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.

Lost Brothers

Twenty-six years ago tonight — Jan. 7, 1984 — my older brother died at age 17 from asthma complications. I think the end came for him at 8:20 p.m., though I could be mistaken.

That day a trend began where I would befriend people a few years older than me. A couple of them would become best friends and die prematurely themselves. It was also the day that sparked a lifelong fear of loss.

Before you read further, you should know that this post will have a positive ending. So have no fear. But this story is an important part of my battle with OCD, so here we go:

It’s been so long since Michael was with us that it’s sometimes hard to remember the exact features of his face. But here’s what I do remember:

We fought a lot. One New Year’s Eve about 30 years ago, when the family was out at a restaurant, he said something to piss me off and I picked up the fork beside me and chucked it at him. Various family members have insisted over the years that it was a steak knife, but I’m pretty sure it was a fork. Another time we were in the back of my father’s van and he said something to raise my hackles. I flipped him the middle finger. He reached for the finger and promptly snapped the bone.

We were also both sick much of the time. He had his asthma attacks, which frequently got so bad he would be hospitalized. I had my Chron’s Disease and was often hospitalized myself. It must have been terrible for our parents. I know it was, but had to become a parent myself before I could truly appreciate what they went through.

He lifted weights at a gym down the street from our house that was torn down years ago to make way for new developments. If not for the asthma, he would have been in perfect shape. He certainly had the muscles.

He was going to be a plumber. That’s what he went to school for, anyway. During one of his hospital stays, he got pissed at one of the nurses. He somehow got a hold of some of his plumbing tools and switched the pipes in the bathroom sink so hot water would come out when you selected the cold.

He was always there for a family member in trouble. If I was being bullied, he often came to the rescue.

I miss him, and find it strange that he was just a kid himself when he died. He seemed so much older to me at the time. To a 13-year-old, he was older and wiser.

He was close to a kid who lived two doors down from us named Sean Marley. After he died, I quickly latched on to Sean. We became best friends. In a way, he became a new older brother. Sean died in 1996 and the depression he suffered has been one of the cattle prods — next to my own fight with mental illness — for this blog.

A year after Sean died, I found another, much older brother named Peter Sugarman. He died in 2004 after choking on food.  His death sent me over the cliff with the OCD firing in every direction. That was the year I realized I needed help and started to get it.

I was lucky to have known these guys. They certainly helped shape the person I am today. I am forever thankful for that, because I have a life that’s Blessed far beyond what I probably deserve. I would not have reached this point without their lessons and love. Even in death, they each taught me to see the things that truly matter.

Thanks, guys.

OCD Diaries: Scaring the People in Your Life

The author is hearing from a lot of old friends who are shocked to read about his past. Truth is, many basket cases are good at hiding their craziness in public.

To most of my family, the stories I tell in previous posts aren’t all that surprising. They were there. My in-laws may not have known everything that was going on back in the day, but they saw my quirks.

Even at work, my quirks were easy to see. It surfaced in the form of my over-intensity on deadline; my habit of hovering over page designers; my overbearing nature toward the reporters I managed on the night shift.

But I was much better at keeping it together — on the surface, at least — around most friends back then.

Which brings me to another truth about people with mental illness and addictions: We do most of our suffering and self destructing in private. This video describes our behavior pretty well:

The last line in the clip: “I don’t get drunk in front of people, I get drunk alone,” says it all. For me, I ate alone. And I ran through my darkest, most obsessive-compulsive thinking alone. Most of the time, the two went hand in hand.

But there were times in my life where I hid it well.

As a student at North Shore Community College and later at Salem State College, I was really coming into my own in terms of my look and attitude. I played up the long-hair and metal image, stayed thin through bouts of starvation and read a lot of books so I could talk about them and appear smart.

That’s not to say I was walking around with fake skin. I was who I was at the time. In many ways I’m still the same guy. It’s just that I waited till the door to my room was closed and locked before I let the Devil out.

Despite what I’ve written about being the crazy-ass guy in the newsroom, I’ve been pretty good a lot of the time at putting on a calm, cool face, especially in more recent years. As I was diving deeper and deeper into the food addiction to dull the unpleasantness of going through therapy, I was being prolific as hell at work, writing a ton of breaking news and doing so with a smile.

At one point, a boss at the time marveled that I was so relaxed and zen-like for a guy who had just spent 12 hours covering a big news event. I laughed hard at that. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but zen-like was a new one.

On the drive home that day, I ordered $35 worth of junk in a nearby fast-food drive-thru and downed the contents of the four bags by the time I got home.

I was also pretty good at hiding my depression. Part of that is because my brand of depression has never been the suicidal variety that essentially makes the sufferer close down. Mine was more of a brooding depression in which I internalized my feelings and withdrew as often as I could. But on the job, I pushed all those feelings into the proper compartment and went on with life.

There’s light at the end of this tale. The therapy, medication, Spiritual awakening and loss of fear have gone far in making me the calm, zen-like guy on the inside as well as outside. I still carry the restlessness of OCD, but I manage it all better and don’t let the condition get in the way of the precious present nearly as much as before.

To those who knew me in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Don’t worry. I’m basically the same guy you knew back then.

The difference is that the man inside has gotten a lot better at being the man on the surface.

The Freak and the Redhead: A Love Story

I wasn’t looking for a soul mate when I met her. It was the summer of 1993 and I was doing just fine on my own.

Mood music:

I was in a band and we were busy pretending we were really something. This was long before I woke up one day, realized I really don’t know how to sing, and decided to spare the masses the agony of me trying to play vocalist.

I was driving around in a beat-up Chevy Monte Carlo. I had recently crashed it into the side of a van and the door was held shut with a bungee chord. I had recently tired of my long black hair and shaved my head for the first time. For some reason, that attracted her.

I was still a few months away from finding my calling as a journalist, and I was busy hiding from any real work. I pretended to work in my father’s warehouse but was really hiding behind boxes most of the time chain-smoking cigarettes.

I was starting to write for the college newspaper at Salem State College. She was editing the college literary journal, “Soundings East.” I joined the staff to get closer to her so I could make my move.

My first memory of her was on the drive home from classes one afternoon. Stuck in the vile traffic that often snarls the road from Salem to Route 114, I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a red-headed (strawberry blond, to be more accurate) bobbing her head back and forth to music. I later learned she was listening to The Ramones, and I’m pretty sure she was bobbing her head way off key and off beat from the music. That’s one of the things that attracted me.

On our first date, I took her to meet my mother. The first time she took me home to meet her family, I had forgotten my glasses and was wearing prescription sunglasses and a Henry Rollins T-shirt.  It was my first trip to Haverhill and getting home that night in the dark with sunglasses was an experience in mild insanity. But it was worth it. Her dad, by the way, was worried because he’d heard I was Jewish and pork chops were on the menu. I also met her whacky 12-year-old baby sister, who would eventually grow into the woman I would brand for life with the nickname “Blondie.” I taught Blondie the important things in life, like how to carefully put a string of tape on the back of a cat, to show how it would trick the cat into thinking it was under a piece of furniture and would, as a result, crawl as low to the ground as possible.

That wasn’t even enough to scare away my future wife.

In the years since, she has stayed with me through my bouts of depression following the deaths of many friends and relatives, obsessive-compulsive behavior, fear and anxiety and the binge-eating disorder that at one time pushed my weight to the upper 280s.

She was well within her rights to run for her life. But she stayed, gave me two precious children and helped me to overcome my demons and become the man I am today. She also gave me an extended family that I cherish, even the father-in-law who is to the right of Attila The Hun. I make the latter comment with complete affection, by the way.

My demons weren’t easy for her to understand, to be sure. My path was not the same she had been on. Yet she stayed.

She listens to folk music and puts up with my Heavy Metal. She puts up with the off-color language I picked up during my Revere, Mass. upbringing, which still surfaces in times of anger or intoxication.

She’s dedicated to her Church, sings in the choir and is a Eucharistic minister. Her parenting is the reason my sons are smart and caring beyond their years. She had the courage to leave a relatively safe full-time job to try and build her own business, something that’s not for the faint of heart.

I would never have gotten on top of my OCD without her. My Christmas gift to her is the relative sanity I carry around today. I hope she likes it. :-)