Selfish Bastard

The author has found that service is an excellent tool for OCD management. Simply put, it forces him to stop being a selfish bastard.

In OA, those of us in recovery from our compulsive eating disorders rely on a set of tools that go hand in hand with the 12 Steps. There’s the plan of eating, writing, sponsorship, the telephone and literature. There’s anonymity. And there’s service to others.

The plan of eating is what’s most necessary for me, but I think my favorite tool is service.

I’ve been doing a lot of service of late. Last month and then this morning, I qualified at an OA meeting, which means I led the meeting and, as part of that, stood in front of people and shared the story of what I used to be like, what happened to make me seek help for my addiction, and what I’m like now.

Tonight, I’ll take the kids to a dinner in the basement of our church to celebrate the start of Catholic Schools Week, where I’ll help with the cleanup afterward.

I thrive on these things for one simple reason: It forces me to step out of that selfish little world where addicts live.

Here’s a fact about addicts: We are among the most selfish people on the planet. Or, as Nikki Sixx says in the final track on Sixx A.M.’s soundtrack for The Heroin Diaries: “You know addicts. It’s all about us, right?” That selfishness usually leads us to do stupid things that make us feel shame. In the midst of that shame, we lie.

That sort of behavior can overwhelm us, no matter how much we want to be better people. That’s why the tools of recovery are so important. They force us out of the hole. In the process, the people around us play an active role.

When I do service, the people I may be trying to help are helping me as well. If it’s through OA, everyone is supporting each other. It’s the same at church, be it through school activities or actively participating in Mass. That’s why I do lectoring. Actively participating in Mass helps me to pay attention to what’s going on instead of sitting there locked inside my head.

The battle with selfishness is an ongoing, brutal thing. But through service, I’m getting a little better each day — bit by bit.

I hope.

The Case for Self-Deprecation

The author on why self-deprecation is a handy tool for controlling his demons.

Mood music for this post: Low Self Opinion by The Henry Rollins Band:

A few readers have told me I put myself down too much in these blog posts. Since I’m really not trying to put myself down — I do have a monster ego, after all — it’s time to say a bit about the power of self-deprecating humor.

It’s true that I like to poke fun at myself. I do it to everyone around me, so I may as well do it to myself. [For more on this, see The Power Of Sarcasm]

I make fun of my bald head, big ears and nose.

I like to joke that I used to have hair halfway down my back, but now I’m bald and all the hair is ON MY BACK.

I’m a history buff who dresses conservatively and has a Cross, pictures of Jesus, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln covering his work-spaces at the office and at home. Yet I listen to Heavy Metal, which has often been panned as the Devil’s music (some of it is, but not the stuff I listen to. And, it’s worth pointing out, some of the most evil beings in history craved Classical music.)

Contradictions like that, in my view, are worth poking a little fun at.

I see self-deprecation as an important tool for OCD management because it keeps me grounded and reminds me — in moments of high ego intoxication and moments of deep self-pity — not to take myself too seriously.

It’s also a good ice breaker that usually puts others at ease.

So next time you hear me say something to belittle myself, don’t fret. I’m not engaging in self-loathing.

Truth is, I like who I am.

And since I like to tease those closest to me as a form of affection, you could interpret me making fun of myself as proof that I’m pretty much OK with who I’ve become.

How I’m Feeling

As I mentioned in my posts Prozac Winter and The Mood Swing, I recently went up 20 milligrams on the Prozac because of the depression that tends to set in during the winter. [For more on the background, see The Bad Pill Kept Me From The Good Pill and An OCD Christmas]

I’m three weeks into the higher dosage and it’s working — mostly.

I woke up feeling blue this morning and still feel that way, though the sunrise through the living room window helps. Sunday, I went through some pretty wild mood swings.

But most of the time I feel balanced. A friend recently commented in this blog that he sees anti-depressants as more of an art than a science. I see it as both.

Another friend, who has worked as a mental health worker, said my mood swings seem more like a bi-polar thing than OCD.

OCD is the root problem, though one of the byproducts is certainly bi-polar feelings and behavior.

I mentioned Sunday’s mood swings to the therapist, who reminded me that I went through the same thing last time the dose was adjusted. I had a couple touch-and-go weeks and then all was well. I’m starting to see the same trajectory, which is good.

Remember: I’m writing about this from my personal perch. What works or doesn’t work for me is not going to be the same for most other people who deal with some form of mental illness.

That fact is why I like the comments that are coming in. I want to be disagreed with when someone who knows what they’re talking about feels strongly about something.

So I say thank you and keep it coming.

I leave you with the song that best captures my mood this morning: “The Ballad of Love and Hate” from The Avett Brothers:

The Liar’s Disease

The author endeavors to tell the truth about an uncomfortable fact: People with addictive behavior really suck at honesty.

Mood music for this post:”Liar,” by The Henry Rollins Band:

You might remember a few years back when the author James Frey wrote  A Million Little Pieces; his memoir on life as a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser and his rehab in a Twelve-step program.

A Million Little Pieces.jpg

The credibility of the book was eventually ripped apart after it came to light that a lot of the book was fiction. You might remember how Oprah Winfrey took him apart piece by piece on her show over his lack of honesty. She was especially livid because the book had once been at the top of her book club reading list.

But when I think of the book my thoughts turn to horror novelist Stephen King. I’ve never been much of a Stephen King fan, though I did love “The Stand.” But at the height of the Frey controversy, he wrote an absolutely brilliant article called “Frey’s Lies.”

King, himself a recovering addict, shines a bitter, devastating light on one of the most uncomfortable truths people like us live with: When it comes to honesty, we  suck big time.

Here are some of my favorite parts of the King article:

“Substance abusers lie about everything, and usually do an awesome job of it. I once knew a cokehead who convinced his girlfriend the smell of freebase was mold in the plastic shower curtain of their apartment’s bathroom. She believed him, he said, for five years (although he was probably lying about that, it was probably only three). A recovering alcoholic friend of mine reminisces about how he convinced his first wife that raccoons were stealing their home brew. When she discovered the truth, she divorced him. Go to one of those church-basement meetings where they drink coffee and talk about the Twelve Steps and you can hear similar stories on any night, and that’s why the founders of this group emphasized complete honesty — not just in ”420 of 432 pages,” as James Frey claimed during his Larry King interview, but in all of it: what happened, what changed, what it’s like now.”

He concludes: “Surely there are more important lessons to be learned here. They have to do with drugs and alcohol as well as truth. Addiction is a plague on American society. The cruelly ignorant assumption that addicts bring it on themselves (and thus can take care of the problem themselves) only exacerbates the problem. No child on third-grade Careers Day says he wants to grow up to be an alcoholic like Mommy or a rock hound like Dad, and no addict struggling to get clean before the spike or pipe can do him in deserves to be told, ”Just pull yourself together and clean up your act like James Frey did.” Because, dig: James Frey isn’t the way you sober up…and if you think I’m lying, let’s go to the videotape.”

I’ve mentioned my own talent for lying to those around me during times where my demons were out of control in The Most Uncool Addiction. The lies aren’t built around malice. It’s more about the shame an addict feels after giving in to the craving and feasting on their chosen substance like a wild animal in the sewer.

To help you understand, I need to repeat the story I told in that earlier post:

In my case, the addiction is food, something we need to survive. It’s not the least bit cool. Certainly not a “normal” addiction.

That food would be my problem makes perfect sense. As a kid sick with Chron’s Disease much of the time, I was often in the hospital for weeks at a time with a feeding tube that was inserted through the left side of my chest. That’s how I got nourishment. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything. At a very early age, my relationship with food was doomed to dysfunction.

It didn’t help that I was from a family of over-eaters who would stuff themselves for comfort in times of stress and fatigue.

In our society it’s considered perfectly OK to indulge in the food. Time and again, I’ve heard it said that overeating is a lot better than drinking or drugging. But for me, back when I was at my worst, binge eating was a secret, sinister and shameful activity.

Here’s how it works:

You get up in the morning and swear to God that you’re going to eat like a normal person. You pack some healthy food for the office. Then you get in the car and the trouble starts before the car’s out of the driveway. Another personality emerges from the back of the brain, urging you to indulge. It starts as a whisper but builds until it vibrates through the skull like a power saw.

The food calls out to you. And you’ll do whatever it takes to get it, then spend a lot of time trying to cover your tracks.

Before you know it, you’re in the DD drive-thru ordering two boxes of everything. It all gets eaten by the time you reach the office. You get to the desk disgusted, vowing to never do that again. But by mid-morning, the food is calling again. You sneak out before lunchtime and gorge on whatever else you can find, then you do it again on the way home from work.

You pull into McDonald’s and order about $30 of food, enough to feed four people. From the privacy of the car, the bags are emptied. By the time you get home, you wish you were dead.

The cycle repeats for days at a time, sometimes weeks and months.

For many years I hid it well, especially in my early 20s. I would binge for a week, then starve and work out for another week. That mostly kept the weight at a normal-looking level.

Call it athletic Bulimia.

In one inspired episode, I downed $30 of fast food a day for two weeks, then went a week eating nothing but Raisin Bran in the morning, then nothing but black coffee for the rest of the day. After the cereal, I’d work out for two hours straight.

In my mid-20s, once I started working for a living, I kept up the eating but couldn’t do the other things anymore. So my weight rose to 280. In the late 1990s I managed to drop 100 pounds and keep it off through periodic fasting.

Then I started to face down what would eventually be diagnosed as OCD, and I once again gave in to the food. The gloves were off.

The binging continued unabated for three years. The weight went back up to 260. I also started to run out of clever ways to mask over all the money I was spending on my habit. I was slick. I’d take $60 from the checking account and tell my wife it was for an office expense or some other seemingly legitimate thing. But she’s too smart to fall for that for long.

Then I discovered Over-eaters Anonymous (OA), a 12-step program just like AA, where the focus is on food instead of booze. I didn’t grasp it immediately. In fact, I thought everyone at these meetings were nuts. They were, of course, but so was I.

Thing is, I had reached a point in my learning to manage OCD where I was ready to face down the addiction. If it had to be through something crazy, so be it.

Through the program, I gave up flour and sugar. The plan is to be done with those ingredients for life. Put them together and they are essentially my cocaine. I dropped 65 pounds on the spot. But more importantly, many of the ailments I had went away. I stopped waking up in the middle of the night choking on stomach acid. The migraines lessened substantially. And I found a mental clarity I never knew before.

I can’t say I’ve slaughtered the demon. Addicts relapse all the time. But I have a program I didn’t have before; a road map unlike any other.

When Erin read that post, she was pretty shocked, even though I eventually told her the truth. I told her the truth in bits and pieces, though, which is different than having it delivered in one, vivid flashback in the form of a blog entry.

That she was surprised makes sense on review. Even though I eventually gave her the honesty she deserved, I’m sure that in coming clean, I used the most passive, diluted language possible. Shame makes people talk that way.

King was right about another thing: Addicts don’t find recovery on their own. They need help from others who have suffered.

They are dragged up those 12 steps kicking and screaming in the beginning.

The Engine

I’ve written a lot about my use of Prozac as just one of many tools to treat my OCD. [See The Bad Pill Kept Me From The Good Pill]

As a result I’ve gotten a fair amount of questions about the true value of anti-depressants. I’m not a doctor, so don’t take my perspective as Gospel. Also remember there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. What I write here is based on my own personal experiences. What works for me may not work for the next person.

http://activephilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/brain-engine.jpg

The more I read up on depression, mental illness and the drugs prescribed for it, the more I see the human brain as an engine. Comparing it to an engine makes this whole think easier to understand.

We know that the engine of a car is made up of many small parts and when one part gets worn out the rest of the engine can fail. We know that a car needs just the right amount of oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid etc. to function properly. If the oil runs out, the engine seizes up. If the brake fluid runs dry, the breaks fail. On the flip side, too much of these fluids can harm the engine.

We also know that the auto mechanic uses many different techniques to keep engines healthy or fix them when they break.

The brain works much the same way.

[ImgPet.jpg]

Think of the different drugs as different tools to deal with very specific problems in the engine.

https://i0.wp.com/i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/08/04/gall.antidepressants.jpg

In my case, Prozac addresses the very specific fluid deficiencies that spark OCD behavior. The effect is not as simple as the image below suggests (though I do like the image and need to find the artist so I can properly credit him/her):

https://billbrenner1970.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/prozac.jpg?w=218

It may also be useful to think of the therapist as the auto mechanic who is well versed in how to regulate the different engine fluids and pinpoint specific fixes for specific problems. It’s also true that there are good mechanics and bad mechanics who sometimes make the problem worse. [More on this in my previous post: Have Fun With Your Therapist (A.K.A.: The Shrink Stigma)]

In the brain, when certain fluids are running low, the engine stops working properly. The result is depression and a host of other mental disorders.

Since OCD is essentially the brain pumping and spinning out of control, I like to think of my specific problem as a lack of brake fluid.

But the good folks at WebMD explain it much better than I ever could. Here’s some WebMD wisdom I included in a previous post, Prozac Winter:

How Antidepressants Work

Most antidepressants work by changing the balance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. In people with depression, these chemicals are not used properly by the brain. Antidepressants make the chemicals more available to brain cells like the one shown on the right side of this slide:

Photo Composite of Neurotransmitters at Work

Antidepressants can be prescribed by primary care physicians, but people with severe symptoms are usually referred to a psychiatrist.

 

Realistic Expectations

In general, antidepressants are highly effective, especially when used along with psychotherapy. (The combination has proven to be the most effective treatment for depression.) Most people on antidepressants report eventual improvements in symptoms such as sadness, loss of interest, and hopelessness.

But these drugs do not work right away. It may take one to three weeks before you start to feel better and even longer before you feel the full benefit.

And, just as weather can impair the performance of your car engine (my father‘s car went for a swim when Revere got flooded out in The Blizzard of 1978 and never worked properly again), too much bad weather can keep the brain from working properly:

Why do I seem to get so gloomy each winter, or sometimes beginning in the fall?

You may have what’s called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The condition is marked by the onset of depression during the late fall and early winter months, when less natural sunlight is available. It’s thought to occur when daily body rhythms become out-of-sync because of the reduced sunlight.

Some people have depression year round that gets worse in the winter; others have SAD alone, struggling with low moods only in the cooler, darker months. (In a much smaller group of people, the depression occurs in the summer months.)

SAD affects up to 3% of the U.S. population, or about 9 million people, some experts say, and countless others have milder forms of the winter doldrums.

So this worsening of mood in the fall and winter is not just my imagination?

Not at all. This “winter depression” was first identified by a team of researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1984. They found this tendency to have seasonal mood and behavior changes occurs in different degrees, sometimes with mild changes and other times severe mood shifts.

Symptoms can include:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Experiencing fatigue in the daytime
  • Gaining weight
  • Having decreased interest in social activities and sex

SAD is more common for residents in northern latitudes. It’s less likely in Florida, for instance, than in New Hampshire. Women are more likely than men to suffer, perhaps because of hormonal factors. In women, SAD becomes less common after menopause.

I’m still learning the science of mental illness, and remember I’m not a doctor. I just share my personal experiences and explain what works for me.

Class dismissed.

Regulating Addictive Food: A Lesson in Futility

As an obsessive-compulsive binge eater, the author feels it’s only proper that he (cough) weigh in (cough) on the notion that regulating junk food might help. Here’s why the answer is probably not.

Since I know what it’s like to be deep in the muck of a binge-eating addiction, my wife thought I might find interest in an article from The Environment Report suggesting that the regulation of foods that are bad for you — same way as with cigarettes — might help some sufferers.

The cattle prod for this item is a new book called “The End of Overeating.” The author is David A. Kessler, MD, and a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. I actually have a lot of respect for this guy, whose tenure included the successful push to enact regulations requiring standardized Nutrition Facts labels on food. That, in my opinion, was a huge win for those of us who want truth in advertising.

In “The End of Overeating,” Kessler makes a compelling argument: Foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain’s chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat. “Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology — what’s going on in our body,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying in a story brilliantly headlined “Crave Man.”

https://i1.wp.com/starvingwritersbooks.com/bookstore/images/endofeverlasting.jpg

The real question is what’s going on in the brain, Kessler says.

His theory on food as an addictive substance is as on the mark as you can get. Trust me. I’ve lived it. Binge eating is all about addiction for me. It’s tied directly into the same corner of the brain where my OCD resides.

He is also right that sugar, salt and fat are addictive substances, though for a lot of people, the components of our poison boil down to sugar and flour. Of course, most of the food that has flour and sugar also tends to be high in salt and fat.

The first and most important tool in my OA recovery program is a plan of eating. Flour and sugar are off the table — period. Almost everything I eat goes on a little scale. 4 ounces protein, 4 ounces raw vegetable, 6 ounces cooked vegetable, 2 ounces potato or brown rice, etc. Every morning at 6:15 I call my sponsor, someone who hears my food plan for each day and gives me the necessary kick in the ass.

But salt and fat are not forbidden for me. In fact, I’m allowed to substitute 4 ounces of meat with 2 ounces of cheese or nuts.

To some, this may sound like a typical fad diet, but people in OA have used a plan like this since the beginning. And the plan isn’t the same for everyone. If you have diabetes, for example, removing every scrap of flour from the diet isn’t usually an option. No matter. The only requirement of the program is to stop eating compulsively, no matter how you get there.

This isn’t something I pursued to drop 65 pounds, though I did lose that amount pretty quickly. This is a food plan for life — a key to my getting all the nutrition I need and nothing more. Just as an alcoholic must put down the booze or a narcotics addict has to put down the pills, I have to put down the flour and sugar.

This is the plan that got me out of the darkest days of addictive behavior and I’m a true believer.

Flour and sugar mixed together becomes a toxin that knocks the fluids in my brain out of balance. Kessler’s research is definitely in line with what’s happened to me.

But the idea of regulating food the same way as something like cigarettes? It won’t do much good.

It certainly couldn’t hurt. The nutrition labels at the very least gave us an education on what we put in our bodies, and it’s been especially helpful to parents who are trying to raise their kids healthy. Regulating cigarettes has certainly made it harder for minors to buy them.

But for the true addict, regulation is a joke.

Knowing what’s in junk food won’t keep the addict away. I always read the labels AFTER binging on the item in the package. And the labels have done nothing to curb the child obesity pandemic.

If you smoke, it’s certainly more expensive to buy a pack than it used to be. But if you crave the nicotine, you’ll find a way to get your fix. It’s the same with drugs, and with food.

I’m going to read Kessler’s book because it sounds like he has  some breakthrough findings that can help make people better.

But when someone suggests regulation as a solution, don’t ever believe ’em.

A suffering brain will always find a way to disregard the rules for the three minutes of rapture that follows the binge.

Rat in the Church Pew

The author has written much about his Faith as a key to overcoming mental illness. But as this post illustrates, he still has a long way to go in his spiritual development.

The scene is the parking lot of All Saints Parish, just after today’s 9:30 Mass. Father Mike Harvey greets the Brenners and the conversation somehow turns to the kids listening to their mother and father.

Father Harvey: Remember kids, if your mother asks you to do something or tells you something, she is always right.

Me: Does that rule apply to me?

Father Mike: Yes. You always should answer her with “Yes Dear.”

Me: I’m an editor so I always try to make do with fewer words. So instead of “Yes Dear,” I shorten it to “Whatever.”

I have to be honest: While Sunday Mass is always a place for me to find peace and get closer to God, sometimes I ruin it for myself. I’m not a special case, because we all have our good days and bad days, but it’s worth noting here because it shows that while I’ve come far in conquering my demons, sometimes I backslide.

Case in point: I woke up cranky as all hell this morning, and as a result I went to church with a lousy attitude.

I didn’t hear the Homily, or the Gospel, or the Readings. I stood stone-faced during the Prayers of the Faithful. I got annoyed with the school principal sitting in the pew in front of us because her perfume was inflaming my allergies. I looked with disdain at a couple people who were reading the church bulletin during the Homily. It’s not my business, and I was as poorly-focused as they were. I was being judgmental, something I need to work on.

What’s this have to do with managing OCD? Let me explain:

Even though I’ve come a long way in managing my demons, there are still going to be days where I’m not as on top of things as I should be.

This is normal. Sliding back is part of the process.

It’s also easy to get caught up in parish politics and attitudes. Sometimes we get pissed because we feel someone is judging us. Yet we turn around and judge them back.

Today was a reminder that my mental tools are only going to remain effective if I keep working to perfect them. That includes the eating plan at the center of my recovery for binge eating.

The battle against the demons is never completely won. It’s a battle that continues until death.

I like to think of it as something more positive: a journey.