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Gratifying delusions (like that we're in touch with "reality") are so addictive, we tend to hang onto them no matter what they cost us.

The Crazy Button

Can science explain Meat Loaf's "Celebrity Apprentice" meltdown?

meatloaf rages at gary busey
tvguide.com

In the scene before the actor and rock star Meat Loaf had a full-out meltdown on "Celebrity Apprentice" (1) he could feel it coming. He was fuming because he felt actor Gary Busey was treating him like a lackey. "My switch is this close. It's going to get ugly if I get angry," Meat Loaf promised teammate Mark McGrath. I say "promised" rather than "warned," because I recognized the signs.

"You gotta hold that in, brother," McGrath advised sagely, adding, "Let's talk before you hit the crazy button."

But not long afterwards, as I knew he would, Meat Loaf went and hit that crazy, crazy button, and hit it hard. Not surprisingly, Meat Loaf 's wounded ego had escalated the charges against his tormentor. Accusing Busey of stealing his craft supplies (the celebrities had been instructed to make "art" for a charity auction), "Meat" proceeded to suffer an Incredible Hulk attack on camera. His neck veins bulged below his jutting chin; his eyes bugged out; his face turned sirloin red. The star of the album "Bat out of Hell" began shouting obscenities and threatening to beat up on Busey, whose habitual air of disorientation seemed suddenly apt.

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Before things came to blows, the missing art supplies were discovered hiding in the shadows. Meat Loaf visibly deflated as he began to see himself as the television audience was seeing him: as a joke.

Having pitched a similar fit in my misspent youth, I was ready for what happened next: the remorse scene. Sure enough, Meat Loaf sat down with Busey and ate all the crow he had previously pushed off his plate. He said all the right things about anger and violence not solving anything, making everything worse, etc.; he admitted he'd had anger therapy in the past and knew better. He took responsibility for his actions and expressed regret. Busey forgave, even empathized, and the men hugged. 

Busey didn't need to punish Meat Loaf because he knew the Internet would. The performer's mortifying fit would go viral, and then---like paparazzi bashers Sean Penn, Mike Tyson and Kayne West or phone throwers Naomi Campbell and Russell Crowe---Meat Loaf "Entertainer" would be internationally re-packaged as "Meat Loaf---Tantrum Thrower." 

When I slapped a friend who had been upstaging me at a party for cutting into my conversation with someone else, I was luckily not famous. I was also fortunate to have alcohol as a co-conspirator, so I could spare myself a sliver of blame. But the incident ruined my reputation as a sane human being among those who knew me for some time, especially once it was discovered that I myself had cut into someone else's conversation to begin with. Consequently I've re-run the episode in my mind many times and given not a little thought to the crazy button, and what psychology has to say about it.

For obvious reasons, people hoping to explain fits of barely provoked or mistaken rage look for explanations both inside and outside the rational centers of the human brain. It seems like wherever they look for explanations they find them.  

Some would-be explainers are judgmental. Strong believers in free will, they dismiss tantrum-prone adults as babies, abusers, or "spoiled," i.e. damaged by excessive privilege.  But other students of rage binging---both scientists and therapists--- are less certain that explosions like Meat Loaf's or mine are fully under the perpetrator's control. Mental circuitry glitches, cognitive dysfunction, side effects of adaptive evolution---each sub-field claims the crazy button for its own.

On the Internet, for example, several therapists are promoting themselves as experts in "Anger Addiction." (2) The idea behind treating repeated outbursts of inappropriate and self-destructive anger as an addiction comes from the notion that, for some of us, spewing venom and even striking out in anger is so much fun, so exciting, or at least so gratifying, that, like rats on crack, we'll choose to do it even when it harms ourselves or those we love.

I can half believe this, personally, because I remember the buildup of tension and frustration that preceded my acting out, and how much I enjoyed being able to push the crazy button to end my misery. I felt lucid and purposeful precisely when I was neither. I felt authentic because I didn't feel like my complicated, civilized self at all. If I imagine myself as a man in the sort of subculture that sanctions roughing things up, I can even imagine how that sort of release could become habit-forming, like turning into a werewolf every full moon. But anger as an addiction? I pass.

In the post-doctoral psychiatric community, "Anger Addiction" is not a recognized diagnosis. The closest you will get to an official moniker is "Intermittent Explosive Disorder" or IED. (Yes, that's the same acronym military manuals use for the terrorist weapon of choice, the "Improvised Explosive Device.") (3)

Labeling IED doesn't, however, define it precisely. In the DSM IV, psychiatry's diagnostic bible, IED wanders about as unmoored as Gary Busey in an art supply store.  Basically it's an overflow diagnosis created to label and treat what under normal circumstances is merely an offshoot or symptom of some other condition. And those other conditions include pretty much everything involving lost control, from drug addiction through Alzheimer's. (4) In other words IED is a rare disorder whose symptoms sleep in every other disorder's bed.

While neuroscience isn't developed enough to identify the cause of every episode of  Meat Loafery, what researchers have found so far do make it sound different from classical addiction, however common it may be among addicts.

Cocaine, alcohol or heroin addiction, for example, tend to burn out the brain's dopaminergic pathways, the circuits that, when broken or malformed, leave the brain's owner  fixated on one objective ("get more drugs at any cost") and prevent him from valuing alternative pleasures or learning to avoid things that produce bad outcomes (like getting more drugs at any cost). A drug addict or alcoholic, unlike an anger user, has to score frequently to avoid withdrawal. The word "intermittant" is a clue that anger problems are not real addictions.

the incredible hulk

Eonline.com
Rage attacks appear to run, furthermore, on different wetware. The crazy button McGrath introduced as a metaphor, for example, corresponds to an actual brain structure---the part of the amygdala where most animals' "fight or flight" reflexes are generated.  At present, neuroscientists tentatively associate going berserk with a disconnect between those parts of the mind that think without acting and those that act without thinking.

The pre-frontal cortex analyzes and weighs options. The crazy button, when hit, instantly converts any emergency signal it gets from sensory or emotional inputs into an Incredible Hulk or Frightened Rabbit response---unless more sophisticated processors have been riding the off switch.

Turning off the off switch at the wrong time produces inappropriate rage. The disruption is sometimes physical---a bad splice between the crazy button and its inhibitors. Genetic (temperamental) problems  or head injuries are in this category. The connection can also be broken by a chemical event - like a serotonin deficit in cells that modulate the blood sugar---that in turn powers the off switch. But the failure to keep the off button pressed can also result from attitudes that look suspiciously willful (evil, stupidity, rebelliousness etc.). In any case, when the lights go out on Main Street the back alley gangs run wild.

So, neurologically, if there is such a thing as anger addiction, it isn't clear how it forms or works. Can the adrenaline rush of threatening Gary Busey (or a wife, or an enemy) indirectly flood enough synapses with dopamine to addict a person to fit-pitching? Can some become habituated to their own adrenaline? Is there an equivalent of withdrawal among rage-balls who cut back?   

Anger addiction therapists aren't losing sleep over the neurological details.

The notion behind anger being addictive, then, is simply that it can be both compulsive and maladaptive. For people whose anger is more toxic than tonic, anger is a rabid dog they befriended in happier days and now keep trying to pet.

More conventional therapeutic techniques stress digging up the origins of one's feelings of powerlessness, frustration and inferiority. The hope is that learning to face them directly ("I feel one-down with Gary") will prevent you from recycling them as battles with the world ("Gary robbed me!").  Cognitive therapists, by contrast, train people to become aware of what triggers set them off, and how to foil them. ("Gary put me down, but reacting probably won't put me one up. And I skipped lunch so my blood sugar's down and I shouldn't trust myself right now.")Both stress how the self-destructive effects of acting out outweigh the joys of it.

There are two big problems with anger management based on self-awareness, though. One, as anger management graduate Meat Loaf demonstrated, talking yourself down may leave you primed to explode without warning after another provocation; and once your amygdala fires unopposed, even Mark McGrath can't calm you.

But the biggest weakness in any anger management strategy based on why rage doesn't work for you is that it isn't always true. Anger isn't just a way to feel powerful. Anger can be quite effective. Social scientists report that people who are perceived as angry get their way more often than those who aren't:

  • executives with bad tempers are legion, despite the deleterious effects of shouters and bullies on morale and teamwork;
  • feminism lay around the house like a doily on a credenza until it got furious in the late 60's;
  • the remarkable gains of The Tea Party are unimaginable without its willingness to go ballistic.

In many cases angry outbursts are rewarded, even when decried, and at least one study suggests that feeling some anger can sharpen your thoughts. So it's hard for a rational person to hold herself to blanket pronouncements about the inefficacy of fury.

I often try anyway. Because I personally knew people who channeled their personal and social rage into effective action, it took me years before I realized that I, personally, rarely do that. For me, continuous rage at the world's many deserving injustices and flagrant idiots more often paralyzes me or makes me ineffective-a bloviator instead of a warrior. When unable to use my hot trigger for any high purpose, (the way Sean Penn evidently manages to do in Haiti) anger easily becomes a vice for me, if not an addiction, something I hate myself for enjoying. And a danger, because I have to consider that keeping myself at a simmer may prime me for Meat Loaf-like behavior.

I still use anger recreationally, even judiciously, but I watch my dosage and try to stay within my emotional budget. I will let myself get angry about something like the effort to defund Planned Parenthood, if and when it gets me out the door.  But the Middle East is going to have to sort itself out without my help, and I won't join the growing throng of bloggers incensed by Donald Trump's presidential candidacy.

It's a waste of adrenalin, for one thing; and for another, I feel I owe him some gratitude for not firing Meat Loaf just because the poor guy temporarily lost his mind.I happen to know that it's possible to be a victim of your own bad behavior even if you are responsible for it.

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NOTES

1.       april 3, 2011 episode ---- The Art of the Deal full episode http://www.nbc.com/the-apprentice/video/the-art-of-the-deal/1317487/

the meltdown excerpt:http://www.rickey.org/celebrity-apprentice-art-of-the-deal-meat-loaf-vs-gary-busey/

 

2.       For Example:

http://www.angermanagementresource.com

http://www.addictedtoanger.com/resources/58-addicted-to-anger.html

http://www.asktheinternettherapist.com/articles/anger-management/

http://www.thecyn.com/blog/managing-anger-during-heroin-addiction-treatment/ 

3.   DSM IV--- See page 663-4 http://books.google.com/books?id=3SQrtpnHb9MC&pg=PA663#v=onepage&q&f=false

4.    The list of conditions associated with episodic anger includes: drug addiction, drug withdrawal, Borderline Personality Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD, my favorite theraputic acronym), Conduct Disorder, Personality Disorder, "a Manic Episode," Schizophrenia and Alzheimer's.

Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine. more...

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