George B. Armstrong Elementary was about a mile from my house on Chicago’s north side. In sixth grade I came down with an intestinal disorder that seemed to be triggered by my walk home. I felt fine when I started, but within a block of leaving the school, my stomach starting hurting. As I got closer to home, it felt like someone was continually jabbing me with a broom-handle. And then I would get to the three flights of stairs up to our place. I would struggle to scale them, barely able to stand upright, as if I had an “L” made of daggers in my intestine. This went on for most of the school year.
My mom took me to the doctor. He didn’t see anything wrong. I thought it might have been dietary. I packed lunches instead of eating the school’s. I tried not eating. I tried eating more. The pain persisted.
It didn’t go away until I made a discovery. I realized that the pain subsided after I took a shit. The reason my stomach was hurting was because I was holding a shit all day.
I decided that shitting at school was not an option because Armstrong had no doors on its bathroom stalls. I also feared the ridicule of early-adolescent boys, teasing me that my shit stunk (I knew it didn’t). So I held it in.
I am not a psychoanalyst, but I think I might have been displaying anal retentive tendencies.
Now perhaps that was the last of my anal retentiveness, but I wonder if there are vestiges of this need to control? And I wonder what other places my inability to release control might be causing me pain?
Last week, I’d been such a good boy. I woke up at 7 every morning, meditated, coffee, light breakfast, shit, shower, straight to work. I was very proud of myself. For my good behavior, I planned an indulgent Saturday morning. I’d still meditate, shit and shower, but maybe I’d play some music, a muffin instead of toast, but definitely no alarm clock, no work. I’d be easy like Sunday morning, but on Saturday.
With this in mind, I had a non-school-night Friday. I was too tired to go out, so I didn’t make plans with the girlfriend or anyone else. I stayed home, watched a little Battlestar Galactica, and read until 12:30—a bit later than necessary, but I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal since I could sleep-in the next morning. I crashed out easily.
The next morning at 6:15 I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I didn’t have to pee or poop. I was still tired. I was as comfortable as I could imagine being in a bed, but I could not fall back asleep. I lied there for another half-hour, forcing my eyes shut, waiting to drift out, but it didn’t happen. I was up and I was annoyed.
Sitting there in my predawn apartment, drinking coffee and eating oatmeal, I thought, “My day is fucked. I wanted to get some errands done, but now I’m too tired. I wanted to go out with my girlfriend, but now I’m going to be cranky and I won’t enjoy it. Of course we won’t get to bed early and I’ll stay over at her place, where I don’t sleep well, and I’ll be doubly tired tomorrow, so now Sunday is fucked too.”
Then I had another thought, “Let me deconstruct my anger to see what’s really pissing me off.” I was being practical. It was a little after 7AM and I’d be damned if I was going to give my day away to anger.
Just so there’s no semantic ambiguity, let me give you my definition of anger: anger is a negative reaction arising from the discrepancy between what one thinks should be so and what is so. In this case, there was an obvious discrepancy. I wanted to sleep in (what should have been so). I did not sleep in (what was so).
Synonyms for anger include: annoyed, irritated, depressed, miffed, pissed, disappointed, etc. Most of us think there are more nuanced meanings to these words, but they’re all stand-ins for the same psychological phenomenon. In short, we have a negative emotional charge because we can’t or don’t get our way.
For a little background, the 7AM thing was new for me. I was trying to be a bit more grownup. Until recently, I was unhurriedly emerging from bed at 10AM after going to sleep at 2AM.
I was tired all that week, still going to bed at 1 or 2AM, and waking at 7AM. But my weekday fatigue was mitigated by a sense of accomplishment. I was proud that, at age 34, I was waking up at an ‘adult hour.’ I felt like I was waking up with the empire builders. I also knew I would catch up on sleep over the weekend. When I woke up early Saturday, the chalice of sleeping-in was taken away from me.
My anger was acute because of the meaning I’d given to sleeping in. People don’t get angry when something they don’t care about happens. I don’t care if the NY Giants don’t win the Super Bowl because I don’t care about football. But I cared about being well-rested. It was important. To my mind, I was not going to have a good weekend without sleep. No sleep, no friends, no fun, no sex. Because I still wanted to hang out with friends, have fun and have sex, I was willing to question this validity of this connection. All week I was able to show up tired, why not today?
The next thing I asked myself, “What was I pissed about: the physiological condition called ‘fatigue’ or not getting what I wanted?”
I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as physiological state of fatigue. I felt groggy. My eyes burned. But I was tired all week and fine with it. I didn’t resist it.
I had to tease apart the objective state called fatigue and the subjective state called, “I’m going to have a shitty weekend because I’m tired.” I saw it wasn’t the fatigue that was making me tired and cranky, it was my associations and consequent resistance that was doing it. Sure, I was tired, but when I saw what was really going on, I stopped being tired and angry.
And then I thought about my middle school bowel management.
On the surface, these situations seem pretty different. One happened as an early adolescent who unconsciously held his bowels all day to avoid embarrassment. The other as a very, very late adolescent getting miffed about not getting enough sleep.
But I wondered how the situations might resemble each other. Both dealt with physiological conditions (bowel movements and sleep). Both dealt with a desire to control those physiological conditions. I wanted to shit only when and where I deemed it safe. I wanted to sleep a certain number of hours. Both situations resulted in discomfort when I couldn’t control those physiological conditions. In the former condition, acute physical discomfort. In the latter scenario, both the physiological condition called fatigue exacerbated by a psychological condition called anger. I wondered how my need to control the ‘physiology of reality’ in both situations caused me discomfort?
When I say ‘physiology of reality,’ I simply mean what is so, whether what is so is real or imagined. It’s raining. My stomach hurts. My body is experiencing fatigue (real) and I feel like my weekend is ruined because I’m so tired (not so real).
Anal retentiveness concerns an attempt to control everything, stemming from failed attempts to control our physiology. The condition is thought to be a psychological remnant from the time when children learn to control their bowels and bladders (our anal phase). If there were problems with this phase—if a child could not control his or her bladder and/or bowels—a vestigial need to control all situations ensues. The anal retentive personality has a pronounced need for order, cleanliness and various other compulsions to control.
I don’t remember whether I could or could not control my bowels and/or bladder. And I don’t know how robust anal retentiveness is as a theory (many disagree apparently). All I have to go off is my experience, and it seems evident than when I try to control my physiology, it causes me pain.
Then I thought of more universal implications for anal retentiveness. It seems like the way we deal with our bodies is the way we deal with the world. Our bodies fart, piss, shit, break, cry, rest, get sick and of course die. Similarly, the world farts, pisses, shits, breaks, cries, rests, gets sick and, one day, dies. These are not stories. These are facts.
And yet how often do we resist or try to control these facts? We say, “This is not the way it should be.” We then hold in shit until we’re buckling over with pain or sulk because we can’t do anything about the sleepy state of our bodies. Similarly, we try to control people, making them angry at us, rather than accepting them as the fickle beings they are. We sulk about the weather, thinking of all the plans that might have been, rather than putting on a rain jacket. We compound the agony of the terminal condition called reality with resistance and futile attempts to control it.
What if we could yield to the inherent changes in our bodies and world without the need to control them? What if we could yield to the urge to take a dump? What if we could just be tired without commentary? What if we could be okay with ourselves, with others, with life, with sickness, with death?
This does not mean that we don’t respond to situations as they arise. I started crapping in the morning in the seventh grade. I got eight and a half hours of sleep on Sunday. I eat well, exercise and generally take care of my health. I dress warm when it’s cold. I try to respond to the needs of others and the world. But I am trying to deal more with facts and less with ideas about how things should be.
Because here my short list of things that should be: I should have perpetually empty bowels and bladder. I should always be well-rested. I should have awesome, exciting, problem-free relationships. There should be world peace, particularly, but not limited to the world that is within earshot of me. I should have a great, well-insulated apartment. And I should live forever without ever getting sick.
But here is what is so: I get constipated when I eat too much cheese and refined wheat products. I often have to pee in the middle of the night. My awesome relationships are sometimes pains in my ass. World peace seems depressingly out of reach, both locally or globally. My apartment is drafty as hell. I’ve got crow’s feet around my eyes and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die one day.
I can accept or get angry at these differences. If my middle school experience is any indicator, when I finally let my shit go, when I stop resisting what my body is telling me, when I stop trying to control the world and all its inhabitants, the pain stops.