As long as I can remember, I’ve had a bad temper. I didn’t take it well when I lost the school spelling bee in second grade. I got into spats with friends over seemingly nothing. My mother recalls me crying when I’d colored outside the lines. As I got older, I tended to tear up drawings I didn’t like, even if I’d spent hours on them.
It’s taken me a long time to see the truth behind these overwhelming, angry feelings that led me to act out as a child (and as an adult). It’s taken some therapy, too. Now I know that when I acted out, it was because I had reached my limit—sometimes socially, sometimes emotionally—and the only way I knew to express that emotional status was through anger.
It’s easy to slam a door or yell at a friend. It’s much harder to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you have limits, and that in my case, that I have anxiety.
Recently, I read an article that described what high-functioning anxiety looks like, and it was like looking into a mirror. I live with anxiety, but I function well in my life. I appear successful, together, and calm. Throughout my school career, I won awards, had perfect attendance, and excelled in most subjects. I’m driven. I achieve, and I eagerly help others. My social life is busy, but I rarely miss a deadline. My publishing partners can count on me.
I’m the classic over-achiever—and yet, my success comes at a price. Anxiety drives me past healthy limits and makes me push myself to do more than is reasonable. Anxiety demands perfection and is unforgiving about failure. Anxiety makes me smile to please others even when I am in distress. I keep those feelings buried until they get so bottled up that I explode.
That’s when my bad temper appears.
A person’s temper is their state of mind in terms of being calm or angry, but if you look at the word “temper,” it has a different meaning as a verb. To temper a situation is to act as a neutralizing or counterbalancing force. In a way, that’s what’s happening when I lose my temper. My brain endures my anxious feelings until it can’t take the stress anymore. Growing up, that meant having a temper tantrum—an intense moment of release that balanced out the overload in my head. That happens to me sometimes as an adult, too.
It’s no surprise then, that my characters are often anxious. In Counting Thyme, the main character worried about her brother’s cancer treatment excessively because her parents were trying to shield her from it. In my latest middle grade novel, Every Missing Piece, the main character is a girl named Maddy who has survived a traumatic event that resulted in her father’s death. This moment left Maddy vigilant about safety to the point of anxiety. Maddy has the support of her family and therapist, but her anxiety is still a force she grapples with every day.
As a result, Maddy’s earned a bit of a reputation for calling the authorities at the earliest sign of danger. Though the police chief is sympathetic, Maddy’s been warned to stop calling. When a new boy moves into Maddy’s neighborhood and she becomes convinced he’s really a child who went missing six months earlier, Maddy has to battle with her anxious tendencies once again.
With each story I write, I’m exploring those anxious parts of myself a bit more. Thyme taught me that I cannot control everything in life. Maddy taught me that I can survive anything. My next (soon to be announced) middle grade novel is teaching me that it’s okay to make mistakes.
What I’ve learned over the years is that my bad temper isn’t just something that happens to me. My temper is a result of living with anxiety, and I can manage that stress in healthier ways. I can avoid anxious situations. I can so NO. I can change my mind. I can recognize that I am approaching my limit and step away. I can tell someone how anxious or worried or scared I’m feeling. I can recognize that when I feel angry, that’s my brain asking for help, and that I need to be kind and loving towards myself. I can forgive myself for mistakes. I don’t have to be perfect.
None of us do.
We’re perfect exactly the way we are.
Melanie Conklin grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. Her second novel for young readers, Every Missing Piece, published with Little, Brown in May, 2020. When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Connect with her on twitter @MLConklin.