I’ve spent much of my adult life thinking about anger. When my major depression hit for the first time in college, it manifested in two primary ways: almost complete numbness interspersed with explosions of anger. I developed a bad temper. I’d fly into rages for very little reason, over the tiniest of things. I did incredible damage to my relationships, hurt my friends and loved ones, but I couldn’t make myself stop.
This lasted on-and-off through most of my 20s. And there have been a couple resurgences since then.
Looking back, it’s obvious my temper was a projection: I was angry at what was happening to me and my inability to fix it. I was angry that my anger was completely useless against my own mind. I couldn’t control any of what was happening in my head. My depression rendered me powerless.
Anger felt powerful. I couldn’t control my depression but anger showed I could still have some impact, some agency, in the world, even if that impact was destruction and pain. It was all a lie: I had no control over any of it, but the lie felt better than sliding entirely into numbness. I had to grasp at something because the only other alternative was to give up.
The behavior I indulged in service to my anger was essential to how I made sense of my depression. I needed a reason for being depressed. I couldn’t accept that it was just a hormonal trigger in late adolescence that disrupted the balance of neurotransmitters in my brain: the science lacked emotional weight. I was compelled to believe I was depressed because I deserved it. I must be a pretty horrible person if I deserved to be depressed. In my anger, I behaved like a monster, thus proving I was a horrible person who deserved to be depressed. QED. I could believe my depression wasn’t as arbitrary as bad luck or family genetics. I could believe it had meaning. I was a monster who flew into rages and hurt people close to me, so my depression was a just punishment, right and righteous.
I’ve sometimes spoken of my anger in terms of addiction. I didn’t want to be a rageful, hurtful person but I kept doing it anyway. I couldn’t stop. Because the horrible truth is this: I liked it. I hated who I was but I liked the feeling of my anger. It was the only vibrant emotion I could actually feel: a shock of searing red in a world rendered entirely gray. I was starving for emotion and anger was the only one I could find. Anger feels good when the rest of your world has gone numb. I liked how it made twisted sense of what was happening to me. It gave me a clarity of purpose, even if that purpose was awful. I chose to indulge it again and again and again. It was exciting. It was satiating.
I recently read that scientists have discovered anger is literally addictive, in the same way substances can be addictive. Indulging in anger, lashing out, even just fantasizing about retribution and revenge, activates dopamine hits in the same parts of your brain as substance addictions. Neurochemically, our brains react to anger like a drug.
This adds an important new piece to my understanding and helps me make more sense of my experience with my own anger. In the past, I’ve used addiction as a metaphor for what my anger felt like, but it’s reasonable to consider I may have been literally addicted to it. My brain lacked sufficient levels of serotonin, which means those dopamine hits were the closest I could come to actually feeling happiness.
So what does any of this have to do with politics?
The United States is witnessing an explosion of politics based almost entirely on resentment and anger. Some of this anger is just, some of it is not. This kind of politics is as old as humankind, and it’s been building for decades, but it’s more extreme and open now than at any other time in my life. So many people are driven by a desire for retribution for wrongs both actual and perceived. We’re a culture given over to indulging our rage. And we’ve convinced ourselves our anger is righteous.
This isn’t to say anger is always bad or never legitimate. Some anger is righteous. There are times we all should be angry. But even justified anger can become addictive. We need to learn how to have a healthier relationship with our anger.
I want to hope we can cool this anger by addressing the underlying grievances that drive it. I think we can to some extent. Anger is a mask for fear, a reaction to powerlessness, a rejection of what we feel is unfair and unjust. Empower people, address the fear, render society more just and fair, and the need for anger dissipates. That’s how this should work, right?
My fear is that too many people have become addicted to their anger, to their righteousness. We’ve created a culture that affirms and praises our rage. Some people won’t stop being angry even if we remove the reasons for their anger. They have a taste for it now. It feels good. It feels like having a purpose. People like being angry. Take away their reasons for it and they’ll just find new reasons, new rationalizations, invent new grievances to continue indulging their rage. This is what addicts do. I worry about how many people this is. And I wonder if this goes some way toward explaining the promulgation of insane consipracy theories lately: people making up reasons to stay angry.
There is hope in this. Because we know quite a lot about how to treat addiction. We’re actually pretty good at it when we allow ourselves the resources and support networks to do the job properly. We can scale up that work to treat our communities.
This is yet another reason why I’m convinced we need legislative, structural solutions to entrenched social and economic inequalities. Because we can’t rely on people changing their minds. Because even if we fix many of our worst problems, people are still going to be angry for a long time to come.
But fixing the problems is a prerequisite to dealing with the fear and powerlessness, which is the only path to ending the rage.