Have you ever had poison ivy? It’s a miserable rash that seethes, oozes, and blisters. It spreads quickly and can even scar. A recent brush with toxic anger affected me in a similar way. Here’s how I’m handling it.

A Toxic Plant

A few years ago, my friend Heather and I went to pick some cherries. The cherry tree was surrounded by a mote of poison ivy. I saw the dangers, knew the risks, and charged ahead. The sweet red cherries were too tempting. This time, I foolishly promised myself, would be different.

It wasn’t it. Heather and I both ended up with an epic case of poison ivy. I spent weeks soaking the blisters in Epsom salt and coating them with over-the-counter creams. Nothing cooled the burning itch, which was a relentless reminder of my choice.

Poison ivy is incredibly contagious. One small patch on your skin can easily spread to your whole body, and one innocent soothing scratch puts your entire body at risk. Whatever area you touch is the next victim and no body part is safe. My left eye once swelled shut from the oozing rash.

A Toxic Person

Recently, I had a run-in with a woman named Susan. Our sons are a part of the same after-school club, and Susan leads the group. Earlier this summer, I signed up to be in charge of our annual fundraiser and it was a huge success.  We more than doubled the amount of donations we normally receive. Last week, Susan asked me to meet for coffee to talk about the fundraiser.

I thought we were going to talk about how successful the fundraiser was, and I was expecting a hearty “Thank You!” or “Way to go!” Instead, Susan yelled at me for changing the fundraiser’s location and told me that my son and I were no longer welcome to attend the club.

I left the coffee shop devastated. The other Moms in this club were some of the first women I met in Florida. They are like family to me, and Susan just cut me off from my support group.

A Contagious Toxin

Susan’s behavior towards me is also extremely contagious because I want to treat her exactly the same way she treated me. I want to humiliate her in public and cut her off from the group. I haven’t, and I won’t, but I want to. I’ve wasted precious time planning out my tirade, knowing I’ll never confront her. I selfishly want to complain to the other moms about how Susan mistreated me. I want sympathy and vindication.

Susan’s demand for me to leave isn’t the reason I left the group. I could have stayed and fought for my position, but honestly, this after school group hasn’t been working for my son or me. I’ve ignored some glaring problems for the last six months because:

Staying in a toxic relationship is easier than finding a new one.

My son and I are now in the market for a new after school program, yet I am still mourning this loss.

A Toxic Anger

I worked through this incident with my sponsor, cried, wrote about my feelings, and read a lot on the subject. I have processed the pain, yet regular reminders resurface, and a toxic anger erupts. My stomach fills with acid and my blood boils. At this point, I have to decide how much time I want to spend fighting off toxic anger and how I want to behave.

I am reminded of the poison ivy. When Heather and I went to pick the cherries, I knew the risks. When I broke out in painful blisters, I didn’t take the quick fix of scratching the rash.

Gossiping about Susan or retaliating in kind would be self-harming, just like scratching poison ivy. To heal from this, I have to set a boundary with myself. I can control what I chose to remember and how often I think about it. I can also re-frame how I look back at the incident:

  • Susan hurt my feelings and how she leads the group does not work for my son or me.
  • I empowered myself to find a group that works better for us.

Just because something itches doesn’t mean I have to scratch it.

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Pam Carver

Pam is the author of two books: Co-dependent In The Kitchen, and Find Your True Colors In 12 Steps. She's also a contributing editor for Reach Out Recovery. She's a recovery advocate who likes long walks on the beach and chocolate.


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