Strong Too Long, Or Weak Too Often?

There’s a saying on Facebook that depression isn’t a sign of weakness, but simply the result of being strong for too long. Somewhat true — though weakness does feed the beast.

Mood music:

I’m feeling it this morning.

I’ve always taken a certain level of satisfaction from my ability to stay standing in the face of death, illness, family dysfunction, depression and addiction. Sometimes, I get an over-inflated sense of survivor’s pride.

People love to tell you how awesome you are when you emerge from adversity stronger than before. The victor is placed on a 10-foot pedestal and life looks hunky-dory from up there. But it’s only a matter of time before the person on top loses balance and crashes to the ground.

I’ve fallen from that pedestal a bunch of times, and my ass is really starting to hurt from all those slips off the edge.

All this has me asking the question: How much can you blame depression on being strong too long when many times it comes back because the victim has been weak?

I don’t think there’s a precise answer. I only know this: I feel like I’ve been trying like a motherfucker to be strong 24-7. But I don’t seem to have the fortitude to maintain it, and I give in to weakness.

In the past, that weakness would involve indulging in food, alcohol and tobacco until I was too sick to function.

Today, the weakness involves getting angry and self-defensive and distant at the drop of a hat.

For all the progress I’ve made in managing my OCD, there are still moments where I go weak, put the blinders on and do some stupid things.

It’s the compulsion to keep staring at the laptop screen when one or both kids need me to look up and give them some attention.

It’s stopping in the middle of a conversation with my wife because the cellphone is ringing or someone has pinged me online.

It’s spending too much money on food and entertainment for the kids because it’s easier to me at the time than  cooking the food myself and playing a board game with them instead.

I’ve been working double-time at bringing my compulsive tendencies to heel, going through some intensified therapy. The short-term result is that I’m an angrier person than I normally am.

My therapist made note of that anger at our last meeting. The trigger in the room was him taking me back to my younger years in search of clues to present-day debacles. I thought I was done with sessions like that five years ago.

But I’m learning that the road to mental wellness is not linear. It goes in a circle. It’s like driving to the same place every day for work. The drive to work and back is a loop of the same landmarks, the same traffic patterns and the same behind-the-wheel thinking sessions.

I’m learning that managing my issues is going to involve frequent trips back and forth from the past to the present. This pisses me off. But I know I have to keep at it.

I guess I’ll always have my weak moments because of the events that shaped me.  But you can still be strong throughout it, learning to regain your footing more quickly  and being better at the kind of discussion with loved ones that prevents endless miscommunication from adding up to a mountain of pain.

I don’t know when I’ll truly reach that level of strength. But for now I’m leaning hard on all my coping tools, including the music and the praying.

Small Victories

Duncan and I took my father on a little walk around Deer Island yesterday. Dad still struggles from the stroke he had last year, but days like yesterday I admire his fighting spirit.

Mood music:

I’ve been reluctant to take him on long walks, mainly because I don’t want him taking a nasty spill on my watch. But it was a beautiful spring day and he was eager, so who was I to argue?

Deer Island is an interesting place. One of the nastiest prisons in Massachusetts history used to be there. Now it’s the site of a massive water treatment plant — the facility credited with making Boston Harbor far cleaner than it was in past decades, when raw sewage used to get pumped into the harbor.

Dad moved slowly, but he was steady. He was telling us about the new tennis balls he just put on his walker. By the end of the walk, those tennis balls were toast, dragged to tatters.

Duncan enjoyed walking on the rocks, and spent the time talking about coordinates — something he is currently learning about.

We had to take frequent rests, as Dad can only take so much at once. But he was determined to go at least a mile.

Dad struggled toward the end, stopping every few feet. When it was over, he collapsed into the passenger seat of my car. But by then, he had gone more than a mile.

Not bad for a guy who needed a wheelchair to get around just a few short months ago.

Sometimes, it’s the smallest victories that count the most.

Layne Staley, 10 Years Later

“What’s my drug of choice? Well, what have you got?” Layne Staley, Alice in Chains

While I was busy honoring Kurt Cobain’s memory yesterday, I forgot that the day also marked 10 years since Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley was found dead.

Mood music:

Like Cobain, Staley had a big impact on me in the early 1990s. But while I identified with Cobain’s depression, I identified with Staley for his inability to keep his addictive demons at bay.

I can’t tell you how many times I listened to the “Dirt” album while I binged myself sick. It seems like an unfair comparison, because Staley’s demon was heroin. Mine was compulsive binge eating — a destructive form of addictive behavior in its own right, but not necessarily from the same depths of hell heroin came from.

Staley’s lyrics seeped deep into my soul. When he screamed his vocals, I could identify the pain that came from deep down. I’m convinced that pain gave him the power to sing the way he did.

My writing taps a similar source within me, but the source is a lot more muted, less despairing, because I have something I don’t think he had — faith.

But as a 20-something, I couldn’t tell the difference. I felt like my demons were as vexing as his. When you’re younger, that’s the kind of self-important thinking you get into.

Before I found recovery, my demon would start harassing me long before getting to the scene of the junk. Forget the people who would be there or the weather and surroundings. All I’d think about was getting my fill of food. Then I’d get to the event and get my fill from the time I’d get there to the time I left. I’d sneak handfuls of junk so what I was doing wouldn’t be too obvious to those around me.

Halfway through, I would have the same kind of buzz you get after downing a case of beer or inhaling a joint deep into your lungs. I know this, because I’ve done those things, too. By nightfall, I’d feel like a pile of shattered bricks waiting to be carted off to the dump. Quality time with my wife and kids? Forget it. All I wanted was the bed or the couch so I could pass out.

I imagine Staley felt something similar much of the time, though I’m told by those who have kicked smack addictions that you don’t really care about anything when you’re high, because it’s like being under a warm blanket. The problem is that you spend the rest of your life trying to feel that way, and the only thing that works is more and more smack.

In the end, I know you can’t fairly compare the two addictions. I only know how mine made me feel, and whenever I listened to Staley scream, I felt like someone else got it, and that I wasn’t alone.

Thanks for that, Layne. I hope you’re at peace wherever you are.

Crude But True

This pic, making the Facebook rounds, is crude. I’ve always hated the “T” word. But the overall message is the truth.

McDonald’s is where I binged again and again when my compulsive overeating was at its zenith. But I’ve never blamed the fast-food chain. Buying their food — my heroin — was my choice and responsibility.

When you have young children, you have far more control over what they put in their bodies. If you’re an over-eater yourself and you’re always stressed and on the run, you probably let your child eat this stuff all the time. If your child is fat as a result, that’s your fault, not McDonald’s.

We all have choices. When we make the bad calls, we have to own it.

McDonald’s has put a lot of effort into adding healthier, low-fat selections to its menu. You can get salads, fruit, yogurt and other healthy foods.

But I still won’t go in there.

If I do, I know I’ll order all the bad, high-fat stuff on the menu. When I want to binge, I want the baddest of the bad. Who the hell binges on apple sticks and celery? If yours is an addictive personality and food is your drug, the fruit and veggies will be passed over every time.

And so I stay away.

That’s my choice.

Depressed? Remember To Sleep, Eat And See A Doctor

In my response to the reader who claimed wanting to die 5 out of seven days a week, I forgot something critical: It’s not always “in your head.”

In other words, withering depression is also the result of physical trouble.

Mood music:

A friend reminded me of that after she read this morning’s post. She wrote to me:

May I also suggest to said young man to seek an MD’s opinion. There are numerous physical conditions that can cause lack of sleep and changes in appetite which in turn cause depression which in turn… well, I’m sure you’re able to continue the vicious cycle there. 

One of the things I’ve learned since being diagnosed with Celiac’s is the incredibly intimate relationship between physical and mental well-being. The psychological impact of an auto-immune reaction to gluten, for example, is far more long-lasting for some than the physical impact – causing depression, lack of sleep, utter despair, even suicidal thoughts. I get in these cycles when I’m reacting to gluten, and they are ugly – I have actually pondered driving into a tree more than once. Post-partum depression too, is most often caused by physical factors, for example, that can go away in time. I found the key to even a short period of PPD to be recognizing that it was physical, not mental, and that it would eventually “go away.” It didn’t make me cry less, but not heaping concern that I was “losing it” on top of the depression did help me manage more effectively until it dissipated. 

I’m sure there are other physical conditions as well that might be a cause, and I would encourage said young man (and anyone else) to take a two-pronged attack to the problem – seek a therapist or someone trusted to help with the traumatizing psychological impact now while simultaneously seeking an MD’s opinion. It may be all psychological, it may not – but if it is an underlying medical condition that is the root cause it can be managed. 

Too often people consider issues “in their heads” to be “all in their heads” and sometimes, that’s not the case, leaving them never truly able to be healed. Both avenues should be explored – just in case it’s something physically simple (and unrecognized) behind it…

Very wise words.

I know for a fact that physical problems have fueled much of my depression over the years: Violent Crohn’s Disease attacks during childhood, migraines, severe back trouble. It all wears you down to the point of feeling hopeless.

I finally found a good chiropractor and the back pain went away. I got lucky with the Crohn’s Disease because it hasn’t stabbed me hard enough to make Prednisone necessary since 1986. Those things have improved my mental health considerably.

It goes to show just how interconnected everything is.

So please see a doctor. A change in diet, increase in sleep and discovery of hidden medical ailments may be all it takes to feel the craving for life again.

Response To Reader Who ‘Wants To Die 5 Out Of 7 Days’

I’m scrapping today’s originally scheduled post because of a message that hit my inbox overnight. I’ll keep this man’s name out of it, but a more visible response is necessary.

Mood music:

This was a comment attached to a post I wrote a few months ago called “A Depressed Mind Is Rarely A Beaten Mind.” I’ll give you this fellow’s comments in bold italics, with my responses along the way.

Hello. Was wondering if I could ask you a few questions? What age did you first realize your depression? When did you accept it? 

I remember becoming aware of my depression as a kid. I didn’t see it for what it was, but had those awful feelings of hopelessness. The brighter the sun shined, the darker I felt. I’ve only come to accept in recent years that this for me is a chronic condition that can be managed but not eradicated.

I respect you’re a man of God and you haven’t killed yourself, but is it worth it?

Most of the time, I’ve felt that life is worth it for several reasons. The first is that this world is bigger than me and I truly believe I was put here for a reason. Maybe it was to write the stuff I write. Maybe it was to help raise the two children God entrusted me with.

Whatever the case, I’m a guy who simply doesn’t believe we’re put here by coincidence. It doesn’t make sense to me that we would be conceived by pure randomness or by accident. That’s my faith talking, but it’s what I believe.

I’m going to be 23 and 5 out 7 days I wanna die. And I don’t know why. My heart feels like its falling into my stomach and then nothing matters no more. My mind wonders to the darker side of life. Smiles turn to blink stares and burst of rage. I sleep 3-4 hours a night and am close to only eating one meal a day. Tried writing out my feelings distracting my mind with music and activities, although no one other than myself sees me in this state.

I’ve been there. For me, music has always been a savior, and the writing has been a critical coping tool in more recent years. Rage? I’ve lived with that many times and still do some days. Thing is, I think EVERYONE has those feelings from time to time. The problem is when those feelings crowd out the good stuff.

I don’t want people sympathy so I don’t bring it up to friends or family. Worst part of everything is, I wanna help people like myself but I can’t even help myself.

It’s funny how we try and sometimes even succeed in helping others when we can’t help ourselves, isn’t it? People tell me every day that this blog helps them, and I’m always dumbfounded because I still fall short in so many areas of my own life.

One thing has gotten clear to me as I’ve grown older, though: Keeping it inside is the absolute worst thing you can do. You need to talk to family and friends. You would be surprised how much they can relate to your feelings. Most people, after all, suffer in silence. When you discover you’re not alone, you feel a strength you never knew you had.

Don’t stop there, though. If you haven’t already, find a therapist and get the special help only they can offer. A lot of people balk at the idea of seeing “a shrink.” But I would be nowhere today had I not sought one out. A therapist can help you pinpoint the fault lines in your brain and help you seal them up.

Medicine also helps me. I take two drugs for OCD, ADD and depression, and they have done wonders. Some consider these drugs snake oil, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. I try to explain it in a post called “The Engine.”

Sorry for burdening you just trying to find answers from all sources. Thanks and again I envy you. Take care.

You’re not a burden. And don’t envy me. I’m far from perfect, and the truth is that you don’t have to live your life this way. There is always a way out in which you get to live. You either want the help and the better life or you give up. I’m 41 and if I had given up in my 20s I would have missed out on so many joys that I’ve experienced since then.

I don’t know you, but based on what I’ve been able to glean from your note, you’re not a quitter. If you care enough about others to try to help them with the things you can’t help yourself with, that tells me you have it in you to bring the demons to heal.

I’ll pray hard for you, and end for now by wishing you the very best.

God Bless you.

Bill Brenner

Was ‘Hunger Games’ Star Too Fat For The Role?

There’s a controversy swirling around online regarding “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence. With one critic suggesting she was too curvy to play the role of emaciated heroine Katness Everdeen, the anger is on.

What is making some people bristle is that this smacks of the bullshit talk that sends girls into the hell of eating disorders.

Mood music:

I’m not a girl. But I’ve dealt with an eating disorder for much of my life. So, naturally, I have some thoughts on the matter.

First, let’s look at what people are saying, starting with the movie review by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times that set people off. In the review, she makes a point that the character Lawrence plays is a starved teen with bones sticking out everywhere. Specifically, she wrote:

A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.

The L.A. Times “Ministry of Gossip” column ran with that single comment, calling it a “bold indictment” of a 21-year-old star “who currently captivates the attention of impressionable young females and her same-aged peers in show business.”

Are the critical sentiments — Vulture has a comprehensive roundup — correct? On the one hand, the content adapted from Suzanne Collins’ dark novels dictates that these oppressed citizens are in fact emaciated. But by all standards Lawrence is hardly overweight, though widely attributed with that dread celeb magazine buffer of “curvy.” 

My colleague at CSO Magazine, Joan Goodchild, expressed her outrage in a Facebook post, which is where I saw all this for the first time. She wrote:

This is the kind of b*llsh*t story that pisses me off. I haven’t seen the film, or read the book. But if it is a “Hollywood interpretation” of the book, then this is hardly the first time the film deviates from the book. Yet here we have an article about how a thin, yet healthy, young actress was “too well fed” to play the part she had. And we wonder why so many young women have issues with food and eating disorders in this country? This is ridiculous!

I agree in the sense that there is a lot of this bullshit in Hollywood. How “curves” got to be synonymous in Hollywood with overweight is beyond me. Media in general has perpetuated the myth for years that stars need to be super thin. That warped view is especially glaring in the case of women.

There’s a certain evil to how Hollywood carries on this way, because filmmakers know their work influences young people and instills them with the idea that they have to look a certain way to fit in and be loved.

Did Hollywood influence my own eating disorder? Absolutely, though my relationship with food was corrupted long before by growing up in a family of compulsive over-eaters.

For me, the Hollywood part stemmed from my love of Heavy Metal music and the culture built up around it. The heroes in this world of musicians were the skinny guys with long hair. To be emaciated was to look good. Wanting to be like my heroes, I did a lot of things I covered in a recent post called “Skinny Like A Fool.”

I think, to a certain extent, I abandoned my earlier goal of being a musician and got into journalism because in the latter profession, you could be fat and cool at the same time. Of course, I took that to the other extreme and became a 280-pound pile of waste before it was over. While I’m some 80 pounds lighter than that today, I’m still a big, stocky guy who had to drop flour and sugar and start weighing all my food to regain some sanity.

I was never trying to make it in Hollywood, and, being a guy, there were certain pressures I never felt. But what I did and why still left a lot of scars.

Having been down that road, I share Joan’s anger. But I also think some of the rage over calling Lawrence well-fed has been blown out of proportion.

In the original New York Times review, the words “too well fed” are never used. “Seductive” and “womanly” are over the top, but not the same as calling someone fat. The L.A. Times gossip column is where the “too well fed” came into play. Of course, that’s the newspaper of Hollywood, so spin that as you will.

Maybe someday we’ll move beyond looks and start judging each other by what’s in our heads and hearts. But not today, apparently.

What Else Is There?

When I’m wallowing in self-pity, I like to ask that question. It always goes back to those moments when I’m not particularly enjoying the clean and sober life.

Mood music:

For the most part, it’s gotten easier. When you don’t spend all your time thinking about how to pull off a binge, you get to experience a much fuller life. You enjoy the company of people more. You pack a lot more living into your travels. Best of all, you don’t go through the day under a foggy shroud that follows a drinking, eating or drugging binge.

But I won’t lie. Sometimes, when everyone around me is enjoying a glass of wine, a few beers, some cake and a smoke, I feel like the spoiled child who sits with his arms folded, pouting, because he lost dessert for leaving vegetables on the plate.

Saturday night kind of left me feeling that way. Erin and I had a fabulous evening at an auction to benefit our kids’ school and afterwards we went to the home of friends. The kitchen was packed with people whose company we’ve come to treasure. We didn’t go home until around 2 a.m., which for us is almost unheard of.

It was St. Patrick’s Day. Part of me would have loved indulging in the whiskey and wine on the table, and I would have enjoyed a cigar even more. But I can’t do that stuff anymore. Luckily, our hosts had Red Bull on hand. That’s my go-to beverage when the temptation for alcohol becomes too much.

I’m starting to realize something about these “what else is there” moments. It’s the dark side of my soul trying to trap me in old behavior. The devil whispers something in my ear about how I should be able to enjoy some of the finer things in life; that I shouldn’t be living the clean life if it’s going to make me a miserable bastard.

And yet I still weigh out every meal I eat. I avoid flour and sugar as if it were lethal poison. And whenever I have the opportunity to drink alcohol or smoke — particularly during travel — I don’t follow through.

I suppose I have a strong enough memory of all the pain that followed indulgence and I remember how hard I’ve worked to clean myself up. I guess the thought of falling backwards pisses me off and sparks worry more than the self-pity I feel when I can’t party.

Strangely enough — particularly where the smoking is concerned — I think the Wellbutrin I take along with Prozac to keep depression at bay has eased the craving for smoke. I’d heard about Wellbutrin having this effect on people, but I quit smoking several months before taking it and I didn’t really connect the dots.

What I’ve discovered, I told Erin Saturday night, is that I stopped being pissed about the no smoking when the Wellbutrin took hold. Until then, though I had quit, I was pissed about it. I wanted to smoke and only stopped because I got caught.

The clean and sober life is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.

But when I look at the things I’ve gained in life, I know it’s worth every deprived minute.

Such A Waste To Lose One’s Mind-Fulness

A combination of OCD and ADD has given me a bitch of a handicap: Living in the moment and being present has become tough as nails. Health experts call this elusive thing I search for “mindfulness.”

Mood music:

Here’s what happens:

When the OCD runs hot, I develop tunnel vision. I focus in on the task I’m either doing or thinking about. That’s good if you have a major work project to complete. It’s bad when someone is trying to talk to you and your brain is weaving a hundred schemes.

When the ADD picks up steam, I lose my focus. I’ll start thinking about a song I heard that day or how good it’ll feel to get into bed with a book. All while someone is talking to me.

I thought I stabbed this problem in the heart and killed it. On further reflection, I’m finding that the same problem has simply changed bodies like Dr. Who.

That in itself is still good, since the old persona was intense fear and anxiety that often incapacitated me. I broke out of that shell and life has been so much better as a result. But my current troubles are still painful.

Dealing with this issue has become the main focus of recent therapy sessions. I started bringing up the issue with my therapist because I’ve been realizing how unfair and hurtful zoning out can be at home. I don’t want to be that guy. And yet, for the moment, I am.

It’s not just a problem at home. Anywhere I go, when people are talking to me for anything longer than five minutes, I start to enter a fog. I still capture the main points of the conversation, but it requires heavy effort — effort that can be physically painful.

In recent weeks, I’ve considered what this handicap could cost me. My first reaction was to feel scared. That has settled into a low-grade anger.

Anger that I can’t just fix my brain and be done with it.

Anger that I have to do more therapy than usual.

Anger that the whole thing is exhausting me.

But that’s life. I have a problem, and I intend to beat it. And if I can’t beat it, I intend to figure out how to manage it.

At my age, I’m really not sure how much more I can fix. But even though I haven’t achieved perfection up to this point, the journey has been a beautiful one, full of experiences I never could have had a few years ago.

What lies ahead could be unpleasant. But as with past challenges, I may find gifts buried beneath the ugliness.

Art by Bill Fennell

When Difficult Kids Turn Out Alright

Readers know by now that Erin and I have a big challenge — helping our second child manage ADHD. He’s often difficult. Fair enough. I was a difficult child, too.

Mood music:

Duncan is actually tame compared to the 8-year-old me. He’s never filled up my gas tank with a garden hose. He’s never lit his plastic toys on fire, nearly burning down the house in the process. He’s never stolen money from his Dad’s wallet. He doesn’t bring home revolting report cards. That stuff was all me.

But it’s easy for me to forget those things when I’m the parent. When Duncan leaves a path of destruction around the house, causes scandal in the schoolyard by telling classmates Santa isn’t real or earns a note home from a teacher concerned that he’s not playing well with others, all the worries start about where he’s headed in life.

But I have hope.

Erin found a blog post from Rick Ackerly — a nationally recognized educator and speaker with 45 years of experience working in and for schools, dealing with kids of every harrowing stripe. It’s about how difficult children often grow up to be enormously successful adults.

He writes about an encounter he had on a flight with a CEO and three other high achievers. They talked about how they were bratty, rebellious children, and how the resulting experiences proved more valuable than a college education. He then says:

I put these stories together like this, not to try to convince parents and other educators that being bad is good, nor that one should hope for a difficult child, but to remind us of three critical education principles:

1) Difficulty, conflict, struggle, mistakes, disappointment and failure are where most learning comes from—usually the most important learning.

2) Difficulty is the life we are preparing our children for. We naturally hope that our children will be happy and successful, but that is a mirage–and we know it. The life they will get is a life of challenge, and the best preparation for challenge is challenges. When it’s harder for us, it might be better for them.

3) Raising difficult children might interfere with the rainbow life we were hoping for, but it might be better for the world. Remember Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, the willful child who started a charter school in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods when she was 23 and now at the age of 30 is running the thriving, vibrant Academy for Global Citizenship serving 250 students, 81% of whom are low income.

Someday I want to be on a flight from Chicago to Decatur with the Spanish teacher, the CEO, and your formerly difficult child.

Having a difficult child may be difficult, but it is not the worst thing that could happen to you.

If you haven’t seen his blog yet, you need to do yourself a favor and bookmark it. Every parent should read his work.

One would think I don’t need such reminders. Despite my rough patches, I turned out fine. I have a beautiful family, a successful career in journalism and I’m in the best health I’ve been in for years — despite all my self-destructive behavior.

But as I said, when you’re the parent, you forget and need lots of reminders.

Thanks for that, Mr. Ackerly.