Life with MS

Anger as Ally: Experiences in Caregiving

By Jane Carrington
My life as a caregiver is often fraught with anger, and it is a daily struggle to avoid taking that anger out on my loved one. I think we all experience some degree of anger about the fact that illness is a big inconvenience in our life. I mean, I wanted to travel, not change bedpans. I wanted to have children, not sit in hospital waiting rooms. I wanted to enjoy my free time, not complain about not having any. Anger goes with the territory. Still, I find anger to be a distasteful feeling. So, I expend a lot of energy pretending I am not angry and even more energy trying not to burden my loved one with my negative emotions.
Then one day, someone asked me, “What if anger was your greatest gift? What if anger was your ally?”
These two questions changed my perspective. Gradually, I learned to observe my anger. I began to keep a list of everything I was angry about, especially the things that didn’t make any sense. Then, I began to notice patterns to my anger. As I wrote, I became aware that the help my husband asked for on Monday produced compassion in me. But the same help he asked for on Thursday enraged me. I realized that my anger was not about him or his asking for my help. My anger was a warning – a red flag – that I was doing too much. I was either doing things for my husband that he could do for himself or I was simply taking on too many responsibilities. I also became aware that I was too involved. I was enmeshed in his illness as if it were my own. My responses were exhausting me.
I discovered that anger is often an illusion, a disguise for something else that’s brewing underneath. Anger almost always covers fear. I remember one night in particular. I was bringing my husband home following a hospital stay. We picked up some take-out food on our way home. For the first time in several weeks, we were going to enjoy a hot, delicious meal that didn’t come from a hospital cafeteria. Once home, we sat down at the table and opened our take-out. Excitedly, I dug into the plate of food before me.
Just before my fork reached my mouth, my husband exclaimed, “There are plants in the house! You’ve got to get them out of here! Now!”
Chemotherapy treatments had severely compromised his immune system and the doctors advised him to avoid live plants, raw fruits and vegetables, large crowds, and children. I was furious that my highly anticipated hot, tasty meal was being interrupted, furious that by the time I removed all the plants my meal would be cold, and furious that just when I thought I could relax a moment, I still had to be on alert. I spewed unpleasant and unkind words as I moved every houseplant to the back porch. As I calmed down and we began to talk, I realized what was fueling the anger. I was terrified that the air I breathed every second of the day and the environment I was accustomed to was suddenly life-threatening. I was terrified that my husband was at that level of fragility. I was afraid my husband might die because I breathed on him! Once I identified and addressed the fear, the anger dissipated. Armed with these insights, I am better equipped to deal with anger when it arises.
If you can begin to perceive anger as your ally and work with it, instead of against it, you will start to see positive changes in your physical and emotional health and in your relationships. Indeed, anger is a gift – but you must observe it and embrace it before you can reap its rewards.
Anger Management Strategies
  • Remove yourself from the situation until you can calm down and reflect.
  • Count to 10 – or even 20 – to avoid saying or doing things you will regret.
  • Do something physical. Get out and take a walk. A change of scenery tends to change your perspective, and the physical exertion redirects the stress created by the anger.
  • When overwhelmed, find ways to let go of any unnecessary responsibilities. Prioritize, and/or ask for help.
  • Start a list of things that make you angry, especially those that make no sense. What are the fears that lie beneath?
  • If you are reacting to your loved ones illness as if it were your own, take a step back and find respite.
Jana Carrington obtained her B.S. in psychology in an attempt to understand her mother's death and the effect that it had on her family. She was a caregiver to her husband through three diagnoses of cancer, four rounds of chemotherapy, and a bone marrow transplant. Six months post-transplant, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, joining the ranks of thousands of caregivers diagnosed with a serious illness. To help other caregivers care for themselves, she published A Touch of Hope: A Caregivers Survival Guide. The book is also available through the MSF Lending Library. Call 888-MSFOCUS (673-6287).