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.

For A Girl Recently Diagnosed With Crohn’s Disease

The daughter of close friends just found out she has Crohn’s Disease. She’s suffering a lot right now, and I know exactly what she’s going through. This post is for her.

Mood music:

Hello, my young friend. I’m sorry that you’re hurting so much right now. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was around your age, and spent many weeks in the hospital between ages 8-16. It stinks. But if there’s one thing I’d like you to remember after reading this, it’s that it WILL get better.

I experienced all the things you are now — the massive loss of blood, the knifing pain in the gut, sleepless nights in the bathroom, and more blood.

A couple times, I’ve been told, the doctor’s came close to removing the colon. Too much of it was under siege and they didn’t know where to start in terms of targeting it. But it never came to that.

The pain was pretty intense. I really don’t know how my parents were able to get through it. I think it would cause me more anguish to see one of my kids suffer than to go through it myself. That had to hurt. Especially since they lost another child along the way. It also couldn’t have helped that I would be in the hospital for six-week stretches in 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981.

I mention this because you should know how hard it is for your Mom and Dad to see you hurting. They’re new to this Crohn’s thing, and they will worry endlessly about what they are doing for you and whether it’s the right thing. Be patient with them if you can. But if you need to yell at them once in awhile so you can cope, go ahead. That’s what parents are for.

As you will probably soon discover, the most popular drug to treat what’s making you sick is Prednisone, which comes with a long list of side effects. Your face might get puffy and you’ll want to eat everything in sight. But you’re a strong kid and you can handle that.

A lot of people helped me survive a childhood of brutal Crohn’s Disease: My parents, great doctors, school friends who helped me catch up with my schoolwork and rooted for me whenever I got out of the hospital, and a great therapist who helped me sort through the mental byproducts of illness.

I think you’re going to get through the current attack and that you will be able to move on to a better life. Again, I lean on my personal experience.

I’m probably one of the luckiest Crohn’s patients on Earth. The last bad flare up was in 1986 and I haven’t had once since. I still go through frequent periods of inflammation, but nothing that requires drugs or hospital stays. The colon is checked out every other year to make sure the layers of scar tissue don’t run wild and morph into cancer.

Had the doctors removed the colon when I was a kid, I think things still would have worked out. I would have learned to live with it. Whatever you have in front of you, I think you can make the best of it and push through.

Be strong and keep the faith, my young friend. I hope you feel better soon.

–Bill

P.S.: Here’s a picture of me the year I was diagnosed. I’m the kid at the very back, right in the middle. As you can see, Crohn’s Disease couldn’t kill my smile. It won’t kill yours, either.

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.”

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.

When ‘Helicopter Parents’ Get Easter Egg On Their Faces

When I see something like this news story about a cancelled Easter egg hunt in Colorado, I have to wonder what we parents are doing to our kids.

Mood music:

According to the article from The Associated Press, “Organizers of an annual Easter egg hunt attended by hundreds of children have canceled this year’s event, citing the behavior of aggressive parents who swarmed into the tiny park last year, determined that their kids get an egg.”

The article continues, “Too many parents had jumped a rope set up to allow only children into Bancroft Park in a historic area of Colorado Springs. Organizers say the event has outgrown its original intent of being a neighborhood event. Parenting observers cite the cancellation as a prime example of so-called “helicopter parents” – those who hover over their children and are involved in every aspect of their children’s lives – sports, school, and increasingly work – to ensure that they don’t fail, even at an Easter egg hunt.”

Being the parent of two kids born at the beginning of the 21st-Century, I get sensitive about this stuff.

I’ve always been fiercely protective of my children. Part of it is that fear of loss. I’m like Marlin the clown fish in “Finding Nemo.” Like Marlin, I don’t want anything bad to happen to my offspring.

The “bad” includes them being disappointed if they lose at a game or fail to win a prize. Sean loves watching “The Clone Wars” and once, when we took his screen time away for misbehavior, I felt horrendous. When a game doesn’t go Duncan’s way he loses it, and my natural instinct is to want him to feel better.

It would be easy for me to make fun of the parents who got crazy and stupid to ensure their kids got an Easter egg, but the truth is that I could have just as easily been one of those parents.

Any good parent is going to be over-protective to a point, and that’s how it should be. God gave us these kids to nurture, and we have to make sure they make it to adulthood and beyond.

But we’re also supposed to teach them how to survive adversity. For all my talk in this blog, I haven’t always done that part very well.

Some of it is my own background. Having watched my parents divorce, a brother die and a best friend commit suicide, I’ve had an overwhelming urge to shield Sean and Duncan from danger and disappointment at all costs. That kind of compulsion is tailor-made for someone with OCD, because we drive ourselves mad trying to control all the things we are absolutely powerless to control.

I’ve gone crazy over all the usual things. I see a mosquito bite or two on their legs and I go into a fit of lunacy because mosquitoes can carry dangerous diseases. Letting them out of my sight can fill me with dread.

But I also remember something else from childhood: After my brother died, my mother, who was already overbearing, became absolutely suffocating. I think she wanted me to stay in whatever room she was in straight on through adulthood.

Naturally, I rebelled.

Thank God I did, because without taking some chances in life and breaking free of your protective sphere, you amount to nothing.

I can’t put my kids through the same thing, no matter how much I worry about them.

Learning to better control my OCD had been helpful. When I learned to break free of the fear and anxiety, I stopped going crazy over the little things.

But man, I still hate to see my kids upset. I mean, I HATE it.

But they need to get upset, sometimes. It’s part of growing up.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie I mentioned at the beginning of this post: Marlin and Dory are inside a whale, and Marlin laments that he failed to keep a promise to his son. The exchange went something like this:

Marlin: “I promised I’d never let anything bad happen to him.”

Dory: “That’s a funny thing to promise. If nothing ever happens to him, then nothing will ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.”

Kids need adventure. They even need to experience adversity. That’s how they learn to be good, strong adults.

That adversity includes learning to handle the disappointment that comes with not getting an Easter egg, missing a favorite TV show or losing a game.

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.