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Photograph by Robert Hickerson

'Rage Blackouts,' a Short Essay on Losing Your Temper by Sadie Stein

Sadie Stein

The author dreams of losing her temper.

Photograph by Robert Hickerson

This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

I had spent so many years being the nicest one in my family that it was many years before I realized that, by any normal standard, I was a monster. I had always more or less assumed that everyone in the world was consumed with murderous rages and fits of physical loathing so strong they left you exhausted. I had figured they just hid it, the way I did. Or that it came out in their dreams.

Over the years, I had seen them alienate various family members and friends, get into public fights with strangers, leave girlfriends crying in bars. To say the least, it made an impression. I decided, pretty early, that just as I’d master Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teens or Edith Head’s Dress for Success!, so would I learn to control my temper.

No, “temper” sounds too good—it sounds feisty and cute, like Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man. What I mean is, I decided I would control the urge to wound. I was as prone to anger as anyone—in fact, my “rage blackouts,” as my brother calls them, in which I’d stamp my foot like a cartoon character and hiss lacerating insults at people were the stuff of legend. When anger overtakes me, I really do see red. I hate people so much in those moments that I can’t believe any other emotion is possible.

Horrible phrases come into my head fully formed. It’s just the way people describe being in battle: Everything is clear. You know just what to say. There’s no problem with finding the words; the challenge is keeping them in. In those moments, you somehow know that if you referenced that sullen checkout girl’s acne, or calmly informed a rude guy on the subway that his father hadn’t loved him, or told that unpleasant woman at a party to stop overcompensating for her second-rate education, it would ruin not just their day but maybe their week and month, too.

I hold it in, I smile through my days, and then it all comes out at night. Talking in one’s sleep is known, technically, as “somniloquy,” and is considered a type of parasomnia. In my case, it’s alarming. For in my dreams, I reenact every one of these abortive incidents, except this time, I hold nothing back. I wake up screaming so often that several boyfriends have asked me if I’m repressing a trauma. But when pressed about why I’m screaming curses, or shouting, “YOU’RE NOT EVEN WORTH HATING,” or violently punching and kicking, more often than not I’ll know exactly what I was dreaming of: the man on the subway, the checkout clerk, a fight with my mother that never took place during our phone call.

I take lots of pills to deal with this; I take sleeping pills and tranquilizers. But still my rage often wakes us both. Recently, I killed someone by placing him on a bed of ground glass. (I’m still not sure, in daylight, how this worked.) Last night, I had a dream-brawl with the whole store-full of old ladies who banged their carts into me at Zabars. “I’D KILL YOU!” I was screaming. “BUT YOU’RE TOO CLOSE TO DEATH!”

I would guess that, to the extent anyone thinks about it, people would say I’m a nice person. I try to make people feel good; I don’t like to be unkind. It takes some work to maintain this illusion; when I travel with friends, I explain I need a private room because I talk in my sleep, and I try not to drift off on planes. Once, thinking it was funny, one of my friends crept into my room on a road trip and recorded me in one of my violent night monologues. What he heard was apparently so disturbing that he crept back to his room and erased the tape.

I am told there are ways to healthfully banish one’s anger. Meditation, or exercise. Appropriate, restrained conflict. Perhaps I have no model for this in my life. And like most rebellions, it hurts me more than my parents—so if I choose to live a demonic double life, it’s no one’s business but my own. My husband wears earplugs, I’d imagine for both peaceful sleep, and waking.

This essay is part of a sub-section from the Fiction Issue about losing your temper. Check out the rest of the essays in the section:

"The Bully" by Akhil Sharma
"Rooster" by Walter Kirn
"Love Is Sadness" by David Shields
"Wrath" by Allen Pearl