Fatherhood Saved Ozzy, Eddie & Me

Yesterday I watched the “God Bless Ozzy Osbourne” documentary, which focused heavily on how his addictions maimed him and his family over four decades. Though my addictive behavior pales by comparison, it still struck a chord.

Mood music:

What hit me deepest is how Ozzy finally decided to get real sobriety after his son Jack had kicked drugs and alcohol. It took his son to show him the light.

There’s a similar plot in the recent comeback of Van Halen. Armed with the knowledge that he’d be able to make music with his son if he cleaned up, Edward Van Halen finally got sober a few years ago.

The son showing dad the light theme is an old one. It’s the whole “Luke Skywalker helping Darth Vader find his good side again” story. Only in the real life examples, the fathers get to live after having their epiphany.

In the documentary, we see Ozzy changing into a different, crazy person who continuously brings heartbreak to his family — especially his children. The daughter from his first marriage is asked point-blank if he was a good Dad. Her answer is a simple “No.” We learn — though it’s not really a surprise, given how incoherent he was in all the episodes — how his alcoholism was at its worst during the run of “The Osbournes” and how his youngest kids started using in that period. Finally, we see his son Jack deciding to clean up, inspiring his father to do the same.

Like I said, my addictive personality didn’t come close to the levels of Ozzy Osbourne or Edward Van Halen. But it was bad enough that I can relate to things like being useless on the couch when my kids needed me. I was never that way all the time, and I’ve been a pretty active Dad more often than not. But I am guilty of those bad moments.

But what I relate to most is how it took becoming a parent to drive home the need for me to be a better man and reign in my demons — the OCD and addictive behavior    that was a byproduct of constant fear, anxiety and exhaustion.

It wasn’t an instant thing — Sean was almost 4 and Duncan was was barely 2 when I realized things were not right in my head — but the cattle prod was definitely my hunger to be a better parent.

So yeah, I have to say I’m inspired by these rock n’ roll stories.

Me and My Dysfunctional Twitter Family

It feels like Twitter has been with us forever. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a relatively new toy we’re learning to use.  I see it as my second dysfunctional family.

Mood music:

My Twitter house has 3,262 people crammed into it; many from the information security profession. Some of the smartest people I know sit around the kitchen table every day, bantering without ever getting tired.

As it is with any family, we often get on each other’s nerves.

For one thing, the house is always LOUD. It’s so loud that it’s normal for half the household to go to bed with headaches while the rest keep pontificating, sharing pictures and arguing.

There’s the older uncle who’s perpetually cranky but we can sit at his feet and listen to him for hours because he’s so damn funny. And smart. Let’s face it, every family had a beloved, crazy uncle.

There’s the other uncle who will disagree with you just to start a debate. But he’s such a nice guy you just can’t get angry when he picks your positions apart.

There’s the cousin who never stops talking. Any random thought he has, he says it. You can’t keep up with him, he talks so fast. But he too is smart and talented, so we put up with it.

There’s the cousin who puts everything and everyone down for the sake of starting a conversation. This one usually comes in the house blasted on vodka or wine and talks about tearing someone’s eyeballs out. But this cousin is harmless and, deep down, a good kid.

There’s a brother who is always telling people what they did wrong — that they didn’t work hard enough or made sweeping statements that tarred people who didn’t deserve it. The rest of the family is afraid of this one. Unfortunately for us, though, he’s usually right, so we put up with him and, occasionally, try to stop doing the stupid thing he says we’re doing.

There’s the cousin who will let everyone know the second she stubs a toe, gets charged too much at the auto body shop or finds a hole in her umbrella. She’ll make her grocery list and run down the list aloud for all to hear. That grates on a few nerves, but she’s a sweet lady who is always there when one of us has a problem, so listening to her grocery list recital is the least we can do.

There are the two middle siblings who fight about everything, especially politics. They’ll occasionally call each other names, usually personalized variations of the F-S- and C-words. But they know their politics, so we listen and learn for about a half hour before yelling at them to shut up.

Then there’s me, perhaps the most infuriating family member of all.

I’m constantly shoving the stuff I write in their faces because I want them to talk about how the subject matter plays in their own lives. I don’t say much else when I’m in the house unless I’m excited about a new band I want people to hear or my kids say something too damn funny not to share. But I write all the time, and I have to show them everything, even stuff they may have seen before.

People tell me to shut up and go away; to stop repeating myself and promoting myself. That last one pisses me off and I spit out a few choice words. Then I resume what I’m doing like nothing happened.

People seem to tolerate me because writing is my job and, once in awhile, I write something that resonates with a few of them.

The rest simply ignore me when I get to be too much.

A messy, loud place, this Twitter house is. I’ve thought about moving out a few times, to get away from the so-called echo chamber. But I always decide to stay.

Because love ‘em or hate ‘em, these people are family.

And because — I’ll admit it — I need a few dysfunctional people in my life.

A Death Survival Guide For Novices

A friend is reeling from the death of a grandparent. Outliving your older family members is considered part of the natural order, especially if it’s a grandparent. But if it’s your first taste of death, it’s got to be pretty devastating.

Having experienced more than my share of friends and family dying, I figured a few words are in order.

Mood music:

I got my first taste of death the hard way, losing my brother Michael when I was 13. I knew of family deaths before him, but I was far removed from them. My grandfather — who I was named for — died some nine months before I was born. My parents wanted to name a child in his honor, and so here I am.

Losing a brother was not the natural order of things, obviously. The grief from my parents wasn’t the normal grief I later came to expect with the passing of grandparents and 70-something uncles. It created dysfunction that haunts the family to this day.

So when my great-grandmother died in 1994 — a few hours shy of my 24th birthday — I thought it would be easier to deal. It was, but it still sucked. Two years later, my other grandfather was gone, followed less than two years after that by my paternal grandmother. By maternal grandmother was gone a few years later. In between all that, my best friend died, followed a few years later my another friend.

I’ve learned a few things from all that death. I hope the following takeaways will be helpful to my friend:

1.) Let it suck. Don’t be a hero. If you’re feeling the pain from losing your grandmother, let it out. You don’t have to do it in front of people. Go in a room by yourself and let the waterworks flow if you have to. Don’t worry about trying to keep a manly face around people. You don’t have to pretend you’re A-OK for the sake of others in the room.

2. Don’t forget the gratitude. When someone dies, it’s easy to get lost in your own grief. There’s even a self pity reflex that kicks in. Try to take the time to remember how awesome your loved one was. Share the most amusing memories and have some laughs. The deceased would love that. And you’ll feel more at peace when you remember a life that was lived well.

3. Take a moment to appreciate what’s STILL around you. Your girlfriend. Your friends. If the death you just suffered should teach you anything, it’s that you never know how long the other loves of your life will be around. Don’t waste the time you have with them, and, for goodness sake:

4. Don’t sit around looking at people you love and worrying yourself into an anxiety attack over the fact that God could take them from you at any moment. God holds all the cards, so it’s pointless to even think about it. Just be there for people, and let them be there for you.

5. Take care of yourself. You can comfort yourself with all the drugs, alcohol, sex and food there is to have. But take it from me, giving in to addictions is nothing but slow suicide. You can’t move past grief and see the beauty of what’s left if you’re too busy trying to kill yourself. True, I learned a ton about the beauty of life from having been an addict, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever wish that experience on others. If there’s a better way to cope, do that instead.

6. Embrace things that are bigger than you. Nothing has helped me get past grief more than doing service to others. It sounds like so much bullshit, but it’s not. When I’m helping out in the church food pantry or going to Overeater’s Anonymous meetings and guiding addicts who ask for my help, I’m always reminded that my own life could be much worse. Or, to put it another way, I’m reminded how my own life is so much better than I realize or deserve.

This isn’t a science.

It’s just what I’ve learned from my own walk through the valley of darkness.

I’ve learned that life is a gift to be cherished and used wisely.

I’ve also learned that it hurts sometimes.

That’s OK.

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.

Godspeed, Barney Gallagher

Update: Barney Gallagher passed away this morning. He was a wonderful man who lived his life in a way we should all learn from. Godspeed, Barney.

Like everyone else who has worked at The Eagle-Tribune, my life has been touched by Barney Gallagher, an old-time journalist who reminded us young ones what the profession was about.

Mood music:

I’ve been informed that Barney is gravely ill. This post is to honor the man and ask that you all say a prayer for him.

I first met Barney when I interviewed for the night editor job at The Eagle-Tribune in 1999. Then-managing editor Steve Billingham was asking me questions when he stopped, looked up, and said, “Hey, Barn!”

I looked up to see an old timer perusing items on a cork board at the back of the newsroom, next to where Billingham worked at the time. Barney walked around smiling, stopping every few feet to say hello to someone.

He was ALWAYS smiling.

As night editor, I got to know Barney well. It seemed as though he could magically appear at the scene whenever a fire, car crash or other incident happened on the streets of his beloved Haverhill — camera in hand.

As I’d sit there frantically working my way through a pile of stories I had to edit for the next morning’s papers, he’d breezily walk in with that smile of his, looking as relaxed and fresh as if he’d just had a 10-hour nap, roll of film in hand for the dark room to process.

Haverhill Editor Bill Cantwell once said, only half-joking, that Barney slept with a police scanner under his pillow.

Barney’s insight became immensely important to me when I moved to Haverhill to start my family in early 2001. I knew little about the city other than that my wife grew up there. I turned to Barney’s “My Haverhill” columns for an education on my new home.

Through his work, I learned the history of the city, names of the most noteworthy characters (the late harbormaster, Red Slavit, comes to mind), and, with his columns in hand, I set out to explore the neighborhoods, the river and the open spaces. He taught me where the seediest parts of town were located, as well as the most beautiful.

Above all, his columns always captured a theme we imperfect beings tend to overlook in the hustle and bustle of daily life — that a community is only as good as the people living there, and that anyone could make a difference for their neighbors.

When I’m having a bad day, cranky from all the petty fires fate likes to light in our path, I often think of Barney and his smile. By the time I got to know him he was already well into his senior years. He had been through it all and carried on secure in what few could understand — that life’s storms always passed into oblivion, and that if we kept our cool, we’d be left standing.

His life is a case study in how we should conduct ourselves. I thank God that I was lucky enough to know him.

I’ll end with this picture of a young Barney Gallagher, drink in hand, cigarette in mouth, symbolizing the old-school journalist. Thanks to The Eagle-Tribune’s managing editor, Gretchen Putnam, for posting it this morning on her Facebook page.

You’re in our prayers, Barney.

The Way Of The Broken Soul

I went to see “The Way” with Erin and saw a lot of myself in the characters. You’d see a lot of yourself, too.

Mood music:

The summary of the film is this (stolen from IMDb): Tom is an American doctor who goes to France following the death of his adult son, killed in the Pyrenees during a storm while walking The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James. Tom’s purpose is initially to retrieve his son’s body. However, in a combination of grief and homage to his son, Tom decides to journey on this path of pilgrims. While walking The Camino, Tom meets others from around the world, all broken and looking for greater meaning in their lives, and discovers the difference between the life we live and the life we choose.

I don’t identify with Tom as much as I do his walking companions, especially a Dutchman named Joost and an Irish writer named Jack.

Joost tells Tom he’s making the journey because he needs to lose some weight to fit into his suit for an upcoming wedding. Jack is on the journey because he thinks there might be a book in the experience, and he’s trying to break his writer’s block.

If you rolled these two guys into one, that would be something close to me.

Despite the official reason Joost is there, he proceeds to eat his way across Spain. For much of the movie, he’s comforting himself with food. Jack is a blowhard who likes to talk about living like a real pilgrim, living off the land for survival and such. But he uses his company-issued credit cards to enjoy all the comforts of the local culture.

At one point, after a lot of wine, Tom interrupts Jack’s latest verbal tirade, calling him a bore who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he’s writing a book. The truth is that for all his talk, Jack’s carrying a lot of spiritual pain. It reminded me of some of my own bluster and hypocrisy. But it also reminded me of the healing power of writing, and how important it is to me. Not that I needed the reminder.

The scene that really hit me hard, though, is one where Joost is in his hotel room, about to tear into the feast he’s ordered from room service.

He’s wearing an open bathrobe, staring at himself — and his bloated belly — in the mirror with disgust. He stares at the tray of food and goes to take the first bite, and it’s there that you see the shame and pain in his eyes. The truth eventually comes out that his wife won’t sleep with him anymore because he’s too fat. He wants to please her, but he can’t stop himself from eating and popping pills.

All my past binge eating, wine guzzling and obsessive pain pill popping came back to me, as clear and awful as if I had just done it all the day before. I really felt bad for Joost at that moment.

By film’s end, Jack seems to have had a spiritual re-awakening and Joost seems to accept who he is, saying he’s just going to buy a new suit.

The recovered binge eater in me wasn’t particularly satisfied with that outcome, but it’s clear by film’s end that each of the characters came a long way in mending their broken souls.

For most of my life I’ve been an avid walker. As a kid I walked the full length of Revere Beach every day. In my 20s and 30s, I’d go out almost daily and take long walks. For all my recovery from addiction, the walking is something I haven’t gotten back into as much as I should. This movie has me rethinking that one. It reminded me that I walked for a spiritual lift as much as it was for weight control. In fact, a lot of my walking life was done in the midst of binge eating.

I’ve been able to control my weight in recent years without all the walking. But I think I need to get back to the walking anyway.

A good walk can help me set my mind and soul right. It doesn’t have to be a walk across Spain.

In fact, I’d much rather walk Revere Beach or the hilly terrain where I live now.

The Way Poster

Faith: An Excuse To Duck Personal Responsibility?

A friend and reader is unconvinced when it comes to my posts about surrendering to a higher power as part of recovery from addiction. Here’s what she said:

“Bill while I agree with a lot of what you say in this article. I fail to see the “surrender to a higher power model.” In fact, that is one of the many flaws I find in AA styled groups. I have no addictions (well maybe caffeine), but have read a modicum of information about them. My perception is that yielding resolve to a “higher power” seems to be an excuse for not taking responsibility. I say this after spending a good deal of my early 20s looking for some spiritual certainty. At various points I think I’ve found it, but then I realize it was just my own inner-needs presenting a false image.”

She makes a fair observation. On the surface, it’s easy to see addicts turning to Faith as just another crutch. And I’ve known people who use it to justify bad, selfish decisions. One guy would prattle on about the Lord providing whenever he borrowed money he never repaid. Others seem to have a level of Faith that grows when things are good and dwindles when things don’t go well.

So let me try to answer the question. First, I’ll point out that this is how I see it. Any number of religious people might explain things differently.

For me, when I try to control everything and handle everything by myself, I overwhelm myself and everyone around me. Part of my problem is that I can’t control a lot of things. If I crash and burn, I blame it on how hard life is and how I’m working so hard to handle all the challenges. When I do that, I’m avoiding personal responsibility.

It’s a common problem with addicts. We need help because we are too mentally damaged to make good decisions when we’re under the spell of our substances. We see things as us against the world. There’s nobody to help us. We’re on our own. And it’s hard to face your fears when you’re alone.

You can lean hard on other people, but when you do that you eventually burn them out. When someone is constantly calling you or showing up at the front door because they can’t handle life, it becomes disruptive to everyone in the immediate vicinity.

Enter the Higher Power.

A person’s higher power isn’t necessarily the conventional concept of God. It’s simply the realization that something bigger than yourself is at play and ready to help if you simply accept it. Your Faith can be rooted in Buddhism. You could be a Wiccan or Jewish. Or, like me, Catholic. You don’t necessarily have to be a regular church or temple goer, though I choose to go to church at least once a week.

It’s about the higher power of YOUR understanding.

While this is a central part of the 12 Steps and AA, I don’t believe that this is the only way to kick an addiction. Some people just decide to stop drinking, eating or drugging and manage to quit cold turkey. I envy them. Others do it with a strong support system of family and friends. Others, like me, need more.

Personally, I think surrendering the idea that I could control my demons alone was the first step in taking responsibility for my actions. The surrendering isn’t an act of giving up and becoming dependent on Faith like a cultist robot. Specifically, I surrendered an idea and a behavior that wasn’t working. I surrendered the image I had of myself. That’s when I was able to move forward.

It doesn’t mean I’m cured. I still struggle. But if I fall on my face, the responsibility is all mine. I think people who expect God to keep them from failure and bad fortune are delusional. Our mission is to learn to stay upright when things aren’t going so well, so we can come out of it better than before.

I hope that helps.

Art by Bill Fennell