To disturb

The last post focused on bodily processes arising when we are in turmoil, but social processes were always going on.  Aristotle did not use a word associated with civil war, taraché, loosely when talking about emotions like fear and shame. In English too, the word “disturbance” comes from the Latin turba, which means “crowd,” as well as “tumult, turmoil.” (OED)

The social, interpersonal side of disturbance was most apparent on the day before Thanksgiving 2009 when Laura and I showed how to disturb in all of its dimensions: to “agitate, stir up, destroy peace and quiet and order, trouble, unsettle, perplex.”  (OED)

That afternoon Laura and her brother Carl  went for a walk along the D&R Canal. I got home from work and started to get supper ready for all, including Laura’s parents who were expected any minute from the airport.   I only had to warm up the food that her friend Jennifer had sent over, and make a salad.  When she returned from the walk, for some reason Laura did not like the pot I was using.  Then she started saying that I was preparing the ingredients for the salad all wrong.  Poor Carl watched dumbfounded as his dying sister and her husband got into a full-throated argument, complete with banging pots and pans. Even in my anger I was thinking: aren’t we supposed to let the dying have whatever they want?

Unlike Laura I do not do a slow silent burn when I get angry.  I yell, curse, and smash things.  Every time I lost it in front of her, Laura would be unnerved for days, even though my tantrums were not directed at her.  By this time in her illness, however, Laura was becoming weaker and weaker, not just physically, but in her emotional self-control.  This incident was probably the only time in our marriage where she matched my vocal volubility and physical violence against inanimate objects.

In the middle of this ruckus, Laura’s parents arrived.  They left the door open, and Toto, our miniature poodle, rushed out.  We did not let Toto run free, particularly in the late November dark, because of all the predators in the woods around our house.  Screw the parents.  Screw the argument with Laura.  Anne Mei and I rushed out to get Toto back in the house.  Once Toto was retrieved and Laura’s parents were in, we all settled down.  Laura talked with her parents while I finished getting supper. After we had eaten, Toto sat on Laura’s lap while we were talking.

This quick decompression from a blow up was also more typical of me than Laura, who not only did a slow burn (remember the music lesson), but could keep the pot simmering for days afterwards.   That night her anger had passed and she asked me to stay and talk with her as she was falling asleep.

A side note on this incident.  This argument was a nightmarish example of something Laura and I had joked about during our marriage.  We are both oldest children with the proclivity that goes with that position in the birth order, i.e., to take charge.  Many times before when we were both in the kitchen, there would be an escalating duet of I’ll-do-it-no-I’ll-do-it until one of us left in order to avoid a blow up.

After Thanksgiving I started staying home with Laura on family leave.  About the second week of my leave, she noticed and asked if I was going back to work.  This was a sore point with her given our debate back in October about reading and scribbling.  I told her that I was just taking some vacation time. (Literally true, but avoiding the “leave” word.) I don’t think she believed me, but she didn’t argue.

About a week after Laura started in-home hospice at the end of December, we had a visit from the hospice social worker. The poor social worker wasn’t getting much response from me.  As far as I was concerned, the purpose of this visit was just to check off some box on a bureaucratic protocol.  I didn’t have rapidly progressing aphasia.  So, the social worker wasn’t getting much of a response from either of us and she started prattling on to me about this and that.  Bad idea.  Neither Laura nor I could stand small talk or wasted words in the best of times.  We just clammed up more.  I should have been more of a talker.  In the course of her stream of babble, the social worker said something to me like, “Well, now that you’ve gone out on family leave ….”  My heart stopped.  Laura didn’t say anything, but her fierce look at me told me that I was in the boiling pot again.

“Anger” comes from the Latin angere, to trouble, to vex.  From the root ang “strait, straitened, troubled.”  In the context of our story, it is significant that the OED gives as the first, but obsolete meaning: “That which pains or afflicts, or the passive feeling which it produces; trouble, affliction, vexation, sorrow.”  Troubled, afflicted, vexed, sad … that is, angry.

During the trifecta and the music lesson, as well as when she found me messing around in her kitchen, Laura felt anger in the second sense given by the OED: “The active feeling provoked against the agent; passion, rage; wrath, ire, hot displeasure.”  I especially appreciate that last phrase: “hot displeasure.”

The third meaning of “anger” could also be applied to the bodily processes of fear that Walter Cannon described:  “Physical affliction or pain; inflammatory state of any part of the body.”  Or when we talk about an “angry wound.”

Cannon (1915, 274) describes anger as “the emotion preëminently serviceable for the display of power ….”  He continues “and fear is often its counterpart,” referring to the reaction of the object of anger.  In the case of the trifecta, however, Laura’s anger grew out of her lack of power over her own body, her own time, and her own dignity.  No little anger was mixed in with fear in Laura’s shock at the violation of her professional files.  In both instances the objects of her anger did not fear her in the least.  Cannon was a great physiologist, with much insight into human behavior, but he does not pay enough attention here to the real impact of an angry “display of power” where, in fact, the angry person has no power.  In some ways the aggrieved party is trying to substitute anger for power, but often just ends up highlighting her lack of power for all to see.

The title of Cannon’s book and his real subject matter is “rage,” my usual mode of anger.  We have seen Cannon’s description of the bodily disturbances associated with fear.  In his view, fear and rage mostly have the “same visceral accompaniments” because both prepare the body for fight or flight.  “Discharges” from the sympathetic neurons diffuse their effects throughout the body rather than narrowly targeting one part.  For Daoists this effusion of life energy is the main reason to avoid anger.

After the amygdala signals danger, we tense our muscles, our brains release neurotransmitters called catecholamines, leading to a surge of energy and the urge to act immediately to protect ourselves. Our hearts go faster, our blood pressure increases, we breath faster. Our face may get redder.  We focus on the irritant or threat, as we release more neurotransmitters and hormones (including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and testosterone) to continue our arousal and readiness to fight. At the same time, the left prefrontal cortex begins to exercise judgment and perhaps control over our reactions.  Even then, the hormones released may linger for hours or even days, leaving us more susceptible to getting angry again.  If we have become so aroused as to become “unbalanced” (my term), we may have trouble remembering what’s happened.  (Herrero et al., Mills)

Laura’s incandescent heat during the music lesson was more typical of how she would show her anger.  During the trifecta, however, she let it rip with the only weapon she had—her tongue.  As the resident said, anger brings the words back.  And Laura had plenty to say during her day-long wait to get into the operating room and her 44 hours in the recovery room.

Laura’s treatment during the trifecta gave her much to be angry about.  Her amygdala was sparking, neurotransmitters and hormones flowing.  She had a mass on her brain that required surgery, and then her brain had been cut (or as the surgeon so delicately put it “resected”) causing it to swell.  Paul and I tried to fill in for her cortex, but we were no match for the outside insults and inside traumas.

Side note.  My use of the word “cortex” is not meant to be materialist or reductionist.  Rather I’m just trying to subvert words like “judgment,” “cognition,” or “mind.”  At least with “cortex” we are less likely to forget that we are talking about a complex of changes that includes electrical charges, axons, neurons, hormones, networks and “higher order” reflective activities that people call thinking or talking.  Metonymy works better than reification.   (“Reification” from the Latin word for “thing,” res.  Of course this label avoids the verb “reify.”  As I’ve said before, watch out for nouns, but call the police for nouns ending in -tion or -ness.)

Unfortunately the people who got to hear most of what Laura had to say were nurses and nursing assistants.  They were not the causes of her misery.  The fundamental causes were the people in charge who promote overbooking of a well-known brain surgeon and of more revenue-generating procedures in their operating rooms than the post-operation facilities can handle in a way that maintains patient comfort.

Because my brain cortex was operating too much like this, I did not have the luxury of yelling at someone as Laura did. We needed the skills of the surgeon.  The other people who should have been yelled at and pounded on were hidden away somewhere in corporate offices. I wasn’t about to inflict my anger on the nurses or even on the corporate “punching bags” in Patient Services, when I knew I would just be wasting my breath.  Sometimes one can try too hard to manage how one navigates through a difficult situation.  Luckily for her, Laura did not suffer from such inhibitions.  She was being treated intolerably during the trifecta and she didn’t mind who knew it.

Given the number of times I have used the Oxford English Dictionary in this post, and given the many connections made between fear and grief, it is appropriate that I close with another kind of disturbance, which is one of the original meanings of Aristotle’s word taraché.   In all the books and articles that I have read concerning grief, not one mentions rebellion.  One of my friends lost his wife to cancer a few months before Laura died.  He told me that shortly afterwards he started leaving the toilet seat up, and then went out and bought a motorcycle.  Even before Laura died, when I knew she was no longer going to get out of bed, I took out my mother’s set of the Oxford English Dictionary and put it on our bookshelves in the living room. I could understand why Laura didn’t want me to display all my pulp fiction where the world could see my low-brow tastes, but I never understood why she insisted that I get the OED out of the house when I brought it back after my mother’s death.  Laura had the compact two-volume edition, which you had to read with a magnifying glass.  That’s all she wanted in the house.

She also wanted me to wear my hair long.  Since I’m bald on the top, I think long hair looks ridiculous, especially when it’s curly and unruly like mine.  She was the one who had to look at me every day so I let my hair grow as long as I could stand it.  She still would complain whenever I had it trimmed, and I mean trimmed, not a proper cut.  She would say that I looked like a facha, a Spanish fascist.  Within a week of her funeral, I had my hair cut very short.  Then, of course, I retired at the end of the year she died.  She adamantly did not want me to retire.  But now that I’m retired I have the time to “read and scribble” about grief.


Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.