Photograph by Robert Hickerson

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

The author dreams of losing her temper.

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Dec 18 2017, 2:30pm

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

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