Resentment, Rage and Recovery

By Thomas B.

AA orthodoxy depicts an especially dire portrayal of the negative consequences of resentment and rage for those of us addicted to alcohol, and who seek recovery through AA. Bill Wilson, AA’s co-founder primarily responsible for the AA canon of beliefs about alcoholism and recovery, doesn’t mince words regarding the negative impact of resentment and raging anger for alcoholics.

Resentment is the number one offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64)

I’ve experienced the gift of recovery through the Fellowship of AA since I had my last drink, a can of Ballantine Ale, on October 14, 1972. I went to my first AA meeting several days later, and the first person in AA with whom I identified was Stanley S. Stancage, a raging alcoholic, both when sober and while drinking. Stanley died of alcohol poisoning after chug-a-lugging a quart of 100 proof vodka in an alcoholic rage, paying the ultimate price for our alcoholic malady.

Resentment and anger, ofttimes apoplectic rage, have dogged me throughout my forty-three years of recovery. I’ve sometimes asserted that I am “constitutionally incapable of pausing when agitated.” My resentment and raging behavior have resulted in abundant negative consequences — lost friendships, lost jobs, lost wives and lovers, lost esteem and reputation. I’ve often been as powerless over resentments and raging anger, as I know I would be over alcohol were I to take the first drink.

According to the teaching of Bill Wilson, I likely am doomed to die a horrible alcoholic death. However, unlike Stanley, I have yet to be tempted to take a drink. Despite sometimes raging resentments all throughout my four decades plus of being sober, I have never experienced the thought, much less a compulsion, to take that first fatal drink.

I attribute this to three significant factors:

1) The period of my active alcoholism was so awful, so horrible, so unmanageable, as well as unbearable, that I know and accept this reality — no matter how bad a situation sober might be, even during my worst ravings, taking the first drink would no doubt inevitably make the situation a hundredfold worse.

2) In my first decade of getting sober in Manhattan, NY during the 1970’s, I had this dictum reiterated at most meetings: “No matter what — whether your ass falls off or turns to gold — no matter what, don’t pick up that first drink!”

3) I worked during the mid-’70s as an alcoholism counselor for an outpatient treatment program at the head of the Bowery. I had a number of clients on my caseload, who lived the down and out, in the gutter, existence of a skid-row alcoholic, pan-handling, washing windshields, living in flop houses, being preyed upon and beaten up, eating maybe one meal a day, becoming lice-infected, etc. Some lived a brutal life on the streets for decades and did not die! I’m convinced were I to pick up that first drink this would likely be my destiny. At age 72, I’m way too creature-comfort-oriented and cowardly to live this kind of desperado lifestyle.

Throughout over four-decades of recovery, I’ve always been acutely aware of the intractable results and negative consequences associated with resentment and rage. I’ve done a number of thorough 4th and 5th Steps dealing specifically with resentment and rage, I’ve written reams of musings about the resulting negative consequences, I’ve seen a number of excellent therapists, and I’ve experienced anger management workshops, both as participant and facilitator. Until recently, I was an avid long-distance runner, completing several marathons.

I’ve been inordinately fortunate never to have been arrested for becoming verbally abusive with strangers or with partners in the public arena. Neither have I ever had an accident nor gotten a ticket due to uncontrollable road rage. As obnoxious as I sometimes have behaved, I’ve never, not once, ever been in a fist-fight. On several occasions, much larger individuals backed away, because I was so deranged they didn’t want to risk dealing with me — they saw “the crazy” and chose not to mess with it.

Causes and Conditions

There are a number of factors in my life history, which possibly influence my propensity for debilitating resentment and rage. Both of my parents were aggrieved children of alcoholics, who abandoned them. My maternal grandmother was an alcoholic, who deserted my mother — also a “rageaholic” —- and her sister, when they were 10 and 7. They were physically abused by two old-maid aunts, when my grandfather uprooted them from their upper-middle-class home in Detroit, dumping them in Jackson, Mississippi to be raised by his two older sisters.

My paternal grandfather was a gambler and an alcoholic. His mentally-challenged wife was deemed incompetent by the rest of the family to raise my father, who at age 14, topped over six-feet. He was dispatched from his small, Southern Baptist, hometown environment in Mississippi to live with a black-sheep branch of the family in Indianapolis, who were socialists and freethinkers during the roaring twenties. There, he was seduced by the wife of an older cousin.

On both sides of my family there was considerable wealth that by the time it got to my parent’s generation during the 1920’s had been squandered. Though we didn’t have the financial means, we still maintained upper-class pretensions as part of the elite social circles of small-city life in Jackson. I always felt like the fake our family mostly was.

Early on, I became a power-driven over-achiever, staying away from home as much as possible. I partook in numerous extra-curricular activities during high school. During adolescence, I became obsessed with war, reading every history or novel about war that I could find. I spent hours on an early-morning paper route, daydreaming I was a victorious war hero.

During the late ’50s and ’60s, my family was actively involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. So much so, that we had crosses burned in our yard by ardent Christian KKK supremacists. An early girlfriend dumped me, because I worshiped an idol of the Virgin Mary. Speaking of girlfriends, I had many, but when you throw up on them while drunk, you hardly get to first-base, much less hit a grand slammer!

Off to college in Cincinnati I went, where I was again an over-achiever, becoming involved in radical left-wing politics as an SDS member of student government. I also was executive editor of the student newspaper and ran the student theatre, all the while maintaining a cum laude grade-point average. I was grievously affected both by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of JFK.

I was a star in every endeavor with the exception of romantic relationships. I became convinced I could not have a decent relationship with a woman to whom I was also attracted. My longest relationship was with a wonderful girl with fullback thighs, whom I abandoned drunk at the altar.

Helmet-200Becoming increasingly suicidal, especially after flunking out of graduate school, I volunteered to go to Vietnam to have Charlie do what I was too cowardly to do, kill myself. Despite my best efforts to die, I survived Vietnam, including the brutal Tet Offensive, and on April 4, 1968, returned to the USA, landing in Washington, DC about three hours after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Washington was in flames just like Vietnam had been that I left 9,000 miles behind. I lost more hope when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, followed by the police brutality in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.

I had gotten married two days before I flew to Vietnam in 1967, because my then casual girlfriend, another nice girl with thunder-thighs, was pregnant. I was so convinced I would die a hero’s death in Vietnam, I couldn’t conceive I’d have to face the reality of a family. Nevertheless, I survived despite myself, and after we had a second daughter, largely due to my resentment and rage, we were divorced.

In 1972, I went to New York to marry a second wife and to make a career in the theater as an actor and director — instead, I got sober, a most propitious deal!

I spent 2003-2005 in a second combat zone as an unarmed peace keeper in Sri Lanka. A volunteer Red Cross Mental Health worker at Ground Zero, I assisted first responders and families of victims for several weeks after 9/11.

I’ve stayed sober through two additional divorces and the ordeal of a son from my third marriage, who spent 10 years in and out of prison, psyche wards and rehabs, but who, gratefully, shares recovery with me today. Currently, I deal with the vicissitudes of the aging process and a nation that becomes more fascist with each passing war.

In addition to Severe Alcohol Use Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have been diagnosed with three other DSM V psychiatric diagnoses: Bi-Polar I Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Nevertheless, I’ve never picked up the first drink again, all the while dealing with my still at times unmanageable issues of seething resentment and raging anger.

I’m not the only one.

The Angriest Sober Person in AA

Earlier, I mentioned Stanley, the raging alcoholic who died drunk. Well, during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, I knew another raging alcoholic, Marty O’Farrell. Marty was a successful public relations and commercial film producer in New York City, who had a horrid family background. Abandoned by his mother, he was raised by a violent, alcoholic father. Marty married a nurse with a small son, and they had two children. The step-son at age 11 died in a freak accident, when their cat jumped on the lid of a hope chest in which he was hiding. It closed, locked tight, and he suffocated. Marty and his wife’s relationship did not survive that tragedy.

Marty would rant and rave apoplectically at meetings in mid-town Manhattan. He was known as “the angriest sober person in AA.” Nevertheless, he never drank. People tolerated him with love and compassion.

I hadn’t seen Marty for ten, maybe fifteen years, when I ran into him at a mid-town Manhattan meeting in the early ’90s. He was as cool and calm as a gentle sea breeze over Hawaii. I barely recognized him due to the smile lines upon his aging, serene face.

“Marty,” I queried, “What happened to the angriest sober person in AA?”

He smiled, holding up two fingers, “Two open-heart surgeries!”

We chatted. He related he was in full retirement, writing poetry, spending time with his grandchildren. Both of his adult children followed him into recovery. He died, knowing he had successfully broken the virulent chain of addiction in his family, a fulfilled and grateful elder.

Conclusion

Meditation-200Marty’s story is extremely powerful for me — sometimes destiny plays hardball. We either change, or we suffer the consequences!

I’ve meditated mostly off and on throughout my recovery, but for the last year I have made a concerted effort to meditate twice daily. Amazing, It Works, If You Work It !~!~!

Though I still suffer from at times seething resentment and raging anger, I’m profoundly aware that both the duration, as well as the incidents of obsessive resentments and explosive outrages have lessened considerably. I’m increasingly able to “pause when agitated,” allowing myself to Just Calm Down. This was a poster, the first thing I saw on the wall of an Alano Club in Jackson, Mississippi, when I attended a meeting shortly after one of my worst rages, while visiting my family. I’m far from perfection today, but I’m aware of appreciable and steady progress.

One of the practices I do, when I become aware of mounting frustration or irritation, is to pause and take several deep breaths, saying to myself a phrase that was ubiquitous among soldiers in Vietnam, “Don’t Mean Nothing!” over and over and over again.

I could be like Stanley, choosing to drink behind my resentment and rage, or I can remember Marty, staying sober despite my resentment and rage. It is my sincere hope that, like Marty, I die sober, satisfied that I too have broken the chain of addiction in my family, while experiencing a most bountiful life in recovery


About the Author, Thomas B.

Sober from his primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 — preferably by the case lot — since October 14, 1972, Thomas is grateful for the full life he has experienced in recovery for over 43 years. He’s been active at the group level throughout his recovery and in 1978 was the co-chair of the first New York City Young Peoples Conference. He is a co-founder (with his wife, Jill) and current GSR of Portland, Oregon’s Beyond Belief group. Retired from a 30-year career in addiction treatment, he and a fellow Vietnam Veteran colleague, Vince Treanor, were instrumental in establishing the correlation between addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the 1980s.

He’s been an active participant on AA Agnostica since early in 2012 and has had the following articles published: 

He and his wife, Jill, live in gainful retirement on disability in Seaside, Oregon with their dog Kiera, and two cats, Savannah and Elsa, writing and helping to expand secular AA throughout Oregon.

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  1. Tom August 15, 2017 at 9:22 pm - Reply

    “Anger, cooling the flame” by Thich Nat Han provided a very simple solution for my anger.

  2. Harveynob November 4, 2015 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    The benefits of successfully dealing with anger include serenity, self-confidence, healthier relationships and recovery. It’s not a one-shot deal, but a process that continues throughout our lives.

  3. joseph.f October 28, 2015 at 11:09 am - Reply

  4. John L. October 27, 2015 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    Great qualification! and with a moral to boot. (Or is my use of “qualification” dated? Here in Boston people say “talk”, but not “qualification”.) I, too, have a fierce temper, which can express itself in anger, or in saying things that are cruel and inappropriate. I’ve had to train myself, as best I can, to hesitate and think things through, rather than immediately expressing my anger, resentment, or irritation. And I remember those wise words of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “Some things don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

  5. Larry K October 26, 2015 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    Great E,S and H! So much I relate to. I feel less alone reading this.

  6. Daniel October 26, 2015 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Years in the program has taught me I cannot control my emotions but I can control my reaction to a problem. My problem is not the problem itself ,its my reaction to it. Working the principals in my life tells me I am not responsible for my first thought but I am responsible for my first action. Nothing has to be dealt with immediately, that critical email can be answered tomorrow after some thought,the anger brought on by something my wife said or did can be responded after a time of reflection.

    The definition in the big book of a spiritual experience fits me,I have had a profound alteration in my reaction towards life and all my relationships have improved. I think the most important tool for me in the program is sponsorship, when meeting regularly with him his question is always do you have any unresolved conflicts in you relationships and if I do what am going to do about them, the action I take to get the conflicts resolved helps to curtail any potential resentments.

    Cheers Daniel

  7. Christopher G October 25, 2015 at 9:21 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Thomas, for sharing your experience regarding this topic which plagues us all at different times and for different reasons.

    I was raised to be quiet, seen but not heard, mild mannered and polite. But I could only stuff my negative feelings for so long before they had to vent in outbursts at others or become severely depressed and medicate them with substance or behavioral abuse.

    Nothing better typifies the definition of raging anger than the 1930s definition of the word “brainstorm”. Commonly thought of today as putting heads, minds or thoughts together to come up with a novel idea or solution, the archaic version is much more revealing and says much about Bill W’s choice of the words “the grouch and the brainstorm were not for us”, to be included in the original text of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    Taken from the 1937 Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, World Syndicate Publishing Company of Cleveland, Ohio and New York, N.Y., it defines brainstorm thusly:

    1) Brain storm. In pathology, a period when there is an abnormally rapid breaking down of brain cells, resulting in violent derangement of the mind.

    Quite a difference in the language of today, eh?

    Once again, thanks for your story and experience. And, yes, it is very much a meeting…..in print and online. Still looking forward to seeing you in Salem or Portland again.

  8. Roger C October 25, 2015 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    An excellent article, Thomas.

    I don’t know if it destroys alcoholics more than anything else, as is written in the Big Book, but resentment has certainly played a devastating role in my own life and alcoholism.

    Having had the pleasure of seeing you – and meeting your wife Jill – here in Hamilton and Toronto just a few weeks ago, I am forever impressed with your commitment to sharing the message and practising the principles learned in sobriety on a day to day basis.

    Thank you for your honesty in sharing your experience, strength and hope as well as the skill in which you did that in this article today, my friend.

  9. Kaz October 25, 2015 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    < p align="justify">Can’t say I was ever tempted to fall of the wagon because of anger or resentment. Saint Bill said and wrote a lot of things that don’t make sense if looked at critically. One of my favs has always been that a ‘real alcoholic’ can’t stay sober unless he has some sort of deep spiritual experience.< \p>

  10. John S October 25, 2015 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    Wow, this is really good stuff and I can relate so well to Thomas. I had a terrible explosive temper all my life and throughout my drinking years though I was never violent. Any fights were me getting punched and falling down or as Thomas experienced, the other person seeing the insanity in me and getting the hell out of the way. What scared them was probably the out of control rage that would just pour out of me.

    I’ve been sober since the day that I first walked into my first AA meeting some 27 years ago. I attribute that to the people in AA who cared about me, and also the fear I had for the nightmare that I lived. I’ve been locked up more times than I care to remember but only for overnight stays. The last time, I was looking at six months so things were getting serious. I just couldn’t stand that my out of control life and out of control drinking would eventually get me some jail time. That was really a motivating factor.

    When I did my fourth step and fifth step, I could see that I was a lot like my father, who was also full of rage and anger. He like Thomas was a Vietnam Vet at the very same time in 1968. When I did my fourth and fifth steps it was the first time that I looked at my father in the context of time, the time from the insanity of war to somehow functioning in a family. For what he had to deal with, he did pretty well. I totally am at peace with him and was when he died.

    I understand where my anger comes from. It’s from fear and depression, but it is no longer debilitating. I don’t lose control. I think I only threw something once in the last year. Telephones are my victims when I get pissed, I throw them across the room. This sounds pretty awful. Please don’t fear me. I’ve improved a great deal. 🙂

    The message that I get from Thomas is that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. I remember maybe over a year ago, I was at a meeting listening to a young veteran from the Iraq war who suffered from PTSD and depression, and he was beating himself up for not working some step well enough. He thought that if he could just do a better fourth step or whatever, he would be better. That just about broke my heart. I remember talking to him after the meeting to assure him that he was just fine. Hell, he was sober and being honest about himself.

    So, I guess the lesson is just don’t drink, no matter what. Even if your ass falls off, just pick it up and carry your ass to a meeting. A kind lady told me just that at my very first AA meeting. It’s good advice.

    Thank you Thomas for a very honest and well written essay on this topic.

  11. bob k October 25, 2015 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    Well, that was riveting!!!

    Even among those claiming great diligence in having “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings,” there may remain severe anger and resentment. Others are quite serene upon arrival. We are NOT all the same.

    My paternal grandfather got messed up by WWI, and then further by a serious industrial accident. He was a rage-oholic who got his painkillers at the liquor store. My father was determined to NEVER become like this sad, angry man, but he became just like him. Although dad achieved sobriety in AA, outbursts of rage kept him from the “Promised Land” of serenity. The eruptions became infrequent but memorable, but there was no return to drinking.

    As a dying man, he became enveloped in a great calm that we found a bit distressing.

    It’s a comfort to me that we can fall far short of the ideal, and yet remain sober.

    Thanks for such a personal, and marvelously written autobiographical essay.

  12. Oren October 25, 2015 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Thanks for the excellent article, Thomas. It’s very interesting to hear from someone of roughly my own generation, both in terms of age (I just turned 72), and of recovery (last drink for me in January, 1973). A lot of parallels in our lives, including a Detroit connection, years of counseling work in the field, running (jogging, in my case), and of course, continuing work on anger and depression. However, I marvel at the intensity of your life experiences. I’m not sure that I would have had the toughness that has helped you survive–but your story has me reflecting on my own, with gratitude. As they say around the tables, “That’s how it works.”

    You have stimulated me to revisit the subject of resentment, and its difference from, but relationship to anger. Even the etymology of the word is revealing: “re-sent” = “feel again” (and again, and again, again…). This has a direct bearing on some issues that are very active in my current life. I feel like I’ve been to a really good meeting.

    Thanks again,

    Oren

  13. Steve K. October 25, 2015 at 7:47 am - Reply

    I really appreciate the honesty of this article. As someone who struggles with anger and resentment in recovery and its negative consequences I strongly identify. I too suffer with co-ocurring disorders but realise that alcohol is not the answer to my difficulties in life and will only worsen things for myself, as well as others.

    I, like you, have done lots of inventory work and engaged in therapy, but my self-knowledge doesn’t seem to prevent me from damaging relationships with my anger. Recovery principles do help me from continuing to indulge in resentments and acting out on them, and so often mitigate negative consequences. They also help me to take responsibility for my actions and make amends when appropriate, which quite often goes along way with others I’ve hurt or offended.

    I struggle with meditating but may have to make more of an effort to do so in future! ?

    Thanks for sharing your experience, strength and hope Thomas, it’s very much appreciated.

    Steve K.

    • Thomas B October 25, 2015 at 8:45 am Reply

      Thanks Steve. As I mentioned in my reply to Lance below, it’s only been within the last number of years that I have been able to stop shaming myself whenever I’m not perfectly calm and lose it. I am more able to accept the reality that I am a flawed, imperfect human being, and like you, able to take responsibility for my behavior.

      I have found an app, Insight Timer, that is most useful to help me meditate. It has some 500-plus guided meditations from folks all over the world. I’m also able not to judge myself nearly as much when I become distracted by “monkey mind” and find myself not paying attention to the guided meditation. My willingness just to imperfectly take the timeout to attempt a meditative state has yielded in my experience most worthy results. As the old Nike commercial says, “Just Do It.”

  14. Lance B. October 25, 2015 at 7:28 am - Reply

    Thank you, Thomas. If no one else suggests a topic at our meeting in Montana this morning, I shall choose RESENTMENT and base my introduction around your article as well as today’s reading in “Beyond Belief”. In lucky serendipity, they reinforce each other today. The other consistent supporter of our secular meeting and I both were in VietNam during TET and so will find common ground with your story.

    My parents were devoted to their children and displayed no overt rage. The only time I can ever remember getting my Mothers’ goat concluded with her chasing me around the living room coffee table with a fly swatter for perhaps 60 seconds before retiring in embarrassment. My Father, never. Though as he was dying my Mother commented that she had never before known how angry he had always been about his childhood environs. Thus my trained response to most situations is thinking it over before taking any actions. And as a result, I too have never been in a fist fight.

    Rages for me have happened when I’m disrespected in an AA meeting. I simply say thank you, stop talking and, on one recent occasion, left. And occasionally when I get an opinion about how someone else should act, and thus develop a justified resentment which causes me trouble until I can remember they are just another person doing their best despite acting poorly.

    Generally my problem is that I overvalue my own importance and if humility could be achieved, I’d not feel the sense of rage which occurs. And to carry that feeling into the next day to become a resentment is usually avoidable, though it might fester for a few days when I see the offender in another meeting.

    Our meetings are all small–always 20 or fewer people. And most of the people are regulars. I and several others attend almost 50 percent of the 10 weekly meetings conducted in this city and 20 in our district. We must get along and generally do. All except the Sunday morning secular meeting normally use both the serenity prayer and Matthew 6, 9-13. Once in a while the chairperson will suggest closing with the responsibility pledge out of respect for my opinions.

    Best wishes to the groups in Oregon which I’ll plan to visit next time I go west for warmer weather. I actually have attended one meeting at the little yellow house in Seaside several years ago. At the time it just seemed like a normal AA meeting which required me to say things which did not ruffle anyone’s feathers. I was well practiced.

    • Thomas B October 25, 2015 at 8:36 am Reply

      Thanks so much, Lance, and welcome home. I find it significant that the most consistent supporters of your secular AA meeting in Montana are both Vietnam Vets — “welcome home,” as trite as that may sound these days. I know my agnosticism/atheism about an all knowing, all loving, all forgiving god took some powerful body blows as a result of my experiences in Vietnam. During Tet an orphanage operated by French/Vietnamese nuns that my battalion supported in Ah Nhon, Vietnam west Qui Nhon was caught in a brutal crossfire between VC/NVA forces and the ROK Division. A number of children whom we had given a Christmas party for several weeks earlier were killed and others severely wounded. I was most upset about this and sought out the counsel of a Catholic Chaplin. When I remarked that perhaps the kids were in a better place, he had to “counsel” me that if any of them had not been baptized then they would not be in heaven. Perhaps limbo, but definitely not heaven. I not so gently informed him that if his god was so punitive of innocents, I definitely wanted nothing to do with him.

      I accept that as a result of the combat I experienced that my central nervous system has been inexorably changed. My difficulties with rage today stem mostly from how my CNS was altered by intense flight/fight/freeze responses during the trauma I experienced in Vietnam combat. I, and other vets, as well as ACAs and others who experience trauma, meet the criteria that Bill writes about in How It Works, “There are those too who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”

      Most of the progress I have made the last several years in regards to the sometimes still seething resentments and explosive rages I on occasion have has been in my being able to accept and forgive myself as a flawed human being even though sober, enabling me to cease expecting myself to be perfect and mercilessly beating myself up about this reality.

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