SMOKE: Breaking Point
Originally published: 22 October 2004
I don't know where my temper comes from. I've always considered myself reasonably happy and even though I had a pretty stressful childhood I never felt particularly angry at anyone or anything - one or two Christian Brothers and a bushel of bullies excluded, of course.
I know that I've always had this temper, from before I can even remember - my mother still relates the tale of my first birthday and my first recorded tantrum.
She'd made me a cake, you see, which was in the shape of a train. The "guests" arrived (I use the term "guests" lightly since I have no idea who they were, and I sure didn't choose them as my mates), we all sat down to the table (me in a high chair) to eat, and all was good.
Until the bastard cake came out. I was apparently obsessed with trains which was why the cake had been made in a train shape, and by all reports there was never a more thrilled one year old.
But then - out came the knife, and once my mother started cutting the cake into slices I went berserk. My mother tried to explain that the cake had to be eaten but I was having none of it - I'd just been given my first train, and nobody was going to go cutting it up.
I can't remember the outcome of that tantrum but I do know that guests had to be hastily evacuated and NASA had to be called and asked to abort the launch sequences for their intercontinental ballistic missiles, the orders for which I'd apparently faxed through from somewhere in the middle of the crowd of dead and dying.
Nobody - and I mean nobody - messes with my train cake. Just so's we're all clear about that.
When you're one year old there's no reason to be upset about much, and certainly not as upset as I seemed to get. So where the rage comes from is baffling - maybe you're born with it?
At age three there was the toilet incident, in which I was locked in the toilet for some offence. It was small - your outstretched arms could reach both walls - and was covered from floor to ceiling in garish wallpaper, which my mother had painstakingly spent days applying herself.
I don't remember what the punishment was for, but history tells us that the last thing putting me in there did was get me to calm down - by the time they came to see what the commotion was about I'd ripped most of the wallpaper off the wall, and had actually managed to wrench the toilet paper holder from the wall.
I utterly trashed that toilet. Age: three.
I have no idea where that sort of anger came from. The unfortunate thing for me is that it has never abated and my temper today is no less intense than when I was only high enough to reach my Dad's knees.
It's not something I'm proud of - I've spent most of my adult life trying to contain it. That's all very well - I've learned to keep it under control for longer - but because I hold it in more when it does come out it's savage stuff.
Fortunately it hardly ever surfaces these days - there are moments when I feel it welling but it's very rare that I'm pushed to breaking point.
The reason I'm telling you all this is because I was scrutinising a map of South Africa the other day (as one does) and spotted a familiar town about 200 kilometres inland from East London, in the Eastern Cape - a dusty shithole called Cathcart.
It's been about 20 years since I had anything to do with the town of Cathcart, and as soon as I saw it on that map a bunch of repressed memories came flooding back and I was reminded of the time my temper almost cost the life of another boy.
Remembering the episode I realised that since that day I've always been aware of the power of unchecked anger and it was at that time that I first started attempting to control my inner rage.
But first things first - what was I doing in a filthy, dusty, boiling hot Eastern Cape town in the middle of summer, 20 years ago?
Our family belonged to a Catholic order or mission which met once a year to thrash out issues of dogma and faith for a week. It was usually held in Cape Town but for some reason that year it was held in Cathcart. The order had a base there and the families all converged on Cathcart for what was one of the most boring weeks of my life.
Comparing Cathcart to Cape Town is like comparing a sweaty Mexican desert town to a Bavarian town nestled in magical alps - two more opposite places there simply couldn't be.
How it worked was that the parents of the families would have their days cut out attending seminars and discussions and goodness knows what else, while the kids - and there were millions of them (they were all Catholic families) - had activities planned throughout the week.
Those activities were always fun in Cape Town but in Cathcart there was absolutely nothing to do and we were bored out of our little minds.
We were nearing the end of our week in Cathcart and all the kids were playing outside the chapel as the sun went down. I can't remember what we were playing but at one point I became "it", whatever "it" was. I think kids had to get me or something (some kind of catch game), and that's where the problem began.
It was a crowd of them against me, and it touched a raw nerve. I already knew about bullies, having a whole bunch of them all for myself at school, and I've never enjoyed being in any situation in which it is me versus a crowd. I feel like a caged animal.
I was trying to get away and a boy caught me and for some reason he had a can of deodorant in his hand. I don't know what he was doing with it but I do know that we were on the ground and he started spraying me with it - right in my face. I yelled at him to get off me and stop, but he just laughed and carried on.
The dreaded sheet of white rose swiftly ... and breaking point arrived.
In my last few moments of reasoned thought all I could think about was stopping my tormentor and then reason left me, my strength became superhuman and I wrestled the can from the kid on top of me. And attacked the top of his head with it.
I don't remember doing it but apparently I screamed out in rage and smashed the thin edge of the deodorant can into his skull, and he dropped from me like a sack of potatoes. There was a huge commotion and somewhere amongst it I looked down and saw my hand and the can covered in blood.
Upon further inspection I discovered blood everywhere - my shirtfront and face was stained with splatterings of it.
The kid had a huge chunk of head dug out and was lying there bleeding like a stuck pig, and although I'd only hit him once I must have caught a pretty juicy spot because the blood and bits simply exploded all over the place, which was why I was covered in it.
The mother came rushing over and everyone bent over the kid, and once again I was left on the outside - lying on the ground awaiting my fate, while everyone gathered around my poor victim.
He was rushed off to hospital and came back later that night with 23 stitches in his head and a bandage, and naturally I was the little Satan in the corner who nobody wanted anything to do with.
I tell you - there are no folks more vicious than religious folks when righteous. Because it becomes about much more than your actual crime - you become a messenger of evil, an angel of death, and possibly even the ghost of Lucifer himself.
Everyone prays for you, and nothing upsets me more than when people pray for me.
I tried to justify why I had done it (I made up some bollocks about how the spray from the can was choking me), but nobody was interested. I was loathed by the parents of that family from that day on, which always made my yearly acquaintance with them strained and unnatural.
Deep down I knew I was wrong, even though I felt justified in "defending" myself. I was wrong because I had lost control and almost killed someone, and there's no amount of excuses that save you from a court of law when you do that.
I realised on that day that my temper had the potential to kill people, and since that day it has never been quite as violent.
I learned that I can't control myself when I reach breaking point, so the best thing to do is never again allow myself to reach breaking point. These days I am able to recognise when I am coming close to a no-turning-back situation, and I have yet to reach breaking point again.
But I still fear it because I know it's there, waiting to be discovered by some arsehole who should've minded his own business and left well alone.
I hope I never meet him.
All Smoked Out,