Rage Bender: Addicted to Anger

By Amy Dresner 01/07/19

Anger can be an addiction: it's energizing and makes you feel powerful. When I was using and even afterwards, I used my rage to control, bully, and manipulate people.

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Black and white image of shouting woman, angry expression, addicted to anger
It's a myth that ‘venting’ your anger is a way to diminish it. The more anger you vent, the angrier you get. Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

“Anger is a short madness.”
- Horace

I just got off a rage bender. Two full weeks of terrifying my friends and family. Days of driving around and like some deranged queen in Game of Thrones ordering (to absolutely no one): “Destroy her.”

“I’ve never heard or seen you like this,” I kept hearing. Yep. Because this was an old part of me I thought I’d gotten rid of, or at the very least, tamed. Boy was I wrong.

At first I thought it was a bout of agitated mania from a little med fiddling. “This definitely feels chemical,” I kept saying to everyone as I continued to engage in behavior that fueled my rage: talking about my archenemy, reading about her personal and legal problems, feeling righteous indignation and then, more divinely, vindication as her fall escalated.

That’s where my old buddy Dr. Wetsman caught me. “Do you think you’re using your ex-colleague’s demise as a drug?” he asked.

Long pause. “Yes,” I answered sheepishly.

“Okay. Well every time you get a dopamine spike from your schadenfreude, guess what happens after?”

“A crash.”

“And then,” he concluded, “you’re left scrambling to find more dopamine.”

Ahhh, so that’s why I was craving cocaine, sex and cigarettes. Cocaine, really? At almost six years sober, having become some fucking pseudo-icon of sobriety that I never asked to be thanks to my book, I was shocked that getting loaded was still on the table. But there it was: romantic imaginings of bags of crystalline white powder and syringes with clean steel tips twinkling in the twilight.

Here’s the thing about anger: it’s energizing. Anger can make you feel powerful. When I was using and unfortunately even afterwards, I used my rage to control, bully, and manipulate people. And once I’m this angry, it just bleeds over. First I’m pissed at her, then him, and now all of them and you. The storm has been unleashed and my mind can come up with evidence that anybody has fucked me over. Isn’t that our superpower as addicts?

“Anger is energizing,” agrees Amy Alkon, science writer and author of the "science-help" book, Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence.

“Your amygdala mobilizes the bodily forces you'd need to run or win a physical fight with someone. So, your adrenaline courses and blood flows away from your reasoning center of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, and to your arms and legs, which makes you better equipped to punch or run.”

We all love a nice dose of adrenaline, right? It’s like shitty coke. So I’m getting high off my anger and the drug dealer is right inside of me. Anytime I wanted another hit I could dredge up some old scenario where an ex-colleague (or anyone, really) viciously screwed me over, and boom! Out came another surge. But aside from stomping around and spitting fire, there’s a real downside to this “drug.”

According to Alkon, when the amygdala is activated, a chemical reaction takes place that releases cortisol which helps to mobilize the aforementioned physical response so you can fight back. “However, there's a problem if there's no need for any sort of physical response from you, which would burn off the cortisol. If you're just standing there fuming, the cortisol simply pools. So, effectively, you're being poisoned by your anger. Over time, this is associated with very detrimental physical effects, including lowered immune function and heart disease.”

So resentment really is the poison you drink expecting the other person to die. Here was the science. And I realized something weird: the more I talked about it, the angrier I got. I didn’t “get it out.” There was no catharsis. Why?

“It's a myth that ‘venting’ your anger is a way to diminish it," Alkon told me. “The more anger you vent, the angrier you get. Darwin was the first to observe that the expression of an emotion acts to amplify the emotion, and modern research has confirmed this.”

Great! So I was on some rage loop, fucking up my immune system and giving myself heart disease. But how to stop? I knew the anger was just the top layer, the mask of something deeper and more painful that I was trying to avoid.

Liz Palmer writes “Angry is just sad’s bodyguard.” And of course she’s right. Underneath the rage was hurt and ultimately sadness. But who wants to feel that way? Who wants to listen to LP’s “Lost on You” and scrawl heartbreaking poems in blood? Not I. I’d much rather do weighted squats and listen to Tool and talk about how I will “fucking bury you.” You might think 115 pounds of desert Jew isn’t that frightening. But I learned early on in my childhood how to be verbally brutal. I’m sure growing up watching Scorsese movies and idolizing mobsters didn’t help either. But I assure you crazy and angry is a terrifying combination, even if you are a featherweight.

My sponsor urged me to find compassion for my ex-colleague. Nice dream, dude. That was NOT going to happen right now. 

So then I decided to attack this emotional monster via the body. I called Nathaniel Dust, my breathwork wizard, and booked a private session. Waiting for our time, I caved and bought a pack of cigarettes after almost eight months off of vaping. Well done, fuckhead. I smoked one and it felt--I’m not going to lie--great. I immediately felt calmer. Oh sweet dopamine, there you are! I walked into Nathaniel’s place smelling like an ashtray with palpable anger radiating off me.

“Where are those cigarettes?” he demanded. “They’re going in the trash.”

“Purse,” I answered petulantly. $10 down the tubes….ugh.

I knew I was in trouble. If I let myself cross the line back into smoking, what was next? Tinder? A drink? Sober border patrol was obviously asleep on the job.

There are those few lines in the Big Book which I always thought were bullshit: “If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.” It was true and I was living it.

“My former colleague and friend fucked me over,“ I said, “and she should pay.”

Nathaniel laughed. “Are you really going to be a victim your whole life?”

And then my tears came. 

“There’s the real shit,“ he said. He hugged me while I howled in his arms like a small child. “Now get on the table, lady, and let’s do some breathing.”

I cried and screamed and cried and shook and then it was over. I felt some relief. I vowed to stop talking about my enemy or reading about her. In the end it was none of my business. Whatever payoff I thought I was getting was costing me dearly.

So I guess my point is this: we shouldn’t prevent ourselves from getting worked up just because it’s not the “spiritual” thing to do. Whatever with that. Scientifically we want to stay calm so we don’t jack up our adrenaline and cortisol or, for those of us who get high off anger, we don’t want to chase that big dopamine spike that always ends with us crashing down.

So embrace the AA platitude of “let it go,” if only for the sake of your physical and mental health, serenity, and…oh yeah, your sobriety.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, Addiction.com and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.

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