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.

A Crohn’s Disease Attack, Put To Music

During a severe Chrohn’s Disease attack in the mid-1980s — around the time I was discovering Van Halen‘s older albums — I found one song that really personified what I was feeling.

It’s the final song on the band’s debut album from 1978, which is also the year I was first attacked by this disease.

As I’d spend the early-morning hours sitting on the toilet in the upstairs bathroom of 22 Lynnway, Revere, losing blood, clutching my gut and making a thousand deals with God, that song would reverberate through my head, over and over.

I had forgotten about it over the years. But this morning, for the hell of it, I decided to listen to that first Van Halen album on the drive to work. Somewhere along Route 128, the song came on, and I was transported back in time.

I went a lot of years without listening to the song. It’s not that it brought back the bad memories. It’s just that I’ve been listening to other things, including Van Halen’s new album, “A Different Kind Of Truth.”

Looking back, I’m glad I had that song going through my head during the overnight Crohn’s attacks. It put noise and words to what I was feeling, and made those long hours of darkness feel a little less lonely.

As I replay the new Van Halen album over and over, I’ve found another song that fits my life today. It’s a track called “Blood and Fire.”

Those two words fit the feeling (fire) and result (blood) of a Crohn’s attack. But the song is about coming out the other side, making it through the blood and fire and doing, as David Lee Roth sings, a victory dance.

Thanks for the coping music, boys.

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.

Mood music:

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.

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.

The Day Kurt Cobain Died

I remember exactly where I was 18 years ago today, when I saw the news flash about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I was lying in bed, depressed and reclusive because of frequent fear.

Mood music: 

I was living in Lynnfield, Mass., at the time. I had a room in the basement, just like I had in Revere. But this space was much smaller — a jail cell with a nice blue carpet. But I did have my own bathroom, which I never cleaned.

Erin and I had been going out for less than a year, and I was waiting for her to come by after she finished work. I had been sleeping after a food and smoking binge and I still had a few hours to kill, so I turned on MTV, which still played music videos at the time.

There was MTV news anchor Kurt Loder and Rolling Stones editor David Fricke, holding court like Walter Cronkite following JFK’s assassination in 1963. Fricke expressed concern that depressed teens who listen to Nirvana might view suicide as the heroic thing to do; the only answer. “This is about your kids. You need to talk to them,” he said.

Erin arrived, we expressed our mutual shock, then we went out to dinner.

Though I was given to depression at that point, it wasn’t the suicidal kind, and would never become that. I’ve always been the type to hide in a room for long stretches, staring blankly at a TV screen, when depressed. Suicide was something I never really thought about at that point. It was an alien concept.

Then, a couple months later, a close friend attempted suicide. Two years later, he tried again and succeeded. In the 15 years since then, I’ve worked hard to gain the proper perspective of such things.

When Cobain died, I assumed he went straight to hell. I never gave it a second thought. Suicide is one of the unacceptable sins, like murder, the kind that gets you sent to the fire pit.

Today, I’m not so sure.

Kurt Cobain was unprepared for the crazy fame and publicity that came his way. He dove into heroin for solace. You could say the whole thing literally scared him to death.

Fortunately, he left behind a strong body of work.

When I listen to Nirvana, I don’t think of Kurt Cobain stuffing the tip of a rifle up his nose and pulling the trigger.

I think of how anxiety, fear and depression are universal things, how the sufferer is never, ever truly alone, and how we never have to be beaten.

I don’t need drugs to feel like Sunday morning is every day, though two anti-depressant prescriptions do help.

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

Rock School Would Have Helped Me

Watching my kids in the Scouts makes me wonder what I’d be like today had I not been so against trying everything my parents suggested.

Mood music:

My parents were always trying to get me to join different organizations: The Jewish Community Center off of Shirley Ave. in Revere, Camp Menorah, etc. I rebelled against all of it.

My parents were right to push these things on me. I was in the fourth grade and they had just gotten divorced. It was a bitter, hate-filled, fight-infested divorce. They just wanted there to be someplace we could go to take our minds off the pain and focus on something positive.

The counselors at these places tried their best to make it happen. But I was a punk and treated them all with contempt. I especially hated Camp Menorah (my much younger sister, Shira, loved it there and was a counselor when she got older.). I didn’t get along with anyone and I felt they were robbing me of the freedom to roam the streets of the Point of Pines. The home neighborhood was safe enough and was surrounded by the ocean. I just wanted to hide in the tall grass behind Gibson Park.

Looking back, I feel bad for being such a rotten kid to these people.

Fast forward 32 years.Sean and Duncan are heavily involved in all the typical scouting activities: pinewood derbies, Blue and Gold banquets, frequent camping trips. I’ve been on three camp-outs with Sean, who just crossed over into Boy Scouts.

The dynamic is much different. We’re not trying to keep them from home to shield them from pain. We just see it as a great character-building opportunity. Besides, a lot of their friends are Scouts.

I would have made a terrible scout because my mind was in the gutter much of the time. I probably would have been kicked out.

The only thing I really took passion in besides my Star Wars toy collection was music. I watched MTV religiously. I collected every scrap of heavy metal I could get my hands on. Van Halen. Motley Crue. Alice Cooper. Kiss. Metallica. Anthrax.

It would have been immensely useful to me if there had been an activity where I could channel that stuff.

Nothing makes me think of this more than the music school my friends started down the street from where we live.

Mike and Nancy

We first met Nancy Burger and her son Wolfgang around 2005 when we hired Nancy to babysit Sean and Duncan. Wolfgang was always with her, and my kids took a shine to him. Eventually we started taking turns watching each others’ kids.

Nancy and her husband, Mike DeAngelis, shared my taste for the same heavy rock music.

Eventually, Nancy and Mike — a longtime music teacher — pooled their talents and started a music school —  DeAngelis Studio of Music & Arts — in an old building in Lafayette Square. They added an element that a lot of music schools don’t have — a rock school where students form bands and learn to perform live. Wolfgang, then 6 or 7, started playing bass and became part of a band the school put together with other kids his age called the Black Diamonds. We’v e seen them perform several times, and they’ve gotten quite good.

The kids have gone to concerts together. They got backstage and met the Scorpions. A couple weeks ago they saw Van Halen, which made me jealous as all hell.

In a way, their operation is a lot like Boy Scouts. They teach the kids the values of workmanship, teamwork and discipline. But there are no uniforms.

As a kid, I would have eaten it up. Who knows where that would have led me.

I don’t look back on what could have been with sadness.

I couldn’t be happier with how my life turned out. I wouldn’t trade my wife and kids for the world. I love my work.

I get to be creative through my writing.

I’m just grateful there’s a rock school for today’s youth.

I hope they keep at it for a long time to come.

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.

In Defense Of Wolfgang Van Halen

With a new Van Halen album out, everyone has an opinion. Fine by me, because I have mine. But one writer has taken his displeasure over bassist Wolfgang Van Halen to levels that earn him a smack to the back of the head.

Mood music:

When you question quality of the songwriting and musicianship, it’s all well and good. If you’re a music critic, that’s your job.

But Martin Cizmar, former music critic at Phoenix New Times (he’s now at the Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon) makes personal attacks, specifically against Wolfgang, son of Edward Van Halen. Maybe I shouldn’t care because Cizmar wrote this article in 2010. His argument was that Wolfgang represents everything wrong with Millennials. Sarcasm is Cizmar’s thing, and I get that when reading this. But good sarcasm need not look like this:

First, let me say that, like most right-thinking people who’ve successfully avoided consuming any Chernobly Energy Drink in the vicinity of a hot tub, I don’t really give a shit whether the Van Halen brothers team up with their old singer David Lee Roth or not. I mean, seriously, is anyone expecting this to rock at all? The dudes are too old for Spandex and too proud to reinvent themselves as a bluegrass-y acoustic outfit, a la Robert Plant. So whatevs.

However, as both a taxpaying American citizen and professional critic of popular music, I am outraged by the band’s decision to fire original bassist Michael Anthony so that Eddie’s 19-year-old son, Wolfgang, can take his spot in the lineup.

Okay, look, I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I won’t try: “Wolfie,” the son of Eddie and his ex-wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli, is a fat little pig with bad skin who has no business being on stage with Van Halen. Letting him “play rock star” on huge stages is a travesty of embarrassing proportions. If VH wasn’t already in rock’s hall of fame I’d suggest they be banned, Pete Rose-style.

Can Wolfie play bass? Who cares? I’m sure he’s competent. Because, really, who can’t play bass? Fact: There are several trained apes playing bass in circus bands touring the country. They get way more chicks than Wolfie and they party way harder.

So why is Wolfie taking the place of a guy who was in the band for nearly 40 years? Because his daddy wants to pretend his special little son is talented or gifted or cool or whatever. Like those parents who sued their kids’ school for suspending them after they were busted with booze, Eddie wants to teach his son to have no respect for anyone or anything.

They call this the Age of Entitlement. I’m not sure The Bubonic Plague II would be worse. It seems that when you’re a Baby Boomer with money or power, your goal is to teach your asshat children to show nothing but utter contempt for your fellow man and the rules and standards that govern polite society. It’s a horrible thing to see.

What a jerk.

I don’t know Wolfgang, but neither does this guy. I don’t care what he looks like, but it apparently means a lot to Cizmar, who has written a how-to-lose-weight book called “Chubster.”

I agree when he says a lot of parents today are out of control, spoiling their children and not teaching them responsibility and respect. But that’s always been a problem.  He writes about this like it’s some new crack in America’s superior armor. There are good parents and bad parents. It’s always been that way and always will be.

I haven’t seen much from Wolfgang in terms of quotes in articles. Since he comes across as quiet, how would Cizmar know if Wolfgang lacked respect for his fellow man? And how could he possibly know what Edward Van Halen’s parental motivations are?

My uninformed opinion is that Wolfgang’s addition to the band is what probably saved it — the younger Van Halen inspiring his dad to put the bottle down and get back to work.

Whatever the case may be, I think Cizmar is the real “asshat” of this tale.

http://www.vanhalenstore.com/shop/graphics/00000001/M48B.jpg

RIP: Whitney Houston

As a rocker kid in the 1980s and 90s, I never really liked Whitney Houston. I always respected her talent and she seemed like a decent person, but that was it.

Mood music: Whitney at her best…

But I had kept track of reports in recent years about the drug use, the family dysfunction and the fall from musical grace, and it always made me sad. Everyone has a demon or 10 to fight. Some call it our cross to bear. You’ve read about mine plenty of times in this blog.

Unfortunately, some have better luck than others in beating the demons back.

Houston deserves credit for being honest over the years. People love to gawk when the mighty fall, but she didn’t walk around pretending nothing was wrong. I think back to the 2002 interview she did with Diane Sawyer, where she admitted that she was a user. In 2009, she admitted to Oprah Winfrey that she laced her marijuana with rock cocaine and revealed that she’d done time in rehab and had undergone an intervention by her mother.

I feel for her fans. I remember the sadness I felt when Kurt Cobain and Steve Clark died.

It all goes to show that addiction and mental illness are killers. Some, like me, are lucky enough to get help before it’s too late.

Others lose the fight.

I’ll say a prayer for Houston and hope she is in a better place.

And I’ll thank God for my own recovery. I’m sober and abstinent today, but I know I’ll never, ever be fully out of the woods.

Grab life by the balls and don’t let go to grab the pills, the booze, the food or whatever else will make a slave of you.

Good morning.