By Katherine Russell Rich
Before this, I probably wouldn't even have used the phrase "piece of work," much less qualified as one. But I was seven years into a dragging illness, during which I'd made the acquaintance of every kind of abrupt, disengaged medical personnel. With each one, I'd been mumbling and polite because I couldn't think how else to be. I was a piece of startled politeness. Till I ran into a social worker who was supposed to find me a home aide but who was about as enthusiastic in her job as an offtrack betting clerk at 4 o'clock. Nope, she couldn't think of anybody, she said in a bored tone. Why didn't I just ask people? she wondered. Like who? Well, she couldn't really think of anyone herself, she said, and also, she inquired, did I know I had a problem about being controlling? She was an abrupt, disengaged last straw, and I whomped her. Told her off, kicked her butt—it was great—and after that, I did it some more, all over town. I'd had it with being a smiley do-right girl, was sick of it—was sick of being sick in general. I'd already quit cigarettes, sloth, and drinking in the name of good health. Now I jettisoned meekness.
For one summer, I gave myself permission to say anything to anyone who was nasty or rude. A swaggering guy walked past me at the gym, reached out, and brushed my rear; I jumped down from the machine and shouted, "Hey, you grabbed my ass." I called a woman who was one a bitch. For a while, it was exhilarating, a much-needed corrective, but then it became habitual. There's an addictive quality to anger. It's slightly dangerous, seductive in the way it gives you a buzz, makes you feel superior for not holding back, tells you you have a right to be angry on the grounds you are. You're angry? You should be. My inner voice began to change. Instead of wondering where I'd put the keys, I'd think, Freaking A, this is ridiculous. Where are those damn keys? The sweet and gentle disappeared from my life. Muttery people found me. When you're pissed off, you attract others like you. Anger can be healthy, but it can also be a homing device that sounds loud and clear for the angry.
This went on till one day I had reason to know why mad people are called mad. I blew up at a couple on a plane. I cannot even remember now what they did or what I said, only the way they looked at me, fearfully and with disgust, then got very still and stared ahead. In a flash, in their faces, I saw how I looked, and right then gave the whole indulgence up. I'd been looking for power and I'd found it: the firestorm power of a bully.
Still, as far out as it spun, I'm grateful for that summer. Because as the molten river that ran through me cooled, I found it formed a strong core. I'd learned to speak up; now I learned to do it without white fury. Though sometimes I still go white.
Last January I returned from vacation to discover that the company I'd ordered my Christmas gifts from hadn't delivered half of them. "You didn't order them," the guy insisted when I phoned and, when I established I had, he retorted, "We're only human, okay?"
"That's what you tell a girlfriend," I said, ire rising but controlled. "That's not what you say in a business setting."
"So we made a mistake. What do you want?" he said, and that was it. I lost it, said I'd never order from them again, elaborated on their lousy job.
"I think you have bigger problems than the presents," he shot back; my fire had ignited his. But I'd learned by then that power can be cool. I dropped the levels down.
"Hey," I said, sounding hurt and therefore human, not an aggrieved disembodied voice. "First you didn't deliver the presents. Now you're saying I have mental problems. That's not nice. Let me speak to your supervisor," and I did. Very quietly.
When the guy got back on, he was, I swear, near tears. "I am so sorry," he kept saying. "I'm a computer geek here. I'm not usually on phones. I'm not a people person. I'm really so sorry." It was touching, remarkable, and it taught me several lessons, not the least of which was this: It's a hell of a lot more gratifying to hear a grown man cry than to hear him shout. The understanding arrived in messy stages. In testing my right to get angry, to defend myself, I gained the confidence that comes from speaking up. That confidence built till it propelled me beyond fury and into dignity. By keeping my head, I'd kept the power.