When Anger Is Destructive

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on March 21, 2020.

It’s practically a cliché now to refer to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, it was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s classic book, “On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families,that first helped us understand how people grieve.

Since the book was published over 50 years ago, mental health experts have recognized that grieving is a personal process, and that not everyone will experience all the stages. Sometimes, people skip a stage altogether, or spend more time in one part of the healing process than in another, or circle back to stages they have already traversed. It’s not always a linear process. However, Kübler-Ross believed grieving itself was a constructive process that moved towards healing.

While Kübler-Ross’s book focuses on grief associated with death and dying, we also experience the various stages of grief with other losses. The coronavirus may cause the loss of our daily routine. Addiction may bring about the loss of our jobs, family support, and even self-respect. Chronic pain may mean the loss of a life once lived. We can experience the stages of grief Kübler-Ross describes any time we are consumed by a loss.

Trapped in the Anger Stage of Grief

For most people, anger is a part of grieving, and sometimes, a person gets a bit stuck in it. Experiencing prolonged anger can be destructive. We can internalize that anger, hurting ourselves, or we can express it toward others. In some cases, our rage can be directed at people we don’t even know.

Misdirected anger can cause harm. We create physical and emotional harm for ourselves when we rage at people and circumstances beyond our control. Also, we can cause harm to innocent people when they are caught in the crossfire of our misplaced anger.

Pain News Network recounts how anger affected one of the chronic pain community’s clinicians, Dr. Thomas Kline. Kline advocates for people in chronic pain and has used social media to dispel what he feels are myths about opioids.

A mother who lost her son to a heroin overdose came across Dr. Kline’s Twitter account. In her grief, the mother took offense at what she perceived to be Dr. Kline’s advocacy of opioids. She filed a complaint with North Carolina’s medical board, alleging that he was “giving out information regarding opioids that is not correct and could cause harm.” She was not his patient, and neither was her son. In fact, according to Pain News Network, she didn’t even know him. However, she was convinced he was a bad doctor because he treated people in pain with opioids.

It is horrible for parents to lose a child, and it is unfortunate that this mother has only a partial understanding of how opioids cause harm.

However, we can understand this mother’s anger. She has suffered a loss, and she believes opioids killed her beloved son. “My son used opioids, and opioids are lethal. Now my son is gone. Therefore, opioids killed my son,” may be her logic.

Separating Prescription Opioids from Illicit Opioids

It is flawed thinking to lump prescription opioids together with illicit opioids such as heroin. Prescription opioids have a medical purpose, whereas illicit opioids do not. This mother did not lose her son to an overdose of prescription medication.

It’s not only people who have had personal tragedies in their lives who may be inappropriately angry. We also see people who write about the opioid crisis, policymakers, regulators, and the public venting their contempt toward anyone who defends opioids as a legitimate therapy for some patients.

People can be forgiven for getting angry in the moment. If they have experienced a personal loss from prescription opioids, it’s reasonable for them, in their grief, to blame opioids or the doctor who prescribed them. But it’s harder to accept their vengeances when they draw a false equivalency between prescription opioids and illicit drugs.

Opioids, like all medications, have benefits and risks. Unfortunately, people with chronic pain suffer because of misunderstanding and misplaced anger.

People whose loved ones have died from addiction often receive sympathy, while people in pain are left unattended in the shadows. Of course, people with addiction as well as people with pain deserve treatment rather than abandonment. Anger at the doctors who use opioids to try to treat their illness is unhelpful and inappropriate.

I’m reminded of Nan Goldin, a New York-based photographer who survived an addiction to OxyContin and has now devoted her life to fighting the opioid epidemic. Her anger is directed at the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, whom she holds responsible for the opioid crisis — even though, according to the New York Times, Goldin “overdosed on fentanyl, which she thought was heroin.” Neither of those substances are produced by Purdue Pharma.

Misdirected Anger Hurts Innocent People

People in grief may transform their overwhelming sorrow into rancor without looking squarely at the whole truth or confirming their beliefs with research. Their anger may feel healthy and productive to them, because anger provides an outlet for grief. The rage they feel against opioids and the people who manufacture, prescribe, or take them allows those grieving to not to have to deal with more difficult issues, such as the loss of our loved one or the real reasons why we develop addictions.

In the final analysis, misdirected anger is destructive and harmful to innocent bystanders, who become collateral damage. It hurts others. It may hurt society. And it also hurts the one who is stuck in the grieving process and, unfortunately, has not yet come to a place of healing.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.



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