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Published On May 20, 2021

FIRST PERSON

The Rage Room

A woman finds therapeutic value in sledgehammers and broken plates.

I couldn’t scream because I knew it would hurt my throat. But there was something in the sound of things shattering—a white dinner plate, a salt shaker—that was like language for me. I put down the baseball bat and picked up a sledgehammer. It was surprisingly heavy, but hefting it up felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. “This is my toast to you, 2020,” I said, and I smashed a wine glass.

Rage rooms have been around for several years, but it took the pandemic for me to find one. The name tells you all you need to know. Sign a waiver, and you’re allowed to go into a metal cage and demolish objects to your heart’s desire. That might be figurines, coffee mugs or, for the big spenders, entire cars. While you let loose, you can blast your favorite music over the Bluetooth speakers. I went with ’90s pop-rock.

Of course, you have to wear protective gear. But the black coveralls, face shield and sneakers they had me put on were a nice change. For the past few years, I’d too often been in hospital gowns, masks and surgical booties.

Three years ago, an upper respiratory infection took a bad turn and became an irritating tingling sensation. By April 2019, the tingling turned to nerve pain. I was unable to speak, eat or laugh without pain—a burning coupled with the feeling of 1,000 knives stabbing every inch of tissue. If you’ve ever had strep throat, imagine that in a super mega size that never goes away. 

The next few years had me seeing scores of doctors. Eventually a team of otolaryngologists, gastrointestinal specialists and neurologists gave me a diagnosis: atypical glossopharyngeal and vagal neuropathy. Glossopharyngeal neuropathy is sometimes nicknamed the suicide disease because it is unrelenting and difficult to treat. I had never been depressed, but for months after my diagnoses, I called the suicide hotline and begged my parents to end my suffering if I couldn’t somehow manage it. 

I stayed focused on ways to feel better. I received ketamine infusions, nerve blocks, three procedures that used pulsed radiofrequency and tried having exosomes injected into the glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves. Relief was hard to come by, and frankly, the medical journey was exhausting in itself. While some doctors were empathetic, one “top” neurosurgeon asked if I’d tried throat lozenges or weed yet. Another doctor mentioned euthanasia. After a visit, I’d often feel like a brittle and disposable object—the kind I was now beating to pieces.

At the start of 2020, I got the bright idea of trying to improve my mental health through adrenaline. I tried activities like skiing and parasailing. In some way they helped, allowing me to get out of my skin for a minute. But then COVID hit, a week after my 28th birthday. The isolation was another source of pain, as it was for so many people with chronic conditions, who were kept from the simple joys and connections so vital to our mental health. That felt like another door slammed shut.

Sweating, standing in the middle of the chaos, I realized that the rage room had been a eureka moment. Throughout my treatment journey, why hadn’t I thought of just getting angry? I was safely distanced from anyone—who would get near a 5’3” brunette woman with a sledgehammer?—and I let it swing as Meredith Brooks wailed, “I’ve been numb, I’m revived, can’t say I’m not alive.”

I can’t say that the moment washed everything away, but it was freeing. For a second, I could let go of the frustration, fear and sadness. Seconds are so important to me now. For years now I’ve had to hold it all together. This was a place to let loose.

The rest of the night I couldn’t stop smiling, but I can’t say I found the answer in rage. Not long after, though, I did find a course on retraining the brain’s responses. I spent 15-hour days learning about neuroplasticity and how to use my mind differently. I went from breaking inanimate objects to, finally, a kind of breakthrough: laughing and taking deep breaths without pain.