The Short, Strange History of Skeptic Slang

The author is forced to tell the story of his 2 years as lead singer of a strange band called Skeptic Slang.

Mood music for this post: “Stardog Champion” by Mother Love Bone:

I avoided this for as long as I could. I don’t like to admit that I used to sing in a band. For one thing, my singing really sucked. For another, the band never went anywhere.

But some pictures of me from around that time have been unearthed, and people are starting to talk.

Here’s the picture of me with hair halfway down my back, on the left:

I’m bald now, but I still have all that hair on my back. Erin doesn’t mind, so neither do I.

The other thing that has sparked curiosity is this poem I found in an old foot locker last month. It was written by a long-lost friend, Joy Affannato, before she married my best friend, Sean Marley:

“Blessed and Black Clad, Dedicated to Bill Brenner”

Clad in black

with a black-lined heart

like the charred edges

of our burnt society

Gathering the ash

to sift through and find

some satiating solution.

…A poet

with a doctrite of humanity

But, no one really has the answers:

Every question is relevant

And using words of metaphor

he transforms the WRITTEN WORD

At the bottom left of the page she scrawled the logo for Skeptic Slang.

So ok, then. Let’s talk about this band.

Members:

Bill Brenner: Vocals

Chris Casey: Guitar

Elias Andrinopolous: Bass

Joe Gentile: Drums

We got together in the spring of 1992. It started as me and Chris. We’d sit in my basement and write songs, thinking we were the shit. I was going through my chip-in-the shoulder angry phase and was writing all kinds of lyrics about how much I hated my mother and hated that my brother was dead.

There was the song “Knife,” with this jolly refrain: “Knife… You’re my best friend.”

The songs about my mother were called “Tunnel Vision” and “You’re Dead” The song I wrote about my brother was called “Rest.”

Let’s fast-forward for a second: I should point out that today I do not carry a knife and I don’t hate my mother. I love her, despite our inability to get along.

Back to the past: Chris and I were smoking buddies with a lot of the same anger at life. We were a natural fit. Then Elias came along; a peaceful, friendly soul who was in many ways the opposite of me. Joe joined later, but he was older than the rest of us and was in and out of the band.

At the time, I was also working at the legendary Rockit Records, and being a musician was sort of an unspoken bonus.

We went out and bought a bunch of gear at Daddy’s Junky Music on Route 1 in Peabody: Amps, a mixing board, PA system, monitors. We didn’t know how to use any of it, and we were on a payment plan as if we had purchased a new car together.

But it looked cool and made us loud in the bomb shelter beneath the garage that we practiced in. This was in the house in Lynnfield, where I lived from late 1992 to late-1995.

We wrote a lot of songs and practiced. And practiced. And practiced. Elias was the least experienced on his instrument, but quickly became the best musician of us all. I was the worst. I couldn’t sing to save my life.

But I could write lyrics, and that was all that was required.

When it was time for a break, we’d go out into the woods and smoke pot. In fact, the last time I smoked pot was with them. I stopped when I started dating Erin.

We played a couple acoustic sets along the way at Roosevelts, a hang-out in Salem. We did a couple performances at North Shore Community College in Lynn.

Then we did a battle of the bands event, and it was a disaster.

Elias’ bass was way out of tune as we launched into the opening song. Instead of just rolling with it, we panicked. it was all hell from there.

We retreated to the bunker and did more writing and practicing. Those songs would never be played live. Joe had a kid and had less and less time for the band. Chris burned out and left. After awhile it was just be and Elias. We tried to keep it going with a new guitarist, who played wonderfully but could never settle on anything. We kicked him out, and Elias and I continued on for awhile longer.

Then it just sort of stopped.

But I’ll tell you what: That band, bad as we were — or I was, anyway — was a Godsend. I was going through a lot of depression back then and clashed with everyone.

The band gave me an outlet to vent those emotions. It couldn’t save me from my addictions, but it saved me from my worst instincts, one of which was to go out and destroy things, whether that meant kicking a dent into the side of my dark-blue 1985 Monte Carlo or throwing stuff around in my father’s warehouse.

It wasn’t meant to last, but it was there when I needed it most.

After the band disintegrated, the music store bought back all the gear, Elias went on to study classical guitar and I went frantically forward in my pursuit of a career in journalism.

A tape of our songs is probably kicking around somewhere. Someday it will surface.

We’ll listen and have a good laugh. Not at the guitar, drums and bass, which were very good. But at the rest of the package.

To Chris, Elias and Joe: Thanks for the memories.

RED BULL BLUES

The author learns once again that when he puts one addiction down, he picks up another.

Mood music:

I realized something awhile back. I guess I already knew, but this just made it crystal clear for me.

I was at the airport, en route to Santa Clara, California. There was no Starbucks nearby. My other choices were Dunkin’ Donuts or coffee served at a breakfast place across the way.

Certain that both choices would fall far short of the kick I get from Starbucks, Peets or one of the other high-grade coffee providers, I went with a can of Red Bull.

My latest addiction.

I never thought I would start drinking this stuff. But here’s how it happened:

During the 2010 RSA security conference, I was feeling a bit edgy because living through a conference without enjoying all the free booze was something I was still adjusting to, even though I’ve been sober and abstinent from binge eating for quite some time. On the show floor, the Threatpost “clubhouse” had a fridge stalked with free soft drinks, including Red Bull.

Free caffeine in a can. And there’s a sugar-free version, which helps, since I gave up flour and sugar for the binge eating problem.

Drinking it removed the edge, and having a can in my hand instead of a coffee cup somehow made it easier to exist around all the people with beer, wine and stronger cocktails in their hands.

Game over.

Since then, I’ve been drinking at least one every afternoon or evening. Erin said she was getting annoyed finding random empty Red Bull cans around the house and in my car.

The funny thing is, she used to express it the same way when she found evidence of an eating binge under the car seats. Guilt bags, she called them.

Now they’re empty Red Bull cans.

And thus we have another example of what I call playing your addictions like a piano. You pound on one key until it breaks into pieces. You realize it was stupid to do that and you stop it. Then you do the same thing to another key further down the board. The process repeats until you’ve smashed every key on the piano.

Then you find another piano and repeat the process.  It’s a kind of purgatory addicts live in.

Am I angry about picking up an addiction to Red Bull?

A little.

It pisses me off that I can’t picture myself without SOMETHING in my hand to somehow fill the soul hole. Over time that hole has gotten a lot smaller, allowing me to put down the most destructive addictions. But there’s just enough of a chasm left that other, smaller addictions come into play.

Here’s what I’m going to do about it:

NOTHING.

For now, anyway.

That’s because I have to focus on Priority-One of my recovery program, which is to stay away from the addictions that crushed me and made my life unmanageable.

Those addictions were binge eating and, as a smaller byproduct, wine.

If the caffeine helps me stay away from those things and allows me to keep my life manageable, that’s how it must be.

Update: Last week I was in San Francisco again for RSA Conference 2012. Red Bull was available everywhere I went. Much of the time I drank it from a glass, which threw people for a loop. A lot of folks never see the stuff out of the can, and are surprised to see that it looks like lightly-carbonated whiskey or beer.

I was the sober man in rooms packed with the pleasantly buzzed. But, holding my glass of Red Bull, I really felt like part of the crowd.

Fucked up, I know. But there it is.

The Long Road Through Self Hatred

The author has learned that it’s damn hard to like yourself at the beginning of sobriety and abstinence. The feeling will pass. Eventually.

Mood music for this post: “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” by Nirvana:

A friend and fellow 12-Stepper just hit a major milestone in her recovery: 90 days of abstinence. In the world of compulsive overeating, think of this as 90 days of back-to-back sobriety.

She worked hard for this and has every reason to be bursting with joy. Yet she’s uneasy.

She doesn’t feel quite right in her skin.

She’s going through something a lot of us go through when we kick our addictions. To call it self hatred might be a stretch. I don’t think she dislikes herself. But now that her mind is clear of the intoxicating haze, she sees things about herself that she doesn’t like. She’s suddenly aware for the first time that she has some flaws that are tough to look at in the mirror.

For a lot of people, it can become a matter of self hatred. It certainly did for me.

Truth be told, I disliked myself way before I cleaned up.

I hated how I looked. I thought I was the crappiest son/sibling/friend on the face of the Earth. Certain relatives would tell me just that, and I believed them. There’s no question that I was a lousy friend when my best friend, Sean Marley, was sinking into depression and I was too worried about my career to notice.

That’s WHY I gave in to my addictions.

Even though my mental illness included a lot of fear and anxiety over getting sick or dying, I did a pretty good job of trying to kill myself. Not in a suicidal way. Not deliberately. But in the end, addiction is a compulsion — an ache — to repeat dangerous behavior even though you know what the likely consequences are.

It’s the weirdest irony there is.

But when you start to fight your demon head-on, you do become super-aware of your own vulnerabilities. For awhile, I became paralyzed by mine. Then I figured out how to get beyond it. But it took a lot of dirty work.

In his book, “Symptoms of Withdrawal,” Christopher Kennedy Lawford writes that after he kicked drugs in 1986, it still took him awhile to actually become a good person.

Those around him weren’t always happy he was sober, especially since that meant he couldn’t make the cocktails at family gatherings like he used to.

He writes about having to learn how to be a decent human being and be clean at the same time. You would think it’s easy. But it’s not.

In the book, Lawford writes:

“There is another great fiction of recovery — that is, once you stop using your life becomes a bed of roses. Anybody who has stayed sober for any length of time knows that living sober is about learning to live life on life’s terms and a good part of life is painful. When I got sober someone said to me that I would get to realize all my greatest fears in sobriety … You know what? He was right, and it’s not half as bad as I imagined.”

The man speaks the truth. And, by the way, I highly recommend his book to anyone struggling with addiction as well as the clean up:

Symptoms of Withdrawal by Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Book Cover

I had a lot to learn, and I’m still learning. Learning how to be completely honest with my wife and drop my emotional wall was hard. I’m much better at it than I used to be, but I still have a lot of work to do there.

Being more disciplined with money is something I need to be better at. After all, spending is also an addictive behavior.

The list goes on.

But while the work goes on — and will continue to go on — there’s an important point to be made.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to like myself.

Today, I can honestly say I’m happy with the man I’ve become, even if I’m still pretty damn far from perfect.

But then perfect people don’t exist. If they did, they’d be pretty boring.

Portable Recovery

Though addiction will follow the junkie anywhere in the world, the author has discovered that recovery is just as portable.

Mood Music for this post: “Turn the Page” — the Metallica version:

I’ve seen interview after interview where musicians describe their drug habits and how being on the road made them so much worse.

One of the best examples was Motley Crue on the Girls Girls Girls tour, where the four band members’ addictions were well past the point of manageability — not that an addiction is ever really manageable. That was the tour where Nikki Sixx kept a diary chronicling his increasing heroin use.

In fact, sit in front of the TV and watch a “Behind the Music” marathon and you’ll see most bands tell a similar story.

It’s a similar tale for any businessman who nurses an addiction while doing a lot of travel. Every city is flowing with whatever material feeds one’s vice, whether it’s drugs, alcohol or, in my case, binge eating.

I can tell you from experience that it’s true. During my travels to San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, Las Vegas and points in between, the opportunity to binge on free junk and alcohol is limitless.

But here’s what I’ve also learned: You can take your recovery everywhere, too.

In all of the cities I mentioned above, I’ve been able to hold firmly to my 12-Step program and related plan of eating. I know what I can eat, how much, and which ingredients are essentially my cocaine (flour and sugar).

There are 12-Step meetings in every city and town, whether it’s OA or AA, and there are phone meetings available around the clock.

And, if you’re like me, you’ve told enough people about your challenges that they’ll watch out for you. That was definitely the case for me in San Francisco last week.

It really comes down to what you want. If you want your junk, you’ll always be resourceful enough to find it.

If you want recovery, same deal.

I’ve found it also helps to read blogs from others in recovery when I’m on the road. One of my recent discoveries is a great blog called “Conquering Crazy” by Greg Dungan. Like my OCD Diaries, Greg’s blog is a recent start-up. He focuses like a laser beam on the core craziness as he experiences it. It reads more like an actual day-by-day diary, whereas mine is more a collection of longer narratives with a lot of focus on the byproducts of my affliction.

Like me, music is important to him, and he is also a seeker who is trying to find the core of his spirituality. I especially love his first entry, “OK, So I’m Crazy.” Here’s an excerpt:

“I have exhibited symptoms of OCD for as long as I can remember. Recently, these symptoms have intensified. What used to be the “things that make me unique” have become the “things that make me crazy”. This blog is about my struggle with this demon. This is where I will record my day to day thoughts and struggles – my defeats and my victories. I have two choices at this point in my life – roll over and die or fight my way out. I’ve never been one for rolling over and I’m not about to start now.

“You’re welcome to walk this valley with me. If you are living with OCD or if someone you love is, take heart. There are brighter days somewhere, and we will find them together.”

Brighter days ahead? You bet your ass there are.

I’ve experienced it. I’ve been to the valley and the mountaintop.

I started blogging about it after I had been on the journey for a few years. Greg is blogging his journey from the start. That’s courage.

And like addiction, depression, Faith and recovery, courage is portable, too.

Outing Myself

The author on why he chose to “out” himself despite what other people might think.

Mood music:

A couple friends have asked why I “outed myself” in this blog. Wasn’t I afraid people would blackball me at work? Don’t I worry that I’ll be defined by my struggle with OCD above all else?

It’s a fair question.

First, let’s get the notion of “courage” and “bravery” off the table. Some have used those words to describe what I’m doing, and I appreciate that. But I really don’t think it’s that. Like I’ve said before, my grandfather parachuting behind enemy lines at the start of the D-Day invasion was courage.

I’m  doing this more because the point arrived where, for the sake of my own sanity, I had to start being myself as openly and honestly as I can. Honesty can be tough for people who deal with mental illness and addiction. [More on this in "The Liar's Disease"] But I decided I had to do better.

Admittedly, some of the motivation is selfish. We OCD types have overdeveloped egos and tend to go digging for attention. It’s hard to admit that, but it’s the truth. Being open about that forces me to keep myself in check. It’s also an invitation for those around me to call me out on acts of ego and selfishness.

The biggest reason for doing this, without question, is my Faith. I realized some time ago that when you rip the skeletons from your closet and toss them into the daylight, they turn to dust. Big sinister stigmas become very small indeed. Then you can move on.

I didn’t arrive at that viewpoint easily. It took many years of dirty work.

With my Faith comes a need to do service for others. In this case, I accumulated experiences that might be of help to other sufferers. Sharing wasn’t exactly something I wanted to do. It’s something I HAD to do.

We’re all in this together. Many good people have helped me along the way. Trying to help someone else is the very least I could do. In the final analysis, we all help each other.

Getting it all out of the head and into this blog has certainly been helpful, so thanks for indulging me.

Was it a risk to my career to do this? I don’t think so.

I don’t think I’d be doing this if I still worked for The Eagle-Tribune. The culture of that newsroom wouldn’t have allowed for it when I was there. I have no idea if the culture has changed, but I suspect not.

I’ve gotten a ton of support from those I work with now. I’m definitely lucky to work with the folks in this office.

Does that mean everyone should put their demons out in the open as I have?

Difficult to say.

It’s not going to be the right decision for everyone to make. There are a lot of honorable reasons for people to keep their demons private. In many cases, the veil is what you use to protect others as well as yourself.

But my veil blew away in the storm that was my life. Walking forward without it was all I could do.

source: dancingmood.com

Another Reason Addiction-Depression Stinks

I’ve mentioned before that one of the inspirations for this blog was a book called “The Heroin Diaries” by Nixxi Sixx, bass player and lyricist for Motley Crue. It’s a book of diary entries he wrote from late 1986 to late 1987, at the time the “Girls Girls Girls” album was recorded and the band toured the world to support it.

The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star

At the time, he was in the tight clutches of a heroin addiction that would nearly kill him by December 1987. He was in fact dead for a few minutes, but a needle to the heart brought him back to life.

Last night I was flipping through the book again and noticed that Sixx often went days without showering. If he took a shower, it was a good day.

His girlfriend at the time, Vanity, is also described as being a mess all the time because she was too high to notice.

As a former manager for Motley Crue put it, when you’re strung out the first thing to fall by the side of the road is personal hygene.

From my experiences with depression and addictive behavior, I can tell you there’s a lot of truth to that statement.

In my early 20s, when I was binge eating in the basement of the house in Revere, I would go days wearing the same gym pants and bath robe without taking a shower. I was so depressed I just didn’t care.

Besides, it’s not like I was having much luck finding girlfriends when I was clean.

My friends were often just as bad, especially Sean Marley, who at the time was descending into his own little hell and was running sleep-deprivation experiments on himself.

The hang-ups weren’t unique. I’d obsess about finding a girlfriend, which I couldn’t do because I was trying too hard. I was also going through my parental hatred phase. In hindsight I was an ungrateful slob. After all, they did let me have the entire basement apartment as a bedroom and let be throw parties at will.

Later on, after I met the love of my life and started getting serious about my journalism career, I made more of an effort at personal hygene. I showered more often, anyway.

But my weight was piling on as I dove deep into binge eating. Marley had recently died and I was doing an editing job that was killing me because of the hours I was putting in. I showered so I wouldn’t offend anyone, but I would wear the same clothes days at a time. I figured if I wore the same pants every day nobody would notice because I’d change the shirts. I’m sure some people noticed.

The good news is that I got over this sort of behavior as I went to work on the root causes of my OCD and related addictions.

So don’t worry. I’ve had my shower and a fresh change of clothes.

But if you’re standing next to someone in the elevator and they just happen to reek, go easy on them. They’re probably just going through a rough time.

With any luck, it’ll pass.

Addicted to Feeling Good: A Love-Hate Story

To kick off Lent, the author reflects on some of his dumber quests to feel good.

Mood music for this post: “Snake Eyes and Sissies” from Marilyn Manson:

Every now and then, it’s useful to look back on who I used to be so I can appreciate who I am today.

Today, as Lent begins, I do it simply to laugh at how in many ways, despite the progress I’ve made, I’ve been as stupid in adulthood as I was 20-plus years ago.

Lent is a time to sacrifice habits you love, gain a true appreciation for the sacrifices Jesus made [which were well beyond anything mortal man can comprehend) and draw closer to God. [More on my Faith in Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely, Rat in the Church Pew and Better Angels of My Nature]

I’ve given up cigars for Lent. It’s probably not nearly enough, because I don’t smoke them often enough to really be sacrificing anything. But since I’ve already given up flour, sugar and alcohol, I couldn’t think of anything else.

Still, giving something up always brings back acute memories of some of the dumber things I’ve done in the compulsive-obsessive drive to feel good.

So please indulge me as I take inventory:

Age 18: I’m living off 8 cups of black coffee and a mug of Raisin Bran a day in an attempt to be rock-star thin. I discovered an after dinner drink — Haffenreffer Lager Beer. There were little puzzles on the underside of the bottle caps, and your ability to solve them would steadily decline — or increase — depending on how drunk you were. Being addicted to instant gratification, I’d suck down three bottles in quick succession so I could immediately enjoy feeling like I had just absorbed half a keg of lighter beer.

Age 21: I’m pacing up and down the driveway of the old Revere house in a blue-green polka-dotted bathrobe I used to own. I’m freaking out because I’ve just consumed two beers and an entire stick of marijuana by myself in the concrete storage room beneath the front patio.

The fellow who gave it to me was about 500 pounds and wore a black trenchcoat, even during the summer. He died Valentine’s Day 2009 of a heart attack. I lost touch with him as I became focused on career and learned after his death that he had led an admirable life of aiding the mentally disabled. Anyway, I was freaking out because, in the midst of lying on my bed enjoying the high, I suddenly got the idea that I just might have a heart attack. That’s one of my earlier memories of an anxiety attack.

We partied a lot in that basement. It was the scene of many impressive and entertaining mood swings.

I called my friend Danny Waters and asked him to come over. He did, and found me pacing up and down the driveway in my bathrobe. He took me down the street to Kelly’s Roast Beef and got me an order of chicken fingers to munch away the anxiety. Kelly’s was always a favorite place for me to binge eat away my troubles. It was as good as any drug or liquor store.

http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/2822416.jpg

That was the year this photo was taken in my basement:

The guy on the left is me. Dan Waters is in the middle. The guy dressed as a vampire on the right is Sean Marley. [Read about him in Lost Brothers and Marley and Me]

It was also around the time the three of us were ambushed by a group of punks while walking home from Kelly’s. I was walking ahead of Sean and Dan and escaped injury.

Age 29: I drop 100 pounds of fat I packed on while binge-eating my way through the middle 1990s. I’m inspired by the quadruple bypass surgery my father has recently had. I lose the weight by pigging out Thursday through Saturday and starving myself Sunday through Wednesday. The binge eating continues through the next few years but I manage to keep the weight down, fooling most people.

Age 33: Around this time, the binge eating gets a new playmate in the form of red wine, which I decide I can’t live without.

Age 39: No more binge eating — not today, anyway. No wine. I work the 12-step program of recovery.

The instant gratification is gone, replaced by something much better — long-term sanity and clarity that allows me to see all the precious moments around me that went unnoticed during the days of mental haze.

Giving up cigars for Lent is the least I could do.