Addiction — And Security Journalism — Showed Me That Anonymity Matters

Journalists like me have never been particularly comfortable using anonymous sources. When you don’t name names, someone inevitably questions if your source is real or imagined.

But after dealing with some addictions in recent years, I feel differently about it.

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There are some important distinctions to be made from the outset: I’ve written opinion pieces in my day job as a security journalist that have been critical of the hacker group Anonymous for hiding their identities while doing damage to others.

Going behind a mask so you can launch protests is fine with me, because honesty can be difficult when you fear the FBI agents at the door. I’ve been specifically critical of cases where I thought their actions had harmed innocent bystanders. In cases where innocents are hurt, hiding behind a mask makes you a coward, in my opinion.

That aside, we do live in a world where speaking your mind will get you blackballed, investigated or unfriended and unfollowed — if the latter two matter to you.

In one example where we were covering a data breach, a former employee wanted to tell us what really went on in the lead-up to the breach. But the person didn’t want their name used for fear that the company would try to sue them or hurt their chances of landing future employment. I agreed. A few days later, the person decided not to tell their story because people still in the company were snooping around the LinkedIn profiles of former employees. I can’t say I blame the person.

Indeed, covering security has made me understand the importance of anonymity compared to my experiences in community journalism.

But my experiences with addiction are what truly brought the importance of anonymity home for me.

Though I chose to tell everyone about my dependence on binge eating and, to a lesser extent, pain pills and alcohol, I’ve met a lot of people in OA and AA who never, ever would have started dealing with their demons if they had to do so publicly  — in front of friends, family and workmates. The prospect of being blackballed, fired or worse would have kept them on the same path to self destruction.

But because they can go somewhere where everyone is going through the same ugliness and not have their names exposed, they can be brutally honest about themselves and take those few extra steps to get help.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone honored naked honesty. But as Ice-T once rapped in a Body Count song: “Shit ain’t like that. It’s real fucked up.”

I was lucky. I was able to out myself and my demons without getting blackballed. It’s been an immensely positive experience. But you can’t always depend on the loving, respectful response I got.

In that environment, if anonymity can help a few more people get at the truth about themselves and the world they live in, then let it be.

The Monkey Will ALWAYS Be On Your Back

I’m standing at a bar in Boston with my wife and stepmom. They order wine and I order coffee. My stepmom beams and says something about how awesome it is that I beat my demons.

I appreciate the pride and the sentiment. But it’s also dangerous when someone tells a recovering addict that they’ve pulled the monkey off their back for good.

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Here’s the thing about that monkey: You can smack him around, bloody him up and knock him out. But that little fucker is like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. He won’t die.

Sometimes you can keep him knocked out for a long time, even years. But he always wakes up, ready to kick your ass right back to the compulsive habits that nearly destroyed you before.

That may sound a little dramatic. But it’s the truth, and recovering addicts can never be reminded of this enough.

Dr. Drew had a good segment on the subject last year, when he interviewed Nikki Sixx:

Sixx talked about his addictions and how he always has to be on guard. Dr. Drew followed that up with a line that rings so true: “Your disease is doing push ups right now.”

So painfully true.

I know that as a binge-eating addict following the 12 Steps of Recovery, I can relapse any second. That’s why I have to work my program every day.

But Sixx makes another point I can relate to: Even though he’s been sober for so many years, he still gets absorbed in addictive behavior all the time. The difference is that he gives in to the addiction of being creative. He’s just released his second book and second album with Sixx A.M. Motley Crue still tours and makes new music. He has four kids, a clothing line and so on. He’s always doing something.

I get the same way with my writing. That’s why I write something every day, whether it’s here or for the day job. I’m like a shark, either swimming or drowning. By extension, though I’ve learned to manage the most destructive elements of my OCD,I still let it run a little hot at times — sometimes on purpose. If it fuels creativity and what I create is useful to a few people, it’s worth it.

The danger is that I’ll slip my foot off the middle speed and let the creative urge overshadow things that are more important. I still fall prey to that habit.

And though it’s been well over three years since my last extended binge, my sobriety and abstinence has not been perfect. There have been times where I’ve gotten sloppy, realized it, and pulled back.

But the occasional sloppiness and full-on relapse will always be separated by a paper-thin wall.

I’ll have to keep aware of that until the day I die.

The monkey isn’t going anywhere. My job is to keep him tame most of the time.

Drawing by JUSTIN MCELROY (imaginarypeople26@yahoo.com). Click the photo to see more of his work.

Two Days, Three Shitty Anniversaries And One Bloody Month

Earlier this month I wrote about two sad anniversaries: the deaths of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Layne Staley in 2002. But today — April 19, and tomorrow, April 20 — we have a trio of tragedies to remember.

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Full disclosure: I’m about to steal liberally from Wikipedia.

April 19, 1993: Waco, Texas

The Waco siege began on February 28, 1993, and ended violently 50 days later on April 19. The siege began when the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), accompanied by several members of the media, attempted to execute a search warrant at the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel, a property located 9 miles (14 km) east-northeast of Waco, Texas. On February 28, shortly after the attempt to serve the warrant, an intense gun battle erupted, lasting nearly 2 hours. In this armed exchange, four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. Upon the ATF’s failure to execute the search warrant, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The siege ended 50 days later when a fire destroyed the compound when a second assault was launched. 76 people (24 of them British nationals) died in the fire, including more than 20 children, two pregnant women, and the sect leader David Koresh.

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April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City

The Oklahoma City bombing was a terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It would remain the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Oklahoma blast claimed 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of 6, and injured more than 680 people. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage. Extensive rescue efforts were undertaken by local, state, federal, and worldwide agencies in the wake of the bombing, and substantial donations were received from across the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) activated eleven of its Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, consisting of 665 rescue workers who assisted in rescue and recovery operations.

Within 90 minutes of the explosion, Timothy McVeigh was stopped by Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger for driving without a license plate and arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon. Forensic evidence quickly linked McVeigh and Terry Nichols to the attack; Nichols was arrested and within days both were charged. Michael and Lori Fortier were later identified as accomplices. McVeigh, an American militia movement sympathizer, had detonated an explosive-filled Ryder truck parked in front of the building. McVeigh’s co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, had assisted in the bomb preparation. Motivated by his hatred of the federal government and angered by what he perceived as its mishandling of the Waco Siege (1993) and the Ruby Ridge incident (1992), McVeigh timed his attack to coincide with the second anniversary of the deadly fire that ended the siege at Waco.

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April 20, 1999: Columbine High School

The Columbine High School massacre (often known simply as Columbine) occurred on Tuesday, April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colorado, United States, near Denver and Littleton. Two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, embarked on a massacre, killing 12 students and 1 teacher. They also injured 21 other students directly, and three people were injured while attempting to escape. The pair then committed suicide. It is the fourth-deadliest school massacre in United States history, after the 1927 Bath School disaster, 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, and the 1966 University of Texas massacre, and the deadliest for an American high school.

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April is also a bloody month for other days, like the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007 and the start of such bloody conflicts as the American Revolution and the Civil War. I could mention dozens of other bloody events that happened in April, but I think this is quite enough for now. If you want a fuller accounting of the bloodshed, check out this article by Chaotic Ramblings

I pray for everyone who died in those tragedies. As I write this, the sun is shining through my window, warming my hands as I pound away on the keyboard. I’m going to make this a good day, despite those bad memories.

I suggest you do the same.

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.

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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.

When The Going Gets Tough, I Disconnect

I’m leaving my weekly therapy sessions with a headache these days, because I’m working through another deeply embedded flaw in my soul.

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It’s not nearly as bad as the therapy I had in 2004-2006, when I had to endlessly churn the sewage of my childhood memories in search of clues on what was wrong with me and how I got that way. Back then, I didn’t know myself very well. Now I do.

Knowing myself as I do, I’ve started to zero in on the ongoing flaws that hold me back and hurt loved ones. That apparently requires a few more trips to the sewer.

I’ll give you a fuller account further along in this process. For now, let’s just say I have a wall I tend to hide behind when the going gets tough. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if not for the fact that life is ALWAYS tough. Not just for me, but for everyone. We all have our Crosses to carry and difficulties to endure. In my case, it’s a lot harder with a wall in the way.

So here we are again. Back in the mental sewer. I know my way around now, but the stench can still be too much to take.

The first question from the therapist was if I had talked to my mother lately. No, I told him. I thought Mom and I were making progress in December, but she couldn’t handle this blog and went off the deep end. I won’t defend myself. She’s entitled to her point of view. But let’s just say I was hoping to be writing posts by now about how we were reconciling.

So no, I told him. We’re not talking.

Then he asked about how I handled my brother’s death when I was 13. I told him I pretty much disconnected from the world. Same thing after my best friend killed himself in 1996.

“You’re starting to see the pattern?” the therapist asked.

Yeah. When the going gets tough, I disconnect. The bigger events caused that self-defense mechanism to take root all those years ago. But it kicks in during life’s more routine challenges. And when the wall goes up, my anger level kicks up a few decibels. I don’t do what I did in my teens and 20s: Throwing furniture through walls and plotting endless ways to find those who hurt me so I could hurt them back.

I’m not THAT guy anymore. But I do still get angry. When I do, I turn in on myself and brood.

But I knew that already.

Now the question is, what to I do about it?

I love my life now, and I’m blessed beyond measure. But the better my life gets, the more of an eyesore the wall becomes. It’s got to go.

My therapist has seen this stuff before. He knows the wall is rooted in the memory sewer.

So I guess I’ll be here for awhile longer.

Depression Takes Another Life: Ronnie Montrose

Depression has claimed another victim. Published reports confirm that legendary guitarist Ronnie Montrose’s March 3 death was a suicide.

Many of you are unfamiliar with him, but his playing left a lasting mark on a lot of mega-star musicians, including Eddie Van Halen, who recorded four studio albums with original Montrose singer Sammy Hagar.

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Montrose’s wife, Leighsa Montrose, described how badly he suffered in an interview with Guitar Player magazine:

“Ronnie had a very difficult childhood, which caused him to have extremely deep and damaging feelings of inadequacy,” said Leighsa. “This is why he always drove himself so hard. He never thought he was good enough. He always feared he’d be exposed as a fraud. So he was exacting in his self criticism, and the expectations he put upon himself were tremendous. Now I see that perhaps he didn’t want to carry these burdens for very much longer.”

I’ve been ultra-sensitive on the issue of suicide ever since my best friend took his life 15-plus years ago.

I was angry with him for many years. I thought he was a coward who left behind a mess. My thinking has evolved considerably since then. I now see suicide for what it is: The act of a person so ill with depression that they’ve lost the ability to think clearly. Whenever I hear of a suicide, I feel the need to mention it here because I don’t want anyone else’s name tarnished because that’s how it ended for them.

The topic is a tough one for Catholics like me, because we were always taught that suicide is a ticket straight to Hell. These lines from the Catechism of the Catholic Church show that suicide isn’t the trip to eternal damnation many in the church would have us believe:

“2282 Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. 

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

Nothing is ever as black and white as we’d like to believe. The older I get, the clearer that point becomes.

It used to seem strange to me how depression could snuff out one life while leaving legions more intact. But it’s not so strange, really. Cancer kills a lot of people every day, but many more are left standing.

I’m no stranger to depression. I suffer the bleak feelings of it regularly, though never to the point of suicide. Mine is a brooding, curmudgeonly form of depression that I’ve learned to manage well through therapy and medication.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I suppose. I’ll just be grateful about it and leave it at that.

I hope Montrose finds the peace he couldn’t find in life.

I Pity The Fool — Especially When The Fool Is Me

“I don’t know how much more I can take.”

I’ve told myself that a million times, as I’m sure you have. We say it in times of desperation, pain and blueness.

But here’s an uncomfortable truth — Sometimes we like feeling this way.

Mood music:

There’s something about feeling bad for oneself that’s so satisfying. Maybe it’s that on some level you’ve made peace with your seemingly miserable existence.

It helps us get through a bad fight with a loved one, because instead of thinking of what we did to cause the strife it feels better to stew over how unfairly you’re always treated.

If we despise our job it feels so much better to focus the hate on whichever bosses keep criticizing us than it does to take an honest look at where we keep slipping up.

If you hate the results of an election, it’s so much easier to trash the “stupid” voters who picked the other guy than it is to think about how the candidate and supporters like you failed to make a convincing case.

If you don’t like the drivel that comes from the mouth of a misguided minister, it feels so much better to steam over the entire religion than it does to think of better ways to practice your own faith.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Sometimes, we love to feel bad. Pure and simple.

I’m trying to enjoy it less as I get older, because I find that self-pity and misplaced blame is like any other narcotic: You feel good for a few minutes, but then an awful hangover takes hold.

You start to wake up every morning with a cold rock in your belly and an ax swinging inside your skull, chopping brain.

Then you go looking for other shallow comforts to hold it together: A few cigarettes, a few glasses of something intoxicating and as much grease-drenched food as you can swallow.

The hole gets bigger, no matter how hard we try to fill it.

Nothing gets better. it all just gets worse.

That’s my experience, anyway.

I’d rather go the other way.