Campus Confidential: Coping with College

Preparing for Life’s Inevitable Challenges

Excessive Stress

Accepting one's anger

I continue to receive feedback challenging my contention that unresolved anger leads to anxiety and is at the root of depression—the home-grown kind, not the biologically determined. I must admit that some clients seem to be in denial and getting in touch with their anger is not an easy task. I remember one client whose anxiety was set in motion by excessive stress.    

Colleen was a dignified 52-year-old music teacher referred to psychotherapy by her attorney. She suffered from what she believed was posttraumatic stress. Her stress began, she said, six years earlier, when she was accosted by security people at an upscale chain department store. She had been shopping, placing items from various areas into a large plastic bag. When she got onto an elevator, she noticed two women and a uniformed guard get on with her. She remembers that she smiled and said hello. They in turn, grabbed her bag, placed her hands behind her back, and handcuffed her. She remembers one woman telling the other woman, “That’s how it’s done.”

Colleen was taken to the top floor, her clothing searched, while all the time she asked, what was going on? The response was that she knew perfectly well that she had been shoplifting. Colleen was stunned. She tried to explain that she was simply headed to another floor to pick up several more items before checking out, but no one listened, except to say that if, in fact, this was Colleen’s first offense, she should plead guilty under the Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program. They shoved a pen in her hand, pointed to a paper proclaiming her guilt, and told her to sign if she knew what was good for her.

From early childhood, Colleen never questioned authority. A devout Roman Catholic of Irish decent, she remembered singing in the Church choir, her graduation from Catholic High, her magnificent, ostentatious wedding, and her complete happiness and peace of mind until the birth of her first child, who was born severely retarded. Colleen had asked, “Why, why me, Lord?” The child died and Colleen grieved and mourned, until one day she gathered her nerve and visited a home for the mentally handicapped. She made contact with several children by playing the piano and singing lullabies. The staff was quick to notice that the children enjoyed their interaction with Colleen, and asked her if she would be willing to come back. Colleen accepted a volunteer position for over 17 years.

When accused of shoplifting and starting to sign the confession, something told her to stop. Since she had always done what she was told to do. She was terribly conflicted and began to cry. The police arrived and escorted Colleen, in handcuffs again, to the police station where she was fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a cell. After several hours, she was allowed one telephone call. She called her husband, who found an attorney, and Colleen was released the next morning, on bail.

Colleen, in spite of her arrest, was not angry. Everyone was entitled to make mistakes. But the security people at the department store refused to drop the charges. Colleen still was not particularly upset because she knew, in her heart, that she was innocent. The department store attorneys attacked Colleen before the jury by saying, “Don’t let this proud little old lady fool you folks…” Still, Colleen was not upset. She knew that justice would prevail. That is, until she heard the verdict, “Guilty as charged.” 

The judge presiding over the case, however, believed Colleen was innocent, and in an unprecedented ruling, overturned the jury’s verdict.

Colleen’s picture hit the front page of her neighborhood weekly, “Not guilty of shoplifting.” Yet, members of her Church shunned her. While tending her flower garden, her next door neighbor yelled, “Don’t stand so close to my property, you thief!” Everyone, it seemed, except her husband and the staff at the home for the handicapped, believed she was guilty. Why else, they thought, would a reputable department store’s security people and attorneys have gone to so much trouble?

Colleen’s husband retained an attorney who believed Colleen had grounds for a suit against the department store. Each time, over the last six years, the case came up on the docket, the department store attorneys continued to get an extension. Colleen said she couldn’t care less about the dollar damages, that she only wanted an apology. She wanted her reputation back. At the same time, Colleen sobbed uncontrollably and asked, “Why, why me, Lord?”

I suggested that Colleen refused to accept her vincibility. She believed she had a privileged status of sorts for having always upheld authority, both sacred and secular. Her protection by the one, however, was unrelated to her victimization by the other. Her trust in the one unrelated to her doubts of the other. It was possible to conform to sacred authority and yet rebel against secular authority. Yes, to rebel invites retaliation. But, what more could they do to destroy a person’s reputation? To turn the other cheek was one thing, but “kiss-ass” compliance was quite another. Colleen sat upright, her face reddened, her eyes blazed, and she shot back, “You bastard!”

At the next session, Colleen thanked me for helping her get her in touch with her anger. Yes, she was furious at the department store’s CEO for not apologizing. Yes, she wanted to even the score.  She visualized seeing the store burning up in flames, and then seeing the store going broke. Yes, she hated the slick store attorneys, who relentlessly undermined her character. She hated the security woman in charge who was showing off to the other woman. Yes, she hated being photographed, fingerprinted and thrown into a cell like a common criminal. And yes, she was no longer going to kiss-ass comply with secular authority.

 

William Mace, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice, has developed PsychResilience Training (PRT) for prevention and treatment of adult depression and anxiety disorders.

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