What Kind of Day It Has Been

The author’s day has not gone as planned. He’s OK with that, though he wasn’t always.

Mood music for this post: “Adrift And At Peace” from NIN:

This day has not gone as planned.

I wanted to be in the office today plowing through some work. But another winter storm forced me to work from home.

Some would say it’s great I can do that, and it is. But when there’s a lot on the plate, I prefer to be in the office. Especially when the kids are home from school for February vacation. At least in the summer I can write from the back deck while the kids play in the field behind the house.

This time of year we’re all indoors and the kids are loud.

A few years ago the snow, the change in schedule and the kids in my workspace would have unhinged me.

I’d get a story written. Maybe three. But I’d be a puddle of lava by day’s end, good for nothing except sleep.

Not so today.

I’m enjoying the cozy chair by my living room window, watching the snow fall.

I’ve gotten as much writing and editing done from here as I would have from the office.

The kids were indeed loud and distracting, but I enjoyed that, too. What used to be stress is now comic relief, especially when Sean tells Duncan he looks adorable when he cries and Duncan responds by pouncing on his older brother, yelling, “Who’s crying now?!”

I smoked one last cigar before Lent begins tomorrow, since that’s one of the things I’m abstaining from until Easter. It was a Cuban stick at that. Thanks to my friend Bob Connors for parting with it.

The coffee is French-pressed and bitter. Just the way I like it.

A much different day than what it would have been five years ago, before I gained the upper hand over the OCD.

Days that don’t go as planned are especially difficult for people with OCD. We do, after all, crave control over everything we can control. And we badly want to control things we can’t, like the weather.

Forget about the small stuff, like checking a doorknob seven times or tapping your feet to the count of 60. A carefully crafted schedule in shambles is the big stuff; hell for a sick mind.

That’s when someone like me turns to the food or the booze to comfort the troubled mind.

But the food is well under control today, and bottles of wine that once taunted me from a kitchen counter rack have gone unnoticed in the corner.

I’m not the same man I used to be.

Credit the therapists, the Prozac, the religious conversion or all of the above.

Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it.

Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

The author goes to Church and comes away with a strange feeling.

Mood music for this post: “Faith.” The Limp Bizkit version:

Yesterday at All Saints Parish Father Michael Harvey delivered one of those Homilies that sent my mind and soul all over the map.

I like Father Harvey. I wasn’t sure about him at first. He had the massive shoes of Father Mark Ballard to fill, so the deck was stacked against him from the start. He’s very conservative, and sometimes I wonder if his collar is stuck to his neck with thumb tacks. He tackles the most taboo of topics — politics — when he delivers a homily.

Truth be told, I like how he goes for the throat in his Homilies without fear of offending someone. One Sunday he gave a Homily about Natural Law, otherwise known as the “contraception is bad” talk. After Mass, we got in the car and Sean, the 8 year old, blurted out, “Gee, I guess Father Mike wasn’t expecting there to be any kids at Mass this morning.”

Being moderate in my political views, I get itchy when he’s up there trashing a politician I like or praising one I despise. Yesterday, without naming him, the Homily turned to the subject of Patrick Kennedy, who I defended in this blog yesterday for showing up for public life despite a withering battle with depression and addiction.

The larger message of the Homily was that the pursuit of power takes a person further and further from God, because when one is spending all his or her time groping for attention they’re too busy thinking about themselves to be thinking about God.

He then brought up “a politician from Rhode Island” who decided not to run for office anymore. “Oh, great, here it comes,” I mumbled to my wife.

He brought up the fact that the Bishop down there had asked Kennedy to stop taking Communion because of his pro-choice stance. The Bishop tried to handle it in private, but Kennedy took it public.

In the end, Father Harvey speculated aloud, Kennedy was probably coming around to the decision that it was time to leave public life because holding onto power had corrupted his soul. I’m not sure Kennedy would share that exact assessment, but I think he would agree that power isn’t worth having when it plunges the rest of your life into a dark, unhappy place.

So I walked away with mixed feelings. I am pro-life but get incensed when someone paints a pro-choice person as evil personified. I don’t think it’s so simple. I know a lot of people who hate abortion, but believe it’s between a woman, her doctor and God. They are pro-choice but NOT pro abortion. They are the types that vote for someone based on a wider range of issues than abortion alone. But they are told they’ve voted against God if they vote the wrong way. [See also: The Better Angels of My Nature]

I have a lot of trouble with that notion.

But in the larger picture, there’s no question that the pursuit of power is a tricky thing, and the longer one wields it the worse off they are.

I see myself in all this. As I’ve admitted before, I have a fairly big ego that comes with being a writer. The ego is frequently driven into overdrive by the OCD [See: The Ego OCD Built]. It’s painfully true that this ego carries a certain level of attention seeking. After all, it’s the writer’s goal to make sure people are reading their work, and that involves a lot of self promotion.

I’m guilty as charged.

It’s a double-edged blade, really. I don’t write with the idea of sticking the papers in a drawer for someone to find after I’m dead. I’m a journalist whose goal is for people to see what he’s writing today, not 30 years from now. Social networking makes it all the more dangerous. I’ll let this illustration drive home the point for me:

At the same time, I have a faith that has deepened with time, and my Religious beliefs often come into direct conflict with my profession. In the end, it doesn’t have to be that way. I just have to find my way on this twisted path.

That’s why I keep coming to Church. It’s ultimately about my relationship with God and how to strengthen it. People can get uptight about church politics and get angry because their beliefs have been challenged by the priest. But to me those things are distractions that are as big as any shiny object that distracts us from our core Faith. I think that’s why Confession is my favorite Sacrament. It forces me to come clean with God on a regular basis. It keeps the emotional trash from piling up and stinking too much.

In this particular case, the priest gave me something to think about. He zeroed in on an unpleasant truth.

And so, he did his job.

It’s up to me to ultimately reconcile it with how I live my life. I think I’ve come a long, long way. But I have a long way to go yet.

OCD Diaries: The Office Mom

The author salutes Anne Saita, a former co-worker who showed me how to stand up to people and face down my fears — and whose blog is a must-read.

Mood music for this, Motley Crue’s “Shout At The Devil,” because Anne was horrified one year when I spent the Barnes and Noble gift card she got me for Christmas on that album:

I’ve been reading the blog Run DMZ a lot lately.The main reason is that it’s chock full of excellent content on how to eat and exercise properly. The other reason is that the author is someone near and dear to me: Anne Saita, my former boss at SearchSecurity.com.

She’s an avid runner, an inspirational Mom to her two daughters and to people like me, and one of the best writers I’ve ever seen. [Side note: She sends Christmas cards each year featuring her daughters, and last time my six-year-old saw it he declared: "Wow. They're really, really pretty."] The boy is a flirt and knows what he’s talking about.

My Photo

With her I’ve power-walked along Lake Michigan in Chicago and gallivanted with her on the rainy streets of San Francisco during security conferences.

She literally rescued me from a job that was killing me (because of the late-night hours and the still undiagnosed impact of OCD).

At SearchSecurity.com, she was a nurturing soul. She encouraged me to make time for family, something I wasn’t yet good at. She knew I feared travel at the time, but gently coaxed me into doing more of it. Now I love travel. She showed me what courage is by constantly standing up to the TechTarget/SearchSecurity brass when she felt the brand’s reputation was being compromised by stupid marketing ploys. At the time I often thought she was being stupid. But at the time I was also so obsessed with pleasing my masters that I didn’t know any better.

I always got a chuckle out of her gift for gab, especially when she was offering up explicit details on a medical procedure she was having.

Because of her motherly disposition, I was able to come clean with her in late 2004, when I was inches from a nervous breakdown and realizing for the first time that I needed some serious help. The morning after I had my first appointment with a therapist, I told her about it, along with the rest of my warped behavior. She didn’t flinch. She urged me on, and in the coming months, when I was pushing up against depression and emotional breakdowns, she gave me the room to fall apart and then pick up the pieces.

When I started to react to the pain of therapy and digging deep into a sordid past by embarking on the most vicious binge eating stretch of my life, she saw that the weight was piling on but didn’t shame me over it. I was feeling shame in her presence anyway, because she had once told me that when checking my references before hiring me, the deal was sealed when a former CNC co-worker told her about my singular determination to lose 100 pounds in the late 1990s.

That kind of toughness impressed her, and there I was, losing that toughness as I packed on each pound.

Unfortunately, I only started to gain the upper hand on my demons after she left SearchSecurity.com for another job.

But thanks to the Internet and our two blogs, we still keep in touch regularly.

She’s gone through a lot herself, with physical injuries that kept her from running, blinding headaches that came and went without explanation, and the loss of a job she loved last year, as the Great Recession gunned down millions of jobs.

But she always comes back. Stronger than before.

In the photo above: Anne at the right, with Dennis Fisher, another former [and good] boss and avid runner, after a run in San Diego.

If she didn’t know before how much her friendship means to me, I think she’ll understand after reading this post.

She may also yell at me for revealing a bit too much about her. But then I always did enjoy the motherly rebuke that only she can provide.

Lessons From Dad

The author has learned some surprising lessons from Dad on how to control one’s mental demons.

My father is on my mind this morning. I’m meeting up with him at a meeting of business owners who hope to learn more about a subject I’ve written about extensively for CSO Magazine: The Massachusetts data protection law.

I find it odd that my father is reaching out to me for understanding on such a complex subject. I’m used to him giving me advice instead of asking for it.

And back when I was deep under the spell of OCD, his advice was the last thing on Earth I wanted.

A little background on Dad:

He was always the easy parent. If we kids asked him for something and he said “we’ll see,” it usually meant yes. He would fall asleep watching TV by early evening, while my mother was out with friends, giving us the run of the house.

I could always count on him to take me to the Osco Drug store in Lynn to buy a new Star Wars action figure every Sunday, followed by a trip to Friendly’s for some black raspberry ice cream. He knew that sometimes, when he was still asleep, I’d go in his wallet and grab myself some cash. But he never called me on it. Well, once he did, when I was in sixth grade. He called school looking for me because $100 was missing from his wallet. That time I wasn’t the culprit.

He runs a business in Saugus, Mass. that sells ladies shoes, gloves and all the other things girls go looking for when they need to dress for their prom or wedding. As a kid, I always felt like the business was his favorite child.

He worked hard and expected me to work hard. He didn’t like to see me resting. If he caught me doing so, he’d give me something to do. Rake the leaves. Take out the trash.

As a teenager with a chip on the shoulder the size of a baseball, I grew to resent this. I especially hated it when he’d make me do deliveries with him on the truck. I sucked at the manual labor thing, and he’d always be on me to lift boxes “with my legs, not my back.” Good advice, it turns out. But I didn’t want to hear it.

My friends and some ex-girlfriends remember him walking around the house in his saggy underwear, hairy belly and other things hanging out for all to see. He didn’t care. It was his house. But he was always nice to the friends, and they all in turn got a kick out of his lack of modesty.

He also keeps his emotions largely to himself. The only time I ever saw him cry was when my brother died.

As my mental health really started to come unhinged, he started to grate on me. If I got a promotion at work, he’d ask how much of a raise I got. I’d tell him. He’d reply with a “That’s it?” I think my habit of indulging in OCD behavior through my work was a result of that. He also has terrible eating habits that have led to a variety of health problems. Much of my binge eating is inherited from him. He’ll down a large tray of stuffed cabbage or a box of frozen Devil Dogs as naturally and as easily as most of us take a breath. I’m pretty sure he’s part shark.

But as I approach my 40th birthday, I’m really starting to appreciate the guy and everything he taught me. I started to feel this way a long time ago, actually, but now that I’m keeping this blog, the memories are more vivid and the appreciation is in better focus.

I used to see his stiff upper lip as a weakness; the result of cold emotions. But I’ve learned the value of keeping a stiff upper lip when times are tough. And I’ve realized that it’s not the result of something cold. I think it’s more a case of him trying to be strong when people around him are falling apart.

He’s also far more giving than he might admit. If one of his employees is in a jam, he usually helps them out of it. I remember when one employee, his wife pregnant, needed a little extra financial help. My father gave it, but was quick to say something to the effect of, “I’m paying for this kid and I didn’t even get to have any fun.” I laughed hard when that employee told me about it. He laughed hard, too. Some of my humor comes from him, no doubt.

I’ve also come to appreciate his work ethic instead of being insulted by it. As I’ve gotten over my fear and anxiety in recent years, I’ve come to see work as one of the most honorable responsibilities one can have. Your providing for family and, if you’re lucky like me, you get to do something you love that just happens to be important as well. He certainly provided for his family. He still does. Without his prodding, I’m not sure I would have had the career success I’ve had.

I also love to watch him with my kids. They are always at ease around him, and Duncan will grab his security blanket and sit with him. The kids have always been good judges of character.

People ask me if he was upset when I converted from the Jewish Faith to Catholicism. He wasn’t upset at all. In fact, he likes to tell people that those of different religious stripes are really going to be surprised when they die and discover that it’s the same God for everyone.

The old man has been through a lot. He watched one of his children die and watched two more go through all kinds of mental and physical hurt. His marriage to my mother collapsed and was probably doomed from the start. He’s suffered a lot of illness himself.

Yet he still stands tall, even with the bad back and the bad knees. He’s taught me a lot about pressing forward despite life’s demons.

I thank him for that.

Courage in the Crosshairs

The author has been thinking a lot about courage lately. Some have told him it takes courage to write about his OCD battles. He thinks it’s more about being tired of running.

Over the weekend, I got this e-mail from an associate in the IT security industry I write about for a living:

“I’ve been reading your OCD diaries lately. This is perhaps one of the most courageous blogs on the planet and the work is stellar. Sometimes, insanity and the brilliance are intertwined. Your writing is meticulous and it’s a gift. That which the madman downs in, the mystic swims in. Same stuff. Keep swimming.”

A few people have told me it takes courage to write this blog. But I’m not so sure about that.

When I think of courage, I think of my grandfather. He was a career military man who propelled himself toward danger many times. He parachuted behind enemy lines in the hours leading up to the D-Day invasion of France in WW II. He was among those pinned down by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. He took a bullet in the leg during the Korean Conflict.

That’s courage: Putting your life on the line for the greater good when chances are better than average you’ll be coming home in a box.

I inherited a lot of things from my grandfather. I have his over-sized nose and ears. I wear a hat that was his. I like cigars. And on my desk at home I keep some of his service medals in a glass case, and I have the flag that was draped on his coffin when he died in 1996:

But I certainly am not risking my life to write this blog. I’ve never been in a firefight, and can’t be sure how I would handle myself under such circumstances. So it would be stupid for me to suggest I inherited courage from him.

When I really stop and think about it, I’d say this blog is less about courage and more about me being tired of running.

I got tired of keeping this disease to myself because of everything I’d been told about jeopardizing career and friendships by being too honest. I’ve seen too many good people go down in flames by keeping the affliction to themselves.

I just came around to realizing that when you rip your biggest skeletons from the closet and toss the bones into the sunlight, they turn to dust and you can then be free.

I’m not afraid of damaging friendships, because I’ve been open about my OCD to them all along. And it’s not like they couldn’t tell before that something was amiss.

I’m not afraid of this damaging me at work. The law protects me from discrimination. But what’s more is that I work with some great people.

Given that lack of fear, I’d have to say courage has nothing to do with it. Courage means pressing on in the face of fear.

I do think this is something God wants me to be doing. And I do see it as an act of service.

Service helps make me feel whole. And that’s reason enough to keep at it.

The Third Brother

Remembering Peter Sugarman, another adopted brother who died too early — but not before teaching the author some important lessons about life.

The first time I met him was my second day as a reporter for The Stoneham Sun. He was an oddball who wore a jacket and tie to go with his sneakers and sweatpants. He was rail thin with a mustache that could comfortably hide a pound of whatever crumbs got caught there.

He wore a a strange-looking hat over a thick mop of hair. I was absolutely certain from Day 1 that the hair was fake, but never asked about it.

This is the tale of Peter Sugarman, another older brother who left me before I was ready. But he taught me some important lessons along the way and — oddly enough — his death was the catalyst for me finally getting the help I needed for what eventually became an OCD diagnosis.

My friendship with Peter really blossomed over the course of 1997, though it was a year earlier when I had first met him. I was in a bad place. My best friend, Sean Marley, had recently died and I had just taken a job as editor of the Lynn Sunday Post, a publication that was doomed long before I got there. I just didn’t realize it when I took the job.

I worked 80 hours a week. To get through the pressure I binge ate like never before and isolated myself. I had no real friends at the time because no one could compete with a dark room and a TV clicker.

But Peter was a bright spot, even though he was infuriating my editor side. A lot. His writing could be off the wall and opinionated when I was looking for straight, objective articles from him.

He once wrote about a blind man who, instead of offering a story of inspiration and living large in the face of adversity, led a bitter existence and talked about that bitterness during his interview with Peter. I opened the story on my screen for editing and saw the headline “Blind Man’s No Bluff.” I let the headline go to print, though I shouldn’t have. But the dark side in me thought it was funny, and the higher ups weren’t paying enough attention to The Post to notice.

He would write one story after the next questioning the motives of city councilors and the mayor. He would tag along with firefighters and write glowing narratives portraying them as heroes. That would have been fine if the assigned piece called for opinion. But it didn’t, and I edited it heavily.

That Sunday, I found a voicemail from Peter. He was furious, ripping into me for letting the J-School in me take over and ruin a perfectly good piece of journalistic brilliance.

I quickly got used to getting those messages every Sunday.

At the same time, we became constant companions. Whenever I left my dark bedroom, it was either to be with Erin, by then my fiance, or Peter. We hung out in every coffee shop in Lynn. He showed me the dangerous neighborhoods, introduced me to the city’s most colorful characters and showed me hidden gems like the Lynn Historical Society, where I was treated to boxes of old correspondence from former Mass. Speaker Tommy McGee, a colorful pol who, like many a Speaker who followed, eventually left the Statehouse under a cloud of corruption. I wrote about the old correspondence and interviewed McGee in his Danvers condominium. I couldn’t help but like the guy.

Peter and his wife, Regina, became constant dinner companions. When I finally escaped from The Post, our friendship deepened. I still hired him for the occasional freelance article in the Billerica paper I was editing. He would show up to cover meetings wearing his colorful collection of hats, including one that had “Yellow Journalist” emblazoned across the front.

He became my favorite person to talk politics with. He was at every family gathering. He and Regina were a constant presence when both our children entered the world. They were at every kid’s birthday party. They were here for our Christmas Eve parties.

Peter was in bad health, though, and was often in the hospital. His colon had been removed long before I met him and he continued to smoke. He was also a ball of stress when traditional J-School editors were tampering with his writing. I would call him and he would rage at whoever the editor was at that moment.

I enjoyed the hell out of it. His tirades always entertained me, whether I was the target or not.

I ultimately came to understood what it was all about. He wasn’t in journalism to write the traditional reports people like me were taught to write. He was in it to root out the truth and help the disadvantaged. He was a man on a mission to right the wrongs he saw. And he did so cheerfully. Even when his temper flared, there was a certain cheerfulness about it.

In the spring of 2004, he developed shingles. He grew depressed, though not beaten by any stretch. Regina later told me he was “bolting” down his food. Swallowing quickly without chewing because the shingles had irritated the heck out of his mouth and throat.

One night, he choked on a piece of chicken. He lost his breath just long enough to cause insurmountable brain damage.

He lingered for about a week in the hospital, essentially dead but still breathing with the aid of life support. For the first time in our friendship, I saw what he looked like without the hairpiece. I was right all along.

In the months following his death, I really started to come unhinged. The OCD took over everything. Fear and anxiety were constant companions.

I finally reached the deep depth I needed to realize I needed help. In the years that followed, I got it. It hasn’t been easy, but then I can always remember that things weren’t easy for Peter. And yet, he carried on with that warped cheerfulness of his.

I’ve endeavored to do the same. I’ve also come to understand the value of the writing he tried to do, and have embraced it.

Thanks, Peter.

Marley and Me

The author describes the second older brother whose death hit harder than that of the first.

Mood music for this post: After The Gold Rush by Neil Young:

It doesn’t seem right that a friend’s death would hit me harder and fuel my insanity more than the death of a biological brother. But that’s what happened.

This is the story of Sean Marley, who introduced me to metal music, taught me to love life, and whose death has been one of the cattle prods for my writing this blog.

I had known Sean for as long as I could remember. He lived two doors down from me on the Lynnway in Revere, Mass. He was always hanging around with my older brother, which is one of the reasons we didn’t hit it off at first.

Friends of older siblings often pick on the younger siblings. I’ve done it. It happens.

Sean always seemed quiet and scholarly to me. By the early 1980s he was starting to grow his hair long and he wore those skinny black leather ties when he had to suit up.

On Jan. 7, 1984 — the day my older brother died — my relationship with Sean began to change. Quickly. I’d like to believe we were both leaning on each other to get through the grief. But the truth of it is that it was just me leaning on him.

He tolerated it. He started introducing me to Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen and other hard-boiled music. I think he enjoyed having someone younger around to influence.

As the 1980s progressed, a deep, genuine friendship blossomed. He had indeed become another older brother. I grew my hair long. I started listening to all the heavy metal I could get my hands on. Good thing, too. That music was an outlet for all my teenage rage, keeping me from acting on that rage in ways that almost certainly would have led to trouble.

We did everything together: Drank, got high, went on road trips, including one to California in 1991 where we flew into San Francisco, rented a car and drove around the entire state for 10 days, sleeping and eating in the car.

This was before I became self aware that I had a problem with obsessive-compulsive behavior, fear and anxiety. But the fear was evident on that trip. I was afraid to go to clubs at night for fear we might get mugged. When we drove over the Bay Bridge I was terrified that an earthquake MIGHT strike and the bridge would collapse from beneath us.

I occupied the entire basement apartment of my father’s house, and we had a lot of wild parties there. Sean was a constant presence. His friends became my friends. His cousin became my cousin. I still feel that way about these people today. They are back in my life through Facebook, and I’m grateful for it.

He was a deadly serious student at Salem State College, and his dedication to his studies inspired me to choose Salem State as well. Good thing, too. That’s where I met my wife.

In 1994, things started to go wrong for Sean. He became paranoid and depressed. He tried to hurt himself more than once. I didn’t know how to react to it.

That fall, he got married and I was best man. I absolutely sucked at it because I was so self-absorbed at the time that there was no way I could effectively be there for someone else, even him.

Over the next two years, his depression came and went. He was hospitalized with it a couple times. By the summer of 1996, he was darker and more paranoid than I’d ever seen him. But I was so busy binge eating and worrying about my career that I didn’t pay enough attention.

In November 1996, I got a call at work from my mother. She had driven by Sean’s house and saw police cars and ambulances and all kinds of commotion on the front lawn. I called his sister and she put his wife on the phone. She informed me he was dead. By his own hand.

I spent a lot of the next 10 years angry at him for doing such a thing. He had everything going for him. And he chose to end it. I didn’t understand it, even as I was descending into my own brand of craziness.

The reason his death hit harder than my own brother’s is complicated. I think it’s because I had been burned for the second time, which is always worse than the first. It’s probably that I was an adult the second time and had a greater awareness of circumstances behind his death. Or it’s probably just the nature of the ending.

It took my own struggle with depression and OCD years later to truly grasp what he had gone through. I wasn’t there for him, but by sharing my own struggles I can hopefully be there for others.

Life has been good in the years since his death. I married a wonderful woman, followed a career path that’s produced many Blessings, found God and had two precious children.

We named our first son Sean Michael Brenner. And with that, I guess I was able to move on.

My son is every bit as smart as the man he was named for. His wit tickles me every day. And he’s caring beyond his years.

You can bet your ass I’ll be watching him like a hawk to make sure he doesn’t become TOO MUCH like the other Sean.