Valentine’s Day is one of those tricky, commercial holidays that I’ve never fully embraced. I worry offering a friendly “Happy Valentine’s Day” to someone could be more offensive than cordial. Even as a child with no understanding of my own sexuality or any desire for someone to “complete me,” Valentine’s Day was a popularity contest. My mom would take me to the drugstore where she’d buy a box of Scooby Doo or Smurfs Valentine cards for me to distribute amongst my fellow third graders. The tough decision was whether to sign them with Love or a straightforward From.
Valentine’s Day can shake up even the most happily single people. It digs its red fingernail claws deep into your subconscious and lifetime of exposure to the marketing of romance, begging the question, are you really that happy? Can you really be happy and alone? And if you are in a relationship, Valentine’s Day can add unnecessary stress. It’s a high stakes holiday. It bring me more anxiety than enjoyment.
So, when I finally found the person worth celebrating love with, we always opt to skip the gift giving and prefixed restaurant menus and try something different. This year, we threw glass vases and ashtrays on the ground until they broke into a million little pieces.
“I never wanted to smash old CDs, chipped plates, and a computer more.”
Rage rooms, smash rooms, anger rooms—whatever you want to call them—are safe places where you can vent your frustrations by destroying things. My husband and I went to Rage Ground in downtown Los Angeles for a few reasons. It was a tough one last year. I was laid off, work was slow was for my husband, and on top of the financial stress, we had to deal with an awful family situation involving lawyers, my sweet 95-year-old grandmother and other shitty relatives. Oh, and we moved into a new apartment. And did I mention the current political climate?
So when our Valentine’s Day choices came down to either spending a day riding bikes at the beach or letting go of some stress by checking out a rage room, oh man, I never wanted to smash old CDs, chipped plates, and a computer more.
Rage rooms have been all the rage in Japan for the last decade. Their popularity is on the rise in the US (I wonder why? JK, it’s Trump.) There are anger rooms now in New York, Los Angeles, Houston,Milwaukee, Tucson, and Charlotte, to name only a few. Even Serbia, Argentina, Australia, Italy, and the UK are embracing the growing trend. When I saw that baseball bat, lead pipe, and sledgehammer resting on the concrete wall just waiting for their turn, I understood why.
The room itself was small, 10 feet x 10 feet. There was a locker in the corner for your personal items, a red digital timer above the door, and a metal barrel dead center. All the items included in our “Date Night” package had been placed with care, ready for the breaking. The word RAGE was graffitied in bubble letters on the crumbling cement wall. It read more as RAOE because of the huge hole where somebody, or perhaps many people had simply gone to town. We were asked politely not to make the hole any wider.
Not everyone is on board the smash therapy train, though. PhD and assistant professor at Penn State Kevin Bennett writes that though it feels good in the moment to rage, “when you spend time thumping an inanimate object, like a pillow, or beating nonliving things in a rage room, you are conditioning yourself to quickly become aggressive next time your anxiety levels rise. So instead of opening up the escape valve on a pot of steam, you are rewarding your distressed feelings with the instant and ephemeral pleasure that comes from throwing dishes against a wall.”
While my experience at Rage Ground doesn’t support that, if you have no coping skills when it comes to your anger, I can see how smashing an old fax machine might increase your fury, rather than help let it go.
Licensed metal health counselor and certified EMDR therapist Holly Brewer sees the value in a smash room for the purpose of a physical release from stress but only if you have effective anger management skills. “Emotions live in your body. They want to move. That’s why they’re called e-motions. They are in motion and they want to move out of your body, like tears. But if you have no anger management skills, rage rooms could be harmful,” Brewer warns.
If you’re feeling angry and you need to calm yourself down, Brewer proposes stimulating the body’s system that best produces a relaxed state; your parasympathetic nervous system (nicknamed the “rest and digest” system.)
“This system deactivates the sympathetic nervous system—the one that causes our fight-or-flight response,” Brewer says. One way to accomplish this calming effect is through deep, controlled breaths from your diaphragm. While breathing, practice mindfulness by bringing your attention to the present moment. Peaceful imagery like a sprawling forest or waves crashing can also help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system giving you a sense of calm.
I’ll try these recommendations for managing anger next time. They’re far more practical than breaking stuff. But this is about rage rooms.
“I started by throwing a vase. Poof! What was something, now is nothing.”
After a brief lesson in the rules (wear closed toe shoes and don’t throw anything at the ceiling,) my husband and I donned coveralls, gloves, helmets, and protective face masks.
The door was shut, the timer was on, we were alone together.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I said. “What’s your weapon of choice?”
“Lead pipe,” he said, grabbing it from the wall. “Stand back.”
He threw a glass ashtray into the air like he was pitching a baseball, then SMASH!
“Wow. They really shatter.”
I felt silly.
Am I really going to throw these dishes at the wall and violently break this old computer? What’s the point?
Heavy metal music blared in the background.
“Well, here I go.”
I started by throwing a vase. Poof! What was something, now is nothing. Then, a CD. A VHS tape. I took a few whacks at the tractor tire. That thing is indestructible. I started to go at the computer, not any old laptop but a large computer circa mid-nineties. My husband and I took turns, for our own safety.
It seemed like it would never break but we demolished that computer to bits. I thought about my shitty uncle, the day at work when I found out we were all losing our jobs, the orange president, Brett Kavanaugh, senators in blackface.
“This feels like it should be illegal,” my husband said. He lifted the lead pipe above his head and bought it down like a hammer onto the computer.
“I thought about my shitty uncle, the day at work when I found out we were all losing our jobs, the orange president, Brett Kavanaugh, senators in blackface.”
As I felt my own rage rise to the surface, I wondered what he was thinking about.
“What is the function of anger?” Marsha Linehan, creator of the highly regarded Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) asks. “Anger is justified a lot of the time. People have every good reason to be angry.”
“The problem is it’s not effective to be angry, most of the time,” Linehan explains. “For many of my clients, anger functions to avoid sadness. Often, because the amount of sadness my patients would feel if they ever allowed themselves to experience it, really is indeed overwhelming.”
Our timer went off, 25 minutes of rage completed. We stripped back down to our pedestrian selves, thanked the staff and handed them our now sweaty coveralls and helmets.
As we walked to get dinner, leaving behind a sparkling pile of glass and electronic bits, I started to tear up, flooded with not anger, but sadness. My poor grandmother who’s had dementia for five confusing years now, staring out her window watching the rain fall; all my fears with the complicated career path I’ve chosen; the homelessness that’s growing on our streets.
I took a deep breath, let my lungs expand with the smog-filled air of downtown LA for which I am so grateful. I exhaled and reached for my husband’s hand, happy to have such a supportive partner in crime. Or what feels like it should be a crime.
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