The Love Story Continues (Happy Birthday, Erin)

Today is my wife’s 39th birthday. Without her, I would be nowhere. My recovery from mental illness and addiction was only possible because of her. So in honor of this day, I’ve dug up THE POST on the two of us:

Mood music for this post: “An Easterly View” by Bear McCreary, because nothing says love like a sweeping piece of music from Battlestar Gallactica:

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. 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 birthday  gift to her is the relative sanity I carry around today. I hope she likes it. :-)

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The Downward Spiral

The author searches for a way out of his latest bout of depression.

Mood music for this post: “The Downward Spiral” by NIN:

I was going to start this with some amusing anecdote about how I’m suffering so others might be saved. Jesus already did that sort of thing, of course. Dopes like me think it’s good to suffer to benefit others, but it’s just delusional thinking we engage in to feel better about ourselves when the chips are down.

That aside, I have been in an emotional downward spiral these last few days.

Financial woes kicked off this latest bout of depression. You can read more about that in “Emotions Come from a Strange Place” and “Turning the Tables on Those Who Whine.”

Yesterday started with a gloomy mood, then my spirits lifted as I started to tackle some work projects. Then my mood sunk deep after something I thought would help the family finances fell through.

All things considered, it wasn’t a bad day from there.

I had a pretty productive work day, getting a podcast done and launching a new crop of articles, though it took everything I had not to let my mood interfere with the tasks at hand. I also didn’t go on a fast-food binge on the way home like I used to do. I just went home — sitting through two traffic jams on the way — and collapsed into my bed for an hour. That was better than throwing away my sobriety and abstinence.

Seeing that I was in a fragile state, Erin insisted I go to an OA meeting, which I did. It helped a lot. It was nice to get out of my head for an hour and hear people talk about their recovery and how they’ve hung on to it despite difficult times like these.

From there my mood started to lift. I came home to find that Sean and Duncan had done all my chores for me, and Sean hugged me and called me the “best Dad ever.” Those kids can tell when their Dad isn’t himself. After putting them to bed Erin and I collapsed into bed and talked about the day’s events.

We didn’t figure out the solution to our troubles, but the conversation knocked my perspective back into line.

We talked about other people we know who are going through their own financial troubles, and by comparison our situation isn’t as bad. Our marriage is still rock-solid. We have beautiful children and a vast support network of family and friends. God is never far from us, and if we keep our cool it’ll all work out.

One thing’s clear: I have to keep my recovery whole.

I have to because when I’m in the vice-grip of my addictions, I’m useless as a husband and father.

I also sponsor people in OA, and if I blow it I can’t help them.

There are also family members with troubles of their own, and I have to keep it together for them.

There are some bright spots to this story.

For one thing, my family is getting better at knowing what to do when I’m in a funk, which is basically to let me be withdrawn for a while.

Most importantly, looking at the last couple years, I’m much happier today, even though money is tight.

A few years ago money was no problem, but I was seriously fucked up. I was 280 pounds of self-destructive mayhem under the control of his addictions and riddled with fear and anxiety.

Today I’m sober, abstinent from binge eating and the fear and anxiety went away a long time ago.

I’ll take today’s state of affairs over the old way any day.

Emotions That Come from a Strange Place

The author finds himself walking between depression and hope. A strange place to be. (Written during a depressive episode in 2010.)

Mood music for this post: Henry Rollins’ “I Think I Know You” performed over “A Warm Place,” from Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral” album:

Yesterday was a perfect example of the strange place I’m in emotionally these days.

It started well enough. A good Mass at church in the morning, a phone conversation with an old friend, the laughter of my wife and kids filling the house. I found myself looking forward to the coming week’s work projects and was especially looking forward to my 2-year-old niece’s birthday party in the afternoon. I even made it through several pages of Slash’s autobiography.

Then, somewhere between 1 and 2 p.m., I had a brutal mood swing. It came on as suddenly as the flame that ignites when you drag a match across sandpaper.

The match in this case was more worry about the financial difficulties I wrote about over the weekend. The allergies assaulting my senses didn’t help matters.

I’m usually pretty talkative at family events, but once we got to my sister-in-law’s house I found myself feeling socially awkward. I looked around at family members who I usually love to be with and decided I really just didn’t want to put on a happy face and socialize. My head started to throb.

So I did what I’ve always done in situations like this. I found a room nobody else was in and dozed off. I’ve always had a kill switch inside me that goes off in times of heavy emotional stress. I go right to sleep. Then I wake up later feeling fine.

It’s a gift, I suppose. It keeps me from doing other things, like getting smashed or being mean to people whose only crime was to me in my presence when I wanted to be alone. I used to binge eat during moments like this, too. But as the reader knows by now, that’s not an option these days.

So I’m pissed with myself now for letting my emotional weaknesses get in the way of what should have been a nice afternoon with family. Fortunately, my sister-in-law Amanda took a lot of great photos so I can at least see what I was missing.

This is one of the few pictures with me. The fuse in my head was burning at this point and within minutes I'd be hiding.

As a result, I missed precious moments like…

Sean showing off his latest Lego creation:

Duncan running around with the remains of his snack all over his face, along with a little blood from some rough playing:

The birthday girl blowing out her candles:

Why toss my dirty laundry on here, when the better thing to do is just let it go and move on? Because it’s a relevant example of how one’s demons can still surface at the worst moments, even when you’ve reached a solid level of recovery as I have.

No matter how strong a person in recovery is, he/she is still ALWAYS seconds away from failure.

That’s not a complaint. Just a simple fact. I’m not a special case.

As is usually the case in this blog, I have a positive ending for you:

Because I have God, an amazing family and recovery on my side, the troubled emotions will surely pass. They’ll pass because instead of sitting on my problems, I’m going to do something I’ve learned to do in recent years.

I’m going to tackle the source of the bad emotions head on and do what I must to set things right.

Careful How You Help Others

The author on the need for boundaries when helping people in need.

Mood music for this post: “Ten Years Gone,” The Black Crows with Jimmy Page:

Being someone who has benefited greatly from the kindness of others, I’m forever trying to pay it forward. One way I do this is by sponsoring people in my 12-Step Program.

But if you don’t handle this blade carefully, it will cut you deep.

That’s what I’m learning, anyway.

I’m new at this sponsorship thing. I’m pretty sure I still suck at it.

Here’s how it works: In a 12-Step Program like AA or OA, the person in search of recovery from their addiction needs someone to coach them along. In the case of OA, you find a sponsor who has achieved recovery (long-term abstinence from compulsive overeating) and ask that person how they are achieving it.

For this to work, the sponsee has to be willing to toss aside all their stubborn thinking about what’s acceptable in recovery and essentially do what their sponsor tells them to do.

In this case, the sufferer checks in with his/her sponsor by phone just about every day for 10 or 20 minutes. You tell the sponsor what your food plan is for the day and what meetings you plan to attend. You also talk about any anxieties in your head that might cause you to go on a binge. When you reach a more advanced stage of recovery, the check-in calls can be more about discussing the 12 Steps and other things instead of running down the daily food plan. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

The sponsor typically has all their sponsee calls set up over an hour or two-hour period each day — time set aside just for this. If a sponsee calls even a few minutes early or late, the sponsor’s schedule can get screwed up.

A bad sponsor can be a nightmare for someone trying to find recovery. A sponsor who casually skips call-ins or refuses to adjust to any special food needs their sponsee has because it differs from their own food plan can do serious damage.

A common tactic for OA recovery is to nix all flour and sugar. It’s not a requirement. The only requirement in OA is to stop eating compulsively. But it’s something that’s necessary for a lot of people, including me.

Some sponsors have real trouble sponsoring someone who does not give up flour and sugar. The sponsor typically fears that they might slip in their own recovery by guiding someone whose food plan is different from theirs.

I have a problem with this, because if you have certain medical conditions, you need a specialized plan that’s inevitably going to differ from what the sponsor does. And I’ve met people struggling to find recovery who sink deeper into their addictive behavior because their sponsor was too stubborn to work with them.

This cuts both ways, of course. Sometimes it turns out the sponsee SHOULD ditch the flour and sugar, but they’re so desperate for those ingredients for their junk fix that they close themselves off to anything their sponsor is trying to tell them.

My first sponsor was brutally strict. But that’s what I needed — someone who would give me a deep kick in the ass.

But I was ready to do anything for recovery. Had I not been, I would have just lied to her on the phone every day about what I was doing. People like us tend to lie a lot, as I’ve mentioned before.

Right now I have two sponsees. One, in my opinion, should be off the flour and sugar, but he remains blind to that fact. I could be totally wrong about his needs, of course. But his behavior closely mirrors my own before recovery, and I’ve urged him to try ditching the flour and sugar to see how he feels for a bit. No dice.

My other sponsee is very responsive to my guidance. She has suffered enough that she is ready to do what she must. But boundaries are a problem. She sometimes misses the regular call-in time, then calls me several times later in the day. She’s the type that can suck the life out of you if you don’t set down some tough boundaries.

There are some people you try to help who will try to lean on you for things that are way outside your duty as a sponsor, like buying their groceries and running to their house at 2 in the morning because they’re having a bad night.

Am I screwing up as a sponsor somewhere along the way? Probably. I’m still pretty new at this.

My biggest fear is that instead of helping people, I’ll just make their damage worse. But I do warn those I take on that I’m not a doctor and any plan of recovery I suggest should be run by a real doctor and/or nutritionist.

So here’s why I’m bringing all this up:

Yesterday I went to pick up my sponsee to take her to an OA meeting. She has no car but lives only about 5 minutes from me so I was glad to do it.

But when I called her at the appointed time, she didn’t pick up the phone. I tried several times to no avail, then decided to just head to the meeting. I was almost there when she called. It turns out she fell asleep on the couch and didn’t hear the phone.

I wound up turning around and going to her apartment to talk over some boundaries I felt we needed to have. I was pissed about missing my meeting, but something still compelled me to change course.

I’m glad I did. Seeing this person’s environment was useful to me. And I turned the visit into a mini-OA meeting. During the course of the conversation, I set down some boundaries and she agreed to follow them. She is ready for the challenge.

Hopefully I am, too, because I’d much rather help this person get well than drive her further down the road to hell.

This business with helping others in recovery is tough stuff.

If I ever master it, I’ll let you know.

Turning the Tables on Those Who Whine

The author has a low tolerance for those who bitch. But he’s about to do it anyway.

Mood music for this post: “Thorn in My Pride” by The Black Crows:

This post is about whining and hypocrisy.

For much of my adult life, I’ve had a low tolerance for people who whine about every little thing. I say adult life, because as a teenager all I did was whine.

Facebook has become a favorite hangout for people with lives packed with drama, and they whine on their profile pages with complete abandon.

I see those messages and I get all high and mighty, telling whoever will listen that these folks should keep their crying to themselves.

In the world outside of Facebook, not even my kids are safe from my low tolerance. Here’s an example:

Sean, 3 at the time, whines about something.

Me: “How about some cheese to go with that whine.”

Sean, being pretty sharp for a 3-year-old: “But it’s not lunchtime.”

The other night a friend from work marveled at how LITTLE I whine about things. He said something about how I’m one of the most optimistic people he’s ever met.

I am an optimist. After all I’ve been through, I’ve found the ability to see the silver lining around every cloud.

But I’ll be honest: Sometimes it’s all just an act.

I try to keep the optimistic face and only show people the confident, been-there-done-that-no-big-deal side of me. Sure, I spend a lot of time in this blog pointing out my weaknesses and failures, but I do it for the sake of testifying as to who I used to be and how I became the guy I am today. That requires taking a rigorous moral inventory of one’s self. Otherwise, I try to keep the happy face bolted on tight.

When I write about how life is so much better now that I’ve learned to (mostly) manage the OCD and related addictions, I mean every word. I’m one of the luckiest guys on Earth.

But that doesn’t mean things go smoothly every day.

Sometimes I still let the worries get the better of me. And when that happens, I whine. Just like all those Facebook friends I mocked earlier.

There’s a lot I want to whine about right now.

It pisses me off that in order to keep my most self-destructive addictions under control, I have to let myself be controlled by other addictions: Coffee. Cigars. Internet.

It makes me angry when I can’t spend money on unimportant things, which is another addiction. We’re so broke right now that I simply can’t afford to do that. I still have done it on a couple occasions, typically in the form of music downloads from the iTunes store. Fortunately, as readers here know from the mood music I put with most posts, all the music I could ever want is available for free on YouTube.

The lack of money is probably my biggest bitching point right now. We have never needed much, Erin and I. We don’t have expensive tastes, unless it’s the occasional splurge during a vacation trip.

Even then, we stay in the cheap hotels, and we’re fine with that.

But lately the basics are getting hard to cover. Bills are getting paid late. We’re not used to paying bills late. Erin has always been very much on top of that.

The cause is a deliberate choice we made over a year ago: That Erin would quit a full-time job and attempt to get a freelance copy editing business off the ground.

She’s handled it like a champ. She works her ass off every day, and her clients are always happy with what she delivers. The trick is finding enough of those clients to stay afloat.

We sometimes find ourselves in the position where bills come due before the money she’s owed arrives in the bank account. But we usually manage to muddle through.

I also take comfort in the fact that money is tight for everyone these days. Hell, even my father is broke. And he’s the best there is when it comes to money management.

I’m also a firm believer that if you hold onto your Faith, God will always provide. And He always has, even when we don’t realize we’re getting what we need and not what we want.

But lately, the money problem is becoming a mountain we’re not sure we can climb. I think we’re going to figure it out and I have no doubt all will be well.

I just hope reality matches my optimism.

How’s that for a bitch fest?

Putting the Fun in Dysfunction

Why the author needs dysfunctional people in his life.

Mood music for this post: “California Uber Alles” by The Dead Kennedys:

In one of our many discussions over what she doesn’t like about me and my way of life, my mother often lamented that whatever she didn’t like was “just not normal.”

Truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever met a normal person in my nearly 40 years on this planet.

I prefer it that way.

Normal means you get a long with everyone. You never make waves. You have a perfect family that never, ever fights.

In the parental world view described above, you do everything exactly the way your parents want you to. You always put them first — even before your own wife and kids.

You never piss off your work colleagues and you dive into new work initiatives with a big smile on your face, regardless of whether you believe it’ll work or not.

Have you ever met someone like this?

I’ve learned something valuable on my long journey of recovery from mental illness and addiction: There is no such thing as normal. We are all crazy — some a little bit, some a lot.

For me, the key has been to manage my own brand of dysfunction so that it doesn’t force all the big stuff in life to a grinding halt. If it messes with my work and my ability to be there for my wife and children, then that is NOT OK. That’s what happens when you’re tight in the grip of depression and addiction like I was.

I have my recovery, but I’m still dysfunctional in a lot of ways.

My life is a twisted wreckage of sarcasm, journalism, history fanatic, metal fanatic, devout Catholicism and family. [For more on this, see The Case for Multiple Personalities.] I don’t drink alcohol, smoke pot or eat anything with flour or sugar. I’m in bed early and wake up even earlier. Yet I’m still hopelessly addicted to coffee, Red Bull and I love an occasional cigar. [More on this in How to Play Addiction Like a Piano.]

But it’s a pile of wreckage that sails well enough through rough seas when all the pieces are fused together just right. Sometimes it’ll sway too hard from left to right and pieces will come loose. But it never sinks.

I also believe that no family or office is worth being in without an assortment of dysfunctional personalities.

During my daily newspaper days, one guy constantly picked fights with his editors, shouted F-bombs across the newsroom and always looked like he’d have a stroke at any second. Once, he nearly got fired for telling a reader who didn’t like something he wrote to fuck off by e-mail.

He also exposed a lot of evils in the communities he covered and in some cases it led to new anti-fraud laws being enacted. And if a co-worker was in a bind, he was always among the first to offer a helping hand. He might trash talk that person an hour or a day after helping them, but he’d come back a day later and help that same person if they needed it. If he were more normal, I’m not so sure he’d have the same impact he has had.

When I hang out in a cigar shop, I run into a lot of characters who would be considered dysfunctional. One guy sat down next to me and a friend one night and started describing the government and everything else as a “fuck show.” He slurred every word, though I’m pretty sure he was sober. We were certain his brain had burned to a cinder long ago and all that was left functioning was his mouth. Then he started to talk some more and we discovered he was a former teacher who really knew his history and social studies.

I also know a lot of recovering addicts who are able to help lead people to recovery even though they can’t string more than two words together or tie their shoes before leaving the house. No wonder lace-less footwear is so popular.

The point is that we’re all dysfunctional to some extent. We should be accepting of that — even a bit grateful.

Normal is a boring, stagnant concept that doesn’t really exist anyway. Remember the movie “Pleasantville,” where everyone had squeaky clean, conflict-free lives of black and white? The people in that world only started to live and experience color when the dysfunctional siblings entered the picture.

Next time someone complains that you’re not normal or that you are a source of dysfunction, just correct them and point out that you are merely interesting — after you tell ’em to go screw.

If it Breaks, Let Someone Else Fix It

Two incidents illustrate the fault lines that remain with my personal brand of OCD.

Mood music for this post: “Coming Undone” by Korn:

“Fuck! Even in the future nothing works.” — Dark Helmet, on discovering that the cancel button for his ship’s self-destruct command was out of order.

Yesterday was a bad day for our Internet to crash. I was working from home and had a lot of stuff to do. Today is a bad day for my company content management system to fail, because I have a lot of stuff to do.

My reaction to both incidents shows how much better I am at managing my OCD — and how far I still have to go.

Yesterday wasn’t a bad day for the most part. I wrote the article and produced the podcast I wanted to do. But right as I was about to file my article, the Internet took a dive. Worse can happen. Much worse. But when OCD runs hot, little things become a big deal. And since I need the Internet to do my job, this wasn’t exactly a little thing.

So I let my mood swing deep into blackness. I couldn’t see or hear anyone around me. It became all about trying to regain control of the situation and get the Internet back. Since the problem was a cable outage in the neighborhood, there was no way I could do anything about it.

Erin handled it better. When she realized she wouldn’t be getting any work done, she shrugged and decided to break for lunch. I did too, but I carried my bad mood late into the afternoon — long AFTER the Internet was back up.

As I write this today I’m waiting for repairs to a critical function in our content management system that allows me to grab stories from other sites in the company and post them to our homepage.

These things happen. Nobody’s fault.

I put in the help desk ticket, shrugged my shoulder and decided to put the wait time to good use by writing this blog entry.

I’m going with the “Let Go and Let God” philosophy I’ve come to cherish over the years. Or, I guess more accurately, I’m subscribing to the belief that if something breaks, you let someone else fix it.

Yesterday that meant Comcast. Today it’s our online production team.

One could think of that as the selfish “Let George do it” approach. But really it’s about trying not to be a control freak and trusting the professionals to do their jobs.

That remains a hard concept for me. I crave order and control, even after all the progress I’ve made.

I’ll just have to keep working on that one.