Prior to about the age of nine and a half, I don't recall being a rage-filled kid. In fact, I remember being quite sensitive and frightened for the most part, with a general anxiety about living in the world. However, something occurred when I was nine and a half that set up a pattern for future behavior.
I was in my boyhood home in Georgia with my older brother and my grandmother, whom I loved dearly. My brother was teasing me, as siblings will do, but this instance must have been significant in some way, because I remember it in detail. I recall finding myself in overload emotionally, as if to say, "I can't take another minute of this!" As if I'd been put on automatic pilot, I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the biggest butcher knife we had. I went toward my brother with it and told him that if he didn't leave me alone, I would -- and I remember saying this -- cut his guts out. I remember him looking at me as if I'd lost my mind. He immediately stopped teasing me and walked away. When my grandmother told me to put the knife away, I threatened her as well. I was truly in a trance-like state. That behavior did not go unnoticed, and I was later punished -- and rightly so. In a civilized society, it's not okay to pull a knife on your family.
That day, something clicked in my head and it's been with me ever since. My rage-filled behavior had come up in total response to the shame, fear, embarrassment, and pain of being teased by my brother. Rage seemed to stop those unwanted emotions when they came from an external source, and I later discovered that it also seemed to stop them when they came from inside as well. Whenever I felt those "weak" feelings, rage allowed me to shut myself off emotionally, look at the other person, and angrily think, Fuck you! Who needs you? Through the emotion of rage, I could separate from others and become totally unavailable.
As Brent questioned me about how this had manifested itself in my life, I realized for the first time that I'd been associating vulnerability with helplessness and hopelessness. Until that moment, I'd always believed that if I was helpless and hopeless, I'd be rejected. Emotionally, that's what vulnerability meant to me, even if intellectually I know it's the furthest thing from the truth. Children, when they're vulnerable, are sometimes helpless; we grown-ups are not -- we've proven that simply by growing up. I'd just never known how to be vulnerable and a grown-up at the same time before.
As a little boy, pulling that knife had served as a temporary solution. But using rage as a weapon as an adult became a cell in my emotional prison. Whenever I felt threatened, the anger would leave me standing there, trapped with a figurative knife in my hand. Rage kept me safe to some degree, because it prevented me from feeling shame, and it pushed people away when I perceived them as being dangerous. However, it also kept me from being close to people whom I wanted to love. I was desperately afraid that when I really cared for someone, it might translate into pain and rejection. Being caught between these two opposite extremes -- rage at the one end, pain and rejection at the other -- resulted in polarization. Crazy? Yes. Logical? Absolutely.
Sitting there in Brent Baum's office (Brent is a good friend, a trauma specialist and gifted therapist), I realized that the place I was looking for was the midpoint between those two poles. I didn't have a clear map, but I became committed to finding such a place, because I will not spend the rest of my time on this planet living in this way.
As Brent, Carin (my wife), and I continued our session, I also began talking about my perception of what was expected of me in our marriage. For as long as I can remember, I've had the notion that my job was to be strong, have answers, and be there for others, especially for any woman with whom I was in a relationship. I truly wanted to be completely open and intimate with Carin, yet such vulnerability equaled hopelessness, helplessness, and powerlessness in my mind. As I explored these feelings, I found myself feeling very small internally, and for maybe the fourth or fifth time in my life, I was able to go into a depth of sadness and pain that I've kept mostly at bay for my entire existence.
I began to talk about our dog, Toby, whose cancer has recurred. I've truly grown to love this dog, who comes up to our bed in the morning and lays his muzzle on my hand. In a small voice, I said, "I don't get to grieve; I don't get to feel disappointed; I don't get to feel the pain of the potential loss of a great friend like Toby, because I believe that I have to be there for Carin." This was a deep expression of love, but it came from the place of being a helpless young boy, not an empowered grown man. It turns out that it was also just another story I'd made up -- it wasn't what Carin expected at all.
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I came to realize that I was still operating with the coping skills of a nine-and-a-half-year-old child who'd been afraid to deal with this particular source of fear and self-doubt. What really amazes me is that if I'd seen this in a client, my intellectual side would have been able to work with that person and offer plenty of opportunities. Somehow, I hadn't been able to do that for myself. I remember an old saying I heard years ago, and I guess it must be true: "A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient." Just because I've been able to work therapeutically with others doesn't mean that I didn't remain blind to some of my own unresolved stuff.
By the time we concluded the session, I was able to release more pain than I ever would have believed was there. Most important, I'd had a particularly enlightening breakthrough about an experience that had occurred a year or so before. At that time, I nearly destroyed my marriage -- I'm fortunate that it's still intact.
My wife had asked me a question about a relationship I'd had prior to meeting her, and I'd lied about it. I continued to lie about it, because deep down inside, I believed that if I told her the truth, she would leave me. My wife has proven to me repeatedly how she feels about me, but my misperceptions just wouldn't let me believe that she valued me enough to accept what I'd done. She could have come up to me every day and told me how much she valued me, cooked me every special meal I ever wanted, made love to me 18 times a day, and sent me plaques for my wall, and it still wouldn't have changed my beliefs. How I felt about myself caused me to behave in ways that caused my wife to doubt herself.
Carin's intuition is extremely well honed, and my refusal to tell her the truth created a scenario that made her feel crazy. You see, Carin was aware of this other person and had an intuitive sense that something had occurred between us, but I wouldn't own up to it. Carin didn't care what I'd done prior to meeting her, but the fact that I didn't seem to trust her enough to tell her the truth was deeply painful for her. I didn't consciously mean to hurt her, but I subconsciously sure as hell did, due to my own belief system about whether or not anyone would value me enough to stay with me. Once again my history, which had nothing to do with my wife, had gotten in the way of a relationship that I valued and treasured beyond words. In spite of my conscious valuing of that, I damn near trashed it.
One of the things that was very clear throughout this turbulent time was how my anger came into play. Every time Carin questioned me, I became indignant, which was in direct proportion to my being afraid that at any given moment she might find out that I'd lied. It was the same old pattern: feel vulnerable, get scared, get embarrassed, get angry. Once again, the same old story that I'd made up in my head was keeping me from dealing with the problem at hand.
Now, here's one of the most interesting things I learned from this whole experience. In trying to avoid my worst-case scenario, I made it happen anyway. I was sure that if I told Carin the truth, she'd leave me. I was afraid I'd never be close to her -- but by lying to her and causing her to doubt her intuition and her very sanity, I drove her away anyway. Hell, she was gone emotionally, and our closeness was damaged by my lie. She knew better; I knew better. The elephant was in the room -- I was unwilling to acknowledge just how big it was, how bad it stank, and that it was blocking my view.
I've never gotten away with anything, and that certainly continues to be true. Eventually, when the truth was revealed by someone else, it almost cost me my marriage. The key word here is almost: Almost may be significant when it comes to horseshoes and hand grenades, but it's not worth much in a marriage. I came close to losing Carin, but I didn't. In fact, this whole experience ultimately brought us the closeness I'd always hoped for.
Naturally I don't recommend any of this as a way to create closeness in a marriage. The simplest thing would have been for me to confront my own demons and fears without involving my wife and dragging her through my mud. I nearly destroyed the thing I wanted most in order to come to that awareness, and I offer this example in hopes of helping others avoid such pain.
So, did I learn something? Yes.
1. First of all, this won't be happening again, because what Carin and I have gone through has brought us to new levels of intimacy -- none of which has been very easy, by the way, and all of which was of my making. Nothing is worth going through this again. I'd never risk losing Carin and what we have together.
2. Second, if I ever get to that spot of helplessness and hopelessness, I'm going to start talking about it. And if anybody suggests something to me, I'm not going to cut them off. I realize that's what I've done my whole life, and it hasn't worked very well.
3. Finally, I now understand what caused me to set my boundaries with such a vengeance. I wasn't just setting boundaries, I was absolutely drawing a line in the sand and saying, If you come across this, somebody's going to end up being hurt -- and it won't be me." People get that message, and they back off from someone who says such things and appears a little bit crazy when you look in their eyes. That's what a really scared person will do, and that's what I'd done when I felt really helpless. I was using the coping skills of a terrified child, and they didn't get me what I wanted. Fortunately, I now have a new awareness.
At the end of our session, both Carin and Brent told me how much lighter my face looked and how unburdened I appeared to be. It certainly felt that way to me. It was such a relief to have taken this crucial fourth step. I'd gathered information, confronted some lifetime misperceptions, and finally walked through the fear that had held me back for so long. In allowing myself to be vulnerable to another human being, I'd discovered the sweetness of connection and the joy that is every individual's birthright.
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About the Author
Wyatt Webb survived 15 years in the music industry as an entertainer, touring the country 30 weeks a year. Realizing he was practically killing himself due to drug-and-alcohol addictions, Wyatt sought help, which eventually led him to quit the entertainment industry. He began what is now a 20-year career as a therapist. Today he's the founder and leader of the Equine Experience at Miraval Life in Balance, one of the world's top resorts, which is also located in Tucson.