Friends Who Help You Heal

Today was sunny and warm in San Francisco. After the never-ending winter back home, I got what I needed today: A walk all over the city with my good friend, Rob Westervelt.

We started by walking along Fisherman’s Wharf, then Golden Gate Park and covered a lot of ground in between.

It brought back memories of when I came here with Sean Marley in 1991. We flew into San Francisco, rented a car and spent the next 10 days driving all over California, sleeping in the car, going days without a shower and eating pasta from cans. We went as far north as Eureka and as far south as L.A., where we spent a weekend before driving back to San Francisco. Too bad I spent half the time letting my fears get the better of me.

I’ve said it before: Too much dreary, cold weather sinks me into a stretch of melancholy. Today was excellent medicine. Now I’m relaxing in the hotel room writing in this diary and listening to Danzig and The Decemberists.

It was especially good to spend the day with Rob. We’ve been friends for a few years now, having worked together at Searchsecurity.com. We were a potent team, creating a lot of great podcasts and video together. We’ve gone on long jaunts through San Francisco and Las Vegas. When we worked in the same building we’d get together for morning workouts in the office gym.

We’ve kept the friendship going strong since I left to be senior editor at CSO Magazine, having lunch frequently, sometimes once a week.

He used to be Catholic and converted to the Jewish Faith. I did exactly the opposite.

He’s one of those guys I can truly be myself around. We laugh a lot.

One of the many friendships God sent my way to help me through some of my greatest trials.

I truly believe that The Holy Spirit manifests itself in the people around you, those who stick with you when your spiraling downward and when you’re on the way back up.

That, my friends, is another tool of recovery.

There have been times in my life where I didn’t have many friends. Good friends moved away or died, so for a long time I was afraid to get too close to people.

Doing so in the last three or so years has been a big leap of Faith.

It has helped me recover and find a new happiness.

Tomorrow the RSA security conference begins and I’ll see many more friends from my industry.

It’s good to be alive.

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I’m On My Way

I’m sitting at Gate C21 at Logan Airport, waiting to board a flight to San Francisco for this week’s RSA security conference.

My VPN to the company network isn’t working, which means I’ll have to send my articles to somebody else to post. That pisses me off. It’s a lack of control. But it’ll all work out in the end. I’ll write my stories and they’ll get posted.

Gotta have a little Faith.

A lot to be thankful for in the meantime. The power finally came back on in the house and I was able to leave the family in good shape. And I got a ride to the airport — at 3 a.m. — from a dear friend.

Funny thing about Kevin Littlefield. He’s one of those guys I went to high school with and couldn’t stand back then. He had a loud mouth and was always getting into trouble with the department head of our shop.

We worked a summer internship for an architect in the summer of 1988 and he could be a punk.

After graduation we lost touch. Then we found each other 20 years later on Facebook of all places. Since then, he has shot photos at my sister-in-law’s wedding and I’ve hired him as my taxi to and from the airport on business trips.

I always look forward to these rides. He’s one of the funniest people I know and can strike up a conversation with anyone. He’s a professional photographer and part-time taxi driver (not a real taxi, but you get the picture). He has five kids and loves Dunkin’ Donuts. Nobody’s perfect.

On the ride in he delighted me with stories of his recent trip to Dallas. He went to the School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shot to JFK’s skull in 1963. They wouldn’t let him take pictures of the sniper’s nest.

What was more trying for him is that there are no Dunkin’ Donuts down there. He was forced to drink Starbucks. He’s always making fun of my Starbucks habit. All I can say is: Hahahahahaha!

It’s funny how life works. You can dislike someone in high school and want to pound the life out of him. Then, 20-plus years later, you can count that same person among your dearest friends.

Yet another Blessing tossed my way.

I guess the laptop problem isn’t such a big deal after all.

Powerless

That was one hell of a storm.

The power went out around 11 p.m. Thursday and is still out as I write this Saturday morning.

It gives me a new appreciation for what people went through after the ice storm in December 2008. No power for weeks for these people. Yeesh.

We spent the night at the home of dear friends, and that was what I’d call making the best of things.

But I won’t lie, folks: A power outage in my house is the stuff OCD overdrive is made of. Can’t fire up the laptop and get work done. Can’t make coffee. The second problem was hardest.

It’s a loss of control for someone who craves the ability to control things. So by mid afternoon, as I sat in my sister-in-law’s house, I was feeling edgy. It literally made me itchy. The laptop was having trouble getting onto the Internet, which made me just a little tougher to be around. I was obsessed with getting a security article written, even though I really don’t have to write it until Monday. Still, I sat there and wrote anyway.

Erin sat there knitting and told me I was “spiraling out.” That made me stop and realize I was being an idiot.

I think it was around 10 p.m. when, from the kitchen of our friends, I finished the article. It was after midnight when we finally went to bed.

Now I’m in their kitchen at 6:15 a.m., writing in the blog.

Despite my momentary relapse into insanity, I handled the day a hell of a lot better than the old me would have. I’d have been punching walls, weaving a tapestry of filthy language and binging on whatever food wasn’t spoiled in the refrigerator. I’d have gone in mad pursuit of some wine.

I did none of those things. That’s real progress.

Tomorrow I fly out to San Francisco for the RSA security conference. I hope the power is back on today, because I’ll hate leaving the family in that situation. It’ll be ok, though. I’ll figure out a plan for where to put everyone if the power isn’t back by then. I’ll deal with it and move on.

Now, time to go out and find coffee. No offense to my dear friends, but their coffee is far too weak for my blood.

The Lasting Impact of Crohn’s Disease

The author has lived most of his life with Crohn’s Disease and has developed a few quirks as a result.

Mood music for this post: “Bleeding Me” from Metallica:

As the reader knows by now, I’ve spent most of my life with Crohn’s Disease, an affliction that in the long run has been more damaging to my mental health than my physical health.

It screwed up my brain and pushed me toward an adulthood of addictions and other hangups. I’m not going to give you a detailed scientific rundown of how the disease works. It’s enough to tell you that it attacks every part of the digestive system, ripping holes into the colon wall that can cause a person to bleed to death if left untreated.

I lost a lot of blood along the way and had a couple transfusions in the late 1970s. This left me scared to death in the 1980s and 1990s about AIDS, because many people got it from tainted blood transfusions. Fortunately, I’ve been tested many times for it and that didn’t happen. I was lucky.

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

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

The most popular drug to treat it is Prednisone, which comes with a wide list of side effects. In fact, the drug screwed with me much more than anything else. More on that in “The Bad Pill Kept Me from the Good Pill.”

All things considered, I’m probably one of the luckiest Crohn’s patients on Earth. The last bad flare up was in 1986 and I haven’t had once since. I still go through frequent periods of inflammation, but nothing that requires drugs or hospital stays. The colon is checked out every other year to make sure the layers of scar tissue don’t run wild and morph into cancer. The risk of colon cancer for me is pretty high at this point, but since it’s being checked so often I’m not worried about it. If it grows, we’ll catch it early and deal with it.

Instead, I entered adulthood with a binge-eating disorder that stemmed partly from not being allowed to eat anything for weeks during flare-ups and frequent bouts of depression.

But now that all those things are under control, I can have a little fun and share three of the more unusual byproducts of the disease:

–I look strangely on people with the name Colin. No offense to the former secretary of state or anyone else with the name. It’s just that when I hear the name, I think of bleeding intestines. Sorry, man.

–I can swallow pretty much anything without getting seriously hurt because of the thick walls of scar tissue. This pisses me off sometimes, because a loss of appetite would have come in handy back when I was binge-eating my brains out. On the plus side, I can suck down the coffee without consequences.

–Needles don’t scare me. As a kid I had to have weekly blood tests to monitor for anemia. This went on for years. And they always had trouble finding a good vein because they collapsed from all the IVs during hospital stays. No matter. I don’t have to look away when the needle goes in. It just doesn’t bother me. Good thing I never tried heroin. That’s something I never would have had the guts to do anyway, especially after reading “The Heroin Diaries.”

Sometimes having guts isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Especially when the guts are cracked and bleeding.

This post has a happy ending — not just because the worst of the flare ups ended in 1986.

The medical establishment knows a hell of a lot more about Crohn’s Disease than they did back then. Today most people know what Crohn’s Disease is. That wasn’t the case in the 1980s.

And Prednisone, while still popular, is no longer the only pharmaceutical option.

Even the embarrassment factor is smaller. People are more open about discussing these things.

In my experience, openness leads to more solutions.

Running from Sin, Running with Scissors

The author writes an open letter to the RCIA Class of 2010 about Faith as a journey, not a destination. He warns that addiction, rage and other bad behavior won’t disappear the second water is dropped over their heads.

Last night I attended the first of what will be a month’s worth of Tuesday-night meetings for this year’s group of RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) students.

I’m doing it partly as extra service for Lent, but also because I’m very attached to these groups each year because of my own Conversion in 2006. [More on that in “The Better Angels of My Nature“]

I’m going to help the group leader by sharing my experiences when called upon and when he needs me to stand in and go over Mass readings with them. But I think the most important thing I can do for the newest converts is share some of what I’ve learned since becoming a Catholic. So here it is, my open letter to the RCIA Class of 2010:

First, it was great to meet you all last night. I’m impressed by how young this group is. I’m impressed by the questions you ask. I didn’t say much last night because I wanted to spend my first visit getting to know you. That required me to listen instead of talking.

You might be wondering what’s going to become of your lives after you’re welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass. Well, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to this, but here are just a few of the things I’ve learned:

1. Don’t Succumb to “Happily-Ever-After” Syndrome.

Even though I knew deep down that it wouldn’t be the case, I approached the days leading up to my conversion in a high of sorts; feeling like it would be happy forever more once I was Baptized. In some ways that is how it turned out. But for me, things got a whole lot worse before they got better.

The sins I had accumulated up to that point were forgiven that night, but the demons remained a few steps behind me, ready to trip me into another garbage can.

I continued to suffer from the paralysis of OCD. I continued to give in to my self-destructive impulses [More on that in “The Most Uncool Addiction“].

I continued to indulge my over-sized ego and stay absorbed in all things me.

Oh, yes: Some of my most self-destructive, addictive behavior took place AFTER my Baptism.

2. Peace IS NOT The Absence of Chaos. It’s a State of Mind.

My own world used to be pure chaos. Self-loathing dripped from my pores and I had a craving for peace. I wanted all the violence and worry to go away. It didn’t.

But that’s OK.

I’ve learned that peace is a state of mind, not the absence of chaos. It’s a feeling and mental clarity that comes over you as your Faith deepens. It didn’t just smack me in the back of the head one morning. It’s a state of mind that slowly grew over time.

3. What You Get is Only As Good As What You Put In

Here is what you might call an open secret:  spiritual well-being isn’t just handed to you like an entitlement or a birthday present. You have to work hard at it everyday. Working it takes many forms.

Service is a big one. Getting to Mass every week is important.

But you have to do more. You have to go on retreats like Cursillo, which will be as life-changing an event for you as the Baptism was. I’ve been on two retreats since my conversion: Cursillo and an ACTS retreat the year before that. The soul searching and sharing you do on these weekends is priceless.

Then there are programs like ARISE, where you keep studying Scripture and discussing it in a group, in context with your daily life struggles.

I’ve gotten a lot from lectoring as well. By getting up in front of everyone and doing the readings, I’m better able to actually understand what the readings mean. And when you actively participate in the Mass, you’re less likely to fall asleep.

And go to Confession often. You won’t believe how good it feels to get rid of the mental trash until you do it.

4. Don’t Let Politics Get in the Way

An active Parish community is like any other community: There are a lot of folks with strong ideas who will butt heads, especially in a Parish like ours where there’s a school attached.

You also might not like everything the priest tells you every week.

People always use these things as excuses not to practice their Faith. Don’t let it happen to you.

All that matters is your own relationship with God. You have to move beyond the politics of human nature and remember the big picture.

I like to compare it to American government. We may not like the President or the Senator in office at any given time, but most of us stay devoted to our country and way of life. So maybe you have a problem with the priest. The priest is human like the rest of us, open to making mistakes. But most of the ones I’ve known do their best and get it right more than they get it wrong.

And there will always be bad seeds out there who twist religion to fit their own sinister goals, taking a lot of people down the hellhole along the way. The Manson Family is a perfect example.

Just remember: It comes down to you and your relationship with God.

If you invest too much of your Faith in the organizational/political/administrative structure, you’re looking in the wrong place and will almost certainly be dissapointed.

5. Plan to Fight the Good Fight to Your Dying Breath

I’ve come a long way in my spiritual growth. With God’s help I’ve overcome crippling addiction and depression and I know more peace today than I ever have.

But boy, I can still screw up with the best of ’em.

My most destructive addictive behaviors are under control, but I’m always tap dancing from one habit to another. [More on that in “Addicted to Feeling Good: A Love-Hate Story“].

There are still days where I come to church with a crappy attitude. My mind will be on everything else but God. A perfect example is in the post “Rat in the Church Pew.”

I still let my ego get the best of me, especially in my career as a Journalist. I’m easily distracted by shiny objects.

They are all things I need to work on. I can do so much better than this. But I used to be a lot worse.

In summary, it’s a life-long journey. You’ll keep making mistakes.

But keep your heart and head in the right place and everything will be fine.

The Angry Years

The author can’t say his temper was a direct result of OCD, depression and addictive behavior. But dealing with those things did make it go away. Mostly.

Mood music for this post: “St. Anger” by Metallica:

I had one hell of a temper when I was younger. To call it a byproduct of OCD, depression and addiction would be a stretch, because I think the temper would have been there even without the mental illness.

Some of the more colorful examples of my temper:

Hurling a fork or steak knife at my brother in a restaurant on New Years Eve 1979 because he made a joke I didn’t like. The more dramatic among my family members say it was a steak knife, though I’m pretty sure it was a fork.

— Lighting things on fire out of anger, including a collection of Star Wars action figures that would probably be worth a fortune today. I would pretend they were kids in school who were bullying me. Never mind that I bullied as much as I got bullied.

–Throwing rocks through windows, especially the condominium building that was built behind my house in the late 1980s.

–Yelling “mood swing!” before throwing things around the room at parties in my basement. It came off as comical, as I intended, and nobody got hurt. But there was definitely an underlying anger to it. I was acting out.

— Road rage. Tons of it. I was a very angry driver. I would tailgate. I would speed. In the winters I would intentionally spin out my putrid-green 1983 Ford LTD station wagon in parking lots during snowstorms. While in college, I nearly hit another car and flipped off the other driver while my future in-laws sat in the back. Traffic jams would infuriate me. Getting lost would fill me with fear and, in turn, more anger.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

There were a lot of legitimate causes of rage for me. The drug I took for Chron’s Disease had a lot of nasty side effects, including violent mood swings. A brother and two close friends dying — one by suicide — gave me a lot of anger. Being stuck in the middle of turf wars and working late nights while at The Eagle-Tribune certainly made me a a walking ball of fire.

I’m also sure the fear and anxiety that came with my OCD contributed to more anger.

But here’s the good news: I don’t feel that anger anymore.

Sure, there are days where I’m feeling pissed off and some profanity might drip from my lips. And yes, there are days where I might raise my voice over something the kids did.

But I no longer punch walls (I never hit people; just walls). I no longer throw things. I no longer set toys ablaze. And I’m a much calmer driver. In fact, I actually enjoy the quiet time I get from long drives. Even the profanity isn’t close to what it used to be, which is no small achievement for a guy from Revere.

The reasons are pretty simple. The coping tools I developed to manage the OCD also made for some excellent anger management. Losing the fear and anxiety in turn made me less angry. And my religious conversion was a huge force for calming my soul.

Finally, I thank God for the metal music. It’s great therapy for when I’m having a frustrating day. And when I was a kid, it was an outlet for my anger that almost certainly kept me from acting on much darker impulses.

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