The 8th Dwarf

It’s not as though you’re the eighth dwarf, Angry, with just the one trait to define you.

Those words were written to me by a (slightly exasperated) friend who’d been watching me struggle with a decision that I thought would fundamentally change my identity. It probably doesn’t occur to him that over 10 years later that sentence still shocks me into stillness, into silent revelation.

I’ve fallen out of touch with that friend, a fact that makes me sad, nostalgic, mournful – even a little angry. But knowing that it makes me all of those things is his continuing gift to me. The knowledge that I am not a single, volatile emotion. I am not a caricature of myself. I am a complete human, and from that – I am enough.

Where did I get the idea that I was just Angry? Part of it is language. In English, we don’t say we “have” something, we say we “are” something. I am hungry, I am bored, I am scared. I am angry. (German and French, for examples that I have some knowledge of, don’t have this problem.) The other part comes from growing up with a parent who was scared to death of anger. It terrified her in a primitive, vulnerable, damaged place in her brain and she never developed beyond that fear. Seeing the parents she grew up with explains a lot about that, but doesn’t change the outcome.

The outcome is that anger as part of a spectrum was not an idea in my developmental toolbox. The perception of my anger was that it was dangerous, an invader bent on pillaging good sense and reason. I was unmanageable, unlovable when I was angry. I learned to fundamentally misunderstand every interaction where it was present – seeing threats where there were none, attacking without provocation, righteousness and shame inverted.  I learned to fear it, too.

But it was still there, existing on the spectrum even as I shied away from it. Eventually, it refused to be buried. Lacking any tools for dealing with the expression of anger, I let it simmer until a random addition of heat set me to boiling over. Sometime around puberty, I became known for my “temper”. Rather than help me dig beneath it, the people in my life entrusted with my emotional development  retreated behind great walls of disciplinary action. I’m experienced enough now to guess that was a defense on their part, but it had consequences.

At some point, I embraced the label. “Temperamental.” “Bitchy.” “Angry.” I let it off leash at the drop of a hat, my reliable anger there to keep threats at bay. Don’t get the idea that my life was all misunderstood, caring people just trying to get close to me. Sometimes my anger was justified and an effective tool. Sometimes people used it to their own advantage. In a display of internalized shame that still twists my gut, I was proud that I could be used in such a way. My anger didn’t just have value, it was my value. I am Angry, the eighth dwarf – never part of the official narrative, just there to lend uncomfortable realism.

I would like to claim that my friend’s words were the bolt of lightning that changed everything. The reality is more gradual. I was working my way out of that impossibly narrow definition for a while through being a parent myself, through friendships, through unutterable loneliness. I just didn’t have the words (a case of irony so thick it has to be processed with industrial grade machinery). I needed those words to give shape to the struggle – to define new boundaries and light my inner rebellion.

I’m still rebelling. I still find myself trying to listen to all my emotions as they play their symphony on my spectrum. Still trying to reconcile that I have a spectrum. Still trying. I am not the eighth dwarf. I’m not a fairy tale. I’m real, and I get to have all that it confers.

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