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.

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.

Mood music:

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.

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.

The Wit And Wisdom Of Sean Brenner

Today is Sean’s 11th birthday, and we’re all very proud of him. In honor of this special day, I share with you some of my favorite Sean-isms.

Mood music:

–Heard in the bathroom: Sean singing to no one in particular, “Your butt’s too big to be real…”

–Me: “I missed you Sean. I love you.” Sean, staring intently at the drawing he’s working on as I tell him this: “Dad, go get me a pencil”

–Sean, grousing about his loose pants: “This is ridiculous. If Eve didn’t eat that stupid apple, I wouldn’t have to worry about pants!”

–Sean, explaining The Prodigal Son to Duncan: “If there were a third brother, he would have just sat there chilling out, taking it all in.”

–Sean-ism of the morning: I learned Australian in second grade. It’s my second language.

–Sean, exasperated that Duncan is running around sans pants: “For Pete’s sake, Duncan! You’re a lot of work.”

–Sept. 23, 2010: I feel a strange sense of satisfaction for a Dad who was just informed by his oldest that “You are ruining my life.”

–Sean: “Babies come out the you-know-what” Duncan: “Gross. Why’s that?” Sean: “That’s just the way life works.”

–Sean, in response to me telling him and Duncan to do a chore: “Dad, if you’re trying to annoy us, it’s not working.”

–Me to Sean: “You’re so stinkin’ cute.” Sean to me: “You’re so stinkin’ ugly. No offense.”

–Sean, noticing the Greek Orthodox church we were driving past: “Gee Whiz! I didn’t even know Greek Mythology was still around!”

–Sean, trying to coach Duncan through a Star Wars game online: “Oh, for crying out loud Duncan… USE THE FORCE! USE THE FORCE!”

–The Sean-Duncan Star Wars feud takes a dark, stinky turn: Duncan says Sean keeps calling him Sen. Poopatine and he wants me to punish him.

–Bathtub chatter: Sean: “Cheese is your favorite food, right Duncan?” Duncan: “Of course.” Sean: “I read they’re gonna stop making it soon.”

–Sean’s take on his grandfather (my father): “I’ll tell you what, Duncan. There is nothing we can’t get him to do.”

–Sean, growing impatient with the DC-to-Boston drive: “What state are we in besides a state of confusion?”

–Sean: “Can I have more computer time?” Me: “No.” Sean: “Wow. That was unexpected.”

–I have a ZZTop concert streaming on the laptop while I work. Sean takes a look and asks if the guitar player is “that @jack_Daniel guy.” (Jack is a heavyweight in the security industry who looks a lot like Billy Gibbons from ZZTop)

–Sean’s Lament: “My workbook project calls for a mural about compassion. Much to my dismay, it makes me want to barf.”

–Sean just proclaimed that my iced coffee looks like cow manure with ice cubes on top.

–Sean: “One of the things I really love about Gramma and Grandpa is that they’re so disorganized.”

–Sean just kicked my ass at 3 games of checkers. Now he’s trash-talking me. My revenge will come later, and it will be spectacular.

–Sean-ism of the day: “Thank God for Dunkin Donuts. There’s always one along the road when you really need to use the bathroom.”

–Bad Sean joke #452 … Sean:”Why did the cop wrap the crook in tinfoil?” Me: “I dunno. Why?” Sean: “Because he wanted to foil the crime.”

–Sean: “I’m looking forward to seeing the White House tonight. Good food there.” Me: “We’re there for a tour, not dinner.” Sean: “Oh well.”

–Sez Sean, because I didn’t look at his computer game fast enough: “C’mon Dad, what’s more important, your son or your Blackberry?”

–Sean, fighting with Duncan: “My life was pretty good till you came along.”

–Sean scolded me for killing an ant cause “They’re God’s creatures.” Then he found one on his Lego sets, and now he wants all ants dead.

–Sean’s description of Duncan’s breath: “Like a cat climbed in your mouth, peed, pooped and died.” His breath was just as bad.

–Sean hasn’t stopped laughing since I told him Bun Bun — the Whites’ dwarf hamster — got caught in Sam’s closet and crapped everywhere.

“You are the picture of evil.” Sean, after I made them do homework on their snow day.

Sean, pretending to be a clone trooper from Star Wars: “I hate this job. I don’t get MLK Day off. Crap, I didn’t even get Christmas off!”

Me to Sean: “I have a thought.” Sean: “There’s a 50-50 chance I’m gonna protest it.”

Sean: “Duncan, how many kids do you plan to have?” Duncan: “20: 10 girls, 10 boys.” Sean: “I can’t watch all those kids. Scale it back.”

Sean’s 9-year-old reaction to news that Uncle Brian is getting married: “Oh yeah? Whatever.”

Duncanism of the day: If the inside of my head was empty, I’d be light-headed.

Sean’s reaction to the Duncanism of the day: “Duncan, you infuriate me.”

“Good luck. You’re gonna need it.” Sean, wishing one of Erin’s friends well in an important business venture

“Get out of the way, Lando! For crying out loud!” Sean, temper flaring, during a particularly difficult Wii game of “Star Wars: The Complete Saga.”

–Said Sean, matter-of-fact-like: “If you don’t want your butt to get burned, don’t live in a frying pan.”

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.

Mood music:

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.

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.