When I was a kid, my favorite super hero was The Incredible Hulk.
I wasn’t really into comic books. I loved to read, and I love art so it seems like one of those things I would have been into, but it never really happened. Part of the challenge was that there weren’t a lot of comic book shops in rural Texas where I grew up. But my friend Sam is one of the biggest comic nerds I know and he grew up in a literal swamp in south Georgia. I guess I just never made comics a priority.
My priority was TV. I grew up on television. It defined me and shaped me. My life was governed by its rhythms. And every Friday night on CBS - after The Dukes of Hazard and before Dallas - came The Incredible Hulk. And I was there watching Bill Bixby morph into Lou Ferrigno and dreaming of being the Hulk.
David Banner got angry. David Banner would warn people that they wouldn’t like him if he got angry, and then would turn big and green and smash shit up.
I got angry. But I was a kid. In an abusive house. I couldn’t warn people about what would happen if I got angry. People didn’t allow me to be angry. I couldn’t turn green or huge or smash things up. I was small and I could run my mouth, knowing that if I did - if I showed the anger - there would be hell to pay.
I would be the one getting smashed.
The law of conservation of energy says that energy can not be created or destroyed. It simply exists.
Trauma doesn’t create the emotions that lead to anger. But just as lasers focus energy in a discrete way, trauma seems to distill anger and turn it into something pernicious. Even scary. Trauma and anger go together.
But unlike lasers, which focus energy in a specific direction, trauma creates an anger that is powerful, but diffuse. It is kind of all over the place. The anger from trauma goes a million directions at once.
The anger from my abusive childhood went in a million different directions, and it was always there. Like David Banner, I carried this enormously powerful force. And like Banner, I never knew what situations would cause it to become destructive.
My kid would spill milk. Explosion. Cut off on the highway. PISSED. Someone left their cart in the middle of the grocery aisle. Blind, stupid rage. I felt like I was literally possessed. There were times my anger was so strong, and triggered by situations so small, it felt like someone else was in control of my body and my brain. I couldn’t stop it.
And after it passed I would look around like Bill Bixby after Lou Ferrigno did his green monster thing. I would blink confused and sad, trying to take in all the destruction I had caused. To myself and everyone around me.
Where does the anger go when you have no idea what to do with it? Where does that trauma energy go? Conservation of energy. It has to go somewhere.
For me, it went inward. I would be angry at myself. I would be angry at myself for being angry. I would be angry with myself for allowing myself to be hurt as a kid, and then turning around and hurting other people because of it. I would drink until the anger subsided. I would get in fights with strangers in bars. I would make bad choices and take reckless chances, convinced that I was somehow the reason that the anger just wouldn’t go.
It feels so hopeless in the middle of trauma. It feels so powerless to just be full of an anger you can’t control all the time. Diffuse. Always present.
Just like David Banner’s gamma rays.
We are all living through a trauma. Covid. Trump. Climate change. Systemic racism. Patriarchy. We are surrounded by things that hurt us. We are surrounded by things that break us. We are surrounded by things that make us feel hopeless.
And we are looking around like a cornered Bill Bixby. Warning the world not to make us angry. You won’t like us when we are angry.
Trauma doesn’t care. It will keep pushing until the energy comes out as anger. It is what trauma does.
Early in my recovery journey, a therapist asked me how I felt. I am pissed off, I said. All the time.
No, no, she said. Anger is a masking emotion. Anger points us to what we are really feeling. It might be past hurt or guilt or fear. And feeling those things makes us angry. So. How do you feel?
I thought about it.
And it’s not a mask. It is not a path to something deeper. It is its own thing.
I am fucking pissed.
Trauma and anger go together. And anger has its place. It has a role to play.
Anger is there as a warning. Danger here. Hurt here. Pay attention to this because really important things are happening.
Anger gets a bad rap. It feels like something we should redirect, or minimize, or stamp out. It makes us feel guilty. We are scared of it, and like all the things we are afraid of we demonize it.
“I don’t know what to do with all this anger.”
Feel every last bit of it. Be grateful that it is calling your attention. Be grateful you can feel it.
The first time a good therapist (not that masking emotion one up there) gave me permission to actually feel anger was one of the greatest days of my life.
“I am angry. I know I shouldn’t be.”
“Because anger is bad.”
“Anger is just anger. You are the one making a judgment. It’s okay to be pissed. Anyone who had been through what you have been through would be angry.”
She gave me the freedom to be pissed. Pissed at the step dad who abused me. Pissed at my mom who told me I was making it all up. Pissed at the country that sent me to war and then told my my injuries weren’t THAT bad. Pissed at all the time away from home. Pissed at the autism that made my son struggle. Pissed at the mental illness passed around my family tree like party favors. Pissed at all the wrongs I could never make right, all the ways I failed my friends, and myself.
It is okay to be angry. Trauma focuses anger because trauma sucks. And anger is your body and brain’s way of saying - DON’T LOOK AWAY. Be here. Right now. Feel this.
The more you fight anger, the more you push it down, the more you ignore it, the more powerful it grows. David Banner was at his most vulnerable when he was fighting the hardest to control his anger.
As a later version of the character (this one played by Mark Ruffalo) would point out, the only way to control the Hulk is to acknowledge the powerful truth. The anger is always there. It only has the power to destroy when we try and pretend like it isn’t.
Shit is hard right now. It has been hard for a minute.
It’s okay to be angry.
You have permission to feel what you feel. Don’t feel like you have to redirect it, or reshape it, or send it somewhere else. Let it be what it is.
Let it get your attention.
Like the Hulk turns back to Banner, the anger will fade. And look at what is left not as destruction, but simply rearranging the world to build something new. Something better.
Energy is not created or destroyed. It simply is.