting at a child in the foreground.

Three years ago I moved back in with my mom and stepdad for two weeks as I waited for my new apartment rental to become available. It was a risky move, and a risk my current boyfriend couldn’t quite fathom...

“Why don’t you just move in with them and save money?”

The truth is, it took me three years to step into my mom and stepdad’s home after I graduated high school and moved away. It took me another couple years to spend the night, and even longer to stay over if my little sister wasn’t there. My reasons for not entering their home weren’t typical. My stepdad isn’t physically abusive, and he doesn’t have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Rather, he has a rage addiction.

During those two weeks, I tiptoed around my stepdad as much as possible. But my stepbrother, who isn’t usually on the receiving end of my stepdad’s rages, didn’t tread so lightly. Like a loving brother should, he tried to encourage my stepdad to invest in my future as much as he did with his biological children. As I expected, my stepfather began raging.

Rage for someone like my stepdad doesn’t mean arguing. It doesn’t mean just yelling or trying to pick a fight. This type of rage is more akin to a cartoon character turning red with steam pouring out of each ear. But instead of this explosion happening within the safe confines of a cartoon, it’s right there in front of you, a terrifying eruption filled with horrific tirades that leave the recipient in a long-term state of shock.

My mother often hides in her room or goes for a walk when my stepdad rages, and that night she quickly escaped to her bedroom and shut the door. She left me defenseless with my stepdad at a moment when I needed her most, even though I was well into my 30s. My need for my mother in those moments brings up painful memories of her absence during similar rages that I witnessed as a teen.

My mom remembers the first warning sign of my stepdad’s anger problem, which occurred before their wedding when I was 10. They were picking out her engagement ring, a moment that should have been filled with joy, and my stepdad began yelling at the clerk behind the counter when he picked up the wrong one.

My mom ignored this warning. Unlike my dad, my stepdad doesn’t drink, holds a steady job, and never lays a hand on her in anger. So she turned a blind eye to the anger that manifested without physical violence. Only, my stepdad’s rages are no different from an addiction to drugs and alcohol. My mom recently revealed to me that when my stepdad comes out of a rage, he has no recollection of what just transpired. During his outbursts, he is literally in a different state of consciousness.

Dr. Jean Kim discusses rage addiction in an article for Psychology Today, entitled “Anger's Allure: Are You Addicted to Anger?” According to Kim, “Anger can lead to similar ‘rushes’ as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.” And just like with other addictions, my stepdad appears ashamed and embarrassed whenever anger gets the better of him.

My stepdad’s anger addiction was never discussed in our home, and I found it difficult to explain to others even if I tried. My stepdad has a calm, unaffected demeanor. He rarely participates in social events, but instead chooses to spend time in his garden. When we visit family, he often escapes to take walks through the neighborhood, and when he is present, he always seems to be overly conscious of his own body, trying to blend into his surroundings without notice. He seems aware that inside him lies a dangerous “monster” that he can’t control, and he would rather keep himself in situations where it isn’t likely to emerge. He rarely raged during gatherings with our extended family, but I could tell it often took effort. Sometimes growing up I wished he would rage in these situations, and then my extended family, whom I was very close to, would know what I lived with on a daily basis and perhaps intervene. (Eventually they were witness to one of his rages during a camping trip in my mid-20s, at night around a campfire, without an easy escape.)

Due to a combination of my stepdad’s feelings toward my father and his own troubles communicating, he gradually stopped talking to me during high school. My mother made feeble attempts to get him to notice me, praising me to him about my grades or a recent milestone. Eventually she gave up trying. My stepbrother and my little sister, both biologically his children, knew how to fight back with my stepdad. But for my mom and me, interacting with someone with volatile anger was new territory. When I was 13, I yelled at him during one of his rages against my stepbrother, got slapped, and never yelled back again. It was the one and only time my stepdad laid a hand on me.

My stepdad and I lived in almost complete silence during my senior year. While I took his actions as extreme rejection, part of me thinks he was protecting me from himself. Still, even with a decrease in his rages, my fear remained. I was on high alert whenever I heard his footsteps, and I would often walk over him to put wood on the fire as he slept on the floor in the evenings, afraid of waking the sleeping giant.

At the time of that last rage episode during my two-week stay in my 30s, my boyfriend was thankfully on his way to pick me up for the evening. Once I got into his car, I broke down sobbing. My boyfriend knew how I felt about my stepdad, but until he witnessed my breakdown in the car that evening, he never understood where my fear came from. After all, he saw my stepdad make jokes around the table, be polite around company, and be nothing but supportive to his wife and children. But as I sat in the car crying in a heightened state of panic, he suddenly realized why I rarely entered my stepdad’s home.

I now live six hours from my stepdad’s house, and I haven’t witnessed a rage since that incident. Still, I am always on high alert when I hear sounds outside my apartment door. I expect someone to start banging on the door, reciting a diatribe of all my failings, or demanding that I do such and such or go to hell. Growing up, my stepdad would often joke that something would “drive him to drink,” but his own addiction was just as damaging. It opened him up to things he would never say “sober”—things he could never take back. Dr. Kim says, “Anger can become its own reward, but like other addictions, the final consequences are dangerous and real, and people follow impulses in the moment without regard to the big picture.”

Several years ago, my mom told my stepdad she was attending a support group for women with violent spouses, and she says that seemed to give him a wakeup call. However, as the incident of three years ago attests to, my stepdad still finds himself overcome by episodes of rage. Since I can’t control my stepdad, I try to control myself, and I’ve gradually learned to look him in the eye when we have a pleasant conversation about what “so and so” is up to. Meeting his gaze is something I hadn’t been able to do for decades. It’s a small victory, but extremely freeing.

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