8 months ago

Polly Devlin On The Exhaustion of Anger – And How To Cure It


POLLY DEVLIN resolves to rein in her rage, perhaps inherited from her grandfather, and to preserve and honour the synapses of her under-appreciated brain to which she gives an unusual yet significant name …

Here I am giving you two New Year presents, worth their weight in gold. The first prezzie is for those of us who are angry a deal of the time even as we go apparently calmly about our business. Is this you? Then dear reader, read on.

The other is a remarkable story which in olden days, like yesterday, would have been called a miracle. It changed my life – (no, seriously – remember clichés are founded in truth) and if you are open-minded and joyous by nature and concentrate, it will change your life too.

For a long time, I didn’t tell anyone of this last experience partly because I wanted to keep it to myself in every sense, to treasure it, to ponder on it, but also because I feared my story would be greeted with scepticism (which it has been) or with a sort of amused half-attention which it doesn’t deserve and is patronising. So, I am being generous in sharing this story as befits this season of goodwill.

So, the first one.

Earlier this year I paid £90 to learn two words. £45 a word. Never was money better spent. I’ll tell you them later if you sit up straight at the back of the class.

Almost everything in my life seems to have happened by accident. I have never sought and I am passive to a degree save when it comes to anger; an active volcano tumults about in my core and I live on a permanent edge of eruption, the lava of rage pushing up ready to cascade down on whoever has ignited it. The friend who voted for Brexit – I want to turn her into a figure from Pompeii, the hoodlum on the motorcycle who revs his engine so the street shakes and the houses tremble and I nearly fall over, the abused children everywhere, the women murdered every week by men, the cruelty to animals so endemic in Ireland, Donald Trump, religion, human carnivores, pollution, poverty, Jamal Khashoggi, couscous, Harvey Whatsit, blogs, Arlene Foster, the privileged who take their privileges for granted, you name it, I’ll be in a rage about it, like a fire in a dry forest. EXHAUSTING and surely not healthy to be walking around with smoke coming out of the ears.

One day when I had hurled myself at a red sports car going at 60 miles an hour down our restricted 20mph street and it had screeched to a halt and the moustachioed driver, a big man with a tiny penis, had jumped out and I had faced up to him, my daughter said amiably, “You’re going to get yourself killed one day soon”. I could hear the same words echo down the years only then they would be followed by “And don’t come running to me”, and the speaker was my mother. She didn’t seem to take on board that the odds of anyone running to her after they were killed were pretty low unless they were Lady Lazarus-like Sylvia Plath. (Now there was raw anger; remember those lines from that frightening poem – “I turn and burn … Beware … And I eat men like air.”) I knew that in the climate of today at some point my anger would be returned with violence and I had to do something to stop my rampages. I didn’t know how to because my anger was so spontaneous, so uncontrollable, flaring out before I could control it. Or so I thought. And then underlying this was the belief in the genesis of it – that bred into our clan is a temper which rarely erupts but when it is provoked, it is frightening and dangerous.

My grandfather was known as the Hatchet Man, and when I was young I thought it was a contemporaneous nickname given because of his terrible temper. (This naming by appearance or idiosyncrasy coils right back into the rural Irish past; Con O’Neill the first earl of Tyrone was always known as Con the Lame and there was one unfortunate sub-chieftain called Brian The Scabby.) But no, it turned out to have been a description based on our breeding as the fierce praetorian guard for The O’Neill. The Earl of Tyrone centuries ago.

So, in order to stop the attack mode in which I was caged, I went to a cognitive therapist and told her my story, my helplessness in the face of the flare of rage and my increasing fear of the consequences. She was completely unsympathetic. My days! Was I surprised. My victimhood was being dissed. She told me briskly that far from being spontaneous, my outbursts of fury were the result of a measured decision that I had time to make. In other words, I chose to be angry. Well … bust the rear view and fire up the jets! Not. I was silent for a long time which is not like me. Then I asked helplessly. So, what can I do? Simples.
She drew her thumb and index finger across her mouth and said two words.

Zip it.

And I did and do and life is much easier. Try it.

The other thing happened out of the midnight blue. I sometimes do crossword puzzles – oh dear, when I think how I teased my mum for doing them. But one night, I was disturbed to find that I couldn’t raise the name of a four-letter word for where you keep hens. I knew the answer like my own name but it lay just under the shimmer surface of my mind. I was deeply disturbed as I feared it was the first real manifestation of losing my memory. I COULD NOT HOOK THE WORD UP. I COULD NOT SNARE IT. I rummaged around in my brain for a while till it was as cross as a barrel of badgers. Now for years and years when I lived in Somerset I kept fancy hens and wrote about them for this very magazine. “Here are some of their names – Barred Wyanotte, light grey and white striped, Buff Orpington (he was very buff – the hens groaned when they saw him coming), the fabulous Ancona Beetle green with white spots, the Silver Grey Dorking, the oldest English breed of chicken, the Blue Cochin and the Black, the Gold Brahma, with fat feathered legs, and the chocolate brown and red Rhode Island Red. Bantams too, which were wicked fierce just like me, and white Polands with pom-poms and Silver pencilled Hamburgs. They had no idea they were little, like Napoleon … I loved them all, fluffy gleaming or tiny paisley patterned creatures clucking like a Philip Larkin poem …” So, considering that I closed them up into the four-letter word place every night, not being able to remember its name was dismaying to a degree.

I fell asleep, restless and worried and about two hours later was awakened by a startlingly bright illumination. The bedroom does not have street lights nor car lights anywhere near it. My little dog, asleep on her chair, woke up, jumped on the bed and crept up to me trembling. I sat up in shock and amazement – on the wall opposite me, in a string of pink cursive neon lights as bright as anything at a fun fair or advertising a nightclub, was the word COOP. Not a reflection or a projection – the word was standing out a little proud of the wall, brilliantly sharp. Tracy Emin would have been proud of it.

I’ve always read that we use our brains as though they were bicycles when they’re a million times more powerful than a Ferrari … and because one part of my brain couldn’t make a connection, the visual side kicked in impatiently. I could almost hear it say oh for god’s sake it’s COOP!

I was in tears as I watched as the light faded and the room went back into darkness. In all my years of asking the uncountable synapses of my brain, the hundred billion neurons, each with an average 7,000 synaptic connections to other neurons, in all these years it has come up trumps, stored so much, learnt so much, retrieved so much, given me so much yet I have never ever thanked it; never even acknowledged it as a thing. I realised for the first time ever that my brain was a spectacular functioning part of my body which had been driven to distraction because I wasn’t listening to what it had been trying to tell me and had to send the writing on the wall like at Balthazar’s feast.

A part of my body that has been utterly marvellous to me for all of my life, answering obscure questions, trying to make me see sense, accepting beliefs and then obediently not accepting them, every thinking thought – all taken for granted and nary a word of thanks from me. And as I lay there I realised what a miracle I had there in my head; talk about privilege. I thanked it solemnly, gratefully and I could practically feel it smiling.
Now I know I sound barmy, a new age dronk. But there you are. That fat white plasmic thing composed of neurons, glial cells, and blood vessels lodged inside my head, greater than any computer ever invented or will ever be invented smiled because for the first time
I had acknowledged it and been grateful. And then too I realised how often I dissed it – how so many of us diss it – we say – silly me; or it’s only me; or, that’s just like me; or I don’t remember a thing or I’m losing my mind or whatever – information that the brain takes in and which must hamper it. Stop doing that. Thank your brain. Treat it with love. And most of all give it a name and then call upon it. It answers.

Mine is called Coop and whenever I need help with anything I deliberately ask Coop to help. And it does. Every time. And it’s learnt to project two new essential joined-up words. Zip It.

Polly Devlin

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