On the seventeen-hour return trip from France, my husband and I had one of our typical fights. It continued in the baggage-claim area. “You always think you’re right,” I shouted. “Well, you’re not!” He walked away, leaving me with our two toddlers and four oversized suitcases. I waited an hour, thinking he’d come back. He didn’t.
The kids and I eventually got home, where my husband was sitting watching TV. As I started to speak, he interrupted me: “Give me your word that you’ll never raise your voice to me in public again.” I apologized but refused to make a promise I likely wouldn’t keep.
“My dear wife,” my husband said, “do you think there haven’t been times when I’ve wanted to haul off and slap you? Times when I’ve been so frustrated with you that I could actually feel your skin under my palm, and imagine how good it would feel, not to hurt you but to shut you up? But I made a promise to myself when I was eighteen that I would never lay a hand on a woman. That’s a promise I live by.”
I was shocked. In our fourteen tumultuous years together, he had never laid a hand on me, nor made a threatening gesture, nor even called me names. I, on the other hand, have hurled many insults that I’ve later deeply regretted. I’d had no idea that his refusal to retaliate was due not to an innate personality trait, but to his self-control.
San Mateo, California
My husband and I were moving to a new town in Ohio and bought a house in a predominantly white neighborhood. I thought nothing of it until the first time I went to vote. As I stepped up to the table, the elderly female poll worker took one look at me and said, “You’re in the wrong precinct.”
How could she know that without checking for my name in the ledger? Then it came to me: because black people did not live on this side of town. I was so angry my hands began to shake, and I grasped the edge of the table. I wanted to turn it over on top of her.
Seeing my barely contained rage, a younger male poll worker grabbed the ledger from her and asked for my name. I only vaguely heard him, since I was thinking about smashing the woman’s face in and my subsequent phone call to my attorney and whether I could make bail in time to get in to work later that afternoon.
“Ma’am, please give me your name.”
The desperation in his voice got my attention. I told him my name through clenched teeth.
“Sign right here.”
I glared at the old woman, who started to say something.
Say it, I thought, and I’ll stab you with this pen.
She said nothing. I signed my name, took the card, and walked to the booth to vote.
Fort Myers, Florida
Growing up, I was expected to participate in competitive sports. My parents said it would help me develop into a well-rounded adult; the unspoken reason was that they didn’t want overweight children.
Never athletically gifted, I looked for sports where team members wouldn’t depend on me very much. I signed up for the track team in my freshman year of high school, though I hated running and never felt like I belonged on the team. One day, while lagging behind the group, I ran into two team members who were skipping practice and going to the mall. I went with them, and we gulped fruit punch at the mall snack shop.
On the walk back to school the girls made themselves throw up. After watching them do it, I reluctantly tried it too. Gagging myself brought tears to my eyes, but no results. Then, on my fourth try, red liquid gushed out of my mouth and nose. The girls clapped. I was part of their group now.
As the track season progressed, throwing up became easier. I started to look forward to our secret weekly ritual. For the first time, I felt in control of my body.
By the end of the year I was purging alone. Throughout high school, college, and medical school, I used this ritual to feel in control. Fourteen years, eighteen cavities, and four therapists later, I’m learning that real self-control means giving up my secret behavior.
My lover and I are trying to end our affair. We agree to stop meeting, but two days later we’re in his truck, my pants around my ankles, his face buried between my legs.
Three days later I tell him I think my husband knows about us. My husband was crying in bed this morning while I pretended to sleep. We agree again to stop seeing each other, believing my husband doesn’t deserve an unfaithful wife and a false friend.
Two weeks later my husband goes on a weeklong business trip. For the first time, my lover and I spend the entire night together.
It was a hot July afternoon, and my mother, my daughter, my son Soren, and I were on a cross-country car trip. When we set out from the motel that day, our next destination was Niagara Falls. We had been driving about a half-hour when Soren, then eight years old, asked for a drink. Forgetful and easily distracted, he hadn’t thought to get a drink before we left. I told him I would not stop for him and that he needed to learn to think ahead.
After we got to Niagara Falls, we found a drinking fountain, but it was broken. I refused to buy Soren a drink. Our sight-seeing was ruined by his constant complaints about thirst. Back on the road I finally agreed to stop at a Burger King, where I made him drink from the tap in the bathroom.
As we traveled on for the next two weeks, Soren continually complained about being thirsty. Then came the uncharacteristic bed-wetting, headaches, and lethargy. My mother recognized the symptoms of juvenile diabetes. When he was diagnosed in a Chicago hospital, I cried uncontrollably.
My mother was a busy woman. She taught first grade, did housework, cooked meals, packed lunches, gardened, and decorated the house. She had sewing circles and book clubs, directed a musical, and was PTA president. She planned events and activities with a fierce efficiency. Every morning she had me drink a jelly jar of tap water, then placed me on the toilet and waited impatiently for my bowels to move.
More often than not, I crapped in my pants at nursery school instead.
Seal Beach, California
It sounds pretty crazy to take a knife, or a paper clip, or a razor blade and cut yourself and say it makes you feel better. A lot of people don’t understand how the pain of living can be so bad that cutting brings relief. They don’t know that each drop of blood holds a thousand unshed tears, a thousand moments of unspoken rage.
If you could cry or get angry, you would. You aren’t stupid. But to express emotion is to risk the wrath of those who cause you pain. Nothing is worth that. And so you cut.
You cut to control your pain, to wash away the rage. You cut when you choose, unlike the abuse, which happens without warning. Cutting belongs to you. The more you keep it secret, the more control you have.
I know all of this because I used to cut. Nobody knew. I was married twenty-three years before I told my husband and learned to stop. I’m good at keeping secrets.
And yet, to heal, some secrets must be told. I breathe and lift the razor off my arm and speak the truth. That is the real control.
Preparing breakfast for my boys one Sunday morning, I saw that an egg had slipped off the counter and tumbled to the floor without my noticing. How odd, I thought. I didn’t even hear it splatter.
The following Sunday at breakfast, I discovered that, once again, an egg had fallen to the floor. That day I wrote in my journal: “What is it I need to pay more attention to that’s in danger of breaking?”
Two months later, getting ready for a business trip to Boston, I felt dizzy. I didn’t want to miss my plane, so I continued my morning ritual. The dizziness persisted, accompanied by a lack of feeling in my hands. I recalled that “numbness in the extremities” is one of the signs of a heart attack. When I was a boy, my father had dropped dead of a heart attack while we were playing ball.
A half-hour later I was in the emergency room, where doctors confirmed I was having a heart attack. A month later I underwent a quadruple bypass.
The two dropped eggs, I believe, were a divine message. If not for them, I would have flown to Boston, in complete control, and most likely been dead on arrival.
Totowa, New Jersey
I’d always considered myself a model of self-control. I didn’t eat too much, drink too much, or spend too much. I never called in sick at work or let my finances get out of hand. I was punctual, reliable, and always there for friends and family.
Then I met my boyfriend. Suddenly all those things that once had been important now seemed minor in comparison to him. I left my husband and our giant house, and gave up my possessions, my security, and my friends. My orderly existence quickly vanished.
I don’t regret a thing; I’ve become a new person in the process.
My boyfriend, though, has a lot more self-control. He is unable to leave his wife for me.
I was caught scaling the chain-link fence, trying to escape, and was taken back to the treatment room in Ward C and wrapped in cold, wet sheets that made me shiver. Lying tightly bound on a gurney, I devised a new plan to win my freedom: I decided to exercise self-control, follow all the rules, and do exactly what the nurses said.
Miss Stern came into the room to check on me. “Thought about what you did today?” she asked.
“I really messed up,” I said, fighting the urge to cry. “I learned a hard lesson, and I’m actually feeling better, more calm.”
“Is that so?” she said. “Well, you’re still not getting out of here tonight. It’s back to my ward for a while, until you straighten up.”
It was all I could do not to scream. But my new plan gave me hope as I steeled myself for the consequences of my failed escape: another round of shock treatments, more meds, and “constant observation.”
I passed the time playing double solitaire with Suzy, another patient on the ward, and smoking endless cigarettes lit by student nurses. Suzy was sixteen and had been there for two and a half years. Whenever she moved “up” a floor — a sign of improvement in a patient’s condition — something always landed her back in Ward C.
On my last day in C, Suzy gave me her grandfather’s playing cards in a zippered oxblood leather case. I cried, telling her I’d see her again, that she’d be moving up, too. I knew I’d never return to Ward C.
In Ward B we could light our own cigarettes, pick our own clothes, and shower and dress unobserved. It was hard to stay out of trouble, but my resolve was strong. After my eighteenth birthday, with twenty-eight shock treatments under my belt and a “clean record” for three months, I was told that the board was considering releasing me by summer. I knew then I could make it.
Judith A. Fisher
It was Christmas afternoon, and we were driving back from my sister’s house, where we’d gone to see what Santa had brought my niece and nephew. I was twelve. Suddenly a car veered onto our side of the road. My father swerved to avoid it, and we smashed into a telephone pole. The other car kept going.
Mom was pinned beneath metal and glass in the passenger seat, whimpering, “Daddy, oh, Daddy. Mama’s hurt.” My father was silent, his head resting against the steering wheel. My little brother Sam cried softly beside me. Missy, my three-year-old niece, had vanished from her perch up front, between my parents. Frigid air and whirling snowflakes came in through a hole in the windshield.
I slid open the side door of our van and sunk up to my thighs in snow. I found my niece, who’d flown through the windshield and was now crying in a snow pile. Incredibly, she didn’t look hurt. We were near the Kronholms’ house, where my older brother’s friend Eddy lived. I trudged toward their house and pounded on the door.
When Eddy saw what had happened, he bolted out and brought back Sam and Missy. Eddy’s mom wrapped us together in an afghan and plunked us in front of the TV. I could hear voices outside and see the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles. Special equipment was brought in to cut my mother free. My older sister arrived and told us Dad had regained consciousness and was talking. Later Mrs. Kronholm told us our mother would be OK.
But Mom wasn’t OK. For a long time she couldn’t walk, and when she did it was with a walker. Because of her immobility, she gained weight and developed diabetes. Over the years that disease claimed her toe, her foot, then her limbs.
On the day of the accident I never cried. I just saw that something awful had happened, and I did what I could to fix it. Alone in bed that night, however, I finally broke down and sobbed.
Highland Park, Illinois
I used to lash out verbally and physically whenever I felt someone was trying to take advantage of me, but over time I became more easygoing. I thought I had my anger under control, until my son turned two.
A typical curious toddler, my son pushes the boundaries of my tolerance. I’m not the patient mom I wish I were. I lose my temper frequently and struggle to keep from harming him. My son wrests control from me daily, leaving me feeling helpless and angry. Though I’ve never been physically violent with him, I know that every angry roar leaves a scar. Controlling my rage is the greatest test I’ve ever faced.
Molly Maslin Arbogast
My parents gave up a conventional middle-class existence for a back-to-the-land lifestyle. They eschewed jobs and a steady income and embraced poverty as the human ideal. I was the poorest child in my public elementary school and often felt humiliated by our perpetual lack of money. If I complained, my father, who spent his time writing in small notebooks, would ask me, “Would you want me to work in a factory?”
Having learned that many of my classmates’ parents worked in factories, I always responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
In high school I began to feel differently. My penniless home life made me both interesting to my peers and eligible for college grants. Like my parents, I began to disavow the “rat race,” and wasn’t shy about asking friends for rides, a place to stay, even money.
After graduate school, I moved back home and worked at low-paying jobs that I didn’t take seriously. I showed up late or drunk and clowned around, when I didn’t call in sick. My lack of self-discipline irked my father. But it was impossible for me to take his lectures seriously, having witnessed his own self-indulgent work habits. He was the one who’d taught me that earning lots of money was a sign of poor character and lack of virtue.
Years later I finally realized the satisfaction that comes from disciplined, reliable work. Still I struggle to balance work with my creative impulses. For example, I am writing this instead of doing a freelance job that would help pay my bills.
Jeffrey had no self-control. A fourth-grader in the emotionally disturbed (ED) class at our school, he was often escorted to the “time-out” room, where he would sit at a desk with no schoolwork and nothing to read. As school secretary I sat on the other side of the partition from Jeffrey while he spent many hours there. Among his infractions were screaming obscenities, throwing chairs, tipping over a bookcase, and savagely kicking or hitting other kids. He once hit Mrs. Olson, an elderly cafeteria aide, and even kicked a hole in the wall of the time-out room.
It was hard to connect the violent Jeffrey I saw on paper with the subdued boy brought regularly to our office. When completely alone, Jeffrey did pretty well, though he got more restless as the day wore on. Every few minutes he would ask to go to the bathroom or to sharpen his pencil or if it was time for lunch. I, too, was eager for lunchtime, because it offered relief from his constant interruptions.
One day Jeffrey was brought to the office with Ryan, another ED kid. Two or more ED students in our office was a bad idea, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped. The principal had to make a trip to the emergency room with a teacher who had been poked in the eye with a pencil, so I was alone with the boys.
They had a blast. I caught Jeffrey on his back tossing his chair in the air with his feet. Then they ran back and forth between the time-out room and the hallway, making rude comments and noises. They slammed doors and crawled around on all fours. My attempts to restore order were met with whoops, obscenities, and guffaws.
When the principal returned, I told her about my afternoon with Jeffrey, and her response chilled me: “That child should never have been allowed to live,” she said. “He was born addicted to heroin. He’s going to grow up to kill somebody, somebody who doesn’t deserve to be killed.”
Two years and three months can be a long time to live on a paltry Peace Corps stipend in a Central American town. You are slightly better off than your neighbors, but only slightly. It takes self-control to buy shampoo instead of new shoes or alcohol. It takes even more to give up wearing your favorite clothes and buy cheap, ill-fitting ones in order to fit in. And it takes everything you have not to scream at the men who make sexual innuendoes every time you pass them on the street.
The moment you’re back in the United States, however, self-control goes out the window. You can’t resist buying high-heeled shoes and name-brand purses, not to mention replacing the Peace Corps wardrobe you accumulated with pricey American goods. Instead of a monthly stipend, you live off credit cards and savings.
Then you think about the friend you made back in Central America who struggled to sustain her family on an insufficient paycheck, often having to decide whether to buy a blanket to keep her daughters warm or meat from the butcher to serve to guests — like you.
Spotting a pizza crust in a sidewalk trash can, I surreptitiously picked it up and began eating.
“Why are you eating that?” a woman leaving Bloomingdale’s asked. “That’s trash. Let me buy you lunch if you’re hungry.”
Deeply embarrassed, I kept walking.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have the money to buy pizza. I just couldn’t admit I was hungry and allow myself to eat a whole slice. By eating other people’s scraps when I thought no one was watching, I could fool myself into thinking I wasn’t really eating.
At five-foot-four and ninety pounds, I worried about gaining weight and was proud of my ability to say no to food. After the incident in front of Bloomingdale’s, I vowed to make a change: next time I would not get caught.
I had a bone fragment in my foot that made walking uncomfortable, so I decided to have surgery to remove it. Before the procedure, the anesthesiologist wanted to knock me out or at least give me a shot to relax me. I declined. They’d given me a local anesthetic. What was the big deal?
“The doctor and I have already talked about it,” I told her. I wanted to watch the operation.
“I’ll be standing by, just in case you start to feel anxious,” she offered.
The surgeon cut into my foot and gripped a bit of white bone in a gleaming pair of tweezers. He held it up for me to see before stitching me up.
“You’re very brave,” said the anesthesiologist.
I could have told her that I was just doing as my father had taught me. When I was a little girl, he told me the ancient tale about the Spartan boy who stole a fox to eat. A soldier approached, and the boy hid the fox beneath his tunic. Though the fox, trying to escape, tore through the boy’s belly, the boy did not reveal his pain to the soldier.
“Let’s see if you can be like the Spartan boy,” my father said to me one afternoon. “If you cry out, then you’re a coward.”
Then he held the glowing tip of his cigarette to my arm. I can’t remember how much it hurt or how long he held it against my skin. I only remember that I was very brave.
My mother raised me by herself in postwar Germany. I grew up ashamed of my father, a child molester who’d been caught in the act and imprisoned. Compounding my shame were Mutti’s reminders that I looked like my father. This resemblance seemed greater when I disappointed her, so I worked hard to be accepted and loved.
I mastered sports and schoolwork and pretended to need nothing. To spare Mutti worry, I suppressed my hunger when we had nothing to eat. When I scraped my knee, I pretended to feel no pain. When a boy tried to suffocate me in a snowbank, I threw him off and walked away without a word, denying him the satisfaction of my tears.
I didn’t cry even when we had to leave everything we owned behind to escape from East Germany. Later I uttered no sound during three abortions performed without pain medication. Nor did I scream during two natural childbirths.
By numbing myself to pain, I also made myself numb to joy, grief, and compassion. At the age of fifty I realized I didn’t know who I was. After Mutti died and my children left home and my marriage ended, I began digging through the layers of repressed feeling in search of the original “me.”
One of my children wants for nothing and tries only to please others; the other fulfills his every desire. One day they both will struggle, as I have, to find a middle way.
“How about if I bend your arms back till they break?” my friend asks his six-year-old daughter.
When this man was nineteen, he tried to get a vasectomy but was turned down because he was too young. He knew more then about his problems with self-control.
Now the father of four, he verbally abuses his children. If at nineteen he’d been allowed to control his future, things might have been better for everyone.
I started adulthood as a Southern Baptist missionary bent on saving souls. Now my walls were covered with pictures of Indian saints, the very idols I had tried to rescue people from as a missionary. When my parents came to visit and saw the pictures, their hopes for me collapsed.
“It was that professor of yours who messed you up!” my father shouted, referring to the most conservative professor at the small Southern Baptist university I’d attended. “He told you to find your own faith and not just listen to your parents.”
I heard shock and pain in my father’s voice. For the first time in my life, I had nothing to say. I could have screamed, Asshole! or, How dare you? or, What do you know? Instead I mentally reached out to him with an unspoken feeling of love.
“You never listened to me,” he continued, losing steam, “and . . . and . . . I just love you so much.”
We ran to each other and hugged.
It starts with a leaching of color from the world. Then I burst into tears for no reason. I can’t figure out what’s wrong: I have a job I like, a nice house, a good relationship. Nothing needs fixing.
I meditate, hike, do aikido, eat more vegetables. Even so, the darkness worsens. The negative voice in my head gets louder and nastier. It splits and multiplies. One voice hurls insults; another suggests ways of damaging my body; a third chants, Die.
Shut up, I tell it. Go away.
At work I complete tasks slowly and struggle to make sense of the words on the computer screen. At aikido I watch with detachment as my body goes through the motions. I have to concentrate just to stay in touch with reality, to keep from finding myself holding a half-empty bottle of painkillers.
Instead I burn myself. I think of it as stitching myself to reality. The pain confirms that this is my hand, my arm, my leg, my foot. I tell the voices that these small crumbs are all they’re getting. I’m not giving them the feast they demand. I am still in control.
The burning buys me a few more months. Eventually a psychiatrist prescribes psychoactive drugs, something I have wanted to avoid. I wonder if I will live long enough for my brain chemistry to find a balance.
A therapist tells me that self-injury is considered an impulse-control disorder, indicating a lack of self-control. I wonder.
Palo Alto, California
As a thirteen-year-old girl in postwar England, I was expected to join the national effort to restore the country to normal. At home my family expected perfect manners and outstanding academic achievement. Rewards came only with self-sacrifice and discipline.
In my bedroom I would pleasure myself, fantasizing about lovers copulating in train compartments or meadows. But just before I reached orgasm, I would force myself to stop, leave my warm bed, and go mend my punctured bike tire or practice the piano — anything to blot out the disgraceful sensual gratification.
I’d been raised to believe that pleasure was to be deferred, and that a girl saved herself until marriage. Only then could her husband give her “the great experience.” Even after I married, however, I couldn’t surrender to pleasure. I became expert at faking climax. When our eighteen-year marriage ended, my husband gave me an electric vibrator, which opened up all sorts of possibilities.
Now widowed after a more playful second marriage, I have tender feelings toward the lonely girl I once was. I sometimes imagine the life I might have enjoyed without self-imposed repression. Then I climb on my bike and feel the wind in my hair.
What kind of day I’m having depends on what I’ve eaten. Some fruit and a plain waffle? Good day. Just coffee? Great day! Chocolate and cookies? Bad day.
I’ve never been overweight. When I was fifteen, I was anorexic and weighed just a hundred pounds. Look at all those other people eating, I would think. They have no self-control. I was often lightheaded, cranky, and reclusive, but I was thin.
Sometimes I still long to feel that empty and light, to believe again that I have control.
“You’re so mature for your age,” my Sunday-school teacher told me when I was nine. I’d heard this many times before and thrived on adults’ praise. I hid my quirks and oddities to please them. As a teenage girl, undaunted by the prospect of self-discipline, I considered joining the army or becoming a nun, even though I wasn’t a Catholic.
At the age of thirty-one I married a Christian doctor and settled into a fundamentalist community in rural Texas, where I felt spiritually and materially secure. Fourteen years later, despite marriage counseling and Christian therapy, I fell in love with another woman I had met at a conference. It wasn’t a complete shock; I’d had a same-sex affair in college. My marriage had been my first serious relationship with a man. Now the mother of two sons, I was ready to do anything to control my desires. Struggling with depression, I considered slamming my car into a tree at eighty miles per hour, but I was afraid I might not die.
My Christian doctor prescribed anti-depressants and suggested I go on a solitary retreat to the New Mexico mountains. There I wrote, prayed, and begged God for strength. On the third day I “came to myself,” as the parable says. I had made my decision.
I called my beloved and told her I was in love with her. That was the beginning of the happiest years of my life.
Because I’m a single woman and available men seem to be extinct in New York City, I find myself pursuing other pleasures. If I’m not eating M&M’s, it’s ice cream. If I can resist that, I love health-food chocolate bars. If I’m off solid chocolate, I drink hot chocolate. When I’m trying to cut back on sugar, I smoke cigarettes. If I’m not smoking, it’s because one of my toenails has turned black and my chest aches, and according to Eastern medicine, black toenails are a sign of bronchial inflammation. They can also be an indication of arterial blockage, and single-malt Scotch does wonders for the vascular system. When I stop drinking, I find my way back to chocolate or coffee or chai tea with honey and milk. Other than that, I’m in complete control.
New York, New York