I had a temper tantrum recently. And while I wish I could say this astounded me because I am a grown up who should not have tantrums, it did not astound me. I am no stranger to tantrums.
Because I’m a mom? Actually no. You see, my older son never had a tantrum. Sure, he had his share of upset and freakouts as a toddler, but he was an exceptionally reasonable child who I think had an innate sense of the limitations of his mother, who did her best but who was definitely a stress case in those days. I think he knew I couldn’t handle much more.
My younger son did not tantrum in the traditional sense either, although he has a lot of big feelings, more so after his toddler years. So why am I no stranger to tantrums? Because I have them. I’ve had them since I was a socially anxious child.
I would usually have a “freak out” before parties or events where I had to dress up. Events with social pressure. I would change outfits many times, tear at my clothing and my hair, and every time I looked into the mirror, I would get more and more angry and sad. I would cry a lot. I never knew what to do about these episodes.
When my sons have experienced similar feelings, I have found a way to find compassion for them. But sometimes I don’t know what to do. Just like I didn’t know what to do for myself.
Like recently. When I had a proper loss of control. I’m never proud of losing my sanity, but this particular case is one I am especially not proud of.
I was attending a party for a very close friend and the party was in an open venue which was sort of a park and sort of a place to get drinks and food and let kids roam about. This venue was kind of a perfect storm for my social anxiety. Here’s why.
- I was underdressed. I miscalculated. I didn’t know it was a fancy place. I was not dressed fancy. I may or may not have been wearing my brand new Israeli foam and fabric sandals which really should only be seen when on a hike in Israel. I was wearing a shirt which many people close to me have told me never to wear outside of the house (I’ve had it since I was 15 and it’s kind of a pajama style top from the 60s). When I am underdressed and other people are all fancy, I compare my insides (which feel less than and ugly and out of step) to other people’s outsides (which are trendy and fancy and perfect in my eyes). This made me feel really out of sorts.
- Visibility. There were a lot of cameras in evidence out at this place; everyone was taking selfies and the park itself is ‘geared’ for selfies, with the name of the restaurants displayed on the lawns with “#” so that every selfie could advertise this place. I was afraid someone would see me looking so crappy and take my picture and tease me. It made me scared.
- My judgment. Part of comparing myself to others leads to a defensive survival mechanism whereby I decide that everyone who is what I wish I was is materialistic, snooty, and lame. It’s wrong, I know. And it’s not fair. But it’s where my head goes. And – as with all poor survival coping mechanisms which deny the truth beneath my own discomfort – I end up feeling worse, not better, when I judge others. Because I end up generating negativity and fear and I get self-righteous and tend to toe the holier-than-thou line.
- Hunger. I was hungry. Huge trigger. I had not eaten breakfast and it was well into lunch time. As with children, when they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT is the acronym), they are likely to blow. I am that child. I was starving. And there was only one vegan thing my kids and I could eat at this place. Chinese chicken salad no chicken. And fries, of course.
- Money. The food at this location was very very expensive which is a real trigger for me. It cost $100 for four of us to get a snack. That angered me. I continued to build up this story about these gorgeous perfect wealthy people enjoying themselves AT me, it seemed.
- Hot. Also it was about 95 degrees. And not enough shade.
I think you get the point. Literally everything was working against me. Every. Single. Thing.
It was not a cognitive decision I made to slam my salad down on the table after it had mostly spilled all over my dress and crappy shirt. But rage came over me and I let it take me. It rose up in my chest and grabbed ahold of my heart. I had no shame. I should have had shame.
Because I lost my sanity. No one took it from me. I gave it up.
And I scared my children. Because rage is scary. And they are not strangers to my rage. They have seen me slam things about the house. My older son, Gd protect him, remembers the days and weeks and months of early divorce when I was sad and at the end of a rope I could not even find many days. He knows.
And I feel such shame. Not just because I behaved poorly. And not just because after excusing myself to try and calm down I was unable to calm down and I slammed the ketchup bottle against the table, scaring my children yet again.
I feel shame because I did not see the signs that I was going to lose it. They were all there: all of my triggers. Hunger. Heat. Lots of people. Feeling watched. Being underdressed. And all of this after a very stressful week in my work life.
I should have known.
We ended up finishing our meal. I was just on this side of holding it together. Back in the car ($10 valet didn’t make me feel any better, mind you…), I promptly fell asleep. My brain gave up. My kids were quiet. ManFriend was exceedingly patient and also very quiet.
I spoke to each of them privately when we arrived home. I made a sincere apology without excusing my behavior. Because it was not excusable. I apologized for being me, in a sense. But I also vowed to do better. By being more realistic about my limitations. Because sometimes that’s what I need to be.
I may not be able to fix the parts of me that are prone to rage, but I can adjust my behavior to reduce the times I get to the breaking point. Maybe next time I pull up to a venue like this one where I can tell I dressed wrong and that it’s not a good place for me, I will not get out of the car. I will send regrets to my friend and not fear that my ‘secret’ will be revealed if I admit that I am socially challenged and that rage is always near when I feel challenged.
Because when I try to hide my truth, it finds a way out. And oftentimes, it comes out with fanfare and a parade of rage. So no more hiding. Rage is real. It is not always something I can breathe through. It is a dragon inside of me. I can not banish this dragon I fear, but I can be more in control of the things that activate her.
I am so sorry for my rage. I am so sorry I scared my children. I am so sorry. I am human. I told them that. I pray that they continue to forgive me, along with all of the others I love who are close enough to this dragon to know her depth and her capacity for quiet and peace and love.