My mouth begins to dry up as I approach the Judge and raise my right hand, palm facing outward.

“Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

“I do”, I reply. As I take my seat on the witness stand, I look to my left where 17-year-old Adam is sitting, next to his lawyer, at the desk reserved for the defendant; the one who stands accused of crimes.

Adam’s face is pale, and his cheek muscles ripple from constant jaw clenching. His hands, locked together, look like he is praying, but I know better. This is his attempt to mask their shaking. As his attorney stands up to begin my questioning, Adam’s head swivels toward me and his eyes cut into mine. Eyes like dimming headlights on a wrecked car whose battery is slowly running down. Eyes which are pooling up with fear.

He has good reasons to be afraid. His ex-girlfriend, who is sitting next to her attorney, has stories to tell; horrible, violent stories accusing Adam of terrible acts: threats to kill her, confining her against her will, and rages where he slammed her against her bedroom bureau. She will portray Adam, my patient, as a violent man.

Adam will tell a different story. He will describe how their relationship grew into passionate love and intimacy — their first love — but that she cheated on him, behind his back, with Adam’s best friend. The whole court case revolves around one question: Is Adam in control of his anger, or is his anger in control of him? The former will set him free, the latter could send him to jail.

My court testimony will focus on the knowledge I have about Adam, who has been a patient of mine for 10 months. I will be asked basic questions about anger, such as, “Is his anger healthy? Is he so angry that he is a threat to others? Does he have risk factors which could transform his anger into lethal rage?”

I will start my testimony with the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger (taken from the book, “Power Over Anger” by Warren Holleman, Ph.D., 2007):

Healthy anger is when someone takes a stand against any form of injustice. The life of Martin Luther King, Jr., embodies this type of anger. He fought, often with words tinged with anger, against all forms of discrimination. His weapon was the sword of righteous anger.

And what is unhealthy anger? Unhealthy anger comes in three flavors: 1. Chronic anger. 2. Rage 3. Low-level anger.

1. Chronic anger. A person with chronic anger displays, on a daily basis, an irritability which, like a heap of gunpowder, can be ignited by the smallest of events. Families who have a chronically angry father, or mother, walk on eggshells. The children in these families are unable to relax, constantly scanning their environment looking for incoming artillery attacks. Emotional security and trust are the casualties in these families.

2. Rage. Rage is anger which is out of control. It is the most destructive form of anger, and is a risk factor for violence, including murder. Ironically, rage is almost always directed at the people who are loved the most – wife, children, closest friends. Three sub-categories of rage are – public ragers (road rage, attacks on strangers); private ragers (only showing rage in the privacy of their own homes); self ragers (only hurt themselves).

3. Low-level anger. This is the hardest type of anger to spot. The best way to tell is to ask the question, “Is there any family member whose anger affects your ability to have a good relationship with them?” If the answer is yes, then they probably have a problem with low level anger.

So, let’s return to the courtroom. In my testimony, I gave the court a solid foundation – all supported by research studies – about the causes of anger and how anger can develop into dangerous and out-of-control violence. When my testimony was combined with that of Adam’s teachers, coaches and friends, a clear, consistent pattern emerged: Adam possessed good control of his anger, and he was not a violent young man or a danger to others. (The content of this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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