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Loose Cannon
Controlling My Anger Will Be a Lifelong Struggle
Fred W.

“How do you plead to the assault, Frederick?” I looked up at the judge who held my life in his hands.

“Guilty,” I squeaked, tears falling down my face.

The judge told me that because I’d told the truth and pleaded guilty, he was giving me a shorter sentence. (I learned the hard way that if I didn’t get with the program, my short sentence would grow and grow.) He sent me to Sagamore, a lock-down facility, until the state could find me a residential program with anger management.

“Your Honor, can I give my son one last hug before he goes?” asked my mother.

“Permission granted.”

She gave me a hug and then I was taken out of the courtroom into the unknown.

Rage led me to that courtroom. My rage started when I was 4 years old and my father started sniffing cocaine. His cocaine use and my parents’ drinking led them to fights that became an all-out war.

Here’s a typical fight: My good-for-nothing father calls my mother a whore because some guy in the bowling alley told my mother, “You look good! Why are you with a deadbeat?”

At home, my brother and I sit on the couch while all hell breaks loose. My parents look like the old Tom and Jerry cartoons when Spike beat up Jerry in a tornado of fists, legs and screams.

Once, my mom pulled a knife from the kitchen. I covered my brother’s eyes and watched in horror as my father egged my mother on. She stabbed my father’s chest four times, though not deeply. It was so horrible that I passed out.

It was terrifying to experience my parents’ violence. The damage they inflicted on each other made me fear them both. Then my father started to abuse me physically and sexually. My fear turned into a rage that consumed me and burned all who tried to reach out to me.

At 13, I was quiet and shy. I pretty much kept to myself. But because of what my father did to me, when I got angry I went straight into a rage.

That year, someone spread a rumor in the school that I was going to shoot a kid named Zeko with a shotgun. I don’t know why the rumor spread—hate, jealousy, whatever. Zeko believed it, which I thought was funny.

One day I was coming out of school with some friends. We were slap boxing when Zeko walked by and said, “Take Fred’s head off!” I believed Zeko was out to get me. “Crap, Zeko is plotting something and it’s my funeral!” I thought.

As I was walking home—fast—Zeko popped out of a large crowd and swung at my face. CRACK! He knocked my tooth in and flung me against the fence. I got up and pulled out the knife I often carried. Soon I gave up my chase and went home, holding my tooth in agony and defeat.

For the next few weeks, I lived in constant fear. I was afraid my attacker lurked around every corner, waiting to strike again.

A few weeks later, we had a school dance. I was having a great time with my friends until I saw Zeko on the other side of the gym, grilling me with what looked like seething hate. I grilled him back and flipped him off to see if he was gonna pop off.

He walked over and flinched at me. I was scared but thought, “There are mad females here. I can’t look like a punk. Plus, I don’t want to be hit again.” Using my messed up logic, I hit him.

I just meant to shock him, but once I hit him, I blacked out. I didn’t feel or see anything until a friend pulled me off. Looking at Zeko, I saw his bloody, lumpy, and bruised face.

My friends told me, “Get out of here before security gets into the gym.” Three friends took me home. I was confused and mad. “Why the hell did you help me with the fight? I could have handled Zeko myself!” I yelled.

“Fred, you did that yourself,” one friend told me.

“Really?” I asked, surprised and impressed with myself. “Boy, revenge is sweet!”

After that night, I pushed the fight out of my head. I still couldn’t remember hitting Zeko, and I didn’t know he was seriously injured. But a few months later, the police came to my school and arrested me.

I thought I’d be let go. It was just a fight. The severity didn’t hit me until I got charged with assault and locked up. My mom dropped off my clothes at the facility I would call home for three months while I waited for my trial. After that, she visited me only a few times—just enough to keep the courts off her back. (Once they learned about my home life, they were threatening to charge my mom with neglect.)

For the first two weeks, I cried myself to sleep. Even though my family life wasn’t good, I missed them and couldn’t comprehend living apart from my family for so long. I felt very alone.

After the trial, I got sent to Sagamore and was placed in the male mental ward. I was enraged, thinking, “Why am I here? Please, someone help!” Eventually someone did help, but it wasn’t the help I wanted.

image by Whitney Harris

That summer, I got transferred to St. Mary’s, an all-male residential treatment center on Long Island, outside of New York City. I went to school, took anger management classes, ate, and slept. Anger management classes really sucked. The staff tried to get us to talk about our feelings, but in my family there was an unspoken contract not to talk about feelings, probably because our anger and sadness would have been too much to deal with.

I thought the questions the staff asked about my crime were corny.

“Fred, why did you hit the kid?”

“I was happy, what the hell do you think?” I said. Never again did I talk in that group.

I saw myself as a struggling young man trying to handle my life. The facility saw me as a danger to the community because I was a loose cannon. Since I wouldn’t deal with my feelings in the group, the staff figured that I’d beat the crap out of anybody who said something wrong to me.

I was only supposed to be at St. Mary’s for one year. But because I wouldn’t participate, the judge kept extending my placement, from one year to two, then three, then four. My fourth year at St. Mary’s was rough. The staff kept telling me that if I didn’t talk, the judge would send me upstate to a tougher facility. That came true. At 17, I got sent to Goshen Residential Center, a sugarcoated name for jail—razor wire, locked doors, control officers, and a real threat of getting beat up.

Goshen was serious. It made me ask myself, “Where am I headed in life? To prison? I’m about to turn 18. I need to get my mind right so I can get out of here and succeed in life.” After about a month in Goshen, I decided that there was no point in fighting the system anymore.

I’d always heard the saying, “Fake it till you make it.” A fellow resident at Goshen explained to me the benefits of faking the treatment: (1) people would trust me and let me have privileges, and (2) I might actually feel better.

In groups, I began to talk, thinking, “I’ll give them what they want to hear.” But I felt relieved once I started to speak about how I felt being away from home and stuck in jail, and how I felt knowing that my mother really didn’t give a crap about me. As I talked, the residents and group leaders looked at me like they were seeing a ghost.

The group’s topic every day was anger, which I didn’t like, so I asked if we could bring up other topics. The group leader liked the idea, and from then on the group was open, which made it easier to talk. I started to talk about my feelings of abandonment, fear, and betrayal, and how my past affected me on a day-to-day basis. The group leader and my peers gave me a lot of support, and I began to trust them.

Letting out some of my emotions was the best thing I’ve done. It helped me find out who I was. It felt great to break my family’s taboo against talking about our feelings or discussing what happened inside our house. Telling my secrets, I felt like I was rebelling. Pretty soon, you couldn’t get me to shut up.

It’s too bad it took me three years and the prospect of getting sentenced to an adult prison to open up. Once I did, I understood why St. Mary’s and the judge wouldn’t let me go home—I was a really angry guy, and going home to my family wouldn’t help me.

Once I understood that my anger and my past were controlling me, I began to try to control my anger. I learned some methods to control my temper, like counting, deep breathing or my personal favorite—pleasant imagery. (I’d think of the best looking girl I knew and imagine locking lips with her. That always calmed me down.)

At Goshen, I also got into creative writing and poetry. Putting my experiences down on paper helped me fight my inner demons. Writing became my self-medicine.

Still, as with all recoveries, it was hard to change. At times, my anger got the best of me. In the facility, there were always guys playing too rough or badmouthing each other. In the past, if someone did that to me, I would have waited for the staff to open up the rec room and popped off without a thought.

I had to practice calling a time-out inside my head, counting to 10, or thinking about my best friend. I also learned to daze out when someone was talking to me in a way I found disrespectful. If someone started talking reckless, I stopped listening and stared into space. Or I’d walk away, put on my headphones, write some poetry, or draw pictures to focus on my own thoughts. All of those strategies helped calm me down.

When I turned 18, I had to leave Goshen. Things got real hectic because the courts didn’t want me to go home, but couldn’t find a place for me to live. Then I got the answer to my prayers. A group home in Manhattan would take me in.

Before I left for Manhattan, some staff gave me one last trick to handle my anger: they taught me how to knit, and how to restrain people without hurting them. The knitting helps me feel calm when I’m by myself. The restraining comes in handy if someone’s threatening me or hits me, and I don’t want to hit them but feel nervous about just walking away.

I was delighted that I was finally free after almost five years. But along with my freedom came some great temptations.

Soon after getting out, I got back into smoking cigarettes and now I’m addicted again. I got caught up in the drug game as well, smoking weed, which I had always loved. Lots of guys in my group home smoked and I wanted everyone to like me and think I was cool. I also just wanted to get high. I love that giddy, spaced out feeling weed gives me. It almost cost me my freedom, though.

Weed made my anger rise, and when I smoked, I didn’t want to stop it. When I was high, I didn’t care if I got locked up again. Soon I was fighting at least once a week, over stupid stuff like someone bumping into me. I also started robbing people to have money in my pocket, or because I felt angry just from being high.

The cycle kept repeating: Fight, weed, anger, fight, weed… and so on. I had so much going for me but I almost blew my freedom on weed.

Finally, my probation officer did a drug test on me and I came up positive. He sent me to The Realization Center, a program that runs outpatient groups for people with drug problems.

The groups help me so much. We talk about how our drug problem is affecting our lives and how to stop the cravings. Now, after a few months, my cravings are down to a minimum and my anger is getting back in check. I haven’t fought or smoked weed in three months.

I’ve gone back to my good habits—the daze out, counting to 10, knitting, poetry, and creative writing.

I think keeping my anger under control is going to be a lifelong struggle. But at least now I’m focused on my future again. I don’t want to give up my freedom for anything. I love it too much. When I want to fight or smoke weed, I remember how good it feels to walk to the corner store and buy a bag of chips whenever I want. The girls make freedom worthwhile, too, because in the facilities there were no females (besides the old staff). Plus, I have family that I don’t want to lose again.

I’ve seen so many of my friends go back to jail. But I don’t really fear I will end up doing more time. I’ve changed a lot, and I have too many people in my corner to lose this battle. A lot of staff have given me second chances, and have put their faith in me. I hope I can make them proud.

To talk to a crisis counselor about child abuse, call 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) or go to For help dealing with sexual abuse or to find the nearest rape crisis center, call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit

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