I used to scream bloody murder when I was a child. I would shriek so loud, so long, that eventually I would go hoarse. I even developed nodes–tightened knots on my vocal chords. When I finally figured out screaming wasn’t helping me I stopped. This allowed my vocal chords to relax and I discovered I had a deeper register. (As a result, I sing somewhere between contralto and tenor with a hiccup in my falsetto.)
What I couldn’t have told you, even if you had asked, was why. Why did I devolve into a nightmare child shuddering in hysterics? I couldn’t tell you then, but I might be able to tell you now.
But first, a little back story…
I think anger is inherited. My father had an explosive temper. If traffic didn’t obey his rules or time table, he would swear vociferously–as if cursing red lights and bad drivers would have actual consequences. He would also throw things. If he was frustrated, he might pick up an object and hurl it. One time, it was a broken walky-talky and he accidentally hit me in the leg cutting a gash that–while dramatically bloody–required no stitches. Upon seeing what he had done, he immediately calmed down and apologized and was truly remorseful.
Another time, my father came home carrying a bottle of wine. He overheard my mother talking with someone–about an innocuous topic–but he became enraged and threw that bottle at a wall. I can remember the crash and the sight of the red wine splashing everywhere. Looking back now, I can only wonder how she got the stain out of the carpet. It barely registers to me that my childhood wasn’t entirely normal and that seeing an adult losing his shit over nothing was even less so.
Fast forward to today. My son is having explosive rage episodes. These are emotionally driven tornadoes–coming seemingly out of nowhere, sometimes causing massive destruction and injury, and dissipating quickly like air rushing from a popped balloon. These storms can happen at any time and without warning. Meanwhile, I stand on the sideline trying to predict the unpredictable and manage the chaos when he devolves, mopping up blood and tears after the storm has passed.
My mom called me last night–but I was lost in bookland and didn’t get the message before my son had two more outbursts. After driving him to school this morning, I call her back. We play phone tag and, as I’m leaving the school, we connect. I tell her about it in a distracted, trying-not-to-die-while-driving way.
“The kid had a bad morning before his meds kicked in. I ended up driving him to school so he wouldn’t be a risk for the bus driver and students.” I am cursing under my breath as a lady in front of me forgets that turning right on red is legal. As she does the stop-go-stop two step at an intersection, I nearly rear end her. Expletives happen. (Swearing at other driver’s is my father’s legacy to me.)
“It’s called I.E.D.” Mom says by way of cursus interruptus.
“What?” I’m thinking. I.E.D.? My son is an Improvised Explosive Device? A teddy bear loaded with TNT? Even as I am acknowledging that the military term kind of fits, I hear her explain:
“It stands for Intermittent Explosive Disorder. It describes all the behaviors your son has perfectly. According to your Aunt Aphrodite, your cousin, Hercules, has it.” *
(*Sidebar: I don’t have a cousin named Hercules. This is an obvious pseudonym intended to protect Hercules’s identity. Ditto for Aunt Aphrodite. And, before anyone comments on my poor grasp of Greek/Roman gods, yes, I looked. Aphrodite is not Hercules’s mother. But who besides a true classics professor would remember Alcmene’s name? I ask you!)
Home, I pull into the garage and pull up the diagnosis on my phone.
This is how the Mayo Clinic describes the the condition:
“I.E.D. or Intermittent Explosive Disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder.”
I sit there for almost ten minutes digesting the words. Reading on I see a pattern going back over decades. My son. Myself. My father.
Also borrowed from the Mayo Clinic site, are possible contributing factors for this condition:
- Environment. Most people with this disorder grew up in families where explosive behavior and verbal or physical abuse were common. Being exposed to this type of violence at an early age makes it more likely these children will exhibit these same traits as they mature.
- Genetics. There may be a genetic component, causing the disorder to be passed down from parents to children.
- Differences in how the brain works. There may be differences in the structure, function and chemistry of the brain in people with intermittent explosive disorder compared to people who don’t have the disorder.
My father and all of his brothers exhibited a similar irascible temperament. (Or, in colloquial vernacular: they can be downright ornery, curmudgeonly cusses.) I’m not aware of any incidents of violence per se, but examples of out-of-proportion anger? Heck fire, Yes! One Uncle got mad at a family gathering and walked home. (The party was nearly thirty miles away from his house. ) Another left the military by way of a dishonorable discharge. I won’t go into details, but all of the descendants of this particularly inflexible branch of Germanic tree have issues with authority and a certain devil-may-care independence. I see Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte, and Jack Nicholson playing the uncles in a movie about us. And, if he weren’t dead, Walter Mathau would play my father.
I have my own checkered emotional past. I once was so irritated by a swerving jerk of a Saab driver that I deliberately (and, for litigious purposes) allegedly rear ended him, sort of on purpose. Honestly, I barely tapped his car. He really was an asshat and totally deserved some kind of road warrior justice. Good thing I had my mace handy to ward off his incipient and consequential road rage when he got out of his car to confront me.
Afterward, I told my husband, “They should spell Saab–S.O.B.”
Of my own particular raging bull behavior? He said not one word. I think I might have scared him a bit that day.
Sidebar: Hey, does anyone out there happen to know what the statute of limitations is on the above described, hypothetical, vehicular incident? Asking for a friend.
I used to describe these bizarre explosions as just being part of my Teutonic heritage. I nicknamed them “Berzerker Rages.” When my son started showing the same behaviors, I painted him green and dressed him as the Hulk for Halloween.
One might consider this an attempt to find the irony buried in the tragedy. But having an uncontrollable temper is no laughing matter. Especially when your son is nearing 6 feet tall and weighs over two hundred pounds.
Having a diagnosis, no matter how bleak, helps. It gives you a handle on the moment and the hope that someday, possibly, he might mature out of these fits. It doesn’t really change anything we are going through, but it might give me insights in how my child struggles and that listening to even his smallest requests might make a huge difference.
To the furniture and fixtures of our house…
We are already using the recommended medications to address aggression. Another treatment offered is talk therapy. Unfortunately, my son struggles to communicate even his most basic needs. But knowing this, I have to remember, that if he’s asking for something, there is a good reason to listen. Maybe listening will help calm the storm before it happens. And, if not, ensure its passing quicker when it does.
AND…all I have to do is remember not to let my own She Hulk take over when the anger starts rising.